The term sohbet (chat or conversation) refers to conversations between people that came together by coincidence or by appointment; however, over time it has gained a specific meaning too. Gatherings organized to allow people to meet with eminent people and friends, to speak on a specific topic, as well as to listen to the speaker are referred as as sohbet or sohbet councils. Some of these meetings have been named more specifically as dinî (religious) sohbet, tasavvuf (Sufi) sohbet, saray (court) sohbet, yâran (friend) sohbet, halwa sohbet, or işret (drinking) sohbet; depending on their features and regulations concerning the people who attend, the place of the gathering, or even the food served. Finding out the characteristics of the sohbet gatherings whose history go back in time will provide us with important facts about our social life back then. This article will explore sources that provide information about sohbet gatherings held during the Ottoman period, it will focus particularly on Istanbul sohbet gatherings and their features accounted in the Istanbul meddah (storyteller) stories.
Istanbul meddah stories are also known as meddah stories, realistic folk stories, or folk stories in prose; and they have unique features in the Turkish narrative literature. The most important characteristic of these narratives is that they reflect social life within a certain literary fiction with a realistic tone. The first example of this genre dates back to sometime before 1724; however, these stories are very few and their narrators/authors, as well as their date of creation/performance, are unknown. Some of these adventure stories which the meddahs told orally to certain groups in various places like courts, mansions or coffeehouses, were re-written and published in the nineteenth century. As the art of storytelling turned quiescent in the early twentieth century, the interest in these stories also significantly diminished.
The meddah stories included different characters, ranging from the sultan to a bully; while relating the adventures of these characters these stories also mentioned the sohbet circles that played a major role in Istanbul’s social life. The meetings, in which members of the middle and upper socio-cultural classes would convene, as well as some important examples displaying their characteristics are listed below.
Sohbets in the Palace
In some stories, the court sohbets which were frequently organized during the Ottoman era are briefly mentioned. In the story of Tıflî Efendi, where the adventures of Meddah Tıflî are related, the artist escapes with the fear of being killed; he is saved on the order of Sultan Murad, who is staying in the Davud Paşa Palace, and is brought into his presence. When the sultan asks who this person is, Nefî Efendi and Nahmî Efendi, who were in a meeting with the sultan, say: “This is the person whose some of the elegances at the Revan Pavilion was reported.” When the sultan asks Tıflî Efendi about why he fled, he proceeds to tell a story. Sultan Murad is very impressed by his delightful narrative and assigns Tıflî to the post of musahip (friend, consultant). It is reported that when Tıflî orally told this story to the sultan, Nefî and Nahmî Efendis wrote it down. According to the Hançerli Hikâye-i Garîbesi, Sultan Murad becomes bored and asks Tıflî to tell a joke. Tıflî takes advantage of this, says “Hak dostum hak” (God/truth, my friend is God/truth) and relates the story of a murder attempt which he had witnessed. The sultan then asks; “How could such a betrayal have taken place in my reign?” The other consultants of the sultan deny it by saying that Tıflî Efendi is exaggerating. As Tıflî insist that the incident actually happened, the sultan intervenes and ensures that justice is served.
Sohbets at Mansions, Residences and Pavilions
The most common sohbets which appear in stories are those which took place in mansions. The aforementioned Story of Tıflî Efendi and its alternate version The Story of Famous Tıflî Efendi and Bloody Bektaş are about halwa sohbets. Tıflî was a famous storyteller of “politeness and importance,” whose fame had spread outside Istanbul; he was invited to many important nighttime sohbets. In one story, a certain person is living in Kocamustafapaşa Mansion; he is wealthy, but uneducated in social etiquette. He wants to host a halwa social gathering at his house similar to those typically organized in the houses of statesmen and prominent people. In another version of this story the host is Şıkk-ı Sani Ahmed Bey. The sohbet takes places as follows: Tıflî, who would not accept every invitation, accepts the invitation for the sake of his friends. Guests start to gather at the house where the halvah is to be served in the afternoon. After an exchange of greetings, food and sherbet are brought out, and then coffee and tobacco are served. After the night prayer, everyone’s coffee and tobacco are refreshed. When the guests in the meetings have been satisfied with food and drink, the artist takes his turn. Everybody respects him. The storyteller related anecdotes and sagas eloquently, sometimes providing news or singing songs. Coffee and sherbet were served all the while. Towards midnight, on the order of the host, halwa was made and served to the guests. After the halwa, sherbet, coffee and tobacco were served again. The gathering came to an end towards sunrise. Although Tıflî stayed at the house, accompanied by those who lived far away, he did not receive the delicate hospitality that he had expected. When he noticed that opium, to which he was addicted, had not been prepared for him in the morning, he left the house in a fury.
