4. The Power of Social Ambiguity II: “Gypsy-as (Generic)-Urban-Disorder”


“When still a child, Gıli lifted his shoulders with the “zımbam zımalda zımbam” of the Heavy Roman melody, his eyes burned by the two long one short (beats), he went to the Çitiki wedding hall following the guys, and got drunk. Darbuka [10] player Balık Ayhan finding the dawning of familiar smile on his (Gıli’s) face, surrendered Gıli to his father, saying, “Hey brother Barber Ali from Yıkıkköprü, watch out for your son, don’t let him get knifed by accident dancing that way like a snake.” After that day, whenever Gıli had the symptoms, his father found him in the garden of Çitiki wedding hall”.  (Kaçan 1990: 9-10).

While Ciguli’s ambiguous identity also included an audience-friendly component that emphasized his “sevimli” or loveable characteristics, a larger body of later twentieth century project images of urban Roman as signifying social disorder. These images draw upon cultural reservoir of stereotpyed pre-understandings of “çingene“ character in order to express growing anxieties about urban problems. Here as well, Roman identity is also treated ambiguously, reflecting both the concept of Roman-as-everyman, and the ambiguous Turkish national policy regarding clear statements of ethnic identity. One such example of Roman as urban and social disorder is clearly portrayed in the best-selling novel and highly successful film, “Heavy Roman/Novel.”

The novel Heavy Novel/Heavy Roman (Agır Roman) narrates the lives of residents in a single Istanbul neighborhood (mahalle) as a means to portray the problems of urban life, with oblique references to “çingene” as a thematic underpinning. The title itself can be seen as iconic of these ambiguous references. The Turkish word for novel, roman, is also a homonym for the neologism preferred by the ethnic communities formerly called “çingene.” A popular novel written in 1990 that had several printings, it was subsequently made into a movie in 1997, and staged in 2002 by the state opera and ballet company. The plot of Heavy Novel/Heavy Roman is structured around a narrative about the residents of a particular ghetto (kenar) neighborhood (mahalle), dubbed “Kolera” (Cholera), obliquely referring to social disease and decay within the neighborhood. Thus the specific place itself is a symbol for decay. [11]

The residents of this novel suffer through the travails of poverty, powerlessness, and are portrayed as victims preyed upon by local big men (bitirim), as well as moral conflicts encountered by migrants adjusting to a difficult new life in the city. Despite the pathos of their situation, none of the characters are portrayed sympathetically, as the novel is populated by winos, drug addicts, glue-sniffing youths, prostitutes and call girls, pimps and hit men. The result is a verbal panoramic miniature of urban social conflicts, brought about by constant change, limited means, and close social contact in this ethnically-mixed neighborhood (mahalle).

Oblique references to aspects of Roman culture link non-Roman beliefs about “çingene” as a symbol for the disorder of urban place, particularly the problematic dynamics found in an urban multi-ethnic and multi-religious neighborhood. The title highlights an underlying representation of Roman throughout the novel. Not only does the title translate as “Heavy Novel” but the name also designates a genre of slow Roman dance rhythm, called “Slow (Heavy) Roman” (Agır Roman), associated with the Roman ethnic community. Musical references to Roman 9/8 meter pieces in the novel and actual musical accompaniment in the movie map Roman culture onto disorder and violence. An actual Istanbul Roman drummer, Balık Ayhan, is portrayed in this novel under his own name in several scenes, one of which he plays out his grief on his draped drum (darbuka) in the heavy, slow 9/8 meter Roman dance rhythm, in response to the murder of his friend and local big man, Arap Seido. The author also describes the rehearsal of a local Roman wedding band playing a 9/8  meter Roman dance piece as the sonic backdrop to a scene in which Gıli Gıli Salih, the main character, has had a chamber pot accidentally dumped on his head. This passage, located at the beginning of the book illustrates how musical references are mixed with the use of Romanes-derived urban underworld slang, the intermixture of sexuality, power and uncleanliness. The final reference to the drummer’s assessment of Gıli Gıli’s dancing and what such dancing may lead to links “Roman” culture, musical and dance practice, to problematic social disorder and moral decay, while insinuating that Gıli Gıli may also become Roman by association.

“The musicians (çalgacı) measured their tension by playing bad-assed [12] taksim [13] alongside Fil [“Elephant”] Hamit’s auto repair shop. The mist which emerged from the moist ground between the park’s paving stones intermixed with the dirty water and sperm in Gıli Gıli’s hair. However the clarinet sparkled and could awaken the cunning street delikanlı [14] young men like a magic spell. The musicians (çalgacı) spread out from the darbuka and, after testing out the violins from the upper register, they dragged with lopsided steps to the Çitiki wedding hall, playing a Roman tune (Roman havası). Gıli Gıli watched until the disappearance of the sound of the drum (darbuka) that resounded among the stone buildings, caressing the emptiness with steamed-up hazel eyes, in the footsteps of dark children (kara soparlar). [15]

The sonic and visual dimensions available to film provide a more extensive use of the slow Roman 9/8 dance music as a dramatic backdrop for scenes of violence, despair and illicit sexual contact. Roman dance music accompanies one of the rare scenes of celebration and joy, in which prostitutes dance flamboyantly in the street to the music of wedding musicians. However, in general 9/8 Roman music sets the backdrop for disorder, social inversions and transgressions, and murder. 9/8 music accompanies the wedding scene in which the main character, Gıli Gıli Salih, is given recognition by the community as an up-and-coming local “big man.” The same music also accompanies the male and female wedding guests as they dance together, with the women going down on their knees in front of men and bending backwards with their legs spread apart, shimmying their shoulders. [16]

The pounding 9/8 rhythm continues under the violent confrontation between the prostitute Tina and her former pimp. When she cries in horror at the blood flowing out of her face, Gılı Gıli responds in a manner beyond words, dramatically ripping opening his shirt and slicing his own chest in sympathy. 9/8 meter Roman music also accompanies the pounding footsteps of a mysterious murderer, who kills residents in the middle of the night with a skewer.

What is pointedly missing is a depiction of Roman dance music accompanying any socially healthy, communal celebration, filled with expressions of hospitality, joy, love and care - scenes which dominated my fieldwork experience attending public weddings and private family gatherings.  Instead, Roman music is portrayed as the sonic backdrop for frustration, violence, and overt expressions of sexuality as commodity. In this book and film, Roman dance music is the sonic foundation to the movements of a social world populated by pimps, prostitutes, big men, and power-hungry disenfranchised urban residents.

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