by Elizabeth Strong
posted February 29, 2012
I met two American women at a restaurant in Sultanahmet (a tourist district in Istanbul) back in 2000. I was traveling with my boyfriend at the time. After some conversation, these women invited us to a Sufi zikker for the following Sunday. We took a bus out to Eyüp (another district in sprawling Istanbul) on a Sunday, and arrived at a 400-year-old home with an ancestral tomb near the street and a large meeting room where the zikker was held. That day the ceremony consisted of singing and chanting, followed by socializing over tea and cookies. I was introduced to Sinan Erdemsel, the grandson of the last sheik of that order of Sufis, and an excellent musician. I mentioned my desire to learn about dance and music, particularly Rom (gypsy) style.
He invited us to meet his friend, Hüsnü Tuszuz, a Rom violinist who was to play at a restaurant in Beyoğlu the coming Wednesday. We went to see Hüsnü play in an upstairs restaurant on Istiklal Cadessi, and met him that same evening. Hüsnü spoke no English, while Sinan spoke English quite well, so Sinan helped me to arrange a dance lesson with Hüsnü’s wife and neighbors.
I took a bus to Gazı Osman Paşa (the next township out from Eyüp) and met with Hüsnü in the main square. He walked me down a few streets and eventually led me down a sketchy cement staircase with Kırımızı Gül Sokak (Red Rose Lane) sprawled in red paint on a wall. We made our way down the steps carefully, and then I looked up to see shanty houses on the little hillside, and clotheslines hanging across yards. It was kind of strange that this little hillside community existed among all the tall apartment buildings; it seemed to me like its own little world apart from the rest of the city. I was led into a two-room house, and it was just exactly that: two rooms. One room for cooking and showering, and one for sleeping in at night and entertaining in during the day. Reyhan entered and yelled at me in Turkish. All I could understand was that she was indicating the house we were in, and remarking how great it was because it had two rooms. She and another woman then led me into the other room and sat me down on the couch with a glass of orange soda.
They put on some music (a çiftitelli, I think) and started to dance. In retrospect, I think they thought I wanted a show, or something. But I quickly got up and managed to communicate to them that I wanted some 9/8 music by pointing to the cassette tape and saying “nine” and “eight” in Turkish ("dokuz sekiz!"). After a little confusion, they found a song with a 9/8 rhythm and started to dance differently than before.
I immediately got excited and tried to follow their dancing. I started to write moves down in my notebook. My excitement seemed to egg them on and they started showing me more and more stuff.
The end of this first visit was a little strange. One of the kids ran into the room with a bag of food and sat down in the middle of the room. Everyone there began to eat as if they were ravenous. I sat by politely and didn’t eat anything – it didn’t seem appropriate. Even after awhile when Reyhan offered me food with a look on her face that clearly showed she hoped I would say ‘no’ I politely declined. After that, when I was paying for my lesson, they charged me for an hour and a half, instead of the agreed upon one hour price, even though I didn’t have a way to keep track of time during the lesson.
The next time I saw Hüsnü and Sinan, I bargained for an hour and a half long lesson for the original price and promised to come back at least six more times. Over the course of the following weeks, there were increasingly more neighbors, aunts, cousins and daughters coming to my lessons, both to watch and to dance.
One day, Reyhan brought me to a different house with a few women, but without the first woman I had met her with. In the middle of the lesson, this other woman came into the house looking upset, and there was some sort of discussion between she and Reyhan. After that, I had my lessons just with Reyhan and her two daughters, Meltem and Gülüzar, in yet a different house on the same hillside. By my last lesson and visit with the Tuzsuz family, they were feeding us meat and vegetables, tea and biscuits in their home and waiting on us like guests and friends. To this day, whenever a student comes to study with Reyhan or Husnu, it is often an afternoon long event that includes visiting over chai and food.
As for taking lessons with her – her teaching has improved over the years and her repertoire has expanded (although her large movement base was what attracted me to her as a teacher in the first place, so it has always been extensive).
She works on her dance often and is marvelous at it. Taking lessons with her is largely just following for dear life what her feet, hips and arms and shoulders and head are doing. She has become a much more popular teacher over the past several years and charges more than she did at one time. I understand. I think their family have come to rely on Reyhan’s teaching income by now, and it has afforded them the ability to stay in Istanbul while many other Roman are being forced out due to land development.
At the moment, the little hillside neighborhood on Kırımızı Gül Sokak (“Red Rose Lane”) is all but gone. The same thing is happening in Istanbul’s most famous Roman neighborhood, Sulukule. The Tuzsuz family and many others are looking for new homes. A great youtube video regarding this:
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