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  • Writer's pictureCeren Usta

The Rhetoric of Meddah: A Comparative Approach

In the dominant paradigm of Western epistemology, there is a prevalent assumption about a linear model of development, stretching back to the concepts of “orality” and “literacy”. According to this model, orality precedes literacy, and the transition of one to the other is not only understood in terms of technological development, but also cognitive: as people become more “civilized,” they move away from depending on speaking to using writing. Evidently, the developmental framework is not limited to orality and literacy, but builds on that initial bifurcation to label, demarcate, and differentiate genres, means, and modes of communication. As knowledge comes to be produced and preserved primarily through the technology of writing, discourses are compartmentalized, instead of seen in their full contextual processes. While Rhetoric is only one field among many to reproduce such a model of knowledge production, that the discipline is used for organizing discourse and communication in such compartmentalized form contributes significantly to the increasing gap between theory and practice––perhaps gradually shaping practice to be compartmentalized as well. The ramifications of an increasing gap between theory and practice hardly need sketching out when one considers contemporary sociopolitical questions and academia’s responses. However, the primacy given to literacy and the rigid boundaries enacted around the practice of its teaching expose the pitfalls created by such a gap more explicitly when one looks at the dominant methodologies deployed in introductory college level courses in North American universities––no doubt made more visible by the “global turn” in higher education. Teachers find themselves “ disciplining” a diverse student body, coming from various rhetorical traditions, in the art of effective communication whose terms are strictly defined by the Greco-Roman definition of rhetoric.

Beyond the classroom, theoretical interventions of scholars such as Damian Baca point to the implications of this rigidity both in theory and practice with vigor, emphasizing the ways in which rhetoric’s foregrounding of literacy and the Roman alphabet has functioned as one of the crucial tools of globalization, colonialism, and the destruction of other cultures’ practices of communicating and “ordering their world” (230) since the 15th century. Others, such as LuMing Mao, have further explored these implications through the subfield of Comparative/Contrastive Rhetoric. As Mao skillfully demonstrates through prominent examples of modern and postmodern (post 1960s) rhetorical theory, comparative rhetoric presents too many examples of the limitations posed by the developmental model of Western epistemology––particularly when it comes to the study of non-Western rhetorical practices and systems. The limitations are not only posed by the concept of development and linearity in this case, but exacerbated by the practice of centralizing Western concepts, frameworks, and methodologies in the process of assessing and comparing. Consequently, it becomes clear from Mao’s readings of contemporary comparative rhetorical theory that, so long as this centralization of one specific model at the expense of others is practiced, scholarship in the field will face serious restrictions in terms of adding to our understanding of world rhetorics in all their complexity.

This research is an attempt at understanding one such world rhetoric in full complexity: the Ottoman-Turkish meddah tradition. With my analysis of the meddah’s practices through a rhetorical lens, I aim to contribute to the project of comparative rhetoric in engaging with non-Western traditions on their own terms. In particular, I hope to use the rhetoric of meddah to question strict demarcations between categories such as orality, literacy, art, narrative and political rhetoric. Furthermore, by looking at the relationship between the social practices of meddah and the predominant spaces in which performance took place, I hope to understand the ways in which storytelling, performative arts, satire, and political rhetoric converged to foster a new kind of social space and discourse in 17th century Ottoman Empire: the public sphere.

It is difficult to find an exact translation of the meddah due to the incorporation of many genres within a single category. However, the most normative description of it would be that of the storyteller. The word meddah itself comes from the Arabic verb medh, which means to praise and exalt (“Meddah” TDK). Typically, the meddah would tell stories from a rich repository of folk tales, epics and contemporary events to their audience. This telling would be similar to a theatrical performance, where the meddah would act out certain parts by himself. Due to this performative aspect, meddah’s practices have been regarded as a preliminary form of theater in the Turkish context. However, such a reading reduces the many layers the tradition incorporates: political commentary, educating, transmitting values, informing a predominantly illiterate community of current events, and providing a social space for communal gathering. Agniezsca Aysen Kaim, who explores the interconnection between storytelling, performing arts, and narrative in the tradition of meddah alludes to this very complexity, which she attributes to the conditions of nomadic life of Turkic communities between 11th and 13th centuries:

Absorbing the Central Asian shaman, singer of tales ozan, Arabic maddah and the epic tradition of Persian Shahname, it has also gradually assimilated theatre and drama elements. As an art form it combines orality with Turkish popular theatre (272).

