La voix humaine

BH LVH

Back home from Istanbul, my ears still buzzing with Bektashi–Alevi ritual and the call to prayer, I went along to the Barbican to be astounded yet again at the innovative genius of Barbara Hannigan with the LSO (programme notes here).

They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.

After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.

This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:

Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.

Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.

Duval Voix

Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):

Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.

This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:


* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:

Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”

Wacky headlines: a roundup

Bake Off

With the headlines tag in the sidebar already so voluminous, here’s a handy roundup of some of my favourite posts there. After we’ve digested Kate Fox’s insights on headline punning, I propose

cliché

From the Mystic East:

Boris

Others from my own “pen”:

Irreverently,

There are also hours of harmless fun in the “crash blossoms” archive of languagelog.

And I can now offer a recent headline from the Istanbul Bugle, of which I am proprietor and sole contributor—describing the confusion of the Orthodox priest responsible for throwing the Epiphany cross into the Bosphorus, yet unable to locate the incense for the thurifer:

Cross Toss Boss Joss Loss

Spirit mediums in China: collected posts

Houshan medium

Spirit medium for the deity Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

In contrast to the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China that dominate sinology, spirit mediums also play an important role in local society (note the useful bibliographies of Philip Clart and Barend ter Haar). The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life; for women in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable. Their tutelary deities may be either male or female.

me-mot

Me-mot mediums in Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

This is to draw your attention to a new “mediums” tag in the sidebar. The main posts include

  • Lives of female mediums, introducing studies on Guangxi (XIao Mei) and Wenzhou (Mayfair Yang)—as well as our own work around Hebei and north Shanxi, on which I reflect further in the second post of my series on
  • Women of Yanggao.

And I’ve introduced studies on activity in

as well as

  • the self-mortifying mediums of Amdo (here, and in note here).

Under Maoism, whereas public forms of religious life were vulnerable to political campaigns, the more clandestine activities of mediums were tenacious—indeed, the social and psychological crises of the era ensured that they continued to emerge (see e.g. the work of Ng and Chau above). Still, distribution is patchy; in this post I discussed the decline in Gaoluo village.

For the rituals of mediums in Korea, see here and here.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia

 

Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

Further to my post on Bektashi and Alevi practice in Istanbul, Alevi ritual groups are widespread throughout rural Anatolia. As an instance, I’ve continued to admire Jérôme Cler‘s fieldwork there.

In 2003 he documented Alevi cem rituals in hill villages of Tohal in the region of Tokat, eastern Anatolia. Here’s a more extended sequence of the second video in his post:

Cler’s research in the hill villages of the southwest also extends to some fine documentation of the annual cem ritual (birlik) in the Alevi village of Tekke Köyü, sacred site of Abdal Musa, who was among the founding saints of the Bektashi, a disciple of the 13th-century sage Haji Bektash Veli.

When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.

Cler birlik

Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:

  • Opening:

initial hymn to the Twelve Imams
babalar semah (semah of the baba)

  • sofra (meal):

dem nefesi
oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma)
Kerbelâ song

  • End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:

semah of Forty;
two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work);
gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!);
lokma
(new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.

Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:

For more bibliography, see my first post.

Manuscripts of Timbuktu

 

Timbuktu cover

I’ve been fascinated to read

  • Charlie English, The book smugglers of Timbuktu (2017)
    (reviewed e.g. by William Dalrymple).

Timbuktu map

Over many centuries, Timbuktu became home to a vast treasury of early manuscripts on history, art, medicine, philosophy, and science (for databases, see e.g. here, here, and here).

Charlie English uses the dramatic device of alternating chapters on the early history of European expeditions from 1788 with the remarkable efforts since 2012 undertaken by the town’s librarians to rescue the manuscripts from destruction by the jihadi onslaught.

He cites Bruce Chatwin’s famous comment that there are two Timbuktus: “one the real place, a tired caravan town where the Niger bends into the Sahara”, another “altogether more fabulous, a legendary city in a never-never land, the Timbuktu of the mind”.  As the book adroitly blends the two, accounts of the rescue became a further chapter in the town’s history of myth-making.

