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


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.







Postcard of "rural (oba) çingene"

Such proverbial and literary representations of “çingene” lifestyles, values, gender roles came to stand for and perpetuate outsider’s views of who the “çingene” are. That is, the consistency in symbolic representations have created a discursive logic that carried the weight of a social truth through repetition as well as consistency in performance. One such domain of representation is evident in the literary texts that present aestheticised reflections on the perceived ills of society by projecting romanticized and nostalgic beliefs about “çingene” on the one hand, and a foil for social disorder and moral decay on the other. In both extremes, the associative ideas about “çingene” function as a moral tool implemented as a social diagnostic.

One trope is exemplified by writer Ahmet Haşim (b. 1883-1884; d. 1933) in which “çingene” is linked to nature in opposition to “civilization” as a moral foil for civilization and its ills. The romanticized representation of “çingene” in the passage below encapsulates the perception of “çingene” as human embodiment of physical nature and temporal change of the seasons.

“The gypsy is the most beautiful type that remains close to human nature. It is thought that these uncultivated people with their bronze faces and porcelain teeth are a merry group of trees that have entered into human form. The gypsy personifies spring. In my childhood I saw - the ghost of which remains in my memory today - a singing young gypsy among a procession of young girls in green, red and yellow şalvar (loose-fitting pants), singing songs and clapping their hands, the wooden zurna (folk double-reed aerophone) playing (as) the green valleys with monotonous echoes resemble the wild laughter of this music” (Haşim 1989[1928]: 18).

Originally published in 1928, Haşim’s images locate “çingene” existence as outside of “normal” society and civilization, that is, the norms and rules according to which these non-Roma intellectuals and writers are subject. The ideal archetype of this type of “çingene” is nomadic, living primarily in wild, uncultivated (kır alanı) rural places. “Çingene” who are seen as representing the romantic expression of natural existence are described as exemplifying a relationship close to physical nature (trees, foliage, water), “natural” temporal order in the change of the seasons, and a state of human existence removed from “civilizing” social conventions.

The notion of “çingene” as a personification of unmediated nature is elaborated in Sabahattin Ali’s short story, The Miller (Değirmenci; first published 1929). Ali utilizes the vehicle of “gypsy love”  (çingene aşki) and dramatic self-sacrifice mapped on to a force of nature, to epitomize pure and unmediated love.

“Do you know what love is, my namesake, have you ever loved?... You can’t have loved, my namesake, you who live in the city and who live in the country, you, who submit to one another and who rule one another...You can’t have loved. Only we know love. We çingenes who wander as freely as the Western wind and who know no other God than ourselves. Listen, namesake, let me tell you about the love of a çingene.” (Ali 1994 [1935]: 12-13).

Sabahattin Ali (b. 1907; d. 1948) was likely to have had close contact with Roman communities, as he was born in the Greek Thracian town of Gümülcine (Greek  Komotini) and lived in Kırklareli, both towns with sizable Roman communities. The story is told from the perspective of a narrator, who, it is revealed halfway through the story, is a nomadic “çingene” leader, or çeriba{ı. Çeribası is a historical military category dating from the Ottoman period and also the term used for the leader of nomadic Roman groups who interfaces with outsiders (endnote 20). In this story, a member of the group, a young “çingene” man known as Atmaca (“Hawk”), who is also a gifted clarinetist, falls in love with the miller’s one-legged non-“çingene” daughter, upon whose land the group of “çingene” have temporarily settled. While Atmaca and the non-“çingene” woman profess their love for each other, she claims that she cannot marry him because she cannot travel with him as a result of her handicap. We learn of this through Atmaca’s confession of the hopelessness of his love to our narrator, the çeribası group leader:

“I can’t have her, I can’t kidnap her... However, she loves me too. She told me this yesterday, while crying. ‘Come.’ I said, ‘let’s run away together. She laughed bitterly. ‘My lord’, she said, ‘I am deficient for you, are you offering me charity?...’ I told her how much I love her, ‘Isn’t a heart a little more worthy than a leg?’” (Ali 1994 [1935]: 19).

Images of nature (trees, foliage, forests) mingle with forces of nature (a steadily increasing rainstorm) as the backdrop of the story’s climax. After this confession, Atmaca gathers his fellow “çingene” band members at the mill for a musical gathering. As the storm gathers outside the mill, he plays passionately on his clarinet. At the height of the storm, he willingly gives his leg to the grinding stone so that he can be joined together with his beloved, answering his own rhetorical question at the beginning of the story regarding the ultimate expression of love.

“So, my namesake, here is a Çingene story of love. (But) not being able to tolerate carrying on oneself something that is not found on his beloved’s body, and to be able to cut it off and throw it way, that, my namesake, only that is to love” (Ali 1994 [1935]: 24).

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