In a violent act of vengeance, the kind of crime of honor which fills Turkish jails and the pages of the tabloids, a 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 eventually pressured him into marrying her. But the relationship between the sophisticated urbanite and the villager 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 Özledim (I Too Yearned). Hardly fiction, these films touch upon truths known and felt by their audiences, devotees and critics alike. The identification of the film stars 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,” Küçük Emrah “Emrah” and so on. Many replicate known details of the lives of the stars; stories of migration from the impoverished southeast, alienation 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 conflicting systems of economic organization, legality, honor 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 particularly the Arabesk music which has enjoyed unrivaled popularity in Turkey since the late 1970s. Arabesk poses a number of problems to the Turkish government and the urban intelligentsia 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 mushroomed 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 population of cities such as Istanbul.

Sociological research projects celebrated the beneficial effects of life in the squatter towns. The gecekondular not only provided an environment in which the migrant was able to retain his links with his home village, but was able to participate increasingly in national cultural life, spending more time reading the newspapers, attending the cinemas, participating in elections, getting an education and so on. Politicians promised title deeds to gecekondu dwellers in return for their votes at national and, more recently, municipal elections, thus accelerating the process of assimilation and extending public 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]

Culture of Disintegration

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 the gecekondu as a beneficial environment of social change 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 “dolmuş culture.” The dolmuş (literally “stuffed”) are privately owned cars for hire, mostly 1950s-vintage Chevrolets or DeSotos, traveling 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 dolmuş to the Arabesk semtleri (districts) — that is, the gecekondular of Istanbul.

The dolmuş are indeed gaudy temples of Arabesk culture. Glossy stickers proclaim lines and slogans from recent Arabesk hit songs. Other icons of Arabesk culture to be found in the dolmuş — pictures of singers, the little boy with a huge glistening tear running down his rosy cheek, the little girl praying in front of a representation of Mecca — decorate cafés and other public places with little sense of contradiction alongside pictures of Atatürk, the Bosphorus bridge and the Turkish flag.

Istanbul’s central dolmuş 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 graveyards conspicuous with their tall cypress trees, this area 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 the dead.

It is easy to see the way in which Topkapi garage and the dolmuş driver represent the perceptual borders and confused identity of the gecekondu dweller, the social and spiritual “state” (hal) described by Arabesk. Indeed, a number of films depict the protagonist of the Arabesk drama as a driver, and many scenes in a number of films are set unambiguously at Topkapi garage. Many migrants to the city may well in fact invest in a vehicle and work as dolmuş drivers. [3] Such is the identification of dolmuş driving and Arabesk that Ferdi Tayfur was BP’s obvious choice for their Turkish motor oil commercials in 1987.

Opponents of Arabesk use such terms as “cancer” and “epidemic” to describe the phenomenon, and extend the language of social pathology to the individual. Researcher Faruk Güçlü 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 an impasse in the social and economic development of the 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 transformation of Turkish society will eventually solve the Arabesk problem.

The Turkish intelligentsia essentially sees Arabesk as a problem of culture. Kongar’s determinism is not really typical, since most see Arabesk as a threat about which something both should and can be done. The manipulability of culture is implicit in the philosophy of Ziya Gökalp, the ideologue who provided the intellectual groundwork of Turkish nationalism in the early years of the republic. Urban Ottoman culture was a product of Eastern “civilization” (medeniyet), but the real 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 reconstruction of rural Turkish culture. Stripping away the accumulated junk of Ottoman civilization would reveal an essential core of Turkishness underneath. In this way, the inevitable process of development in Turkey would not compromise its cultural roots.

Performance Control

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 ethno-musicologist. It continues today, now in the hands of the Turkish Radio and Television (TRT). The Icra Denetimi (Performance 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 recombined according to Western compositional techniques. The 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 opposition to this official Kemalist conception of culture which 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 contrast, is contrived, circumlocutory, couched in highly 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, homosexuals, transvestites, transsexuals and young children — the ambiguously sexed and socially marginalized denizens of an urban demimonde.

Arabesk is, furthermore, unquestionably foreign. Egypt produced 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 Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab was particularly notable. Translations of his songs by Askin Güzyaşları, sung by Hafiz Burhan Sesyılmaz, 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 translation 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 appropriated, rapidly became assimilated with indigenous conceptions of drama and music. What had been intended as a 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 singer Farid al-Atrash; 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 approved 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 “Bağrı Yanik” by Müslüm Gürses 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
tyrannical, fate, fate.

Özal and the Nightclub Queen

The attitude of the military regime in the years following the 1980 coup was quite unambiguous. The TRT permitted neither 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 Minister Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party is particularly striking. Early in 1988, the prime minister appeared in close and apparently friendly conversation with Arabesk star Orhan Gencebay at the society engagement of Gülşah Koçyiğit (daughter of film star Hülya) and Selim Soydan. For the music press, “Prime Ministerial Support for Arabesk” became front page news of almost scandalous significance. [7] Subsequently, the Motherland Party adopted one of the most popular Arabesk songs of 1987-1988, “Seni Sevmeyen Ölsun” (May Those Who Do Not Love You Die) as its slogan for the 1988 election campaign. The tabloid press widely reported Özal’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 Özal, insisted upon the presence of transsexual Arabesk star Bülent 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 stage performances in Turkey) was an event of profound resonance in itself.