The main theme of early European explorations is Death or Glory. After a succession of intrepid adventurers had met grisly fates in trying to reach Timbuktu, Alexander Gordon Laing became the first to succeed in 1826—undeterred by sustaining [yup, that’s the word] horrific injuries en route. * After all the hype, those who did manage to reach the town were inevitably disappointed. As René Chaillié reported in 1828:

The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all direction but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour. The sky was a pale red as far as the horizon; all nature wore a dreary aspect, and the most profound silence prevailed; not even the warbling of a bird was to be heard.

The buildings were unimpressive, mostly consisting of a single storey. The town had no walls, and wasn’t nearly as big or busy as he had been led to believe. The atmosphere was soporific.

By the 1880s Timbuktu had become a prize in European imperialist goals of military domination. In “King Leopold’s paperweight”, English spells out the racism at the heart of the age of colonial exploitation—an entrenched, widespread mindset that anthropologists like Franz Boas were still having to challenge in the mid-20th century. As the town went into further decline, Félix Dubois kept the image of its precious manuscripts alive.

By the early 20th century, the myth of a wealthy Timbuktu with golden roofs had long been jettisoned, but it had been replaced by the idea of the city as an enlightned university town where orchestras entertained emperors and astronomers plotted the tracks of comets even as Europeans struggled out of the Dark Ages. There was more substance to this myth than the old one, but it was still a gross exaggeration, a story written to fit the new requirement for exoticism. Timbuktu, it seemed, reflected to each of the travellers who reached it something of what they wanted to find. The romantic Laing had discovered his vainglorious end. Caillié, the humble adventurer, had found a humble town. Barth, the scientist, had unearthed a wealth of new information. Dubois, the journalist, had landed his world exclusive, uncovering the region’s secret past.

* * *

shrine
Source.

In 2012, as rival factions of jihadists took control of Timbuktu, trashing offices, levelling Sufi shrines, and implementing sharia law, the town’s librarians began smuggling manuscripts out to Bamako with the help of local families—a story that English tells in compelling detail. International bodies responded exceptionally promptly with major funding. Meanwhile the librarians themselves were concerned to keep the delicate operation out of the public eye, for fear of attracting attention from the jihadists.

Timbuktu MSS

Source.

Diakité evoked the salvage operation:

Housewives offered food and shelter to our couriers along the route.Merchants transported couriers and footlockers of books without charge, when they saw our people pushing them in pushcarts or carrying them on their backs to get them to the safety of the river. […] Whole villages created diversions at checkpoints, so our couriers could get them through with their books. In all cases, in the north but also in the south, the community came forward in the name of safeguarding the manuscripts. […] They called them our heritage, our manuscripts.

Among the librarians the main characters are Abdel Kader Haidara, who had long been working on collecting the manuscripts, and now made a “Terrible Twosome” with the well-connected American conservator Stephanie Diakité; Ismael Diadié Haidara, proprietor of the Fondo Kati library; and Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maiga, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute.

The town was liberated by French troops in 2013, but the situation in north Mali has remained unstable.

Indeed, scholars such as John Hunwick had been paying attention to the manuscripts by 1967, and conservation projects were already under way from 1977, supported by international bodies such as UNESCO, the Ford Foundation, and the Prince Claus Fund. As the enormity of the documents spread around the town and nearby became apparent, it overturned assumptions that Africa had no written history. By 1999, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates made a PBS film on the collection (“as a black American, I know what it’s like to have your history stolen from you”), the Timbuktu treasures were widely celebrated.

In a most astute chapter on “the myth factory”, English unpacks the diverse accounts of the manuscripts’ hectic evacuation. Dissenting voices were heard, such as Bruce Hall, professor at Duke University, who found the claimed numbers of manuscripts, and their value, much inflated. Conflicting stories of the crisis inevitably emerged. As Haidara told the author enigmatically,

There is not only one account of the evacuation. Each person will have his own take on it. Bruce [Hall] will have one account, Ismael another, Maiga yet another, while I have my own version. All these accounts will be different, but they will all be true. If everyone agreed what the story was, then it would certainly not be true.

English opens the Epilogue with a comment that may apply widely:

This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu’s past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this, I hope, will have become clear: Timbuktu’s story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction.

He goes on:

With such resonant, universal themes of good versus evil, books versus guns, fanatics versus moderates, this modern-day folktale proved irresistible. It was all the more powerful for being built around a kernel of truth, just as the more glorious accounts of the city’s past were.

