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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Hunchback of Bursa
February 23, 2000

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Meet Karagoz. He's an ordinary guy, just like the guy next door...only with a bit of a hunchback, and some out-of-date clothes. Karagoz is an honest guy, who somehow always ends up in situations that he doesn't want to be in.

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That's probably because he's always broke, and his clever friend Hacivat gets him into all kinds of crazy money making schemes. Maybe you've got a friend like Hacivat -- a sly trickster, who doesn't necessarily have harmful intentions, yet always manages to get you both into trouble. They're quite an Odd Couple, but like Felix and Oscar, or Bert and Ernie, Karagoz and Hacivat's love/hate friendship keeps drawing them back together.

When the great Sultan Osman took the prized city of Bursa and made it the capitol of the newly founded Ottoman Empire, Karagoz and Hacivat were probably unaware of the huge change happening within their city. Chances are instead that they were too busy trying to figure out a way to make money so their wives would come back to them.

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Osman was succeeded by Sultan Orhan in 1326, who expanded the Ottoman Empire from his home base of Bursa. The empire grew from Central Anatolia all the way into Europe. Orhan started to build up the city, including building a brand new mosque. This was great news for Karagoz and Hacivat. The building of the empire mattered little to them, but the building of a mosque...well, that meant new jobs! Karagoz and Hacivat got jobs on the construction crew building Orhan's grand mosque. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions to be hard workers, Karagoz and Hacivat were a duo headed for disaster. Their humorous antics always amused the other workers. Whether quarreling or joking, they distracted the workers to the point that everyone abandoned their work to watch. Wouldn't you watch, too? A clumsy, na´ve hunchback and his clever friend, bumbling everything up and making jokes at the same time. . .sounds a lot more interesting than completing another dome or another minaret for the mosque!

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Unfortunately, the great Sultan didn't find their antics quite as amusing, especially when he learned of the lack of work being done on the mosque. He immediately ordered Karagoz and Hacivat executed. Oh no! Our simple, harmless friends, executed?! Don't worry too much; if you haven't noticed from the pictures, Karagoz and Hacivat are puppets...at least today they are.

According to the legend, after their execution, Sultan Orhan regretted his hasty decision. He had Seyh Kusteri make figures of the two out of leather, and display them on a lit-up screen. Their illuminated figures continued to amuse the workers of the old Ottoman Empire, just as they continue to amuse tourists and locals alike today!

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The name Karagoz is used today to describe this type of entertainment, known as shadow puppet theater. Shadow puppet theater is a Central Asian tradition thought to have been brought to Bursa over six centuries ago. From there, it spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. Many Turkish people hold that shadow play in fact originated here, rather than in the Far East, and refer to three thousand year-old Hittite Reliefs as proof. Either way, shadow puppet theater has been an important form of folklore here in Turkey for at least as far back as the days of our funny duo Karagoz and Hacivat.

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The puppets are traditionally made from camel hide that has been treated with oil to promote translucency. The hides are cut into intricate designs and then painted with natural dyes. The limbs of the puppet are jointed together, and the puppeteer holds up the puppet by means of sticks connected to its limbs. A shining light projects the images of the puppets on to a white sheet or screen. On the other side of the screen, audiences gather to laugh and revel at the antics of the shadows on screen.

Vocabulary

sultan - a ruler of a Muslim country, especially of the former Ottoman Empire
minaret - a tall, slender tower on a mosque, having one or more projecting balconies from which a muezzin(town crier) summons the people to prayer definition
mosque - Muslim house of worship
translucency - clearness or partial transparency

Crafting the puppets and manipulating their movements to make them perform and sing are both art forms that take a lifetime to perfect. And although the popularity of shadow puppet theater has dwindled since the arrival of television, Bursa maintains an art school that keeps the tradition alive. Karagoz plays originate from traditional stories and songs that have been crafted and passed down from generation to generation. Fifteen stories from the old folklore still remain, and of these, only four are known and performed today in Bursa. Visitors to the Karagoz Art House in Bursa can see a collection of shadow puppets from all over the world, and catch biweekly performances of the dynamic duo themselves.

Karagoz and Hacivat may not be able to reach the world the way Baywatch or The Simpsons do today, but I'd like to see how big a following Homer and Bart will have in 600 years!

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ... kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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