A combination of such disparate elements is difficult to engage with when it is approached solely from models and terminology derived from Western-European epistemology. As the dominant paradigm, it provides the researcher with the normative language and perspective in knowledge production. The possible pitfalls of this approach when engaging with non-Western practices and knowledge systems are numerous, but my aim here is to focus on the limitations this may pose for the field of Comparative Rhetoric. In this context, I must acknowledge that as a scholar from Turkey conducting research at a North American university, I find the concepts, categories and the overall language available to me in engaging with the meddah tradition in all its layers are limited––and limiting. As many scholars in the field of Turkish or Middle Eastern Studies have done, the meddah’s practices have been read singularly, assigning it to a single genre of performing arts or literature. However, the inclination to categorize is not the only challenge posed by this methodology; numerous studies of the meddah tradition have also read it as a primal form of a literary or performative genre which emerged in tandem with modernization projects in 19th century Ottoman Empire, and came to dominate the culture at the expense of older practices and genres. In this sense, such readings of the meddah are not dissimilar from what LuMing Mao calls the “deficiency model” (401). Although the model in Mao’s context is used for the field of comparative rhetoric, “where one particular culture (read non-Western) is determined to be lacking a concept of rhetoric or, worse still, a rhetorical tradition” (401), the focus on “lack” based on concepts and genres emerging from the specific conditions of Western-Europe potentially results in reading non-Western cultural, social and intellectual practices through a developmental lens, as is the case in the various readings of the meddah tradition as a primitive stage of modern Turkish theater (i.e. European stage theater) and new literary genres (i.e. the novel). In this sense, I argue that Campbell E. Kermit’s contention in the context of African rhetoric is applicable for understanding the meddah tradition as well–– that the richness and complexity of these diverse traditions remain not only obscure but also misread if our methodology is rooted in the singularly hegemonic paradigm (257-58). My aim in this project is not to disregard the afore-mentioned scholarship in Turkish Studies or to disparage the Greco-Roman definition of rhetoric rooted in persuasion, but to bring these diverse readings together through the critical lens of rhetoric as “local knowledge”. In the following segment, I will try to delineate what I mean by rhetoric as local knowledge and how this particular approach can help engage with such a tradition on its own terms. I argue that understanding the meddah’s practices as rhetorical acts that developed, flourished and were exercised within the social, political and historical circumstances of the Ottoman-Empire will broaden the current approaches in rhetorical theory––particularly in regards to the ways in which art, literature, satire and political discourse converged in this tradition to help cultivate a new kind of community, communication and public space in 17th century Istanbul.

II. Framework

To fully engage with the different layers of the meddah’s rhetorical practices, I will first situate the meddah tradition in the definition of rhetoric offered by LuMing Mao: “…as long as there is communication, there is rhetoric––people using language in competing contexts to communicate, to discover, to build relationships, and to enhance communal values” (408). This definition is offered to question assumptions about the absence of rhetoric in non-Western cultures (Japanese culture, in this particular case) based on defining rhetoric in Aristotelian terms, foregrounding persuasion. While Mao’s definition might seem broad as opposed to the specifics of persuasion and argumentation in the Aristotelian framework, I find it helpful to foreground my engagement with meddah’s rhetoric from such a perspective. In fact, when the aim is to arrive at a new understanding and possibly engender new concepts of an understudied tradition, acknowledging the fact that Greco-Roman definition of rhetoric itself is one form of “local knowledge” among many, and that a universal definition of the concept is not available to us leads me to welcome broader theories about the functions and forms of rhetoric in different locales.

