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Meddah (مدّاح ) : Tradition of Coffee and Stories


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June 21, 2017, 07:42:01 am Zeynab: Shukran sis Heba.  Allah Bless. Ameen.
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September 11, 2016, 08:26:43 am Zeynab: Wa'salaam my dear Sis Heba Smiley  Yes, Alhumdulilah, the 10 days of this blessed month went well by the Grace & Mercy of Allah. I wish the same for all.
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Author Topic: Meddah (مدّاح ) : Tradition of Coffee and Stories  (Read 78 times)
Zeynab
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« on: May 01, 2017, 05:14:51 am »

In contemporary times one loses count how often they read of coffee shops in Paris, Amsterdam, Dubai, London, New York etc.  Yet, very few have a clue where the culture of coffee shops began and its authentic history.

History of coffeehouses is itself amazing.  Briefly put, it began in 1475 soon after the fall of the eastern Roman Empire when the Ottoman Turk Sultan, Mehmed II, rode to Europe with his small army breaking through its defensive walls, reaching Belgrade.  This is the year when the first coffee shop in the world named Kiva Han was opened in Istanbul (Constantinople) by two young Syrians, Hakam from Aleppo and Shams from Damascus.

Meddahs were public storytellers in coffee shops.  Just as televisions and live music cater to customers in modern cafes, Meddahs were the most popular facet of every Turkish and Arab coffee shop in the middle ages.  In the days prior to the invention of technology, coffeehouses were the snug, homelike and relaxing sites where men got together after Maghreb or Isha prayers to chat over the day's events, play chess or black gammon while sipping several refreshing cups of coffee.  Working men would be tired at the end of the day and it felt more relaxing to listen rather than read.  Coffee shops with comfortable divans and round tables were the places where meddahs narrated a variety of stories to amuse, thrill and cheer the audience.
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Turkish men listening to the meddah, 1800s.  Image Source.



Ottoman coffeehouse 1857.  Playing chess. Art Amadeo Prezoisi.  Image Source Art.com

Gradually the tradition spread in many parts of the country and beyond, in northern Middle-East (namely Syria) and north Africa.  “Meddah” in Turkish means a traditional storyteller.  In Arabic it means a eulogist.  Some historians are of the opinion that the profession of entertaining public by telling lighthearted stories was first promoted by the Abbasids in 9th century Iraq.

Meddahs were particularly popular during the month of Ramadan.  Soon after Tarawih prayer people would begin gathering in coffeehouses waiting for the meddah to arrive.  It took little time for coffee shops to get crowded and the hosts often had to be on their feet for hours, serving coffee or hookah to scores of customers.  In cold winter months, getting a seat close to the heating stove was a much needed privilege.  Meddahs were the coffeehouse ‘celebrities’ of the era they lived in, and different ones were the favorites of different listeners and segments of the society.  Every coffeehouse tried to invite the most sought-after meddah in town to entertain its customers.


Egyptian meddah or storyteller with his violist and part of his audience. Artist not known.  Image Source Almay.com



Not a coffee shop scene. A blind meddah in a village in Algeria (1800s) singing to children and adults with his tambourine in praise of the Prophet (pbuh).  Art Etienne Dinet.  Image Soruce Pinterest.


When the meddah arrived in the coffee shop, he would sit on a tall chair in a podium-like spot so everyone could see him.  He typically carried a walking stick, a basket and a colorful handkerchief on his shoulder.  Almost every performance was unique and original. He began by reciting short poems or proverbs as introduction, hinting at the moral of the story about to be told.  Then he would clap his hands and tap the stick on the floor saying “haq dostum haq” (truth my friends, truth) ….  though the stories were mostly fictitious. 

Next step was to describe the setting of the story and introduce its characters.

Then began the narration of the tale by striking the staff on the floor one last time. The stories were usually taken from epics, traditional tales and the mundane aspects of daily life.  Sometimes the themes were linked to true stories, turned into comedies by modifications and exaggerations of character traits according to the taste of listeners or the political climate.   The narrations were accompanied with plenty of thespian talents involving sounds and body language for a theatrical touch like the galloping of horses, knock at the door, fake crying, tones of musical instruments and more.  The meddah’s tambourine was placed inside his basket to be used when necessary depending on the theme or central character/s of the story.  The basket also carried an interesting assortment of head dresses.  For instance, the meddah would pick a fez and wear it while imitating a Turk, a kafiya while impersonating as an Arab, a felt cap for a European and so on.  They were articulate and eloquent with excellent memories.  They often emphasized that the stories occurred in ancient times and distant lands, accurately citing the dates and months of historical events.  The manner of narration was so vivid that the audience listened with rapt attention as if they were traveling with the meddah down the memory lane.  Many stories were so humorous that the listeners would burst into laughter every now and then.  Cynicism of the meddah was often a message of criticism for politicians and other public figures. An occasional tact of the meddah to intrigue the crowd was to make eye contact with a few selected audience, giving the impression that he was talking to them and arousing the curiosity of the rest who would listen with greater attention.   
The meddahs’ stories were lengthy and sometimes lasted for as long as two or three hours.   They would end somewhat ambiguously, leaving it up to the audience to figure out the moral lesson of the narrative.  And every story ended with a humble gesture of apology saying "If I said something wrong unintentionally, please forgive me."

