My name is Anthony and I hate Arabesque…

But you can’t live in Turkey if you don’t like Arabesque music?

OK… My name is Anthony, I love Turkey but I still hate Arabesque music.

A few years ago I sat in a quiet restaurant watching a beautiful sunset, while tucking into a plate of equally sumptuous chilli squid. I no longer remember the occasion, something completed, a good football result or perhaps simply treating myself to some quiet time. I was about to order another drink, when a group of young Turkish men, made themselves comfortable at the bar and demanded that the music, that I had barely noticed, be turned up. In an instant the terrace was filled with what I imagined a coven of wailing banshees might sound like. It was a woman’s voice, or should I say emittance of such high pitched howling that the hairs on my arms stood up in a self preservation fight or flight fashion. So having no control over the situation, I fled into the night.

Arabesque music is hard to describe in a few sentences. It is very formulaic and mawkish in a way that makes every predictably sad, saccharine, American Country & Western song sound like a celebration of life and happiness. Lost love, dishonour, and bucketfuls of tragedy and death; especially dying young, the younger the better so they’ll remember your corpse as being beautiful… and that is just the happier aspects of the genre! Here’s a link to a few random examples.

Arabesque became popular after Turkish traditional music was banned in the westernising days of the early Republic. The population instead tuned into Arabic radio stations, notably those emanating from Egypt, so its first consumers were the Arabic and Kurdish speaking peoples from Turkey’s east, whose gradual migration westward often ended in the ‘gecekondu’ (literally, night built) squatter settlements and ghettos, which still exist around the big cities. Inevitably the music’s influence broke out and expanded to include the rural and middle classes until it had become, by the late 60’s, Turkey’s most popular musical genre, despite being officially banned from State TV and radio right through until the early 1990’s.

There are many who believe the act of banning it gave it a mystique it doesn’t possess, like forbidden fruit. It is a phenomenon seen in other countries over the years; where mediocre songs, which were initially banned, went on to become runaway successes. Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984, went on to become a Number One, twice after being prudishly banned by a BBC DJ. Although in Turkey it was the entire arabesque genre that seemed to benefit. Imagine if you dare, the UK’s BBC also trying to ban every irritating and repetitive song from the Stock Aitkin and Waterman stable of the 1980’s to the point that today, in defiance, almost every song has that same predictable structure and beat. For arabesque the instruments and dubbing may have changed the delivery over the years, but the same lugubrious intro’s always seem to lead into a song about some tragedy or other, although you can never be quite sure what story those strangulated melodies and ear splitting high notes are trying to convey, even with a reasonable understanding of Turkish.

Inevitably, because of its eastern roots, arabesque polarises public opinion. Yes there are many whether political, or apolitical like me, who simply cannot stand the migraine inducing noise, but there are many more who are simply for or against it because of what they believe it represents. For many it defines a lifestyle, a machismo, an ability after a couple of musical notes to transfer oneself into the lyrics, be it the vanquished, the victim or the perpetrator of sadness, until they can almost believe the song is about them. Using the analogy of country music again, imagine an audience dominated by young cowboys with tears in their eyes, but with a small proportion of them slashing themselves with razor blades, because they were told it helps tap into a songs melancholy and pain; for this is what young Turkish men often do at arabesque concerts. Critics tell us some singers trade on carefully choreographed images of being an outsider, an outlaw or being loosely connected to the underworld or Mafia, and feed the media a diet of fights, guns and sometimes verbal or physical abuse of enemies or even their girlfriends in public.

Frank Sinatra was famous for his ‘mob’ connections and so here in Turkey, one singer in particular, Ibrahim Tatlises, or Ibo to his legion of fans, who has survived attempts on his life, including a bullet through his head only 2 years ago, is known as the Arabesque Sinatra. For many, his off stage life has become much more dramatic than his song catalogue. I remember weeks of newspaper articles and a front page photo of some ex-girlfriend with a belly dancer rival, who had patched up their differences to pose, each with a thigh in a bandage (a bullet to the thigh is a classic mob punishment). Although Ibo and his men were initial suspects because he had publicly criticised both women for besmirching his honour by wearing revealing clothes; the young perpetrators, when caught, declared that they did it only to preserve Ibo’s honour.

For those Turks, who regard arabesque as a curse, the legacy of course is that younger male fans, who aspire to that kind of lifestyle, always risk carrying such controlling or even misogynistic attitudes into their own relationships or marriages. Many feminist and women’s groups have even highlighted it as a contributory factor in why domestic violence still runs stubbornly high in Turkey, at almost 50% in some areas of the country. “Zaman”
Indeed some detractors, like the composer Fasil Say have taken it a great deal further; because before being prosecuted for his Twitter comments, which fell foul, of Turkey’s tightening religious laws, he once famously equated the practice of listening to arabesque as “tantamount to treason.”

Anyway, for me it will always be about the music, not the politics or the lifestyle. So I will leave you with one final thought. Last year the CIA and US Army revealed that it often used the pop music of Britney Spears in order to deprive a captive of sleep before an interrogation or over loudspeakers in order to break a siege situation. However, I now feel I could wholeheartedly suggest a much more efficient genre, which would probably break them down in half the time.


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