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The Perception of Gypsies in Turkish Society

20 November 2007

The Perception of Gypsies in Turkish Society1

Suat Kolukirik2


Gypsies have taken different names since their first appearance in history, and they represent a defined culture. Another significant characteristic of Gypsies is the fact that they embraced and preserved their own language, although they travelled long distances while migrating and lived in different cultures. These migrations resulted in a series of changes and accent differences in Gypsy language, yet it still survives to a degree enough to meet the demands of daily language today. The language is significant for Gypsies, since it is a defining and distinguishing factor for recognising identity. Furthermore, studies based on language contribute to the research carried out on Gypsy history.

Another important discussion about Gypsies deals with their religious lives. Whether they have a religion or not, and their way of practicing their religious rituals, has attracted the most passionate criticisms against Gypsies. On the other hand, Gypsies adopt the religion of the countries in which they live. The point to be mentioned about the jobs Gypsies take is that they usually stay away from permanent jobs and prefer flexible and seasonal work. It is also very problematic that Gypsies are remembered and identified only with music. Their musical talents have been brought to the foreground due to both the imposition of social and historical conditions, and the fact that their music represents a "tool" for micro marketing within the scope of globalisation. Monopolisation and communal working methods stand out as a widespread characteristic amongst Gypsies.

Besides these peculiarities, today it is possible to observe that Gypsies attempt to get organised in accordance with the democratic development of the countries in which they live. However, Gypsies, who possibly form the poorest population of the country in which they reside, seem to fail to display a strong attitude concerning this matter. On the other hand, the first International Gypsy Congress was organised in London in 1971,3 and studies were brought about aiming to document all Gypsies in the world.

It is possible to date the relationship between Gypsies and Turkish society back to very old times, since Gypsies first came to Iran after leaving India and then they spread all over the world in three branches. One of these branches crossed to Europe over Anatolia. Since Gypsies migrated to Europe together with Turks, they were sometimes defined as "Turkish Spies."4 Gypsies, who resided in the Thrace region called "Gypsy County",5 worked in the reconstruction of the area and provided military strength in some periods.

"Suleiman the Magnificent enacted a special law in 1530 for the Gypsies to settle in Rumelia. Ottomon records have defined the Gypsy population in terms of age, job and marital status in order to receive regular taxes. The Gypsies serving in the Empire army had a higher social status and prestige. Gypsies preserved their ethno-cultural characteristics, nomadic way of life and traditional jobs, and they expressed their identity in a better way compared to the Medieval Europe."6

We know that in the post-Ottoman period after the foundation of Turkish Republic, a high Gypsy population immigrated to Turkey following the population exchange7 with Greece in 1923.8 On these grounds, Gypsy settlement in Anatolia in a period when fascism prevailed in Europe should be regarded as one of the significant points in the relationship between Gypsies and Turkish society.

Furthermore, from a general point of view, "identity conflict" constitutes a central problem for Gypsies living in different cultures as in Turkey. Gypsies may generally appear under more than one definition in the cultures in which they live. Besides, "Roman" in Turkey and "Roma" or "Rroma" in Europe has recently been used for defining Gypsies. In this case, while Roma-n refers to an international recognition and usage, names like "Çingene" (Turkish), "Tsigane" (French), "Zigeuner" (German) and "Gitano" (Spanish) highlight the local recognitions and date back to an earlier period. Another problem concerning Gypsies is the differentiation between Gypsies and non-Gypsies; since due to their likeness to some nomadic and seminomadic groups, Gypsies may be attributed the negative definitions and adjectives ascribed to these groups.

Method and Techniques

Prejudices are the products of social interaction. The points of view and closeness of the individuals and groups towards one another may produce prejudices and cause mutual accusation. The characteristics, which are not adopted and accepted by society, are generally displayed in a negative approach against a certain group and therefore, the individuals or groups legitimise their position within this frame. The prejudices of non-Gypsies against Gypsies will be discussed on these grounds as an example. However, it should be stated beforehand that the definitions referred to in this study do not reflect an aim to identify Gypsies with these definitions.

