Originally published in The National
Parading around the derelict salon of this decrepit house, Polat, not old enough to know the life his ancestors lived, bangs his family’s gold drum with gusto. His father Ali watches and, despite guarding his emotions, lets slip a smile.
A few years ago, a distinct music and dance emanated from the streets of Sulukule in Istanbul, once Europe’s oldest continuous settlement for 3,500 of Ali’s people, the Romanies. But now, the echoes of Romany culture have been silenced as well-to-do refugees from neighbouring Syria have filled the wood-panelled duplexes built atop the paved-over ruins of the historic Romany settlement.
A family from Homs sits in the small backyard of one of the houses. They are unregistered refugees. “We came here because we knew people in the area,” says the matriarch, a middle-aged lady in modest attire. The family pay 1,100 Turkish lira (Dh1,949) each month in rent to their Turkish landlord. “The neighbours are fine,” she adds. “They don’t speak Arabic and we don’t speak their language so we just nod at each other.”
Ali, 42, was once a proud landowner who made his living by playing music, a trade he hopes to pass on to his sons Vurgun, 8, and Polat, 6. Ali and his family now live in a crumbling one-storey house just outside a new luxury condo complex in Sulukule, the setting of his former residence. His new “home” is separated from the place he was born and raised by a rickety fence made out of tin sheets. The view from his doorway is a constant reminder of his loss.
Found next to the jagged remains of Constantinople’s Byzantine era city walls, Sulukule, literally meaning water tower, was settled by Turkey’s Romany community during the Byzantine period in 1054. The Romany have different ethnic origins from Turks but do not have legal ethnic minority status in Turkey.
At first, the Romanies lived in black tents, but over the generations they made way for rickety one-storey houses. The small buildings and easy access to the street were intrinsically linked to their culture as families lived outside the home, playing music and dancing in the thoroughfares.
For years, wealthy tourists were welcomed into Sulukule’s “entertainment houses” to see the Romany people cooking, dancing and playing their instruments. The Romany were poor but self-sufficient. In the early 1990s however, accusations of prostitution and gambling forced many of these houses to shut down, effectively dealing a social and economic blow to the local community and forcing them to wander Istanbul’s city centre where they made a living by playing their instruments, selling flowers or weaving handmade baskets.
The Romany were once again targeted in 2005, when the local municipality of Fatih announced an “urban renewal project” whereby Romany homes would be demolished and replaced by a luxury condominium complex.
“According to a new law [the municipality] started a transfer and regeneration project but it was really a state-led gentrification project,” says Mücella Yapıcı, the head of Turkey’s Chamber of Architects.
Fatih’s municipality, in collaboration with the government-led Turkish Mass Housing Administration (Toki), offered Sulukule’s residents a couple choices. They could put a down payment on a new condo and stay on their land or they could move into a brand new apartment in Toki’s state housing complex in Tasholuk, more than 30 kilometres from Sulukule, where they would pay for their new homes over a period of 15 years.
“They told me if I give them 20,000 lira [Dh35,000] they’ll give me a brand new villa,” says Saim, 65, now living with many of his former neighbours outside the tin sheets surrounding Sulukule. “Where am I going to get 20,000 lira?” he asks rhetorically. Romanies make an average of around Dh900 a month.
The new apartments were also so far removed from the city that the community would struggle to use their talents to make a living. The lack of foot traffic meant the Romanies couldn’t sustain themselves in Tasholuk and would have to spend much of what they earned each day on commuting to and from Istanbul. “They can’t afford the houses and there are no jobs out there,” says Yapıcı. “Now some are homeless and they are all back working in the city centre.”
Saim stands on the pavement outside a cafe, beside a group of men roughly the same age. All have had the same harrowing experience of being strong-armed off their land. The men blame the local mayor, the city council and Toki for their situation.
“The mayor of Fatih came here and then three days later the bulldozers were out,” says Hassan, 59, a jacket seller in Istanbul’s touristic Taksim Square.
“The council threatened us,” adds Saim. “They told us that if we don’t sell our houses today that they will force it off us and put the money into frozen bank accounts that we won’t be able to access for five years.”
The only choice much of the community had was to sell, often for a fraction of the valued price, even though many held the deeds to their plots of land. “We were uneducated. We knew nothing so they took everything from us,” says the oldest man in the group, who asked that his name not be used.
