Turkish Gypsies

In Search of Turkish Gypsies (Roma)

by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat

The first time I saw Oriental dance in Turkey was when I was only fourteen. My family and I were staying in a hotel in Istanbul. There was a large banquet hall filled with people of all ages. The music was playing and my father and I were drawn to the hall. We peeked through the curtains and saw a most wonderful sight. There were a dozen women dancing between the band and the crowd. They were in brightly colored chalvar (very full pantaloons) with blouses tucked in. They shimmied and swayed, undulated and performed various hip articulations. I looked around for the bride and groom or birthday celebrity. I spotted a throne on an upraised stage with a canopy made of rich tapestries. On this throne sat a very small boy. He was dressed rather elaborately from the waist up, with what looked like a little suit. From the waist down, he was naked except for a swaddled penis. He looked miserable despite the huge piles of gifts that surrounded him. This was his big day, he had been circumcised and, at least figuratively, he had entered manhood.

Young dancer in Sulukule. Photo: Elizabeth Artemis Mourat

Much later, ten years ago, I went in search of performing Turkish Gypsies (Roma)1. There are two places where one is sure to find them in Istanbul. One is Kumkapi where male musicians and an occasional dancer will play for tourists and Turkish diners in dozens of seafood restaurants. The other location is the part of town called Sulukule which is the Rom barrio on the European side of Istanbul in Edirnekapi.

A decade ago, I began a love affair with Kumkapi. It is not for the faint of heart and one must be able to tolerate a cornucopia of cacophonous sound. You can watch the customers, eat like royalty, drink in the carnival atmosphere and hear very good music all at once. One enters the area through the ancient gates by the sea. It is a bit like running the gauntlet, because this pedestrian street is closely flanked on both sides by restaurants. All of the eating establishments are situated tongue in jowl next to each other. Men in crisp suits “size up” your nationality from your looks and call to you like carnival barkers, to entice you to try their restaurant. They promise that they have the very best, the freshest, most delicious food above all the others. They point to the pictures sculpted out of seafood in air-filled aquariums for proof of the beauty of their wares. Roving groups of musicians pass from restaurant to restaurant. Once tipped or invited, they will play among the tightly packed tables. Never mind that there is another group of musicians ten feet away who are playing for the next restaurant. They all try to play louder than their neighbors. The musicians will stay only as long as the tips flow and then they will move on to the next table. You tip by slipping them money, in the dumbek, between the strings of the instruments, in the pockets or palms of their hands. The air is electric with sound. There is an occasional Oriental dancer who works with a particular musical group, often accompanied by her mother or a girlfriend. People drink, sing, dance and feast on the fruits of the sea. In any one evening, you may have several bands come to your restaurant. Your ears may ring for a day or two, but it is well, well worth it.

Kumkapi was easy to find and fairly easy to negotiate even for me, a lone woman on the road. My other plan was not so easy and took far more preparation. There are accounts of people coming to the homes of Roma to see their dancers and musicians from as far back as the early nineteenth century. Ten years ago, I had been in Turkey for four months and had tried repeatedly to get to Sulukule. Cabbies told me they would take me to the outskirts of the area but would not drive in. The Turkish men I knew would not go. Everyone told me that it was unsafe and that I would be robbed, coerced for tips or end up sipping on a “Mickey Finn.” I was undaunted. I even offered to pay people to come with me but there were no takers. I finally found two Turkish journalists who thought that a visit to Sulukule might make for good copy and they set it up. The price was agreed on; we would each pay a third. The musicians would play, the dancers would dance and they all would be interviewed by the journalists for a story. The night of the visit, we received a call from one of the musicians. He said that they had reconsidered and that we would have to each pay $100 which was triple the original price. At that time, the average yearly income was $2,000. The journalists were so furious that they refused to go. I was disappointed again.

Five years later, I returned to Turkey. This time, I had agreed to meet the world famous dancer Morocco there. She was also interested in seeing Sulukule. Through the connections of one of my friends, we were to meet some journalists who were willing to help us get to Sulukule. The situation was rather like a novel. A rendezvous was arranged at an uptown cafe. I was supposed to wear a rose so they would know who I was. However, I thought one of them would have the rose. There were no roses, so we circled each other expectantly until we figured it all out. We were a colorful group, a barrel chested actor, a Turkish businessman, a beautiful blond Czech immigrant, Morocco and me. We piled into the businessman’s fancy van and went to the edge of the city. We arrived at a flea market at dusk and waited while an elderly man sent a child to find our “contact.” A younger man came a half hour later and guided us through the labyrinthine streets of Sulukule. This microcosm is built into and bordered by the ancient Theodosian walls.