A group of Roma musicians playing impromptu in a street of Kesan, a Thracean town in Turkey. Roma are renowned for their musical talent in Turkey, but it is a mixed blessing as they are widely perceived as 'incapable' of other professions. Photo: Dr Mustaga Ozunal. Within the scope of this article, the discussion was based on three different analyses revealing how non-Gypsies in Turkey perceive Gypsies. These include the Attribute Constellation Technique, the Gypsy image in Turkish novels and the Gypsy image and prejudice in Turkish legends and anecdotes. The Attribute Constellation Technique has been developed at the Strasbourg Institut de Psychologie Sociale by A. A. Moles. This method, which is based on a simple graphical representation of the features associated by a central concept, constitutes a technique applicable to all correspondences such as a real object, a painting or a word within our perception.9 The aim of the application of this technique has been to obtain the points of view of university students towards the names Gypsyand Roman.10 The second technique, which is based on textual analysis,11 aims to analyse the Gypsy image and prejudice in Turkish fiction and dictionaries. Finally, the Gypsy image and prejudice in Turkish anecdotes, legends and daily language usage were collected and evaluated.

The Application of Attribute Constellation

In the Attribute Constellation study, a group of 61 people, constituting 48 females and 13 males from the third and fourth year of undergraduate studies at the Department of Sociology in Ege University, were given a questionnaire about the associations of the names Gypsy and Roman. The obtained data was listed in the Attribute Constellation Technique. As a result of the listing, graphics for both Gypsy and Roman were formed and the data was classified as positive, negative and neutral. The students ascribed 400 frequencies to the name Gypsy. One hundred and fifty seven (39.25%), 138 (34.5%) and 105 (26.25%) of these frequencies corresponded to neutral, negative and positive adjectives, respectively. The same students ascribed 233 frequencies to the name Roman; 95 (40.7%), 87 (37.3%) and 51 (21.8%) of these corresponded to neutral, positive and negative adjectives, respectively. As the results reveal, the neutral frequency ratios are very close to each other, whereas the positive and negative frequency values have shifted. In other words, the name Gypsy was perceived as negative, while the name Roman was perceived as positive.

The adjectives with highest frequency closest to the centre of the Gypsy graphic were "thief", "nomad", "entertainment" and "fortune teller"; whereas the corresponding adjectives in the Romani graphic included "musician" and "entertainment". In this sense, entertainment was used to define both the Gypsy and Romani. The adjectives "thief" and "dirty", which were used to define the Gypsy, were less frequent in the Romani graphic and were further from the centre. While Romani was defined more often as Gypsy, Gypsy was seldom identified as Romani. In a general sense, the name Romani was a more flexible and preferred definition compared to Gypsy. On the other hand, Gypsies and Gypsyness may be acknowledged as a classification generally made in accordance with the characteristic of a practiced job rather than with a race; a Gypsy is let into the sphere of mutual relation when s/he says "I am Romani", while this interaction is abrogatedwhen s/he introduces himself/herself as a Gypsy. In other words, although Gypsy and Romani are considered to belong to the same group, Romani individuals are perceived to be closer to the society in which they live and are accepted as an insider. In terms of the social image of the Gypsy identity, it is possible to state that it is disgraced in public discourse, yet accepted within popular culture.

The legitimisation problem of Gypsy identity, namely its effort to prove itself, is likely to affect the attitudes of Gypsies. Music, which Gypsies use to prove themselves, usually does not go beyond serving the benefits of popular culture.

The Gypsy Image and Prejudice in Turkish Novels

The Gypsy image and prejudice in fiction can be considered as products of the collective consciousness. Setting out from this approach, the expressions referring to Gypsies in the Turkish dictionary of the Turkish Language Association (TLA) and in Turkish novels, dating from Ottoman times to the present, such as Ahmet Mithat Efendi's Çingene, Osman Cemal Kaygılı's Çingenerler, Melih Cevdet Anday's Raziye and Metin Kaçan's Ağır Roman, were determined and evaluated below. The Gypsy image and prejudice in these novels were tabled as positive, negative and neutral; and the adjectives and definitions were indicated by giving the page numbers in the novels. The ways the adjectives are used in the novels were taken into consideration while determining the adjectives as positive, negative and neutral.