Sulukule is one of many cases under Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government where state-led “urban renewal projects” have uprooted Istanbul’s poor to make way for modern structures. In late May of last year, a small group of protesters occupied Gezi Park, one of the central Beyoglu district’s last remaining green spaces, after an announcement it would be replaced by a shopping mall. Harsh crackdowns by police struck a nerve in the population as waves of protesters, aggravated at the policies and practices of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), took to the streets. The protests quickly unravelled into riots, with an estimated 3.5 million people taking part in the demonstrations. Still, the renewal projects continue as more than 60 per cent of Istanbul’s historic peninsula falls under a “regeneration area”, according to Yapıcı.
Even before the “Sulukule Renewal Project” got under way, it faced steadfast opposition by local and international challengers. The project was criticised by the Unesco World Heritage Centre in a 2008 report as part of a gentrification project. Other critics included Thomas Hammarberg, a self-proclaimed Romany rights campaigner and a Council of Europe commissioner for human rights from 2006-2012, and the UN-Habitat Advisory Group on Forced Evictions.
A lawsuit was filed against the project in 2007 by the European Roma Rights Centre and the Edirne Association for Research of Romani Culture. In 2012, the project was ruled illegal by an Istanbul court but by then it was too late – the historic Romany quarter had been uprooted. The squat houses, some of which were beginning to crumble, had been replaced by the new luxury duplexes, available for sale starting at 600,000 lira.
Such projects have been led by the notorious Toki, which reports directly to the office of the Turkish prime minister. According to Toki’s website: “Articles 56 and 57 of the Turkish Constitution declare that every Turkish citizen has the right to decent housing and that the State has a responsibility to help meet those needs and to promote mass housing projects.” While Toki has provided a new mass housing project in Sulukule, it seems as though the aim hasn’t been at improving the lives of Turkish nationals in need of housing. Instead, wealthy Turks own the duplexes and rent them out, mostly to wealthy Syrian refugees, for around 1,200 lira a month, according to a Toki employee based in the Sulukule office. He added that the complex also housed many Iraqis and a couple of Chinese translators.
Accusations of corruption have encircled Toki, Erdogan and his AKP allies in recent months, leading to the resignation of three AKP ministers last December. One of those who resigned was Erdogan Bayraktar, the former minister of environment and urban planning, the ministry with responsibility for Toki. Before becoming a minister, Bayraktar was Toki’s chairman. Bayraktar’s son has also been accused of building illegally as well as paying and receiving bribes. Bayraktar denied corruption allegations but claimed he took directives from the prime minister and publicly called for Erdogan to resign.
The connection between Toki and the government has also raised questions and concerns about the project in Sulukule, leading many to believe that the project was an underhanded scheme to enrich members of the local government.
“The buildings are owned by people in the local government or close to the government,” says Yapıcı. Mustafa Demir, the mayor of Fatih municipality and a member of the AKP, was detained on December 17 of last year following allegations that he accepted bribes in exchange for allowing the erection of unsafe structures. For her part, Yapıcı says that the “architectural quality” of the Sulukule condominium complex is “very low”.
“The government built these houses knowing Syrians would come to live in them,” says Ali, the displaced musician. Ali’s claims are probably speculative but they highlight an overlap in timelines.
According to a Toki employee who shows the Sulukule duplexes to prospective buyers, construction began on the complex three years ago while the court case was still ongoing. Renters, mostly refugees from the civil war in Syria, began moving in a year ago, he says. The Syrian civil war also began three years ago.
As for the Romanies, “they were always being expelled from places and being called ‘the others’,” says Yapıcı. “Since they’ve lost their livelihood, they are now ‘the others of the others’ or the poorest of the poor.” On the pavement, in front of the cafe a few blocks from his former home in Sulukule, Hassan the jacket seller stands watching people and cars pass by.
Although he is smiling, his words contradict his appearance. “We were all happier back then. Now no one is happy with our situation,” he says, breaking into laughter. “We have no feelings left anymore.”
Standing to Hassan’s right, Saim isn’t as apt in hiding his disappointment. He chalks up the Romany’s situation to their lack of education but has resigned himself to their current state of dejection. “We’ve been here for hundreds of years,” he says. “But it’s all in the past and done. There’s nothing anyone can do about it anymore.”