5. Proverbial Realms of Iconic Representation: What’s In a Name?


B- (a Roman woman):“We spent a lot of money when we had our son, Emrah, circumcised.”

I- (a non-Roman educated woman): “Do you çingene really do circumcisions?”

B- (to me afterwards): “Sonia, did you notice that she didn't believe me when I said that we held a circumcision ceremony (sünnet) for our son? What do I tell you over and over again? Those non-Roman (barolar) don't believe that we are real Muslims!"

 (Conversation at Taksim park, Istanbul May 1999, in which author was a participant).

What is striking about the comic Ciguli representation on the one hand, and the dark moral decay of Heavy Roman on the other lies not in their uniqueness, but their logical consistency with presentations of similar imagery types. Both image types have been produced and supported by non-Roman communities in a variety of cultural forms. These forms play out negative beliefs that are consistent with non-Roman representations of “çingene” since the late Ottoman and early Turkish Republic period.

The Turkish term, “çingene”, encapsulates many of the verbal condensations of meaning, and is itself iconic of social ambiguity, political and representational disempowerment, and negative social attributes. The Turkish term, “çingene”, as mentioned above, is thought to have derived from the Byzantine Greek athinganoi and atsinganoi. It has also been appropriated into South Slavic as tsigane (Macedonian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian), Italian as zingari, French as tsiganes, and German as zigeuner (Soulis 1961: 145). Prior to the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, negative attributes regarding Byzantine Rom communities in Anatolia was also embedded in their ascribed nomenclature. The term, ‘AtsígganoI’ for Byzantine Roma as used in 13th-15th century documents derives from an earlier heretical sect, athinganoi (‘Aqíggnoı), a non-Rom religious sect. These athinganoi were first referred to in the ninth century chronicle of Theophones, noted as a presence in Europe (Aegina) in 830, and later described in a tenth century abjurational tract (Starr 1936: 95; 97-98). According to the latter tract, athinganoi were suspect for their heterodoxy in that they observed the Jewish Sabbath, while avoiding circumcision and baptism. Further, they practiced prophecy from the stars and used divination, charms and magic (Starr 1936: 98). In another tract, the athinganoi were accused of practicing dissimulation by observing the Sabbath when among Jews and shunning baptism and circumcision when among Christians (Ibid.: 99). Both Byzantine sources indicate that athinganoi

Starr and Soulis note the likelihood that with the appearance of Roma in Byzantine territories who practiced fortune-telling, contemporary writers used a name close to that which had been used for the heretical athinganoi who similarly had a reputation for fortune telling and magical skills (Starr 1936: 103-104; Soulis 1961: 146).[17] The eleventh century reference to adsincani (Georgian derivation from atsinganoi) and the use of athinganoi in the twelfth century by Balsamon indicates that the name for the older heretical sect had been effectively transferred to Byzantine Roma communities. With Balsamon’s use of the term athinganoi for a group of snake charmers, ventriloquists, bear-leaders, fortune-tellers and prophesiers, this labeling effectively transferred the associative connotations of religious heresy to what appears to be groups of Roma entertainers (Soulis 1961: 146).

Commonly-used non---Roman Turkish proverbs (atasözleri) found in dictionaries and in common contemporary usage in the 1990s are prime examples of verbal condensations and elaborations of beliefs about “çingene”,” verbally expressing a link made between Roma people, and attributed beliefs regarding their inherent heresy, social disorder, moral inappropriateness, and low economic status. “Gypsy wedding” (çingene dügünü) is used to describe a state of chaos or disorganized social gathering. “The gypsy plays and the Kurd dances” (“çingene çalar, kürt oynar”) is used to denote a place or situation where there is complete disorder. It can also mean “one person’s worse than another.” “Don’t look for fine furniture in a Gypsy tent” (çingene çergesinde musandıra aranmaz) is an admonition to the recipient of the proverb to scale one’s expectations according to the social status of the person encountered. It is likely that this proverbial belief also supported the mistranslation of another proverb attributed to Roman musicians, “You can’t get a peşrev (a composed, Ottoman classical work) out of a zurna” (double-reed oboe-type instrument, often associated with Roman professional musicians). As the peşrev is an Ottoman Classical instrumental compositional form, this expression is frequently invoked in relation to the limited capability of the folk oboe-like zurna to play such a demanding piece. In performances of this proverb in Thrace, this proverb also encapsulates judgment on Roman musicians, as the zurna is a predominantly Rom instrument in Western Turkey and Thrace. [18]

Further, often-quoted descriptions of “çingene” or in seventeenth century Ottoman terminology, “kıpti,” by the seventeenth century court chronicler and traveler Evliya Çelebi reinscribe beliefs about the inherent heretical tendency of Roman. “Rumeli gypsies celebrate with red eggs with the “unbelievers” (Christians); the feast of sacrifice with the Muslim, Succoth with the Jews. They don’t have one religious sect.  They don’t pray to our priests’ call to prayers” (Çelebi 1972 vol. 12: 78). [19] This belief has been repeated, both citing Çelebi and as a generality regarding all “gypsies” in an often-cited encyclopedia article by Gökbilgen (1963: 422). It is important to note that similarly lax practices on the part of other recent converts are not cited in these sources, nor is it noted that while some contemporary Sunni Muslim citizens of Turkey may claim Muslim identity without necessarily observing all of the five pillars of Islam, attending mosque on Friday, or observing all of the month of Ramazan, their claim to Muslim identity is not challenged.

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