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Music, Fate and State: Turkey's Arabesk Debate Author(s): Martin Stokes Source: Middle East Report, No.

160, Turkey in the Age of Glasnost (Sep. - Oct., 1989), pp. 2730 Published by: Middle East Research and Information Project Stable URL: Accessed: 31/12/2009 05:17
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f a violent act of vengeance, the kind of crime of honor which fills Turkish jails and the pages of the tabloids, a In lorry driver in Istanbul catches his wife and boss in flagrante delicto, shoots them both and flees to his home village. The police surround the village house. The man surrenders and is taken away. He had left his village to find work in Libya, but through a series of accidents and chance encounters while being detained at the employment agency in Istanbul, he found work in a haulage firm and eventually set up his own business. Drunk and confused one evening, he was seduced by his next-door neighbor, a single woman, who him into eventually pressured marrying her. But the relation? urbanite and the villager ship between the sophisticated struggling to make his way in the big city is doomed from the beginning. The telos of the drama is inexorable. Fate (kader) impels the hero from rural poverty to urban peripherality, dishonor, violence and finally, not even granted the release of death, incarceration. This outlines the plot of a Turkish film of the early 1980s which featured the popular Arabesk singer Ferdi Tayfur, called Bende Ozledim ("I too yearned"). Hardly fiction, these films touch upon truths known and felt by their audiences, of the film stars devotees and critics alike. The identification with their films is striking, at first sight confusing. Most Arabesk stars use their own names unchanged in their films? Ferdi Tayfur is invariably "Ferdi," Orhan Gencebay "Orhan," Ibrahim Tatlises "Ibrahim," Kuguk Emrah "Emrah" and so on. Many replicate known details of the lives of the stars; stories of migration from the impoverished southeast, alien? ation in the gecekondu (squatter towns) of the big city, and the final discovery of musical talent. This leads perhaps to some measure of material security, even fame, but offers no protection from the fundamental dilemmas and questions of identity that face the migrant in the city. Caught between two legality, honor conflicting systems of economic organization, and morality, how is he to define himself? How is he to find his own language? Deprived of speech, the answer lies in music, more particu? larly the Arabesk music which has enjoyed unrivalled popular? ity in Turkey since the late 1970s. Arabesk poses a number of problems to the Turkish government and the urban intelligen? tsia alike. It presents a metaphor of the disintegration of state and person, and an abandonment to fate which is clearly at odds with both the dominant Kemalist ideology and (quite separately) Islamic orthodoxy. It is, firstly, a music inextricably linked with the culture of the gecekondu, literally the "night settlements" which mush? roomed around Turkey's large industrial cities after the Menderes government program of rural regeneration in the 1950s produced a large rural labor surplus. By the 1970s these squatter towns accounted for up to 60 percent of the popula? tion of cities such as Istanbul. Sociological research projects celebrated the beneficial ef? fects of life in the squatter towns. The gecekondular not only in which the migrant was able to provided an environment studentat the Instituteof SocialAnthropology, MartinStokesis a research Oxford. Middle East Report ? September-October 1989 27






Arabesk Martin Stokes


The dolmuq are indeed gaudy temples of Arabesk culture. lines and slogans from recent Glossy stickers proclaim Arabesk hit songs. Other icons of Arabesk culture to be found of singers, the little boy with a huge in the dolmuq?pictures glistening tear running down his rosy cheek, the little girl cafes of Mecca?decorate praying in front of a representation and other public places with little sense of contradiction alongside pictures of Ataturk, the Bosphorus bridge and the Turkish flag. Istanbul's central dolmuq station, Topkapi garage, is at a point midway between the gecekondu and the old city. Close to the famous brothels of Sulukule and surrounded by grave? with their tall cypress trees, this area yards conspicuous occupies a prominent place in the urban Turkish imagination. It is a twilight zone spatially, socially and morally. Within the walls lie monuments to Ottoman Turkish civilization; without lies the ephemeral junk of modern Turkey's trash culture. Within, the palaces and mosques; without, the beer houses and brothels. Within, order and the living; without, chaos and ~?lUi,"wulu ' the dead. It is easy to see the way in which Topkapi garage and the dolmuq driver represent the perceptual borders and confused dweller, the social and spiritual identity of the gecekondu "state" {hal) described by Arabesk. Indeed, a number of films depict the protagonist of the Arabesk drama as a driver, and at many scenes in a number of films are set unambiguously Topkapi garage. Many migrants to the city may well in fact invest in a vehicle and work as dolmuq drivers.3 Such is the of dolmuq driving and Arabesk that Ferdi identification Tayfur was BP's obvious choice for their Turkish motor oil commercials in 1987. of Arabesk use such terms as "cancer" and Opponents to describe the phenomenon, and extend the "epidemic" Researcher of social to the individual. language pathology Faruk Guglu claims that "of 681 cases of suicide in Ankara, 28 can be directly attributed to the effects of Arabesk culture."4 Orthodox sociologists in Turkey see Arabesk as arising out of of the an impasse in the social and economic development country. In a recent meeting discussing "the roots of Arabesk culture," Emre Kongar, one of Turkey's leading sociologists, situated Arabesk in the gap between "feudal-urban" and "industrial" culture.5 By implication, the industrial transfor? mation of Turkish society will eventually solve the Arabesk problem. The Turkish intelligentsia sees Arabesk as a essentially problem of culture. Kongar's determinism is not really typical, since most see Arabesk as a threat about which something of culture is both should and can be done. The manipulability in the of the implicit philosophy Ziya Gokalp, ideologue who provided the intellectual groundwork of Turkish nationalism in the early years of the republic. Urban Ottoman culture was but the real a product of Eastern "civilization" (medeniyet), basis of Turkish "culture" (hars) lay in the customs, music, language and literature of rural Anatolia. It was essential that the national reconstruction of Turkey under the umbrella of "Western civilization" be accompanied by a parallel re? of rural Turkish culture. Stripping away the construction accumulated junk of Ottoman civilization would reveal an Middle East Report ? September-October 1989


