In the foregoing chapter I have touched in passing on karagoz and Hacivat, the two cronies who are the leading characters of the Turkish shadow theatre karagoz , but the main character is karagoz . Karagoz is uneducated but honest . However there are many others a whole host of characters in fact which throng this square of cloth representing a window into reality. Viewed from the manipulator’s side of the screen, these personages are merely small, flat figures made of thin, transparent pieces of leather, pierced and incisd in filigree-like detail and exquisitely colored, which hung clothesline -style on a horizontal string by their rods, await the pleasure of the showman to take their cues. However to the audience they are tiny animated creatures who walk, talk and gesticulate like real human beings, each possessing his or her own characteristic physiognomy, dress, accent, mannerisms, character traits and personality. They even have their own clearly defined name, trade and civil status. An experienced devotee of these karagoz shadow plays can easily guess what caharacter is about to appear merely by listening for the melody which is sung or played before it comes on the screen , for each has its own characteristic theme song which heralds his or her appearance. The manipilators and their assistants are unerring on this point, are skilled in preparing their public by creating atmosphere through music. This careful attention to atmosphere is all the more necessary , since the stage is almost entirely devoid of props and decorative sets.
We may well ask ourselves, however: what does this screen really repreasent, in essence? This is a question which German scholars in the field of Oryantalism have never taken up, although they have written much about karagoz and in particular, have even translated a certain number of karagoz plays.
Accordingly, I shall devote this chapter to describing something of the true structure of this little space which, small as it is, nonetheless contains a whole world of human types, all differing among themselves and extremely heterogeneous as to appearance and behavior. Thus we will assuredly gain a clearer understanding of the caharacters which comprise the karagoz theatre, and of the satirical significance of the antics with which they surround the events of their plays. Were you to ask few showman who still put on these little plays just what the screen itself depicts, they will tell you that it represents Kusteri plaza. A very fine plaza indeed, with neither square nor statue nor traffic policeman. To complete their information, they will tell you that Hacivat’s house is at the left or plaza and that of Karagoz at the right. You will never see the houses, but you take the players word for this.
However by exerting your own perspicacity you can solve the mystery for yourself. All becomes clear, this screen with its manifold characters, its atmosphere its events and its intrigues, is nothing other than one of the old mahalles (quarters) of Istanbul in days gone by. With a realism which nothing can distort, the karagoz scene reproduces the very image of the traditional mahalle as it existed up to 1908. Neither caricature nor satire can obliterate its ever recurring secular stamp.
Shadow play Karagoz Characters
I refer advisedly to the mahalle, because it represented the only true unit of social life under the Ottoman Empire. The city was never anything but an agglomeration of mahalles, or precincts, each with a life all its own. It would be necessary to have lived in that era, which after all is not so very long ago, to understand the social omnipotence of the mahalle which through its stracture, its organization and its collective conscience, regulated the life of the individual down to its smallest details. It was the mahalle which, adapting itself to the contours of the land and centering about a mosque , lent a picturesque aspect to the great city, the urban unity of which was lost amidst a multitude of tortuous byways and shadow culs de sac. In addition to its mosque, where some pious and generous donor had founded a library, the mahalle had its school, its fountain its inn and occasionally its convert; numerous cafes, a standing corps of fireman, a muhtar, who cooncerned himself with everything, its night watchman, watercarries, rich people and poor people, devout persons and libertines, decent citizens and rogues.
Shadow play Karagoz Scenarios
The mahalle was well guarded, not only by its bands of wandering dogs which barred the way even to their canine friends and relatives from neighboring quarters, and by its night watchman who sounded their passing by thumping on pavement with their staves at each step, but by a sort of collective conscience which, ever alert to what was going on, kept constant vigil over the honor and welfare of all. It was the mahalle as a whole, represented by its muhtar, which provided for orphans, endowed penniless young girls, found husbands for spinters, managed the property of windows who had no family head to lean on, and very discreetly gave relief to the indigent by soliciting aid from the wealthy. On the other hand it was the community as a whole as represented by the mahalle which waged robust warfare against breaches of the public morality. The community offered no refuge for thieves, swindlers or sharpers. Woman of dubious character were obliged to leave the community immediately under penalty of forcible deportation, together with their lovers for the night, to the nearest karakol (police station) by a carnivalesque procession composed of the most redoubtable elements of the quarter. Even the most inverterate drunkards, fearing the severity of the community conscience, renounced if only for the month of the Ramadan their habitual vice, which was generously tolerated for eleven months out of the year provided, of course, that it did not degenerate into a public scandal.