Fieldwork blog: Gurbetci

To understand the historical, political, and emotional resonance of this migration, we must first analyse such categories as gurbet and gurbetci. The gurbetci – one who lives in exile, diaspora, or away from the homeland – lives in a state of gurbet. It is a relative term, one that might describe the state of those living in Frankfurt, as well as Turks living in Istanbul, who feel that their primary identification is with their natal village rather than the city. The emergent literature and musical genres produced by Turkish artists in western Europe, although addressing this relatively recent phenomenon, actually draws upon a long tradition of exile and gurbet experiences. Throughout history, Turks have known many types of exile and migration. Thus, there is an established paradigm for the cultural structuring of contemporary labor migration.

Chapter 8 “Shifting centers and emergent identities: Turkey and Germany in the lives of Turkish Gastarbeiter,” by Ruth Mandel in “Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination” by Dale Eikelman and James Piscatori (1990) University of California Press, Berkeley

I became interested in what the term, gurbetci, meant to my respondents. It first came up in one of my informal interviews in Amsterdam with young man, a second generation Turkish-Dutch migrant who lives in the Netherlands. He used the word interchangably with Alemanci, which he said had originally referred more specifically to the German-based Turkish diaspora (Alemani means German in Turkish), but had since been expanded to refer to Turks across Europe. He told me it had negative class connotations in Turkey, referring to those who had left the country during the 60s and 70s for labor migration to Western Europe.

In Istanbul, a sociology professor with whom I met at Bogazici University also told me that it was a pejorative term, referring to a lacking subject that has been assimilated into Western culture, an idea that denies the singularity of their subjectivity, almost to the point of seeing them as childlike. But he also mentioned how this image of Turkish migrants to the West had been changing in Turkey, particularly through mainstream media and pop culture. The examples he gave were all cases of second-generation Turkish migrants who had grown up in Western Europe and were now successful and publicly prominent in the areas of sports and music (Tarkan!).

All in all, I had the feeling gurbetci was possibly losing its currency for “structuring” experiences of migration among those I was interviewing. Could the word be losing its applicability to the second generation? And if so, why? Was it because of their upward class mobility, as in the cases of high profile young people based outside Turkey and the positive media visibility of their success inside Turkey? Or was it perhaps because of the difference in the experience of migration in the context of digital media’s proliferation? A context in which the notion of “exile” and sense of being distant from the homeland are not as defining of the migrant experience due to the possibilities that digital communications afford. I’m still wondering what the concept of gurbetci means for people’s understandings of their own migration experiences, as well as a category applied to groups of people, in the context of contemporary Turkish migration.

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