Friday, May 29, 2015

Ottoman Literature Class Handout

I finally finished putting together a lot of my research in the form of a class I will be teaching at a symposium tomorrow. There are generalizations and vague lists here that won't make as much sense without the benefit of taking the class in person. The language of the terminology sometimes waffles between Arabic, Persian and Turkish. This in not nearly the extent of my research! It is here as a starting point for those interested or if I run out of handouts. 

Ottoman Literature and Storytelling
Lady Eilon bat Miriam.   Mka: D. Brianne Galgano.  

Where to Draw Inspiration

The Ottoman Empire spanned or traded with the greater part of what we often refer to as the Middle East.  As a result of their political dealings and expansions there are a fair amount of cultures that we identify separately, from a historical point of view, that are actually considered Ottoman in period, and it is well documented that the Ottomans borrowed heavily from them. The Persians(in part), Greeks, and Byzantines all became part of the empire and, even the origin of the Osman's Empire was built with the help of Mongolians.  So, generally speaking, you have  lot of cultures, Eastern and Arabic, to choose from for stories.  In this document I have tried to focus  on what I feel best captures the Ottoman spirit of story creation here. Strictly speaking, the Ottoman Empire started in 1299 and continued into the 20th century. You may choose, however,  to tell stories outside of that time. The last Crusade was only 30 years before the inception of the empire and there is evidence of 8th Century stories of varying Arabic cultures being collected rewritten by a 16th century sultan. In other words: use good judgment and follow these guidelines when choosing your story base. 

The Art of the Oral Tale

Storytelling was a well utilized form of entertainment and moral education in the Ottoman empire but was not nearly as respected as poetry. Documenting an oral tradition is difficult. Much of what has been written about it is modern but well researched. There are plenty of things written about the storytellers but much less about how they told stories in period. My research has led me to a storytelling voice that creates an Ottoman performance from other cultures' tales.  One view of many of the recorded stories in period is that they were meant to be read aloud. Translations can be problematic in that the translator might not share this view and that voice is lost. You may need to recreate that voice in your chosen tale.

Story Types

·         Fikra - Short anecdotes that are comical, informative, chastising, or serve as a rebuttal. Specialized forms of fikra include: nükete (pun) and kissa (moralistic fable, realistic).
·         Hikaye and Masal - Entertaining short stories more for the sake of enjoyment, and  Fables with fantastical elements such as talking animals.
·         Efsane and Destan - Legends, myths and epics. Ex: Shanamah, Dede Korkut, Sinbad, Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey.

Storytelling Elements

·         Tekerleme - The opening lines of a story,  It is a miniature poem with a rhyme or meter. Sometimes it will have an element of the absurd or at the very least something to make the story timeless. Perhaps the final line hints at the moral of the story. The most iconic tekerleme component is a variant of: "Once there was; once there wasn't..."  Not used as much for Fikra.

·         Closing - May recap the moral of the tale. "Three apples fell from the sky, one for the teller of the tale, one for the listener, and one for whoever will pass the tale along." "They had their wish fulfilled; let us go up and sit in their seats" (Walker 2). "This was his tale."

·         Auspicious numbers like  Three, Seven, and Forty.  Weddings were celebrated for forty days and nights. Thieves, slaves, soldiers, wise men, came in groups of forty. Three apples, hairs, flowers, seeds, pieces of instruction. Three or Seven brothers, sisters, wives.

·         Ambiguous Time - "went a little; he went far. He traveled straight over hills and over dales. He traveled six months and a summer, [...] She went for months and years, and she became very tired" (Walker 1).

·         Verbal Elements: Onomatopoeia, Repetition (Cliché) , Alliteration, and Chanting.

·         Religious Elements -  Islamic practices, Praise of Allah at his mention, offering the blessing of Allah to gain favor, Morality, ablutions, and Obedience.

·         Cultural Reminders - Sumptuary laws, Values, Social and family customs, and Historical figures.