Complimenting this definition of rhetoric as being rooted in communication at large, for this project, is the concept and practice of “local knowledge” put forth by Canagarajah. Local knowledge is initially explicated upon as the knowledge of the disempowered, as a residue of the old customs, practices and vestiges of accumulated knowledge that have been dominated by progression into forms, systems and categories deployed by modernism and colonialism (243-44). More specifically, however, local knowledge is proposed to be “largely discursive”: “The sediments of texts, talk, poetry, art, memory, desire, dreams, and many unstated assumptions that people have developed through history about their community define the local” (249). In this sense, local is not so much about geography, but about the construction of systems and practices of knowledge that are shaped by time, power relations, discursive practices within a community which in turn shape that very community. I propose to approach the rhetoric of meddah as this kind of local knowledge––one that is not to be excavated in its pure and authentic form but to be understood as a discourse and a practice shaped by specific social, political and historical conditions. I hope to understand just what those specific conditions are to elucidate the new insights this tradition may offer us.

III. Social Practice of Meddah

Talat S. Halman, a scholar of Turkish literature, describes the traditional role of the meddah as such:

"Using secular topics and tales, the Meddahs became storytellers with their repertoire concentrating on heroic deeds, daily life of their regions and communities, gnomic tales, and exhortations. Gradually satire started to form the core of their programs: humorous anecdotes about human foibles, impersonations of stock types as well as familiar individuals, mockery of social mores, and guarded or open stabs at people in high office, including sometimes the sultan" (110).

This broad repertoire was further accommodated by the flexible form of the performance. Meddahs were the sole writers, actors, composers and directors of their production, delivering their act and/or story in a communal setting such as the town square or, more prominently from the 16th century onwards, at coffeehouses. They carried only two items for their performance: a stick and a handkerchief. While they used the stick as a prop and a way of engaging with the listeners to either ask them to be silent or join the conversation, the handkerchief was mostly used to alter the tone of his voice to imitate various characters, including women. There were repetitive phrases which every meddah used at the start of his performance to signal the beginning and end of a story, all marked by their rhythmic structure (with syllabic meters and internal rhymes), no doubt to make memorization easier. A common phrase used at the end of the performance––“kissadan hisse”, which translates as the moral of the story––also connotes the informative and educational role of the meddah.

The tradition was a communal one, both in the sense that it would take place in front of a small audience and would require a dialogical relationship with it. The gathering space could be the center of the town where the meddah would sit on a higher platform from the crowd. However, this asymmetry in the physical placements of the audience and the meddah does not translate to the performance itself; in fact, the audience’s reactions play a crucial role in determining the content and the tone of the meddah (Kaim 276). This is also related to the importance of improvisation and spontaneity of the tradition; unlike staged theater where the performance is based on following a written script, the meddah would be expected to change the content, tone, discourse, and even the genres he would be using based on the interactions with the audience. The content was also determined by the political and social conditions of the time the performance would take place in. For instance, political satire would play a more prominent role in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in connection to the increasing political turbulence in the empire at the time.

The meddah tradition is typically an oral one, therefore written records of meddah stories are not common. However, due to the persistence of this performative tradition up to the early twentieth century and its survival in different forms to this day in contemporary Turkey does enable scholars to conduct a literary study of certain parts of meddah stories. In fact, the rhetorical strategies used by the meddah to memorize and deliver his lines were strategies shared by the orators of canonical epics from the Turkic, Arabic and Persian traditions. Epics such as Battalname, Sahname and Danismendname were initially rendered orally, thus requiring the mnemonic devices used prominently by meddahs, but the fact that the titles all carry the suffix “-name”, meaning “book” is one that signals to the complicated relationship between orality and literacy in the Turkish context. This complexity is one that the meddah tradition also portrayed due to its close connection with Anatolian folktales and folk poetry from the 13th century onwards. A closer look at that connection can elucidate not only the complexity between oral and literary traditions that contest strict categorizations of Western literary tradition, but also provide further insight into the implications of meddah’s rhetoric in its local context.

