6.  Honor

As elsewhere (Silverman 2003:133; Sugarman 2003:111), assessment of female virtue is another point of contention between Istanbul musicians and dancers with off-stage repercussions. The views of four members from Ahırkapı Büyük Roman Orkestrası (Ahırkapı Grand Roma Orchestra) are indicative of broader gender sensibilities among most Rom musicians at the higher-end belly dance circuit. Some ABRO members and I meet in the plush lobby of five-star Armada Hotel, a gentrified oasis in the midst of a relatively poor historic Roma neighborhood.

ABRO musicians and the author

Kanun-player Osman durmuş, percussionist Pire Mehmet, violinist yaşar, and vocalist Yalçın Görgülü charmingly lead the interview to a CD promotion. Enjoying the success of their first SONY (2002) release, ABRO, which fuses familiar 9/8 Roma tunes with hybrid renditions of the theme from Pulp Fiction, simultaneously underline a sonic modernity (a SONY contract!) and naturalized Roma heritage. “We (the Roma) are born to entertain” says Osman, proud in his brand new suit and his much-desired recent fame. Underlying all such comments is an insider’s knowledge of the piyasa, as each musician have engaged with restaurants, nightclubs, tourist, and commercial recording industry across multiple genres such as fasil, arabesk, and Turkish art music. (Footnote 24) Grounded in the labor of a 26-person extended musical family, their cosmopolitanism indexes both folk values of reciprocal loyalty and capitalist sensibility. The latter speaks to the escalating marketability of Turkish Rom musicians and sound as local urban and global exotica (Seeman 2002: 352).

The easy and humorous tone of our conversation shifts significantly when I bring up my research topic about belly dance and its practitioners. yaşar abruptly interjects: “Our ladies don’t work.” The 68 year-old lead musician Pire Mehmet refers first to the demanding schedules of musicians, requiring women’s domestic labor at all times (müzisyen hizmet ister evde). Equally salient is their joint emphasis on the unpleasant workings of the entertainment world. Pire Mehmet vehemently states: “Belly dancers don’t fly with us because we know this world inside out. We don’t let our daughters and wives work as belly dancers or singers (okuyucu).”

Restrictions on public female performance in general, and belly dance in particular, are informed by pervasive Islamic cultural notions of modesty and persistent male patronage, cast in nationalist or familial terms and gendered notions of social reproduction (Kandiyoti 1991; Abu-Lughod 1998; Tekeli 1990; Parla 2001). [25]  More significantly, ABRO’s comments illustrate, in part, the musicians’ firsthand familiarity with multifaceted sacrifices expected of the not-yet-famous female dancers. Such sacrifices range from flesh exposure –the skimpy costumes—to profitable seductiveness and to on- and off-stage emotional, physical, and economic harassment as well as stigmatization. As elsewhere, the profitability of sexually-charged professional performances is thus weighed against the intactness of female virtue, and by extension, the family’s and mahalle’s (neighborhood) honor. The double burden of Istanbul female Rom belly dancers, torn between economic necessity and sexual-ethnic marginalization, echo Carol Silverman’s (2003) commentary on Muslim Rom performers in Macedonia and Bulgaria. Silverman cogently describes their conundrum as:

To non-Roma, female Rom professionals are coded as doubly dangerous: first as Roma, second as women. For Roma, on the other hand, female Rom professionals are dangerous for different reasons: first, because they embody sexuality, they can disrupt the social system from their position as insiders; second, the selling of their performances in the marketplace foregrounds the paradox of economic necessity versus ideal modesty (2003:133).

Views on female modesty vary significantly from one urban Roma community to another, however. For instance, in-home (devriye evleri) belly dance performances at Sulukule, an infamous Rom entertainment ghetto in Istanbul, prevailed until their violent dismantling in the early 1990s. The disenfranchised Sulukule dancers were cast as unredeemable bearers of moral degeneration in the urban public imaginary. During my fieldwork, numerous Rom and non-Rom performers, men and women alike, repeatedly characterized Sulukule as the uncivilized center of sexual debauchery or the darkest corner of nightlife (alemin en karanlık kösesi). [26]

In their search for integration into the music industry and beyond, ABRO as well as other upwardly-mobile Rom musicians strive to define themselves against such “lesser” – poorer and dishonorable—kinfolk: the Sulukule entertainers. ABRO’s restrictions on female mobility amplify, at once, locally pervasive honor/shame values and the need to rectify enduring Turkish renditions of Rom women as urban degenerate and eroticized ethnics (Seeman 2002: 200-201). [27]  As the locus of ethnic and sexual marginalization, women also become the barometers of Rom cosmopolitan integration. Unless wealth or fame-endowed, belly dancers risk reinforcing sexualized Rom stereotypes and thereby hinder the Rom men’s claims to competitive modernity.

 Despite such ethnically-inflected gender rivalries, female Rom dancers and male musicians also engage in surprisingly conflict-free negotiations both during and after performance. The interaction’s tone shifts with the female Rom performer’s level of experience, artistry, reputation, dependability, and economic means. For instance, Kibariye, an accomplished Rom singer, is highly revered as her story evokes Roma redemption and resourcefulness. Her history of struggle demonstrates how the Roma can rise above poverty and shame and become players – albeit unequal players - in a cutthroat entertainment market.

As a whole, nightlife contracts demand singular or long-term collaboration between non-Rom and Rom performers. At times gender sensibilities, ethnic conflicts, and monetary competition generate dissonant local and tourist performances in Istanbul. At other times, as I have also observed, perfect pitch, smooth hips, and animated audiences help override such social rifts. Once again, I turn to Birgül’s performance to partially decode the dialogue between the dancer and the audience. In addition to highlighting Birgül’s erotically-charged exotic animation, I explore the limits of her humorous transgression.

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