1. Introduction: “Knowing” [1] the “Çingene” (“Gypsy”) [2]


In 1990s Turkey, three types of “gypsy” or in Turkish, “çingene” cultural representations were presented in popular media for consumption by non-“gypsy” audiences. One image represented the idea of “gypsy” as the comical, “loveable”  (sevimli) everyman in the persona of Ciguli, a Bulgarian Roman accordionist whose Bulgarian name was Angel Popov. Ciguli’s fame skyrocketed with a video airing of a song released on his cassette in 1997, selling an estimated 300,000 copies within the first 6 months of release.

"Ciguli" Image courtesy of Cem Kıvırcık as published in mdgmagazin.com March 19, 2004.


The second image seemed to be the mirror opposite of the loveable, comic figure in presenting the idea of “gypsy” - as well as the people themselves - as emblematic of social decay. These ideas were presented in the gritty feature movie portrayal titled “Heavy Roman”. The plot of this movie takes place in a deteriorating Istanbul neighborhood, populated by marginal ethnic groups and social outcasts: Roman, Greek, Assyrians, Kurds with pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, addicts, and other trapped souls living together in the ghetto “Cholera” (Kolera) whose name signifies social and moral decay.  The latter movie in particular spawned a music video of the cover song as well as a series of newspaper and magazine articles on the original Istanbul neighborhood upon which the film and its original novel was based.  In fall of 2002, the state opera and ballet company produced a musical theatre version of the novel.



Poster for 1997 film, "Agir Roman"



To these types can be added a third contrasting set of representations glossed under the neologism, “Roman,” negotiated largely in the realm of music, produced primarily by Roman musicians, and disseminated in commercially produced and mass-mediated recordings. These representations have been supported by a recording industry that gained its impetus in the 1960s by serving local communities. Grounded in locally developed musical styles, Roman communities developed and embraced these mass-mediated musical genres for their range of locally meaningful expressions. Newly refashioned genres marked as “Roman” created new space for presenting Roman identity in contradistinction to non-Roman representations of “çingene.” However, with the popular success of mainstreamed images of Roman in the late 1990s, Roman artists increasingly began to re-incorporate non-Roman images of their own communities, drawing on textual references and visual images that reinscribe elements used in non-Roman representations of “çingene.”


The power of naming practices derives its power from the performance of cultural representations that link putative attributes to aesthetic portrayals. This article explores the power of cultural representation to configure social constructions, based on field research conducted in Turkey 1995-1999 with subsequent trips in 2003 and 2005. [3]


How are we to understand these seemingly contradictory characterizations? Further, how can we understand the link between aesthetic characterizations and their political realizations? This article’s concern with representations explores the linkages that agents negotiate and contest in the murky and transitory terrains of the imaginary between aesthetic representations and their political implications. I take the premise that aesthetic representations effect an imagining of possible characteristics and predictive action conferred upon a people, thus opening or foreclosing possibilities for political action.


Here I am delineating the links between aesthetic representation (darstellen) and political representation (vertreten) as defined by Gayatri Spivak following Marx (Spivak 1988). Following up on Spivak’s critique, to distinguish between these two types of representation(s) provides a space for considering agency and action of the individual as more than an epistemological subject. Through an investigation of shifting modes of representational types, this article explores possible responses to Spivak’s question regarding whether the subaltern can speak, and, if so, they can be heard. This question is particularly pertinent in the Turkish context, as what has been “known” about “gypsies” in Turkey has largely been interpreted through the lens of cultural production and products: music, stage presentations, dance, and writings. In turn, Roman community members have increasingly been seeking new representational images and engaged in negotiations over naming practices through cultural practices and forms.


I contend that these stereotypes, as performed caricatures, serve as an iconic condensation (as a kind of cultural shorthand) and augmentation (in performance, where interpretation and context of performance bring these icons to presentation) of social meanings in symbolic form. [4] On the one hand, these icons as caricatures condense a range of possible symbols into a small repertoire of stereotyped visual, sonic, and verbal signs. On the other, audience interpretation of cultural works and performances effects the augmentation of symbolic shorthand into elaborated belief structures about Roman as a people - that is, beliefs held by non-Roman about “çingene” or “gypsy.” These iconic images continue to be embedded in contemporary cultural forms, thus perceived as embodying a social and cultural pertinence that is interpreted as a kind of social truth, hence the ironic title for this section. An archeology of knowledge that teases out the components of the fields that produce such images can provide a deeper understanding of the processes by which communities attempt to re-shape social and political ascriptions through aesthetic means, and the limits of such processes.

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