Until the 19th century, Ottoman-Turkish literary tradition was marked by two specific branches: Divan poetry of the Ottoman Palace and the folktales of the rural areas. Divan poetry was regarded as a high art which was heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic, both in terms of the literary forms and language. Due to its symbolism and the overall mixture of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, Divan poetry continued to be limited to the palace and urban centers in its production and consumption. Folktales, on the other hand, flourished less in written records than on its own terra firma, making it accessible to the public, majority of whom were illiterate.Such oral narratives have been part of Turkish culture and literature almost uninterruptedly, to the degree where the tales are still introduced with the same “tekerleme”, a formulaic jingle with numerous variants (Talman 55). These tales were told in public and in private (mostly transmitted from mothers to children) as both a form of entertainment and a dissemination of cultural norms and values. This continuous tradition’s popularity grew significantly as the oral creativity of Ottoman-Turkish culture flourished, coinciding with the advent of a new venue: the coffeehouse. The folktales of the countryside found an important outlet in the urban centers of the empire, most significantly in Istanbul, with the meddah tradition and coffeehouses conjoining for the first time from the late 16th century onwards..As a crucial example of the first forms of “public sphere”, exported to European capitals from the Ottoman Empire over the next two centuries, the possible role played by the meddah’s rhetoric in these coffeehouses brings forth new questions about the ways in which news, satire, literature, and theatrical performances converged to foster the creation of a new kind of political rhetoric and social space with critical political functions.

IV. A Meddah in Every Coffeehouse

That rhetoric is a necessary component in the establishment and functioning of the public sphere is evident; without the art of communication, the very concept of a public performing democratic acts through the expression of consensus and disagreements is impossible. According to Jürgen Habermas, the public sphere as we know it in liberal political economic systems has its roots in the intersections of the private family, emergence of the bourgeoisie, and the private individual (separate from aristocracy and nobility). Such an intersection finds its most formative outlet initially during the Enlightenment period in Western Europe, with distinct examples from Germany, France, and Great Britain. Although the public sphere is not a spatial notion but rather a discourse which constructs public opinion through the exchange of information and ideas, Habermas does point out specific spaces that did play a prominent role in its development––the salon in France, and the coffee house in England:

The predominance of the “town” was strengthened by new institutions that, for all their variety, in Great Britain and France took over the same social functions: the coffee houses in their golden age between 1680 and 1730 and the salons in the period between regency and revolution. (...). Around the middle of the seventeenth century (...) the coachman of a Levantine merchant opened the first coffee house. (...) As in the salons where “intellectuals” met with the aristocracy, literature had to legitimate itself in these coffee houses. In this case, however, the nobility joining the upper bourgeois stratum still possessed the social functions lost by the French; it represented landed and moneyed interest. Thus critical debate ignited by the works of literature and art was soon extended to include economic and political disputes, without any guarantee that such discussions would be inconsequential, at least in the immediate context. (Habermas 32-33)

The coachman of the Levantine merchant appears as an insignificant detail in Habermas’ extensive elucidation of how these spaces merged the lower and upper classes of bourgeoisie, literature and politics, communication and criticism––generating a specific kind of discursive space in the process, which would prove to be crucial in the tumultuous political transitions of 19th and early 20th centuries. However, this seemingly insignificant detail entails a more complex history of the coffee houses in London, and reveals the existence of public spheres and rhetorics outside the context of Western-Europe. As Markman Ellis points out, coffee houses in seventeenth century London were modeled on similar businesses in the Ottoman Empire, where they were established a century earlier:

According to the Turkish historian Ibrahim-i Peçevi, who wrote in about 1635, the first coffee house was opened by ‘two men, named Shems and Hekim, the one from Damascus, the other from Aleppo’ in the year 962 in the Islamic calendar (1554-1555), during the reign of Süleyman I (1520-1566). (...) The first coffee house in London opened just under a century later, in 1652, by a Greek Orthodox servant called Pasqua Rosee, in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in the center of the financial district of the City of London. It was sponsored by the merchants from the Levant Company, the trading house that organized and regulated trade with the Ottoman Empire. These merchants had become accustomed to drinking coffee during their extended residences in the Company ‘Factories’ in the Ottoman cities of Istanbul, Izmir (Smyrna) and Halep (Aleppo). (157)