retain his links with his home village, but was able to partici? pate increasingly in national cultural life, spending more time reading the newspapers, attending the cinemas, participating in elections, and so on. Politicians getting an education promised title deeds to gecekondu dwellers in return for their votes at national and, more recently, municipal elections, thus and extending public accelerating the process of assimilation transport, water and refuse collecting services.1 "Aside from low income, drab looking houses, and the lack of normal city facilities," Kemal Karpat wrote in 1976, "few squatter towns show any symptoms of social or psychological disintegration, moral depravity and crime."2




But the political and economic disorders which led up to the military coup of September 1980 dashed this rosy picture of a healthily urbanizing society. The sociological construction of of social change the gecekondu as a beneficial environment could no longer be sustained. It was at around this time that Arabesk assumed its present form. The actual social and economic disintegration of urban Turkish life in the late 1970s and the perceived birth of Arabesk were thus inextricably linked. Both were explicable in terms of the unstable identity of the gecekondu. The picture of social and individual decay, the gecekondu and Arabesk is compounded in the concept of "dolmuq cul? ture." The dolmuq (literally "stuffed") are privately-owned Chevrolets or DeSotos, cars for hire, mostly 1950s-vintage travelling established routes within a city, or small minibuses connecting nodal points at the edge of the city proper with the outlying gecekondu. When I began to look at Turkish music late in 1986, people laughingly told me that if I was interested in Arabesk, I should take a trip on a dolmus. to the Arabesk semtleri (districts)?that is, the gecekondular of Istanbul. 28

In this way, the essential core of Turkishness underneath. inevitable process of development in Turkey would not com? promise its cultural roots.



Thus, in the 1930s, the government instigated a program of collecting Turkish music with the initial assistance and advice of Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist. It continues today, now in the hands of the Turkish Radio and Television ("Perfor? (TRT). The lera Denetimi mance Control") of the TRT Folk Music Department weeds out those songs which betray the influence of Ottoman art music, in particular through the use of the modal constructs known as makam; they are neither notated nor performed. The TRT archive is intended as a fund of purely Turkish melodic and poetic elements which will eventually be recom? The bined according to Western compositional techniques. result will be a music which remains faithful to the core cultural values of traditional Anatolian folk music and at the same time will ultimately allow Turkish music to participate without compromise in a European arena. It goes without saying that Arabesk stands in direct opposi? of culture which tion to this official Kemalist conception considers folk (halk) music to be simple, unaffected, direct, sung in "pure Turkish," and employing essentially diatonic (i.e. relatively simple) melodic constructions. Arabesk, in couched in highly is contrived, contrast, circumlocutory, Arabicized Turkish, and based upon complex and chromatic modes ambiguously related to the makam of Ottoman art music. The singers and performers of Turkish halk music are the uneducated, simple but honest peasantry of Anatolia. The singers and performers of Arabesk include gypsies, homosex? and young children?the transsexuals uals, transvestites, ambiguously sexed and socially marginalized denizens of an urban demi-monde. Arabesk is, furthermore, unquestionably foreign. Egypt pro? duced a distinct form of popular music in the late 1920s which, partially as a result of the powerful broadcasting frequency of the Egyptian radio station in the 1930s and the immense popularity of Egyptian films from this period onward, reached wide audiences in Turkey. The prodigious output of Muham? mad 'Abd al-Wahhab was particularly notable. Translations of his songs by Askin Glizya?lan, sung by Hafiz Burhan Sesyilmaz, became the most popular records in Turkey during this period. In 1948, Egyptian films and the performance of Egyptian film music in Arabic were banned in Turkey. This had the immediate effect of creating an industry around the transla? tion and imitation of Egyptian film music, but geared towards a Turkish audience and addressing itself to Turkish social concerns. What had been neither fully understood nor entirely with indigenous appropriated, rapidly became assimilated music. What had been intended as a of drama and conceptions death blow turned out to be the kiss of life. Moreover, the new music was fuelled by a continual input of the latest fashions in Arab music. Most influential were the songs of the Lebanese Middle East Report ? September-October 1989