The general characteristic of the adjectives used in the novels is their negative attributions towards Gypsies. Adjectives like "barefaced", "officious", "shameless", "ignorant", "wild, "nomadic", "the one who swaps his wife", "non-Muslim", "dirty", "cunning", "quarrelsome", "foulmouthed" and "thief" are used in these novels to define Gypsies. Sharp and clear definitions of Gypsies are only given within the framework of the story in Ahmet Mithat Efendi's Çingene and Osman Cemal Kaygılı's Çingeneler. In Melih Cevdet Anday's novel, Gypsies are referred to as "nomadic"12 and defined in these terms. In addition, Gypsies are described with expressions like "Roman Havası"13 and "Şopar"14 in Metin Kaçan's Ağır Roman. The definitions in the Turkish dictionary published by TLA15 are given as the extensions of their daily usage and with an official language. In Article 4 of Settlement Act no. 2510, enacted in 1934 by The Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Gypsies were not considered as emigrant-nomads and were cited together with anarchists, spies and deported aliens.16

The striking point in all these analyses is the similarity between the images and prejudices about Gypsies and Romans, despite the big differences between the publication dates.

The Gypsy Image and Prejudice in Turkish Legends

Legends, anecdotes and daily language constitute another source in which Gypsies are emphasised to be different from the rest of the society in which they live. The most significant point attracting attention in the legends and anecdotes is their survival until today, although these are oral narratives. Within the scope of this study, the expressions used in Turkish legends, anecdotes and daily language about Gypsies were collected and analysed.

  • According to the legend about the origin of Gypsies in Turkey, while Abraham was being catapulted, two siblings called Çin and Gane had an incestuous relationship and were therefore cursed. As a consequence of thisrelationship, Gypsies were born and the name for Gypsy (Çingene) derived from this event.
  • In the legend about the nomadic life of Gypsies, statelessness of Gypsies is emphasised as God's fault. According to the legend, God distributed soil and food (wheat) to all races but forgot Gypsies, so they were destined to wander continuously.
  • In anecdotes narrating the lives of Gypsies, Gypsies are evaluated as people indifferent to religious life. For example: One day a Gypsy goes to mosque. Everybody takes his place to worship and the Gypsy happens to find himself next to Kara Rüstem, the most troublesome person of the neighbourhood. At the end of the service, while everyone turns their heads to the right like the Imam (prayer leader), the Gypsy turns his head to the left to Kara Rüstem. When the service was over, people ask the Gypsy why he turned his head to the left and the Gypsy answered: "God forgives, but Kara Rüstem doesn't."
  • In another version of this anecdote which recounts the religious lives of Gypsies and is told by Izmir Gypsies, 2 Gypsies get on a ship as fugitive passengers. The Gypsies, who see the conductor coming, immediately start to worship and go on worshipping constantly. But the conductor gets tired of waiting and goes and informs the captain about the matter. The captain wants to take a look at them himself. Since the Gypsies get tired too, they take a break when the captain arrives. The captain asks: "Hey Muslim brother, would you teach me Islam? How many commandments are there in Islam?" (Islam has five commandments). The Gypsy who is asked the question says "Savakereyim?" (What should I say) to the other Gypsy and he answers "Vaker 1500" (Say 1500).
  • In yet another anecdote, which indicates that Gypsies can never get away from their culture, a Gypsy girl marries a king and becomes a queen. One day, while the king and queen are walking in the forest, the Gypsy queen sees the beautiful trees and she can't stop saying "What beautiful hoops could be made out of these trees," referring to Gypsies who make hoops.
  • In a legend about the inconvenience of marriage between Gypsies and other races, it is told that someone who marries a Gypsy should perform an ablution ritual on a brick for 40 days and then wait for the brick to melt.

Consequently, narratives about Gypsies, like Gypsy images, are generally full of information woven around prejudices. According to Sway, numerous myths and legends were created about the origins and wanderings of these mysterious strangers before the Christian origin of Gypsies was revealed in 1763. These legends were produced due to both negligence and the reluctance of Gypsies to mix with non-Gypsies. The most well-known legend regarding Gypsies is the one about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.17 In this legend Gypsies are described as a people who made nails used in Jesus crucifixion.

Besides oral narratives, daily language also includes a myriad of references to Gypsies. Like the negative adjectives attributed to them, these references defining Gypsies can be used as an indicator when analysing the Gypsy image; the given examples resemble and match the ones presented above.

References to Gypsies in Daily Language:

  • Hair comes out of Gypsy's Bismillah [in the name of Allah] (indicating that Gypsies are unreliable and insincere about religious life);
  • Let neither plum in your garden nor Gypsy on your doorstep;
  • You are like a Gypsy child. (referring to those who stay in the sun for a long time and turns dark);
  • One should sleep with a Gypsy woman to break a spell of bad luck;
  • Half of 72 nations (half of a nation) Gypsy plays the instruments, Kurd dances;
  • The Gypsy is noisy, his cart is lousy (refers to Gypsy's filthiness and lousiness);
  • Did you sleep with a Gypsy? (for one who speaks a lot);
  • Is there a Gypsy wedding? (for a noisy place);
  • Don't behave like a Gypsy (said to a miserly person);
  • Gypsy money (for change or coin); and
  • Gypsy fight (for verbal fight).