Clearly, what Habermas confines to the specific historical and social conditions of Western Europe in the emergence of the public sphere extends such spatial boundaries through long-distance trade and exchange between different cultures in practice. The insignificant detail of the first person to open the coffee house and the sponsors’ familiarity with these social spaces in the cosmopolitan centers of the Ottoman Empire reveals a more nuanced relationship not only between “the East'' and “the West”, but also a complex interdependence between rhetoric, literature, performative arts and the public sphere. This is also demonstrated through the significant similarities between London and Istanbul coffee houses Ellis highlights concerning the association with a certain kind of social interaction, conversation, congeniality and egalitarianism (157). Similarly, while literature or the latest theatrical productions were a topic of discussion in the London coffeehouses, meddah performances and shadow theater displays were fundamental parts of a typical coffee-house gathering in sixteenth and seventeenth century Istanbul.

Even though the introduction of this new kind of social space took place in 1554, by the second half of the seventeenth century there were approximately 600 coffee houses in Istanbul alone. According to official surveys conducted in the 1790s, this number would reach 1654. In fact, European travelers who passed through the capital would observe that Istanbul resembled a giant coffee house during the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Kirli 161-162). Although the clientele would mostly be upper class men initially, their popularity would increasingly make this a social space of gathering for people from different kinds of class (a similar pattern would take place in London coffee houses). In fact, one could expect to see Pashas and shopkeepers enjoying their coffee at the same time. While the content of the specific conversations between individuals is not documented, we do know the forms some of these discursive activities took in these new institutions: the shadow theater and meddah performances.

V. Conclusion

LuMing Mao proposes that in order to move away from a systematic binary thinking which places the West at the center, using it as a measuring stick to assess non-Western cultures, we must engage with other traditions in their own context. Mao’s acknowledgement of the difficulty of this task is clear; as he elucidates himself, one usually does start from where one is, using the terms and concepts one is familiar with (417). But the critical and ethical task of focusing on the “materials and conditions that are native to this tradition” can lead to the development of “appropriate frames and languages” which will help us engage with the differences as well as similarities with our own conceptual framework. Furthermore, this very process, which one may liken to going through the looking glass, engenders a process of “becoming”. The traditions and practices that are studied on their own terms enables a deeper reflection that in turn enriches the initial concepts, frameworks and epistemologies of the “starting point”. A dialectical process of enrichment can now take place for both, or more practices, fostering new ways of thinking.

Without stepping away from binary models of assessing and labeling, the meddah’s practices would need to be strictly categorized as a theatrical performance, at the expense of its literary elements. On the other hand, were it to be categorized strictly as literary narrative, one would have to overlook its performative and artistic qualities. Various other elements of community building, information sharing, political satire and education would need to be engaged as supplementary aspects of the main genre at best. When approached from the dichotomy of orality versus literacy, the former would be singularly foregrounded without exploring the ways in which two modes were amalgamating. All the ways in which the various layers of the meddah tradition might carve out new spaces in forms of communication would be misplaced within this singular paradigm. A broader understanding of rhetoric which incorporates performative arts and literary narratives, and the kinds of role such an amalgamation might have played in the creation of a new kind of political discourse and space––public discourse and space in particular––would be lost. As a form of local knowledge, I argue that the meddah’s rhetoric in the socio-cultural conditions of the Ottoman Empire, especially in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, played a critical role for the Ottoman public in fostering communities, transmitting cultural values and insight, disseminating news and information locally, and criticizing the ones in power. It is no wonder that such a practice born out of nomadic Turkic communities would find a home and flourish even more in a new kind of space––the public sphere––that would be crucial in bringing forth the new political era––that of public discourse, democracy, and citizenship.

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