* * *

After Gates’s 1999 film, by 2009 several documentaries had already appeared, including The lost libraries of Timbuktu from the BBC:

Note also English’s 2014 article on the status of women in Timbuktu.

His book was just pipped to the post by Charlie Hammer, The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu (2016) (hmm—cf. “10 Kickass Female Composers”, and my own forthcoming bestseller The bad-ass household Daoists of Shanxi).

The music of Mali—where the oral traditions of the jeli (griot) bards make another major repository of history—has become a mainstay of the World Music scene, dominating publications such as Songlines. See Lucy Durán’s introduction in The Rough Guide to world music; and as part of the splendid Growing into Music project, she made this fine film around southern Mali on the eve of the jihadi invasion in the north:

Political angles are explored by Andy Morgan in Music, culture, and conflict in Mali (2013); for updates, see e.g. here and here.


* As Laing reported,

To begin from the top, I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head & three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away, one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone & has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound, one over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe.

English goes on:

He has a musket ball in the hip, which has made its way through his body, grazing his backbone. He also has five saber wounds to his right arm and hand, which is “cut three fourths across”, and the wrist bones are hacked through. He has three cuts on his left arm, which is broken, one slight wound on the right leg, and two, including “one dreadful gash”, on the left, to say nothing of the blow to the fingers of the hand he is using to write.

But things got worse. After a “dreadful malady” kills off the other members of his mission, he writes magnificently:

“My situation is far from agreeable.”

(Chorus of “Young people today…”—backpackers moaning that they can’t even get a reliable internet connection… Cf. The ascent of Rum Doodle, and The four Yorkshiremen sketch.)

The call to prayer

Imam

Imam declaiming from prayer niche in mosque following the call to prayer, Kuzguncuk 2022.

In Turkey, whereas the rituals of Sufi groups like Bektashis and Alevis take place largely beyond the earshot of outsiders, the call to prayer (ezan; Arabic adhan), declaimed five times daily by the muezzin, is the most public soundscape of mainstream Islam.

As I write from Istanbul, it punctuates my day; even on a fleeting visit, one might soon begin to take it for granted—but whatever the varied responses of those who have heard it from birth, its impassioned free-tempo melisma accompanies the hubbub surrounding the mundane lives of people who might otherwise be impervious to the complexities of traditional makam.

To make an impertinent analogy, it’s rather as if the entire population of Europe went about their daily business constantly hearing Mark Padmore as Evangelist sing the heart-rending recitative that leads into Erbarme dich in the Matthew Passion, growing up to internalise it as the bedrock of their aural experience.

Many of the great singers of the Arab and Persian worlds came from a background of performing sacred chant, like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian in Iran; musically, “sacred” and “profane” styles are related. A general Arabic term for sacred chant is inshād (cf. China: nian “reciting”, rather than secular “singing” chang), imbued with ḥiss “a voice charged with an acute potential for relating the spiritual needs of the community to God”. [1]

Again, of course I can only get a glimpse of this vast topic, but for Turkey, the Ottoman and Republican history of the ezan is introduced here. The Republican government’s attempt to make Turkish the compulsory language of the ezan lasted only from 1930 to 1948. Here’s a 1932 recording of Sadettin Kaynak in Turkish:

Meanwhile amplification became standard, with a loudspeaker mounted on the minaret—which suggests to me that muezzin no longer need to be so fit…

This sequence features ezan from Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya:

Note also the CD by David Parsons, The music of Islam vol. 10: Qur’an recitation, Istanbul, Turkey (1997), part of an extensive series.

Meeting a wise imam
In small villages the imam also assumes the role of muezzin; in larger communities they are usually separate duties. However, at the mosque just opposite the Kuzguncuk ferry (next to Armenian and Greek churches and a synagogue!) Aydin Hoca serves as both imam and muezzin; we learned much from our meetings with him.

Aydin Hoca cropped

Aydin Hoca is an exceptionally wise and tolerant man. Born in Manisa near Izmir, he studied “Islamic mystical music” (tasavvuf müzigi) at the ilahi (“spiritual”) department of the Imam Hatip High School—he has kept in contact with Manisa, joining in events there. He furthered his studies of ilahi by enrolling at the Open University in Eskisehir. 