Quoting Daily Sabah: “Meddahs were not only people who entertained the public. Almost all of them had a general knowledge about culture and they spoke perfectly and appreciated good poetry and music. They were able to analyze people's personalities like a psychologist and social incidents like a sociologist. They also touched on political issues with irony and criticized men of state in a well-behaved manner if necessary, serving as an opposition in a way. People did not get angry at meddahs because valuing art and lending an ear to the right comment was a habit and meddahs' words held an important place in society.

Understandably the meddahs were viewed as manifestations of the social, political and economic conditions of their time.


Ottoman coffeehouse. The culture of coffeehouses began in Turkey during the Ottoman era. Today in France they call it "cafeteria" but they don't know its history.

As the culture spread, it went beyond the coffee shops. Various meddahs were greatly appreciated by the Ottoman sultans like Sultan Murad III and IV for their sense of humor and eloquent dialogues.   The art of the meddah could be seen in the palaces and mansions of the rulers and elites, in cities, towns, on Ramadan nights, and in circumcision and aqiqa feasts.

In Turkey the tradition of the meddah still exists, commonly known as “modern meddah.”   But at present they perform only during the month of Ramadan, on religious holidays, on television programs and theaters.


Modern Meddah - Image source.


A related story you might be interested in:  “Story of Coffee.”  Do you know where coffee was discovered and how it spread across the world?
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Ruhi_Rose
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« Reply #1 on: May 02, 2017, 06:50:14 am »

Mesmerizing piece Sis!   Smiley   I loved it just as much as the meddah's audience centuries ago  Cheesy

Sis, these gatherings were only for men right?  Could the wives and other female members of the family accompany the men to coffeehouses on meddah story nights?


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« Reply #2 on: May 02, 2017, 07:10:31 am »

O, thanks Sis Ruhi Smiley   Well yes.  Back then coffee shops were  typically for the get-together of men.  These places were relatively compact joints  .. not too spread-out areawise.  It was probably because of shortage of space and thus the inability to arrange a separate section for the female customers/audience.  Moreover, it was a place where many folks would often relax informally, like putting up their feet on divans or laughing aloud which weren't considered appropriate  in the presence of females. Moreover, if women came, that would mean children coming too with most families and obviously the place getting too over-crowded and also noisy as young kids would get bored after a while.

The equivalent get-together for women in those days was the predominantly female weekly Thursday night courtyard parties.
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« Reply #3 on: May 02, 2017, 07:16:06 am »

Correct .... makes plenty of sense.
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« Reply #4 on: May 03, 2017, 04:42:15 am »

Extremely interesting piece Sister Zeynab, thoroughly engrossing.  As kids, my parents used to hear a lot about the coffeeshop storytellers from their grandparents, grand uncles and grand aunts.  Great days!  Technology has ruined it all.

Adding a bit more to the answer of your question Sister Ruhi, while coffee houses were exclusively for men, some time later when the meddahs began appearing in events and ceremonies outside coffee houses (as already highlighted in this post), then women were definitely around as well to watch the meddahs' performances.
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Zeynab
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« Reply #5 on: May 03, 2017, 04:56:28 am »


Adding a bit more to the answer of your question Sister Ruhi, while coffee houses were exclusively for men, some time later when the meddahs began appearing in events and ceremonies outside coffee houses (as already highlighted in this post), then women were definitely around as well to watch the meddahs' performances.

Thanks for adding this brother.  You're absolutely right.

And indeed, those were such lovely times!  Alas, how unfortunate we are in this world of wars, destruction, Wahabiism, Zionism, puppetism, radicalism by Islamophobes, money and just about every sort of dreadful materialistic race one can imagine.
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« Reply #6 on: May 03, 2017, 05:05:56 am »

  .....

And indeed, those were such lovely times!  Alas, how unfortunate we are in this world of wars, destruction, Wahabiism, Zionism, puppetism, radicalism by Islamophobes, money and just about every sort of dreadful materialistic race one can imagine.

 Sad


Btw, those artists' images are also superb.  Must send this around to family & friends.
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« Reply #7 on: May 04, 2017, 05:31:21 am »

Yes I understand that brother. 

I really found this writeup so cozy, cute and comforting.  It reminds me that while the blessed month of Ramadan is right round the corner ... meddah stories used to be especially something to look forward to for people back then during Ramadan nights as they awaited sahoor for the following fast.  And look what the youth at present look forward to in Ramadan nights - war news, bad movies, some are deplorable enough to go to the bar or for a date after Iftar, ..... and the setup is really shitty.
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« Reply #8 on: May 04, 2017, 05:38:19 am »

Right Sister.  Unfortunately this is true.  Ramadan for the youth today is a mindless ritual.  Their hearts are embedded either in secular lewdness or wahabi radical lewdness.  The true humanity as instructed in the Noble Quran has been abandoned   Sad
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« Reply #9 on: May 04, 2017, 05:39:56 am »

With oceans of tears, I can't agree more ........   cryin
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