Monday, June 3, 2013

Istanbul: A Destination for Immigrants

by Jerry Vassalla

A Gecekondu located in Turkey

Istanbul’s unique position as a booming cultural and economic hub has established it as a center for immigration and contributed to its cultural diversity and commercial development. Each of the speakers during session one of the Turkish Studies Symposium at the University of Illinois spoke about the impacts of immigrants on the city and how the city has absorbed the migrants.

The main theme in the talk presented by Derya Özkan’s was the Gecekondu. Gecekondu, banlieue, favela, shanty towns, slums. They all have the same meaning and occur in a wide array of countries.  Although there exist many different versions of slums, they are each formed by different peoples so more information on the Turkish Gecekondus helps to make the situation clearer. The term “Gecekondu” term is made up of two different words.  “Gece” means “night” in English and “kondu” comes from the verb “to settle” because the slums in Istanbul are built at night so that the police do not halt the construction or rip down their soon-to-be homes. The Gecekondus have often been associated with the migration that has come to Istanbul from Turkey’s poorer regions. In Eastern Turkey there is very little industrialization as well as great amounts of impoverished villages. These regions lack access to education and a large proportion of the population in the East belongs to the Kurdish ethnic minority. Often times, Kurds that live in Podunk villages have very limited Turkish language skills, which compounds their problems. Due to the scarcity of jobs in the East, many move to Istanbul but lack sufficient money to build houses or resources to obtain proper employment so they resort to constructing Gecekondus. 

Professor Özkan went on to bring up the anomaly of Turkish fashion that has its roots in the era when they were commonly found in Istanbul. The chic fashion that has arisen from Gecekondu-inspiration is a complete 180 from how migrants were seen during the 1970’s. All the ideas associated with migration from the East come to be symbolized in the Dolmuş fashion. This includes arabesque music and kıro lifestyle. Arabesque music can be compared to country music in the U.S., as it stems from communities that are more based around rural lifestyle and deals with sadder themes, however arabesque music hasn’t found as much widespread acceptance as country music has. The kıro is often viewed negatively and thought go hand in hand with arabesque music. The kıro himself is stereotypically conceived of as a man who gels his hair, grows a big mustache, wears a metal chain as well as a sleeveless t-shirt which shows his hairy chest. The closest equivalent that I can come up with is a “guido”, like from the television show Jersey Shore. So with the positive return of these ideas 40 years later, nostalgia seems to win out over original sentiments. 

Dolmuş, or minibuses, originally only appeared in the poor Gecekondu neighborhoods of Istanbul.  Now they are appearing in middle class neighborhoods while at the same time dolmuş fashion has popped up, gearing itself towards the same middle class neighborhoods. All of these words with formerly negative connotations are now reemerging into Turkish society. Thankfully, farmers’ overalls and phrases like “two shakes of a lamb’s tail” haven’t gained this kind of revitalization in American society.

Jerry Vassalla is a second year MAEUS student. He majored in Spanish and International Studies as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jerry spent time during the fall of 2010 volunteering at an Urbana based refugee center. During summer 2011, he studied Turkish in Antalya, Turkey on a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship. Jerry spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Germany on a Fulbright Grant as an English Teaching Assistant. His research interests include EU accession, the factors influencing the identities of minority groups within the EU (especially language), immigration rights in Germany and Turkish foreign policy. As non-academic hobbies, he commishes and plays fantasy football. He enjoys cooking and considers himself something of a BBQ Sauce connoisseur.

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