Plans to Demolish Sulukule – Istanbul’s Roma Community!!!

Update: they DID it – Sulukule is no more!


Their skimpily clad dancers and tireless musicians have fired up Istanbul nights for nearly a millennium — now the Roma of Sulukule, two neighborhoods clinging to the Byzantine battlements of the old city, are fighting for survival.

The municipality of the Fatih district, on the European bank of Istanbul, says that by the end of the year, it will demolish 463 buildings it deems “insalubrious” and dangerous in case of earthquake and replace them with fancy, wood-paneled “Ottoman-style” housing.

“This is the most social project I’ve ever seen,” Fatih Mayor Mustafa Demir told AFP. “We will buy the houses from the present owners and they can move into brand-new lodgings as soon as they’re finished and pay off the difference over 15 years.”

Demir is proud of the project, describing the ancient, ramshackle wooden structures earmarked for demolition as “hovels you wouldn’t dump coal in,” although they are home to 3,500 people, about 1,300 of them Roma.

But the residents of Sulukule say the municipal project will end the Roma presence in an area where they are on record as having lived since Byzantine times.

“If we borrow to buy the new homes, how will we repay?” asked Levent Demirbaş, 19 and jobless. “See that guy over there? He doesn’t dare walk this street because he owes me seven lira” — 3.75 euros, or US$4.75.

“The aim is to have rich people move in,” asserted Sukru Punduk, whose neighborhood association is seeking public support to save Sulukule, already decimated by first a 1960 earthquake and then the banning by conservative politicians in the 1990s of its typical neighborhood taverns.

“People here lived off music and fun, we were the coolest Roms in Turkey… now we earn nothing, we have to read by candlelight,” complained Punduk, who plays the darbuka, a calabash-shaped tambourine essential to Rom music.

Generations of Istanbul residents poured into Sulukule for their dose of music, booze and Oryantal dancing in an environment reminiscent of the catfight scene between buxom Rom lasses for the favors of James Bond in the 1963 movie “From Russia With Love.”

“You’d stick bills on the dancers’ costume and they’d come sit on your lap — but it never went any further than that,” reminisced Aydin Boysan, an architect and a prominent author of popular Istanbul history.

“Those hellions really knew how to empty your wallet,” Boysan, at 85 still an energetic and tireless participant in Istanbul night life, added ruefully.

British researcher Adrian Marsh deplored more than just the disappearance of one of the most picturesque parts of this sprawling city of more than 12 million and the capital of three empires — Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman.

What is at risk, he told AFP, is the oldest known settlement in the world of the nomadic Roma.

A Byzantine scribe first wrote in 1054 of “Egyptians” living in black tents pitched along the fortress walls and eking out an existence thanks to their oryantal dancers, fortune-tellers and dancing bears.

After Constantinople, as it was then known, fell to the Turks in 1453, Sulukule’s dancers and musicians became fixtures of the nights of the opulent Ottoman court, explained Marsh, who is writing a thesis on Istanbul Roma.

“As far as we know, this is the oldest Rom community in the world,” he said. “Demolishing Sulukule is not the same as demolishing just any other gypsy slum, the way it happens all over Turkey and Europe — it is the annihilation of the memory of an entire community.”

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