In 1990, aged 25, Aydin Hoca settled in Istanbul, becoming muezzin that same year at the Kuzguncuk mosque, while taking vocal and musical training with the renowned Amir Ateş at the Üsküdar Music Society, and furthering his education in Turkish classical and sacred music with Mehmet Kemiksiz. He values the inspiration these teachers gave him, as well as his overall education in morality and humanitarian ethics under Hafiz Fahri, based in Bursa.

In 1996—the year his first son was born—Aydin Hoca became imam at the mosque. He continued to receive training in solo and choral singing under respected teachers. Though offered positions as imam in more prominent mosques in the city, he prefers to remain with his Kuzguncuk parishioners.

He cites the popular expression Aşk olmayinca meşk olmaz “without love there can be no dedication” (meşk “devotion to practice”, often used in the context of music, perhaps resembling the riaz of north Indian raga). As in any walk of life, a voice can only be trained through diligence and application; oral transmission from master to disciple (usta-cirak) is crucial, as he learned through his training and now finds in nurturing his own students.

As to the Turkish branch of the vast makam family, he outlined the sequence for the five daily ezan, such as Saba for the dawn call, and a somewhat variable list for subsequent calls that includes Rast, Uşşâk, and Segah (see e.g. under this overview of “religious music” in Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul, and here).

As Aydin Hoca explained, while the maqams are important, they are only an opening. Inside the mosque, for the fourfold rekat (standing, bowing, and prostrations) the imam recites in four different maqams: Isfahan, Rast, Hüseyni, and Evic. In between the four sections, in order to “lighten” the maqams and give the congregation space to reflect, ilahi hymns are chanted.

Reminding us aptly of the wider theme of liturgical chant, the imam also notes the expression of dhikr in ayin communal gatherings at lodges such as Karagümrük Cerrahi tekke of the Halveti-Jerrahi order (many instances on YouTube under Jerrahi zikr e.g. this); here the worshippers accompany their group singing with frame-drums (bendir, def) and sometimes ney flute. He mentions the qaṣīda (e.g. here, and here), a three-part form with opening, a more expansive central section, and a calming conclusion; again, between sections they may add ilahi in various soulful moods.

Aydin Hoca stresses feeling. He often listens to early ezan recordings, “to reconfigure and order my mind.” Whereas some Muslim listeners lament “bad” or “ugly” voices, he has a more benign view, since all voices are given by Allah. But as he says, there are uneducated voices.

The muezzin are careful about the volume of the ezan: the mic should be neither too close nor too distant, not too loud or piercing; the sound must be natural. The broadcast of the Kuzguncuk ezan is linked to the central transmission of Kadıköy district. Aydin Bey decides when he wants to recite live; he often does so to keep his voice in practice. On Fridays he always chants live.

As to the ezan in the media, “everyone may recite the ezan, but first he has to be heard and recognised by the muezzin/imam.” The vocal style isn’t alien to daily life; it’s commonly adapted by pop singers. Aydin Bey considers Arabesk star İbrahim Tatlıses an important voice:

Further questions are addressed in the documentary Muezzin (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2009), based around a kind of Pop Idol competition for ezan—here’s a trailer:

Here’s an early rural fantasy from the iconic trans singer Bülent Ersoy, answering the plea of an ailing villager:

The call to prayer may be performed alternately by two muezzin (çifte ezan, double ezan), not only from different mosques (quite rare in Istanbul, though it may be heard at Sultanahmet and Üsküdar), but even from the same mosque. Here’s an instance of the latter from Izmir:

Here’s another video (which a BTL comment suggests comes from Ankara rather than Istanbul), with father and son declaiming:

And here’s a popular TV contest with çifte ezan:

* * *

The message of the text and the act of dhikr are primary; as in other sacred traditions, zooming in on the use of pitches in the various scales, and on melismatic decoration, may be largely the preserve of the muezzin—even if such details are at the heart of the ezan‘s efficacity. Its varied delivery deserves to be appreciated; clearly many of the faithful do so, rather than allowing it to become part of the aural wallpaper.

A with Kadir's mum

Augusta with community leader Saliha, visiting from İskenderun in the far south.

Curious about what the ezan means to different types of İstanbullus, I suggested a little project to Augusta. With her precious gift of rapport (cf. Bruce Jackson, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck), she relishes interacting with people in all walks of life, chatting easily with labourers, simit vendors, taxi drivers, intellectuals; pious Muslims, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish İstanbullus; men and women, old and young… Ours was a tiny sample, but I was impressed by their firm opinions on the topic; no-one merely takes the ezan for granted.

Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.

Taxi driver Serkan, around 50, from Kayseri: “The ezan is imperative, denoting order. Of course I love it, as do all Muslims!” Still, “not everyone has a good voice! Not everyone can recite the ezan, I can tell you! But they recite with the voice Allah gave them. Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter. It is our call.” He feels a difference between the different makam, but is not aware of them. His wife prays five times a day, and he has started to join her a few times a week.

Another taxi driver, around 60, commented, “There is no voice so honourable as the ezan. It is the wisdom and blessing of Allah, bringing confidence.” For him the ezan “opens the heart, changes one’s outlook on the world, bringing people to their senses, to find peace”. For a simit vendor from Kastamonu it denotes honour, respect, reverence. As a 28-year-old cleaner commented, the ezan is a reminder that we have a conscience, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to remember any wrong-doings, and to be thankful, opening a door so that abundance and blessings may enter the home.

A Kuzguncuk barber (49) speaks with pride of his local imam Aydin Hoca reciting the ezan for the ceremony after his own birth and those of his children and grandchildren.

All mentioned the dawn ezan, finding it soothing, welcoming, a blessing, setting intention at the opening to the day. And any music that is playing must be stopped during the ezan; it is even “sinful” to play music on the radio or TV then.

Despite Aydin Hoca’s enlightened view, themes that emerged include a distaste for “ugly” reciting, and for the “cacophony” that results when nearby muezzin fail to listen to each other; the poor quality of some loudspeakers; and the “centralised” broadcasts, which are at least dependable.

* * *

Among other regions, note the SOAS “Sounding Islam in China” project, notably here (as in Germany or the UK, contrasting with societies where Islam is the dominant culture). For Gregorian and other traditions, see Chant and beyond, as well as A cappella singing. For free-tempo preludes, click here—notably the alap of dhrupad, star exhibit in my series on north Indian raga.


[1] For more, see e.g. Scott Marcus, “The Muslim call to prayer” in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.6). A good introduction to various styles of vocal liturgy just further south in Aleppo is the CD

  • Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1992), with notes by Christian Poché. It opens with a solo adhan sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006) (listen here; playlists devoted to Sabri Moudallal, largely featuring concert groups, including the Ensemble Al Kindi, are here and here).
    Indeed, the CD features further devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following the solo free-tempo qaṣīda is the choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums (listen here). The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation.

The Janissary tree

 

Janissary cover

As a fictional spinoff from my taste for Bektashi–Alevi rituals, Turkish crime thrillers are a substantial genre, for whose Ottoman branch I enjoyed

a most entertaining romp through late Ottoman history.

First in a series (gaily described by Marilyn Stasio as “a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth”) starring Yashim the eunuch, the novel is set in 1836 Constantinople, ten years after the “Auspicious Event” that seemed to rid the empire of the overweening Janissaries:

Once the Ottoman Empire’s crack troops, the Janissaries had degenerated—or evolved, if you like—into an armed mafia, terrorising sultans, swaggering through the streets of Istanbul, rioting, fire-raising, thieving and extorting with impunity. Outgunned and outdrilled by the armies of the west, stubbornly they had clung to the traditions of their forefathers, contemptuous of innovation, despising the common soldiers of the enemy and rejecting every lesson the battlefield could teach, for fear of their grip loosening. For decades they had held the empire to ransom.

Yashim foils a plot threatening a vengeful revival, as he goes in search of mysterious, elusive tekke Sufi lodges. The cast features grisly ritual murders, harem plots, an Albanian soup-master, a transvestite entertainer, a Polish ambassador, fire-tower watchmen, and an archetypal Russian femme fatale.

The street scenes are evocative:

A troupe of jugglers and acrobats, six men and two women, took up a position near the cypress tree, squatting on their haunches, waiting for light and crowds. Between them they had set a big basket with a lid, and Murad Eslek spent a while watching them from a corner of the alley behind the city walls until he had seen that the basket really did contain bats, balls, and other paraphernalia of their trade. Then he moved on, eyeing up the other quacks and entertainers who had crowded in for the Friday market: the Kurdish story teller in a patchwork coat; the Bulgarian fire-eater, bald as an egg; a number of bands—Balkan pipers, Anatolian string players; a pair of sinuous and silent Africans, carefully dotting a blanket spread on the ground with charms and remedies; a row of gypsy silversmiths with tiny anvils and a supply of coins wrapped in pieces of soft leather, who were already at work, snipping the coins and beating out tiny rings and bracelets.