The van wound its way though the crowded, cramped streets. There were children playing, young men meandering about, pipe smoking old ladies brightly adorned in colored mismatched billowing skirts, blouses and kerchiefs. It was a friendly atmosphere, bustling, poor, and full of curious glances at our unusual entourage. No sooner had we exited the van when our “contact” whisked us into a narrow two story wooden row house. He did not want us lingering in the street. I wondered if the rumors I had heard about people being robbed in these streets were true.

The front foyer was empty with a cold, stone floor, a creaky wooden stairway and closed doors on either side. A beautiful woman with bleached blond hair, dressed in mourning black welcomed us. We went upstairs and were ushered into a tiny barren room. The dingy yellow paper was peeling off the walls and some people had scribbled their names on it. There were chairs surrounding the periphery of the room. At one end were two windows with a long table placed in front. On it were plates and cutlery and around it were our chairs. We sat down and waited. It was very hot. The matriarch of the family, an overweight, disagreeable woman in her fifties began bringing in food. There were platters of watermelon, grapes and apricots topped with chunks of ice, stale feta cheese, a delicious tomato and cucumber salad, olives, bread, bottles of cold water and raki. This Turkish drink, fondly called “lion’s milk,” is a very strong, sweet, anisette flavored, clear liquor which turns milky when mixed with ice. The matriarch was a shrewish woman who began arguing with our “contact” about prices as soon as he paid her. He stood his ground and she left the room, grumbling all the while. It appears that arrangements of this nature are often made through the matriarchs of the family.

The musicians filed in and took their places on chairs which lined the wall opposite to us. There were five men in the band, two violin players, a clarinet player, a drummer and one man played çimbus (a banjo like instrument with a metal body). All the musicians sang, and they began with several songs. A sequence followed: one or two young women would enter the room and sit next to us (presumably so we could preview the performers and talk to them before they changed into their costumes). The first three women were quite young, still in their teens perhaps, and very pretty. They left one by one, changed into their costumes and returned to dance. The quality of dancers in Sulukule varies and the dancing of these girls was limited, but they were lovely to look at, perhaps a bit bored, and were clearly more interested in the tips than the pleasure of our company. Then there was a heavy set woman in her twenties who entered our room in an everyday bra and high cut pink satin panties with dark blue cloth fringe sewn on the hip sections of either side. She danced quite well. This was the dancing we had come to see — happy, confident, energetic but not overly theatrical. We would have preferred for her to be in a costume of even a plain dress, but they have learned that the jaded public expects nudity, and I suspect that the tips increase commensurate with the amount of it.

The next dancer was stunning, in her early twenties, and as she sat next to us, she began taking off her dress. She did this with the same nonchalant air of a chemist putting on his lab coat in preparation for work. When she got down to her panties and a sexy black bra, she made sure that we all noticed that she wore two sets of panties. She kept rolling the sides up and tucking them under. I suspect that this way, we were to realize that she was not really dancing in her panties but that the second set were her “costume.” She was far more aggressive about soliciting tips from us than the others. Not only did she bump into all of us with her hips, shimmy her breasts in the faces of the men, but she even sat in the laps of the ladies in a playful manner. She did so with humor, and we all laughed and tipped her amply. She was an excellent dancer, one of the very best of the many I have seen in Turkey. We all wished she had danced longer.

Last of all, there was another very attractive woman who began a rather mediocre dance in a skirt and tight blouse. She abruptly pulled her blouse up over her head and cast it aside. She had no bra and danced in front of us for a few minutes. She made absolutely no eye contact with anyone, and looked as though she did not want to be there, but as if we were a necessary part of her daily chores. We felt rather uncomfortable about this — not so much by her nudity as by her distaste for it. Morocco and I had not come to see nudity, although the men who accompanied us rather enjoyed it.

It should be noted that these women are not prostitutes, although in some establishments men may be led to believe that they can purchase moments of bliss. This is not the case. I suspect that all of the dancers went to other houses during the evening. This is a family operated business where there seemed to be a planned progression to the nudity. The limit that was offered in this establishment had been reached (although I had heard of total nudity in a few houses). These were all people’s homes that were converted into performance salons at night, and it appears that the dancers went from house to house all evening.

After the last dancer left, the band kept playing. Morocco and I danced to a few songs. The musicians got the unmistakable signal from the matriarch that our time was up and we were promptly dismissed. The band unceremoniously got up and left. The matriarch complained to each of us that we should have paid her more. Everyone asked us for baksheesh (tips). We scurried back into the van and drove off.

In Sulukule, we got a rare and real glimpse of the Rom dancers and musicians of Istanbul. They are a very proud and gifted people, handsome and artistic. Despite their poverty and the oppression that surrounds them, they capitalize on their gifts and use them to make a humble living. It is not recommended to go to Sulukule without a group of people and a plan. Eva Cernik is the only tour guide I know who takes people to Sulukule on her Turkish tours. It is a wonderful opportunity not to be missed.