For Özal’s center-left critics, the Motherland Party’s perceived assimilation of Arabesk is analogous to the well-known involvement of the Özal family in Istanbul’s soccer politics. Turgut himself is a keen supporter of Fenerbahçe, his wife of Beşiktaş, but this did not stop him carrying out a major publicity coup when he attended the quarterfinal of the European Cup-Winners Cup at Cologne on March 17 to watch the major Istanbul team, Galatasaray, tie with Monaco and advance to the semifinals.

For other critics, Özal’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 “Atatürkist,” that is, committed to the politics of modernization and secularism. Yet the Motherland Party has presided over the reinstatement of religious instruction in school curricula. In January 1986, a top Motherland Party official, Mehmet Keçeciler, endorsed the “democratic right” of women to wear modest (“Islamic”) headgear, directly challenging the “hat law” of the Atatürk era. [8] The party’s equivocal response to the ongoing “turban debate,” along with a series of exposes of its involvement in Saudi-financed Islamist projects, have convinced Özal’s secular, liberal critics of his insufficient commitment to “Atatürkism” and prompted worries that the military might intervene to check the apparently inevitable slide toward “religious reaction.” [9]

Some would explain the link between the Motherland Party, religious reaction and Arabesk in the following terms. Arabesk inculcates the quintessential but double-edged virtues of stoicism, passivity and the acceptance of fate. Özal’s free-market politics have benefited a wealthy minority at the expense of an increasingly impoverished and alienated majority, precisely the situation described in Arabesk. But instead of enabling the displaced work force of the gecekondu to take effective political action by focusing on the exploitation, Arabesk presents political and economic power as an ontological fact of human existence.

Turning the Arabesk star into a hero is nothing more than a small measure of compensation for a situation of ruthless exploitation. Many Turks see fatalism (kadercilik) as the most essential of traditional Islamic values. They are not surprised that the most rapid beneficiaries of Özal’s free-market reforms have been the urban representatives of irtica. To put it crudely: This Islamically cloaked nouveau riche promotes an ideology of passivity in order to facilitate the exploitation of their work force. The knot constructed from these strands is tied even tighter by the idea, often pointed out to me by Turkish musicians arid musicologists, that Arabesk takes its inspiration from not only Arab popular music, but also from the cantillation of the Koran, the call to prayer and the Turkish mystical poetry perhaps best represented by the Mevlid-i Şerif of Süleyman Çelebi, commemorating the birth 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 Tınaz Titiz, endorsed the notion of acisiz Arabesk (Arabesk without pain). The state extended sponsorship to the new, approved Arabesk, in the form of a collaboration between veteran Arabesk star Hakkı Bulut and light music composer Esin Engin, called “Sevenler Kiskanir” (Those Who Love Are Jealous). Turkish composer Attila Özdemiroğlu points out that “the government is starting a fight against a situation of its own making.” [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. Hakkı Bulut himself represents an older generation of Arabesk singers who have been superceded by the recent vogue for child stars (following the remarkable success of Küçük (“Little”) Emrah and more recently Küçük Ceylan). For him, the whole exercise appears to be nothing more than a bid to boost his flagging popularity. [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.

Arabesk provides a focus for an aesthetic of music which pervades the vocabulary of both “official” folk music and 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 essentially one of fate, and the disintegration of society and 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.


[1] Alternatively, when no political capital is to be gained from such a gesture, the state will bulldoze a gecekondu to the ground with little or no provision for its inhabitants. On July 24, 1987 the mayor of Izmir, Burhan Özfatura, ordered the destruction of the gecekondu of Kuruçesme, in the Buca district of Izmir. This attracted a great deal of unwanted publicity when a certain Abdülhadi Güneş from Kars (in the east of the country) took his young daughter as a hostage on top of his gecekondu home and threatened to throw her off the roof if the bulldozers came near. His protest was unsuccessful. See Cumhuriyet, July 27, 1987.
[2] Kemal Karpat, The Gecekondu: Rural Migration and Urbanization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 24. Also see Nephan Saran, “Squatter Settlement (Gecekondu) Problems in Istanbul,” in P. Benedict and E. Tümertekin and F. Mansur, eds., Turkey: Geographic and Social Perspectives (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), pp. 327-361.
[3] A similar cult of the vehicle has been noted by Mark Duffield among migrant workers in Sudan. See Maiurno: A Study of Rural Capitalism in the Sudan (London: Ithaca Press, 1981), pp. 111-121.
[4] Milliyet, July 13, 1987.
[5] Hafta Sonu, February 29, 1989.
[6] Meyhane (cafés selling alcohol) were originally the shops from which non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire were permitted to buy wine.
[7] Muzik Magazin (January 1988).
[8] Nokta, January 18, 1987.
[9] Erkan Akin and Ömer Karasapan, “The Rabita Affair,” Middle East Report 153 (July-August 1988).
[10] Dateline, March 25, 1989.
[11] Hafta Sonu, March 7, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Martin Stokes "Music, Fate and State," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

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