·         Metaphors and Similes -  Culturally relevant. Aesthetic of beauty: The moon, Black hair and fair skin. "With scarcely wit enough to salt one dolma" (Walker 1).

·         Aja-ib - The Marvelous and Fantastical: Flying horses, sea beasts, magic, Ifrit, Djinn, etc. Historical and religious tales are told as legends.

Plot Devices & Themes
  •          Journey - to Mecca, to follow a dream, to find what you wanted was back home.
  •          Changing Fate - How the common man becomes someone great by a very simple action or vice-versa.  Becoming the perceptions of one's destiny, like following in the footsteps of the father or being great because no informed you otherwise.
  •          Dreams of wealth - extravagant retellings of desires only to be distracted by them.
  •          Prophecy - often made by astrologers, almost always come true. Sometimes made by clever people who are extremely perceptive.
  •          Testing Virtues: loyalty, charity, honesty, etc. Competitions, Tasks, and Challenges.
  •          Wagers - a way around the ills of coveting or the impolite of asking to purchase something.
  •          Deceitful People - women, schemers, cheats, liars, ungrateful betrayers.
  •          Romantic Complications - bride swaps, many brothers, ugly women vs. pretty, men so sick with love it ruins them, trickster mothers, already married.   
  •  Secret Knowledge - magic powers that kill you if revealed, spying to use for ill/gain, confusion/misunderstanding by eavesdropper. 
  • Almost every story sees a happy resolution. Plots are almost always singular.


  •          Wise Man/ Hodja - Preachers (Imam), Teachers, Judges (Kadi), Nasreddin.
  •          Rulers - Sultan, Padishah (Shah), Caliph, Bey, Ağa, Conquerors (Tamerlane). They are often arrogant or afraid to admit their mistakes. They will assign tasks or quests. Used as a device to allow the disenfranchised to prove themselves clever or worthy.
  •          The Hero  -Stories are often like epics or contain a fair amount of the fantastical. Ex: Iskendar (Alexander the Great), Hanzal, Köroğlu and  Kirat (his flying horse), Rüstem, Dede Korkut.
  •          The Wag/Jester/Trickster-  Clever or scheming character. Stories involve tricks and lessons, luck, and often irony. Ex: Keloğlan, Aldar, Nasreddin.
  •          Disenfranchised - Your weak, poor, common, or uneducated souls that make better of themselves or are duped. Sometimes these characters are in a trickster (Wag) role. Ex. Keloğlan - bald, uneducated or sometimes diseased;  used as a noun. 
  •          Karagöz  and Hacivat -  Comedic look at the common man vs. educated; most noted as the main characters in shadow plays. Stories were often chosen with the idea that by using puppets the storytellers could deviate from social norms. 

Glossary of Useful Words and Phrases

·         Wag - Someone who makes inappropriate humor, flippant, smartass. 1550: probably from 'waghalter, ‘ a person likely to be hanged (
·         Bismillah - "In the Name of Allah."
·         Inşallah - " If Allah wills it."
·         Göstermesin - "Allah forbid!"
·         Cüş - Whoa
·         Eyvah - Alas!
·         Öf! - Ugh
·         Selậmünaleyküm - "Peace be with you," and Aleykümselậm - "Peace to you too."
·         Effendi - term of respect added to the end of someone's name when addressing them.
·         Hanim - respectful title for a woman; "lady."
·         Herrop! - Hurrah or Vivat
·         Fikra Malum - phrase used to introduce a familiar anecdote instead of the tekerleme.

Some Notes About Research

The overall culture in the three hundred years we view it in society contains very little that changes drastically.  The Arabic calendar is about six hundred years earlier than our own so double check your dates. Translations to English are always subject to the view of the translator. Some translators are coming from the outside and miss the bigger picture. Some translators keep the original Islamic context and make a direct translation, others try to capture the voice and the meter, some only seek to make a piece accessible to a Western audience.  Ultimately, you can create your own stories about the characters or people you know in the style by using the devices and techniques outlined here and using the Ottoman voice.