The common characteristic of the negative images and prejudices about Gypsies is their reference to what is different between Gypsies and the remainder of societies in which they live. The common point of these historically produced images and prejudices is the representation of Gypsies as strangers. For non-Gypsies, the 'stranger' image that does not look like their own indicates a potential criminal. Differences between groups are exaggerated as a result of labelling and social categorisation processes. Consequently, Gypsies have been regarded as strangers as one side of a correlative relationship in all ages and societies, including India. Nevertheless, their position as strangers also provided Gypsies with the opportunity of constant existence.

Furthermore, as it is mentioned above, the perceived otherness of Gypsies should not be regarded as a characteristic peculiar only to Turkish society. "It is possible to come across prejudices about Gypsies in all the societies they exist as well as in fictive works, legends, anecdotes, films and laws."18 However, the main problem arises from the adjectives, legends, and anecdotes produced by the mechanism of prejudice which put the Gypsy identity and image under pressure and affect interaction between Gypsies and non-Gypsies. Prejudices about Gypsies include adjectives that may possibly be seen in all groups of society. Yet, it is always Gypsies who are seen as scapegoats.


  1. This article is a concise version of the work titled “The Gypsy Image and Bias in the Turkish Society” printed in the Sosyoloji Araştırmaları Dergisi (Sociological Research Journal. Volume 8, No: 2, Spring 2005). The ERRC thanks the editors of this journal for providing a shorthened version of the article.
  2. Mr Suat Kolukirik is a Professor at the Suleyman Demirel University, Department of Sociology. He can be reached at: suat@fef.sdu.edu.tr.
  3. Fraser, Angus. 1992. The Gypsies. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 316.
  4. After Gypsies had settled in Europe, they were accused of paganism by the residents. There were some tales telling of the thefts committed by Gypsies. They were subjected to denunciation for sorcery, witchcraft, espionage for the Turks, and treachery. Gypsies have been mentioned as lazy, naughty, dirty, immoral and deceitful people. Their innate ability to see the future has been considered as both enticing and terrifying. See: Lewry, Guenter. 1999. “The Travail of The Gypsies”. In National Interest. Fall Issue 57, p.7.
  5. Gökbilgin, M. Tayyip. 1997. İslam Ansiklopedisi Çingene Maddesi. Istanbul: MEB Yayınları.
  6. Marushiakova, E. and V. Popov 2001. Gypsies in the Ottoman Empire. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, p. 2.
  7. Arı, Kemal. 2003. Büyük Mübadele, Türkiye’ye Zorunlu Göç, 1923-1925 (The Great Exchange, Forced Migration to Turkey, 1923-1925). Istanbul: Tarih Yurt Vakfı Yayınları.
  8. Özkan, Ali Rafet. 2000. Türkiye Çingeneleri (Gypsies of Turkey). Ankara: Kültür Bakanlığı Yayınları, pp. 2-4.
  9. Bilgin, Nuri. 1999. Sosyal Psikolojide Yöntem ve Pratik Çalışmalar (Methods and Pragmatic Studies in Social Psychology). Izmir: Ege Üniv. Yayınları, p.19.
  10. Roman is the name used by Turkish Gypsies to define themselves. The name “Roman” may mean “Gypsy” for non-Gypsies.
  11. Wodak, Ruth. 1996. Disorders of Discourse. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.
  12. An emphasis on the migratory life of Gypsies.
  13. Gypsy music.
  14. A name used to identify Gypsy children.
  15. Turkish Language Association. 1988. Çingene Maddesi, Türkçe Sözlük. Ankara: Türk Dil Kurumu Yayınları.
  16. See Settlement Act no. 2510. Available online at: http://www.yargitay.gov.tr/bilgi/kanun_liste/PC12510.HM3.frameset.html. During amendments to the law in 2005, these articles were taken out of the Settlement Act.
  17. Sway, Marlene. 1988. Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p.39.
  18. Crowe, David and John Kolsti. 1992. The Gypsies of Eastern Europe. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., p.4. 

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