Another social gathering makes a brief appearance in the Story of Tayyarzâde. This gathering is a smaller version of the teetotal sohbets; here a relatively small number of people meet in a house. Hüseyin Efendi, an admirer of sohbets, began to feel lonely after being dismissed from his post at the ministry of finance. One day he complained to his friend Dervish Mahmud, “There’s no man of grace and consideration with whom I can talk; one that can comprehend my words and has the skill to reply.” Dervish Mahmud felt sorry for his friend and introduced him to a young, good-looking Farsi-speaking man named Tayyarzade. Tayyarzade was also a skilled musician with a pleasant voice. Hüseyin Efendi liked this new friend and their friendship grew and continued, with the young man moving into Hüseyin Efendi’s house; they spent their time in sohbets which lasted all day and night.
Another important type of social gatherings attended by two or more people that appears in meddah stories are işret sohbets, conversation circles in which alcohol was also served. In this story, Ali Bey, who is “a man of taste and education”, organizes an alcoholic social gathering, including men and women, in his residence in Kılıçali. He sends invitations to the guests with his servant. The crowded party passes with food, drink and friendly conversations, but ends with a tumultuous fight in which Bloody Bektaş tries to get revenge on Tıflî. In a different story, another alcohol-served conversation gathering takes place; this time in the mansion of Gevherli Hanım in Sultanahment, which is a building as large as a palace. While Gevherli is engaged in a conversation with her lover, Tayyarzade, a group of female musicians perform music and dancers dance. In Hançerli Hanım Hikâye-i Garîbesi, Hançerli Hürmüz invites an attractive young man she has met on the street to her house. Almost every day and night, either in the mansion or in the pavilion in the garden, alcohol drink tables are set up and music is performed while the two conversed. A story-teller also attends to one of these meetings. When Hürmüz finds out that her lover has been cheating on her, she invites the storyteller and asks him to tell the story of Süleyman’s affair with another woman. The storyteller comes on another day when the couple is dining and chatting, and starts to relate the requested story– although set in a different place and with different names—by saying, “Let me tell a tale to everyone/The wise one will grasp the moral.” Listening to the story, Süleyman understands that Hürmüz is going to take revenge on him.
Sohbets in Coffee Houses
Another most important location of the stories’ sohbet gatherings is the coffeehouse. Storytellers would spend a significant part of their days in coffeehouses, where they chatted with their friends or performed their art, i.e. being a meddah/storyteller. People who wanted to listen to them or invite them to other places for storytelling would go to the coffeehouses.
Sohbets in Meyhanes (Turkish pubs)
In the stories, other gatherings can be found in Istanbul pubs, places where friends would come together, have a drink and keep each other company, sometimes listening to music. At relatively poorer pubs in neighborhoods like Tophane, people would bring in the musicians when they wanted to listen to and amuse themselves “like artisans.” In contrast, in places like the Gümüş Halkalı Pub in Galata, where people would entertain themselves like “gentlemen,” between 20 and 30 servants would serve drinks and food to customers. Such rich pubs employed their own musical bands and dancers.
This study has focused on social gatherings in Istanbul storyteller stories, which reflect the life in Istanbul between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a realistic style.
In almost all the sohbets that take place frequently in the stories in different places from the palaces to the coffeehouse, an exquisite attitude and eloquent speech prevail; it is also a common characteristic of these stories that bountiful service and art, especially literature and music, is significantly valued.
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Tıflî Efendi Hikâyesi, Istanbul: Litoğrafya Destgahı, 1291.