Introducing Meddah: A Storytelling Project at the Intersection of U.S.-Turkey Relations

Image design: Danielle Ternes, THO
“Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.” — Tim O’Brien

By Audrey Williams

How do we make meaning? Build our knowledge of the world? Impart our experiences to each other, and in so doing, come to understand and appreciate experiences that aren’t our own? We do it, day in and day out, by telling stories.

Stories are at the heart of human life, and as a result, we are constantly inundated with them: in movies, music, and books; in the news and on social media; over coffee with friends or dinner with family; even when we dream.

As long as civilization has existed, humans have craved stories. Today, if you want to immerse yourself in a good story, you might open a book, binge-watch a TV show, or head over to the movie theater. For residents of the Ottoman Empire, however, indulging in a good story would mean heading to the local coffee house to catch tales woven by a meddah while partaking in plenty of kahve and nargile.

With his props — the most standard being a walking stick and a large cloth draped over his shoulder — the meddah would entrance his audience with an engaging rendering of stories spanning from comedies and legends to moral fables, from satirical tales to accounts with a political bent. While some particularly renowned meddah found themselves employed in Ottoman courts, the majority would travel across the empire in search of audiences, with coffee houses vying to host the most celebrated.

It is from this tradition that we at Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) hope to draw inspiration to help tell the story of U.S.-Turkey relations.

The U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship is often couched in platitudes: it is “historic”; it is “strategic”; it is “fraught.” But beyond these oft-repeated but overly simple words there are innumerable stories to be told, from the ones that make the headlines to those that are less known but no less important.

With Meddah, our goals are two-fold:

1) To tell the stories of the most urgent developments in U.S.-Turkey relations in forms that go beyond analysis, factsheets, and reports; and

2) To highlight interesting and important stories in U.S.-Turkey relations that aren’t yet making it to English-speaking audiences.

To achieve these goals, we’ll be writing blog posts, conducting interviews, and using multimedia — including infographics and videos — to capture the stories unfolding day-to-day in U.S.-Turkey relations.

If you’d like to know more about Meddah and THO’s work on U.S.-Turkey relations, drop us a line at info@turkheritage.org. We’d be happy to host you at our office in D.C., and while we may not be able to provide nargile, coffee shouldn’t be a problem.

(Audrey Williams is a Program Officer at THO.)