Annotated Bibliography

Adler, Cyrus. Told in the Coffee House: Turkish Tales. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC. /Qontro.
               Original Publishing: Collected and Done into English by Cyrus Adler and Allan Ramsay. The Macmillan Company, London. 1898. I believe this is an OCR copy that interestingly includes book adds for 1898. Authors spent time in coffee houses listening to the oral literature in Constantinople that he believes were not previously put to paper.

Adler, Elkan Nathan Ed. Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages: 19 Firsthand Accounts.
                English translations of Jewish traveler accounts. The Journal of David Reubeni  has him travel from Ethiopia through parts of the Ottoman Empire on his way to Rome between 1522 and 1525.

Dulcken, H.W. Editor. Tales of the Arabian Nights. Castle Books. New York, NY. 1984
                Transcription information unknown. Useful as starting place for stories.  These stories' origins are from period sources (Ex. The Thousand and One Nights) but, were most likely modernized in the 1800's. Be mindful of cultural anachronisms in SCA retellings.

Faroqhi, Suraiya and Arzu Ozturkmen, Editors. Celebration, Entertainment and Theatre in the Ottoman World. Seagull Books, London. 2014.

                Many scholarly articles on the subjects listed in the title. A lot of the information is post 1600. I would assert that anything up to 1650 is fair game based on cultural cycles and sultanate of     the time. Ottoman history and culture didn't move at the same rate as Europe and it is hard to             compare it in terms of historical re-creation.

Gabrieli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. University of California Press,  Los Angeles. 1984.
                Translations of Crusade era Arabic writers and historians. Includes many notes and a      biographical section for each of the authors. Names some of the writers' other (often more       literary) works.

Ghiselin, Ogier de Busbecq. Translated by Edward Seymour Forster. The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rough, LA. 2008.
                [Primary]Imperial Ambassador at Constantinople to Frederick 1554-1562. Translated from the Latin of the Elzevir Edition of 1633 by Edward Seymour Forster, 1927. Contains an immense       amount of cultural and political information from a primary view. Discusses the telling of tales at       the caravan serai. I constantly draw from this source as inspiration and for appropriate usage of      culture or item in poems and stories.

Halman, Talat S. A Millennium of Turkish Literature: A Concise History.  Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, NY 2011.
                Contains a fair amount of information on structure and cultural importance. Better as a source for poetry but discusses an overview of the literature, much of which is very post period.
Kwiatkowski, Will. The Eckstein Shahnama: An Ottoman Book of Kings. Study of an 11th C. Persian Manuscript rewritten for the Ottoman Court (16th C.) Contains one of the many tellings of the adventures of Iskendar (Alexander the Great).  

Lowry, Glen D. with Susan Nemazee. A Jeweler's Eye: Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection. The Sackler Gallery: Smithsonian Institution. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London. 1988.
                An excellent collection of Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal miniatures with descriptions of the stories they are illustrating.  

Lyons, C. Malcolm: Translator. Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange: The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection. Penguin Classics, London. 2014.
                Has excellent descriptions of story archetypes and mechanisms.

Tichy, Jaroslav. Legends From Eastern Lands. Paul Hamlyn, London. Translated by Alice Denesova. 1967.
                Folk tales from the area surrounding the Black and Caspian Seas. Trade routes through these lands brought stories from faraway lands. Historically, 13th C. dictator, Tamerlane was a fear of the peoples surrounding the Southern Steppes and it is evident that those such as "Nasreddin"           are present in their culture as a result.

Walker, Barbara K. The Art of the Turkish Tale: Volume 1. Texas Tech University Press, Texas. 1990.
                Extensive recordings were done of modern (1960-70's) storytellers that have carried on the oral tradition of many tales that may date back to Early Ottoman times. Contains excellent analysis   of character archetype and oral forms.

Walker, Barbara K. The Art of the Turkish Tale: Volume 2. Texas Tech University Press, Texas. 1990.
                Continuing the translation of stories, the author includes further insight into the preservation process and the overall importance still of the oral tradition of tales.

No comments:

Post a Comment