I knew there was more to see, so I planned ahead on another trip to Turkey set for May of 1998. Eva Cernik and I knew of the summer Rom (Gypsy) festival called Herdeljes. This is the summer announcement for Roma everywhere, and it takes place in the middle of Spring. There were also versions of this festival in Christian dominated countries where St. George (who killed the dragon) was celebrated. It is not unusual for Roma to have religious beliefs of an eclectic nature, merging Christian, Islamic and their own pre-Christian religious elements into a different and deep-felt creation. Eva and I went to several cities on the Turkish coast of Thrace where they were known for their Rom festivals.

We arrived early and visited the Rom quarters of several villages. They are always in the worst part of town, next to the city dump, near the hospitals waste sights, or near the sewage drainage area. They are comprised entirely of tightly packed Rom houses, often more like hovels. We went up and down the streets taking pictures and video footage, chatting with people and having tea (they treated). The houses were humble from the outside, but spotless, orderly and organized on the inside. There were rugs and tapestries, cleanly swept floors and a cozy feeling inside. Everyone was busy, sweeping, cleaning, preparing food, washing clothes, and carrying babies. Children swarmed around us within minutes of every stop. They competed for our attention, jumped in front of the cameras and playfully demanded we take their pictures. Sometimes they broke into song (usually singing “Mastika”) and danced for the cameras, doing their two-handed finger snaps, throwing the belly, and all the while laughing at each other. They seemed generally amused by us as well. Although there was always a handful of dirty, sickly looking children, they were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the children we saw were healthy and beautiful. They had dazzling teeth, intelligent eyes and open, cheerful faces. Everywhere we found their curiosity about our curiosity about them. They always asked why we were interested. It was simplest to say that we were journalists.

The summer festival is held on the river called Shaytundere, which means “Devil’s Route.” It coincides with the nationally celebrated festival called Kakova. People all over the country build bonfires. After the flames die down, people of all ages jump over them three times. Each jump accompanies a wish. Eva and I joined in the fun. The bonfire was on a soccer field and the flames were perhaps ten feet high. There were about 300 people there, half of whom were Rom. There was a huge and somewhat unruly line where people waited for a free meal of rice pilaf, meat and a sweet pudding. People picnicked, an old and popular tradition in Turkey. There were davul and zurna players, and eight or ten Roma danced. Even the least accomplished of the dancers was quite good. We were intoxicated with the joy of finding there what we had come for.

The next morning we got up well before dawn and went to the river. Several miles in front of the river, we saw a few hundred Roma cheerfully walking and driving on various forms of transportation towards the river. They all had foliage from the nearby trees with them. It was in their hands, tucked behind the ears of their horses, in their windshields, even on the handle bars of their bicycles. There were several musical groups playing. The music got louder the closer we got to the river, and it soon became apparent that the groups were competing. The women were dancing, some in bridal dresses. We later learned that they were not brides. There were even two men in bridal dresses and a few women dressed in army fatigues. We never learned what this was about. I knew that in early Pagan days, there were often fertility festivals that took place in the Spring throughout the world. Cross-dressing sometimes took place as a way of ensuring fertility. The theory was that if one possessed the sexual abilities of both sexes within one body, one was extremely fertile because one could procreate without assistance. I have no idea if there is a connection here and the locals did not tell us what it meant to them, but this was my best guess as to the significance of the cross-dressing. The Roma were washing their hands and faces in the river water and many collected bottles of it to take with them. The music was loud, confusing and wonderful, with several bands playing different things at once. The dancers were beautiful and clearly competed for the attention of the audience. By the time morning was with us, the crowd began to go their separate ways.

The following week, there was a city-wide festival. Another, much larger bonfire was set. There were competitions for the most elaborately decorated horse and cart, which were heavily decorated with ribbons, streamers, bows and tinsel. The horses wore strands of beads and their hooves were painted. The carts were all carefully painted and adorned with pictures and flowers. There were also competitions for the most beautiful shoe shine boxes. These were polished to a blinding shine and heavily decorated. The owners all seemed as pleased with themselves as they were with their possessions. There was a musical group, a parade, and many public speakers. We then had tea with some musicians whom we met through a friend — a perfect end to a perfect day. I had finally found “the real thing” after all those years of searching. It was worth the wait.


1. Note that I am using the words “Rom” and “Roma” rather than “Gypsy” and “Gypsies” because I feel that it is more politically correct.

Copyright Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, 1998.

Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, has a masters degree in clinical psychology, and masters of social work, with post graduate work in dance movement therapy. She is a writer, researcher, teacher and performer. She is currently writing a book and creating a documentary film on the history of Turkish Gypsy (Rom) dance, history and culture. She has traveled to 33 countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco, researching dance and culture. www.serpentine.org

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