How are social processes of marginalisation and agency heard, as well as seen? Below you can listen to a recording of a refugee youth playing a melody on the busy street of Istiklal, Istanbul. Such soundscapes offer ways of analysing the social, economic and political dynamics that characterise spaces inhabited, shared and contested by and with different groups of people. This innovative approach is central to our project’s focus on ‘spaces and places, not faces’, which you can read more about by visiting our Representations of Displacement blog series. You can also listen to more soundscapes by visiting our creative archive

Hearing Marginalisation and Agency in Istanbul: Sounds from Istiklal Street 

By Aydan Greatrick, UCL Department of Geography and Refugee Hosts Project Coordinator

Istiklal is the heart of modern Istanbul. This huge street, visited by around 3 million people each day, is a magnet for tourists, shoppers and street performers. It comes alive at night. Yet, amongst the bustle of this busy, noisy street, a distinctive melody can be heard: one of vulnerability, and of agency – of young people playing simple tunes so that they can support themselves and their families – but also of tense social relations between refugees, hosts and other migrant communities.

In a metropolis like Istanbul, Syrian refugees must often share in the poverty and ‘precarity’ experienced by other marginalised communities that live in the city, from Roma communities, to Kurds, to Senegalese migrants to Philippine domestic workers. This also contributes to a form of poverty politics, where extremely vulnerable young people are put in direct competition with one another, marking out corners of Istiklal where they can play simple tunes in exchange for a couple of Lira.


The melody heard in this recording is performed by one of the many young street performers who have arrived in Istiklal in recent years. Their origin is a matter of debate. The seemingly ‘obvious’ assumption is that this street performer must be one of the 800,000 Syrian refugees that currently live in Istanbul. However, several Istanbul residents argued that these youths are not Syrian at all, but Roma children passing as Syrians by ‘switching’ their language to Arabic, or because the distinction is lost on many shoppers and passers-by.

This differentiation (both real and imagined) between ‘deserving’ Syrians and ‘undeserving’ Roma children, generates social tensions between these two marginalised communities. This sometimes triggers small fights between young performers, where Syrian and Roma youth compete not only over the right to play their tunes in particularly lucrative areas, but also for the sympathy of their audience: the thousands of Turkish citizens and foreign tourists whose chorus of voices make up the backdrop of this recording.

In this chaotic environment, Syrian and Roma youth compete over visibility, and access to space (and a sound) within the hectic composition of Istanbul life. Yet, as the melodies of migrant and refugee youth take on a more prominent, audible position within the evening symphonies of Istiklal street, the realities and challenges of poverty, racism and marginalisation will likely continue to ensure that these youths are both seen and heard.


Featured Image: Facing Istiklal as it heads toward Taksim Square (c) A. Greatrick 

Suggested pieces related to this topic: 

Ager, A. (2017) “Sounds from Hamra, Lebanon”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Invisible (at) Night: Space, Time and Photography in a Refugee Camp”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) “Photo Gallery: Baddawi Camp”

Greatrick, A. (2017) “Photo Gallery: Istanbul”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Loss and Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border”

Western, T. (2017) “ΤΣΣΣΣ ΤΣΣΣ ΤΣΣ ΣΣΣ – Summer in Athens: A Sound Essay”




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