One of the most popular forms of entertainment in Ottoman Turkey was the meddah or story-teller, with a scarf around his shoulders and a walking stick in hand. As well as stories and tales, the meddah related anecdotes, legends, jokes and ballads. They could perhaps be compared to today’s stand-up comedians, able to mimic any voice and sound, and to act out any situation. Although the word meddah originally meant ‘one who praises or eulogises’, those who turned their dramatic talents to this profession tended more to satirical criticism, making the authorities, current events and dishonesty targets of their sharp wit.Although meddahs occasionally gave private performances at the palace for the sultan and his household, for the most part they were to be found in the coffeehouses. Establishments of the grander sort, with their rich decor and ornamental pools, had special platforms for the meddahs, but in coffeehouses ordinary meddahs were provided with a bench or stool in the corner. Theirs was a wandering life, and as well as coffeehouses they could sometimes be found in inns, kervansarays, teahouses, gardens, and parks, in their various roles of narrator, comic, moralist and mimic. Meddahs of outstanding ability became celebrities, and might even be given permanent employ at the palace as companion to the sultan. Those who could read and write had collections of stories, moral tales, legends, and accounts of battles. Every meddah had a repertoire of at least sixty or seventy pieces, and expanded this repertoire still further by adapting them to topical subjects. Their stock-in-trade were oriental tales from the Thousand and One Nights, and from such classical collections as Hamzanâme, Battalnâme, Bahtiyarnâme, Sehnâme, Tutinâme, Heft Peyker, and Ebu Ali Sina, not to mention tales originating in Istanbul, such as Hancerli Hanim, Tayyarzade, and anecdotes of Tiflî and Koroglu. A scarf and walking stick were the meddah’s only props, but using these and mimicking voices and facial expressions, they could bring to life a myriad characters. With scarf on head and leaning on his stick, the meddah became an old woman in a headscarf.
If he was playing a young woman the scarf became a yashmak and the stick her sunshade. The same scarf could serve as a flag, sail, or horse’s mane, and the stick as a horse, flute, sword or rifle.When the meddah arrived, the crowds would quickly gather, and he would begin his act by greeting the audience, and declaring, ‘Let me tell a story to the assembly, and the wise man see the moral of my tale.’ Then he would speak the introductory words, ‘Narrators of chronics and legends relate that… ‘ and embark on the first story, chosen to suit the level of sophistication of his audience. So that his listeners should not take offence at any unintentional resemblances, he would say, ‘Names, occupations and neighbourhoods resemble one another. I speak of the past, and whether fact or fiction, hear me out.’ When the story was over, he would conclude, ‘If I have made any slip of the tongue, forgive me. If God permits I will tell a better tale next time.’ Among the earliest meddahs whose names have gone down in history are Balaban Lâl and Omer, who served as men-in-waiting at the court of Mehmed II (1451-1481). In the 16th century the most famous meddahs included Meddah Eglence, Dervis Hasan and Mustafa Baba of Bursa, whose nickname was Lâlin Kaba. Meddah Eglence and Cenanî Efendi are reported to have made Murad III (1574-1595) roar with laughter; while Nakkas Hasan and Cokyedi Reis was said to be capable of making the dead laugh with their mimicries. Lâlin Kaba, who died in Bursa in 1601, is depicted in a miniature showing him in the typical costume of a meddah. Famous 17th century meddahs were Kurbanî Ali Hamza, Serif Celebi and Tiflî. The latter was a man-in-waiting to Murad IV (1623-1640), and is described in the meddah story entitled Sansar Mustafa: ‘His majesty Sultan Murad had a clever companion named Tiflî Efendi. The sultan always used to drink with him; and when he went out in disguise they would go together. The adventures Tiflî related made the sultan merry and lighthearted.’ Contemporary sources describe Tiflî as the greatest meddah of all time, and another meddah named Kirimî as comparable in skill.
Evliya Celebi, writing in the mid-17th century, says that outstanding meddahs such as Kor Hasanzade Mehmed Celebi, Sebek Celebi, Sengul Celebi and his brother Surnâ Celebi and his son Ablak Celebi could mimic a dog fight, a cat fight, and a rat fighting a weasel; the sounds made by a cockerel, goose, crane, duck, hen, sparrow and nightingale; in short that they could perfectly imitate the sounds of every creature; and that when Cakircizade Suleyman Celebi gave an account of a judge presiding over a court case, he imitated the voices of eleven different characters, and the audience laughed so much that some of them suffered from nose bleeds. In the 18th century, Sermî, Sandalci Halil, Sekerci Salih and Zuluflu Ibrahim Celebi amused gatherings with their patter, and celebrated 19th century meddahs were Kor Osman, Asik Hasan, Pic Emin, Nazif, Sadik Efendi, Emin Efendi, Kiz Ahmed, Camci Ismail, Sururî, Askî, Ismet, Luleci Mehmed, and Tevfik Bey. Two meddahs called the Kor Hafizlar are recorded as ‘telling wonderful stories and reciting appropriate couplets’.
Haci Muezzin imitated all kinds of accents, including those of Arabs, Laz, Albanians, Europeans, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Bosnians, as well as Turks. Ayvazoglu was such a skilled mimic that he could make the audience think there was a millwheel turning in the room. One of the last of the traditional meddahs, Yagci Izzet, who was still performing in the early 20th century, used to give astonishing imitations of the sounds of Galata Bridge: not only the beggars, clerks and street vendors passing over the bridge, but the trams crossing it and the horns and whistles of ferryboats arriving at the quays next to it.