7. Literar(y)/al Social Commentary I: “Gypsy-as-Nature” in the Early Turkish Republic Era


Within ten years of the previous images, “çingene” were also portrayed as synonymous with social and urban ills, as a negative foil to the structured social environment and moral order.







Postcard image of “Çingene” [Bohémien] celebration for St. George's Day ca. Pre-1923 Republic era

“It’s too bad that Ahmet Haşim, who extravagantly praised çingenes with this fantasy writing, mixed up different çingenes at the end of his writing; he dressed up instrument-playing, singing and belly-dancing çingenes on spring days at Kagıthane, Göksu, Çırpıcı [21] in rural trousers (şalvar) like typical so-called rural (oba) nomadic (göçebe) çingene women...However, instrument-playing, singing and belly-dancing çingenes on spring days, at weddings and entertainments are different...the former bear-dancing, monkey-dancing, fortune-telling, basket weaving, blacksmith, miller, comb-making and agrarian çingenes, the so-called “rural” (oba) çingenes are different...and I think dear departed Haşim meant to refer to rural çingene in that writing... But on the other hand in order to get to know both types he had them sing songs and play zurna in his dreams along the edges of Kagıthane, Göksu, Çırpıcı one spring day! (Kaygılı 1939 [1972]: 5).

The preface and introductory section to Kaygılı’s novel set out the polar extremes of romanticized views of Turkish “çingene.” In beginning his narrative with the extract from Ahmet Haşim’s writing (quoted in section 5), he follows immediately with elliptical references to urban entertainer “çingene” who, Kaygılı suggests, constitute a different and rather un-romantic social type.

"A very long time ago there was an occasional instrument-playing, folk-song singing and belly-dancing çingene among the rural çingenes encountered on the roads, in the neighborhood and excursion places, but these were a mere drop in the bucket and their names would not be recorded alongside the true instrumentalists and singers among Istanbul çingenes.

As for the true instrumentalists and singers of Istanbul çingenes, girls and women wore rural trousers (şalvar), cloaks (yeldirme), loose robes (entari), and the men wore jackets and pants, not knee breeches (potur) like the others (rural çingenes). Finally, there are many differences between these two types of kıptî in terms of their lifestyles, occupation, language, and dialect. The former type (rural çingenes) will be those çingenes who are almost always nomadic, who live in the countryside, the hillsides, the forests, the meadows, at the shores of water and in fields, about which Haşim said, ‘The beautiful type of people with their bronze faces and porcelain teeth who have remained the closest to human nature and who personify spring’... and thus I begin with these before my own writing...” (Kaygılı 1939 [1972]: 5-6).

In the early years of the Turkish Republic, such highly romanticized images of nomadic “çingene” exist alongside negative portrayals of urbanized, sedentary “çingene.” Here, “çingene” is used as a personification of social decay and moral disorder found in urban environments, either standing for such disorder or, in the case of Osman Cemal Kaygılı’s The Gypsies (Çingeneler) (1939), the cause of such disorder. Kaygılı’s work was written in 1939 and putatively set “some 20-25 years ago,” locating this as an intended nostalgia piece invoking the pre-Turkish Republic period. [22]

The narrative work that follows this introduction begins with a fictionalized encounter between a non-“çingene” narrator, his friend, İrfan and Nazlı, a rural “çingene” woman, who becomes the unobtainable object of İrfan’s romantic love. In attempting to find this woman, who travels outside of even her own community, İrfan also encounters and becomes incorporated into urban “çingene” professional entertainer circuits, learning to play violin and eventually becoming a dissipated, alcoholic and homeless musician. Thus in the end, these two poles of romanticized “çingene” icons - the rural, nomadic, pure “çingene” and the urban, decadent, impure or hybrid “çingene” - also comes to stand for the distinctions between a social, moral balance close to “human nature” and “biological nature,” and that of a problematic, disordered urban existence.

Kaygılı extends the distinction between higher moral value of nomadic as opposed to the lower qualities of settled, urban Rom as a narrative device. This trope organizes the structure of relationships between the characters in the book. For example, the degree to which the narrator’s friend, İrfan, adheres to the moral code determines the limits of possible contact between the narrator and his friend. The story begins as the memoir of the narrator, who follows his friend İrfan as far as his morals will allow, and then he separates from İrfan. The second half of the book is drawn from İrfan’s own diary, which narrates his increasing contact with “çingene” communities through the elusive object of his love. This plot draws somewhat from the story of Carmen, and in fact, the novel opens with a scene in which the two main characters are listening to an operatic performance of Carmen at a distance. Later in the story, ill-fated İrfan proclaims his intention to compose a version of Carmen, using local Romanes-language folk songs. The contaminated nature of this friendship leads the main character, İrfan, into morally dangerous adventures. As a result of increasing involvement with unsavory characters meeting in marginal contexts such as taverns, İrfan gradually loses contact with his neighborhood, family and friends as he becomes involved with “çingene” and their music.

“I trail these [Istanbul “çingene” communities] solely because of a passion for music; because of this I will investigate what they do among us in this bohemian life, this çigan (European word for Gypsy) life for five to ten days; let’s see what will come from our fate. In fact, there is a famous saying: “It’s not possible to get a peşrev [Ottoman classical instrumental composed work] out of a çingene double-reed instrument (zurna), whatever comes out is to the fates!’” (Kaygılı 1939 [1972]: 119).

Within this view, the author extends the contrast between nomadic/purity and sedentary/decadent concepts of “çingene” to older and newer “çingene” musician residents of Istanbul.

“At one time, the best Istanbul musicians came from the nomadic çingene, but with time, those of (the neighborhoods of) Sulukule, Kasımpasa, Üsküdar’s Selamsız, and above all those of Ayvansaray took the place of the older residents” (Kaygılı 1939 [1972]: 88).

The final loss of social and moral standing is brought about by İrfan’s ill-fated liaison with a professional “çingene” female musician, Emine. Emine’s jealous lover picks a fight with İrfan, İrfan accidentally kills him, and is then arrested after having successfully brought the beautiful nomadic “çingene” woman, Nazlı, into his mother’s house. He is arrested and remains in jail for twelve and half years, during which time his mother dies and their house and furnishings are sold.  Through the voice of the narrator, Kaygılı points out the contrast between İrfan’s carefree youthful life and his claustrophobic prison existence. When İrfan finally emerges, his “çingene” friends and beloved Nazlı have passed away, symbolic of the passing of İrfan’s passionate but unrooted existence. In the last scene, the narrator accidentally encounters İrfan in a coffee house (kahve) at which İrfan picks up tips by playing violin and singing. İrfan’s summary of his plight diagrams the link between his degenerate state that he attributes to the rootlessness of his youth, through which he followed the path of urban and rural “çingene.”

“’Do you see here what I was yesterday, and what I am today? Yesterday when I was a frivolous youth, I was addicted to Istanbul’s vast countrysides, hillsides, mountains, forests, seas, streams that could not contain my wanderlust; today I am addicted to a pathetic shelter for the homeless. If I only weren’t so tired, worn-out, so exhausted, so despairing and distraught, if only I could be vigorous and in good health, perhaps the violin would have supported me a little. Be that as it may, in the end no strength is left in my arms or in my head to play’” (Kaygılı 1939 [1972]: 327).

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