singer Ferid al-Atrache; the powerful dance rhythms, the domination of the voice over the ensemble and the use of large choruses of violins in the orchestra engaged in a dialogue with the voice provided the main stylistic elements of the popular urban music that came to be known as Arabesk in Turkey. So Arabesk poses a threat not just in terms of what it represents and depicts but, quite simply, for what it is?an alien cultural artifact. Kemalist intellectuals have little doubt about the dangers posed by Arabesk, and what measures are necessary. Elsewhere on Turkey's political spectrum, Muslim intellectuals have even less doubt. Music as a whole falls into the juridical category of mubah?neither specifically ap? proved nor forbidden but merely tolerated by Islam. Arabesk, though, is associated with the pleasures of the meyhane and the brothel.6 It further espouses an attitude that goes beyond the Turkish Muslim orthodox belief in fate into fatalism (kadercilik). In the orthodox version, a person has freedom of choice, although God knows exactly what that choice will be. The fatalism of Arabesk asserts that a person is trapped by fate just as he or she is trapped by society. These lyrics from "Bagri yanik" by Muslum Glirses curse fate in the strongest available rhetoric. In this my youth you, fate, have thrown me into troubles Without mercy, you, fate, have inflamed my breast You are treacherous, you are felek. tyrannical, fate, fate.






The attitude of the military regime in the years following the 1980 coup was quite unambiguous. The TRT permitted nei? ther the broadcast of Arabesk music nor the showing of Arabesk films. Arabesk was not so much repressed as, like the gecekondu itself, simply ignored. Against this, the highly equivocal attitude of Prime Minis? ter Turgut Ozal's Motherland Party is particularly striking. Early in 1988, the prime minister appeared in close and with Arabesk star Orhan apparently friendly conversation at the of Glil?ah Kocyigit Gencebay society engagement (daughter of film star Hiilya) and Selim Soydan. For the music press, "Prime Ministerial Support for Arabesk" became front page news of almost scandalous significance.7 Subse? quently, the Motherland Party adopted one of the most Olsun popular Arabesk songs of 1987-88, Seni Sevmeyen ("May those who do not love you die") as its slogan for the 1988 election campaign. The tabloid press widely reported Ozal's attendance at a series of Arabesk concerts. The TRT attempted to remain aloof, but backed down eventually early in 1989 when the prime minister's wife, Semra Ozal, insisted upon the presence of transsexual Arabesk star Blilent Ersoy at a televised official party. The 1988 return of the flamboyantly dressed nightclub queen from what effectively amounted to exile in West Germany (she had been banned from giving in Turkey) was an event of profound stage performances resonance in itself. For Ozal's center-left critics, the Motherland Party's per29

ceived assimilation of Arabesk is analogous to the well known of the Ozal family in Istanbul's soccer politics. involvement Turgut himself is a keen supporter of Fenerbahge, his wife of Be?iktas, but this did not stop him carrying out a major of the publicity coup when he attended the quarter-final European Cup-Winners Cup at Cologne on March 17 to-watch the major Istanbul team, Galatasaray, tie with Monaco and advance to the semi-finals. For other critics, Ozal's approval of Arabesk goes beyond the mere courting of the popular vote. A principal requirement of political parties standing for elections in Turkey is that they are "Atatlirkist," that is, committed to the politics of and secularism. Yet the Motherland Party has modernization in of religious instruction presided over the reinstatement a Motherland In school curricula. Party top January 1986, official, Mehmet Kegeciler, endorsed the "democratic right" of women to wear modest ("Islamic") headgear, directly chal? lenging the "hat law" of the Ataturk era.8 The party's equivo? cal response to the ongoing "turban debate," along with a Islamist series of exposes of its involvement in Saudi-financed projects, have convinced Ozal's secular, liberal critics of his insufficient commitment to "Ataturkism" and prompted wor? ries that the military might intervene to check the apparently inevitable slide towards "religious reaction."9 Some would explain the link between the Motherland Party, religious reaction and Arabesk in the following terms. but double-edged vir? Arabesk inculcates the quintessential tues of stoicism, passivity and the acceptance of fate. Ozal's free market politics have benefited a wealthy minority at the expense of an increasingly impoverished and alienated major? ity, precisely the situation described in Arabesk. But instead of enabling the displaced workforce of the gecekondu to take effective political action by focusing on the exploitation, Arabesk presents political and economic power as an ontologi? cal fact of human existence. Turning the Arabesk star into a hero is nothing more than a for a situation of ruthless small measure of compensation as the see Turks fatalism (kadercilik) exploitation. Many Islamic values. They are not most essential of traditional of Ozal's freesurprised that the most rapid beneficiaries of irtica. market reforms have been the urban representatives nouveau-riche To put it crudely: this Islamically-cloaked promotes an ideology of passivity in order to facilitate the of their work force. The knot constructed from exploitation these strands is tied even tighter by the idea, often pointed out that Arabesk to me by Turkish musicians arid musicologists, takes its inspiration from not only Arab popular music, but also from the cantillation of the Koran, the call to prayer and Footnotes

