Meddah – Story Teller

In Turkey too the professional story teller the meddah is a very long standing tradition. The meddah represented many different types of people by imitating peculitarities of dialect and person. Instead of merely describing a character, he would give an impersonation, sometimes changing his head-dress to suit, and using two props a cudgel and a kerchief wrapped around his neck to produce appropritate audible and visible effects. One anecdote about theair convincing realism tells how they could depict a bridge with its vendors, toll-gate ma and all the passers by so realistically that their headers felt they were actually there on the bridge.

The meddah usually introduced their stories with couplets or proverbs saying that each story had a moral for those who understood. First they would clap their hands, saying “Hak dostum hak” (The truth, my friends, the truth). Then they would introduce various types of characters, and next recite some poetry. After this, they described the setting of their story, and then began the tale. At the end they beggad forgiveness from their audiance for any mistake they had made.

Evliya celebi, the famous seventeenth century Turkish traveller, gives a quantity of information about contemporary story tellers ( meddah )and names many of the famous meddah of his time. According to his accounts, not only in Istanbul but also in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, story telling was a popular entertainment. He describes the meddah in Bursa.

In Bursa there are seventy five coffee houses each capable of holding a thousand persons, which are frequented by the most elegant and learned of the inhabitants; and three times a day singers and dancers execute a musical concert in them like those of Huseyin Baykara. Their poets are so many Hassans, and their story tellers ( meddah ) so many Abulmaali. The one most famous for relating stories from the Hamza-nameh is Kurbani Ali, who is unique for his epoch and ?erif ?elebi enchanted his headers by those he told from the Shahnameh. Other story tellers (kissahan) Herzene Mahmud, Kara Firuz, Tireli Ali Bey reciting the tales of Abu Muslim-i Teberdar (Abu Muslim, the hatchhet bearer of Khorosan, which may be compared to the memorirs of Veysi) All coffe houses and particularly those near the great mosque, abound with man skilled in a thousand arts (Hazer-fenn), dancing and pleasure contin the whole night, and in the morning everybody goes to mosque. These coffee houses became famous only since those of Istanbul were closed by the express command of Sultan Murad IV.

The other genres of traditional performance were more or less fixed, but informal. For shadow and puppet performances, as for story tellers ( meddah ), the natural places were coffee houses.

The cudgel and the handkerchief of the story teller ( meddah ) have a different signification depending on the context in which he uses them. When he pounds his on the floor to signal the start of a performance it is simply a stick, but during the story the same action may indicate knocking on a door. When he puts his stick to his shoulder and takes aim, it becomes a shot gun. Similarly, tying his handkerchief round his neck may signify a noose of rope to hang a man, but placed on his head it is the appropriate form of headgear, while half covering his face with it indicates a veil. Wiping his face with his handkerchief may signal a short pause. There are endless variations in the way his cudgel and handkerchief are used to enhance his performance.

Some official messages were ever transmitted through the story tellers ( meddah ) who as the folloving quotation suggests were used like newsagents in the early days:

For the graver sort most coffee houses retain raccontatore or professed story teller ( meddah ), who entertrains a very attentive audiance for many hours. They relate eastern tales or sarcastic anecdotes of the time and are sometimes engaded by government to treat on politics to reconcile the people to any recent measure of their sultan or vezir. Their manner in very animated, and their recitation accompanied by much gesticulation.

Meddah (18. Century)
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