Turkish Arabesque Music and Culture in the 1990s
An old TRT documentary provides a window into the past
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My wife (and sometimes co-author) stumbled across this 4-part TRT documentary from the late 1990s recently endearing entitled With its Bitterness and Sweetness, Our Life of Arabesque (Acısıyla Tatlısıyla Hayatımız Arabesk.) It’s a look at Turkish arabesque music, which is a relatively new genre that was becoming mainstream around that time. A big part of its appeal for us was that the documentary also branches out into coverage of culture overall. Being in our 30s, this sort of thing induces melancholy in Müjge and I, but it’s also an interesting angle on politics.
The 1990s were heady times in Turkey. Almost everyone interviewed here is talking about internal migration to the big cities, and for good reason. In 1960, 32 percent of Turkey’s population was urban, and 78 percent lived in rural areas. By 2000, 65 percent lived in urban areas, and 35 percent had remained in the country. So within a single generation, the country’s demographic center of gravity shifted massively from the countryside to the big cities.
I find that in Western countries, people might ask you where you were born, which is almost shorthand for where you grew up. Not so much in Turkey. In places like Ankara or Istanbul, where people take it for granted that you grew up in the city, they might still ask something like “where are you from,” (nerelisin?) meaning they want to know what part of the country your family migrated from. Most people have very recent layers of belonging in their family, and it’s useful to know about that when you’re sort of categorizing that person in your head.
Ümraniye, which is today considered central Istanbul, is in the documentary a rural-looking suburb. It was one of the first places newcomers to the city landed, and was awash with the city’s trash. They briefly mention the 1993 “garbage explosion incident,” in which a methane gas leak caused an explosion underneath mountains of garbage. It was like a volcano eruption, burying homes under trash, and killing dozens of people. Many of the victims were children, and some of the bodies were never recovered.
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