the Turkish mystical poetry perhaps best represented by the the birth Mevlid-i gerifof Slileyman Qelebi, commemorating of the Prophet. So there is some irony in recent attempts to "reform" Arabesk. The First Music Congress, organized by Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mustafa Tinaz Titiz, endorsed the notion of "Acisiz Arabesk" ("Arabesk without Pain"). The state extended sponsorship to the new, approved Arabesk, in between veteran Arabesk star the form of a collaboration Hakki Bulut and light music composer Esin Engin, called "Sevenler Kiskanir" ("Those who love are jealous"). Turkish composer Attila Ozdemiroglu points out that "the Govern? ment is starting a fight against a situation of its own mak? ing."10 Not only does the present attempt to reform Arabesk appear hypocritical and cynical, but its chances of success are generally considered to be slim. Hakki Bulut himself repre? sents an older generation of Arabesk singers who have been superceded by the recent vogue for child stars (following the remarkable success of Kliglik ("Little") Emrah and more recently Kliglik Ceylan). For him, the whole exercise appears to be nothing more than a bid to boost his flagging popular? ity.11 The results lack bite, as the lyrics of "Sevenler Kiskanir" demonstrate very clearly: I am jealous of the wind The wind and the shadow I am jealous of the earth you walk on And the white pearl that adorns your neck Jealousy is in the nature of love Those who really love feel it in their hearts I am even jealous of my three-year-old brother When it comes to you You are the most beautiful rose among roses You are the pearl of all God's creatures Let no eyes see you Because I am jealous of them. provides a focus for an aesthetic of music which the vocabulary of both "official" folk music and pervades urban art music. In their separate ways, each type obsessively explores the alienation, separation and the "burning" which supposedly underpins the performance of Turkish music in general. Not surprisingly, the devotees of Arabesk seldom distinguish it from folk and art music at all, even though TRT experts explicitly deny links between Arabesk, art and folk music. All music tells the same story, and this story is of society and essentially one of fate, and the disintegration individual. For these reasons alone, continued state pressure upon popular culture is unlikely to produce the desired results. "Arabesk without pain" would simply cease to be Arabesk. ? Arabesk

from banization is to begained when nopolitical 1 Alternatively, capital andLondon: (Cambridge Cambridge University totheground Press, will bulldoze agecekondu thestate such agesture, Settle? 1976), p. 24.AlsoseeNephan Saran, "Squatter OnJuly foritsinhabitants. ornoprovision withlittle 24,-1987 ment(Gecekondu) Problems in Istanbul," in P.Benedict and ordered thedestructionE. Tiimertekin Burhan ofIzmir, themayor Ozfatura, andF.Mansur, and eds.,Turkey: Geographic of Izmir. Social district in theBuca of Kurucesme, ofthegecekondu E. J. Brill, 327-361. (Leiden: Perspectives 1974), pp. whena a greatdealof unwanted This attracted publicity cult ofthevehicle hasbeen noted Duffield byMark ofthecountry) 3 Asimilar from Kars certain Abdiilhadi (intheeast Giine? in Sudan. workers SeeMaiurno: A Study migrant of ontopof hisgecekonduamong tookhisyoung asa hostage daughter Rural in the Sudan Ithaca Capitalism (London: Press, 1981), if thebulldozers her offtheroof to throw home and threatened 111-121. pp. wasunsuccessful. His protest camenear. (SeeCumhuriyet, 4 Milliyet, p. 1.) July27,1987, July13,1987. andUr- 5 Hafta TheGecekondu: Rural 2 Kemal Migration Karpat, Sonu, 29,1989. February 30

were the shops 6 Meyhane alcohol) (cafes selling originally were oftheOttoman from which non-Muslim Empire subjects to buy wine. permitted 1988. 7 Muzik January Magazin, 8 Nokta, 18,1987. January "TheRabita AkinandOmer 9 Erkan Affair," Karasapan, Middle EastReport, 1988). #153 (July-August 10 Dateline, March 25,1989. 11 Hafta March 7, 1989. Sonu,

Middle East Report ? September-October 1989