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Story Publication logo March 2, 2009

Forced from their homes


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A resurgent Turkey is shifting from a linchpin of the Western system to an independent-minded actor...


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ISTANBUL — They lived for almost 1,000 years around the remains of Istanbul's Byzantine walls. But when they were forced to leave, the gypsies of Sulukule only found out about their eviction from the journalists flocking to their shantytowns to cover the story.

"We heard from the media that the neighborhood would be destroyed to make way for luxury residential developments," Mehmet Asim Hallaq, 55, a spokesman for the ongoing campaign opposing the removal, told me in the summer of 2007. "This is a kind of aesthetic assimilation they're trying to impose on us."

It is all part of what locals call the "Dubaification of Istanbul." Kemal Ataturk's secular Turkish republic has strived to put water between its Ottoman Empire precursor and the European vision it harbors of itself. With Turkey's beaches beating Spain to second place as the holiday choice of Britons for the first time last summer, a real estate boom has swept across the country.

Istanbul's gypsies say they have inhabited Sulukule ever since the 11th century, when their Roma ancestors arrived in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.

Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Turkey on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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