The climax comes with a splendidly tense cinematic scene in the tanneries.

The first thing Yashim noticed, after the stench he was forced to suck down into his heaving chest, was the light.

It rose from eery columns from the vats into which, across an area of several acres, the animal skins were lowered for boiling and dyeing. Against a forest of flickering torches, each vat threw out a spume of coloured vapour, red, yellow, and indigo blending and slowly dissolving into the darkness of the night air. The air stank of fat, and burned hair, and worst of all the overreaching odour of dog shit used to tan the leather. A vision of hell.

See also crime thrillers from China and Germany; Weimar Berlin, Stasi,Russia, and Hungary, and the Navajo.

 

A jazz medley

To help navigate through the jazz tag in the sidebar, here’s a roundup of some of my main posts so far.

From the Golden Age:

Moving on,

Further afield,

More songs:

And on a linguistic note:

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

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In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

The accuracy of the cherished notion of gender equality has recently been challenged by Alevi women.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), introduced here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]

 

Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!


[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

A stammering Byzantine Iconoclast

Left, cell where Methodios was imprisoned; right, Michael the Stammerer.

In classic guide-book lingo,

No visit to [Istanbul] is complete without a visit to [the Princes’ Islands].”

So we took a pleasant boat trip to the Islands (Adalar, as they’re called with casual familiarity) in the Sea of Marmara just south, long home to Greek and Jewish communities. The jaunt introduced me to the Byzantine (and byzantine) story of Michael II (770–829), who rose through the military ranks to become emperor, continuing the Iconoclastic movement. It was in a dingy dungeon on the island of Burgazada (Antigoni) that he imprisoned St Methodios. As described by Edwin Grosvenor,

In 821 Michael the Stammerer became emperor. Having attained the throne by assassination and violence, he was naturally fitted for the role of bigot and persecutor. With fanatic ingenuity he devised new tortures for the adherents of the icons. Methodios was recognised as their most learned leader. The emperor ordered that he should be struck gently seven hundred times with a whip. The prolongation of the punishment was the refinement of its cruelty. Then, unconscious and apparently lifeless, Methodios was thrown, together with two murderers, into a deep pit at Antigoni. Bread and water were let down daily through an opening above. When one of the murderers died, his decomposing body was left in the pit to render the horrid pit still more revolting. Meanwhile Methodios worked day and night to convert the survivor. Michael died after an eight years’ evil reign, and his son Theophilus succeeded, as iconoclastic but less inhuman.

Methodios was eventually released under Theophilus, but was publicly scourged and imprisoned again before becoming the emperor’s inseparable companion.

Antigoni

The island of Antigoni (Burgazada).

Anyway, although it’s good to know that Michael’s im-p-pediment didn’t im-p-pede his career, he transpires not to be a great role model—it just goes to show that not all stammerers are reticent and benign… But at least I can now add him to my list of famous stammerers from Moses to Marilyn Monroe, and from Deng Ai to Gu Jiegang.

My Turkish vocabulary has hitherto been limited largely to the word inziva “recluse”, some obsolete Ottoman musical instruments, and terms for segments of the Bektashi–Alevi cem ritual, none of which get me very far when I’m trying to ask for a tube of toothpaste. But it has increased with the pleasingly onomatopoeic kekelemek, “stammer”—opening with a fiendish double plosive. For some more staggeringly inappropriate vocabulary, see Language learning: a roundup, notably That is the snake that bit my foot. Cf. Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers.

Jesus of Benfica: a cautionary tale

*Guest post by Nicolas Robertson
—author of the magnificent series of anagram tales, no less*

Jorge Fernando Pinheiro de Jesus (which could translate as Jesus’s Christmas tree)—naturally known as Jesus, or, to distinguish him, as Jorge Jesus. Born 24th July 1954; prolific Portuguese midfield football player, and subsequently manager, much-remarked-upon hairstyle. Seventeen years as a professional player from 1973 to 1990, when he switched to a managerial career, so at 36 years old (three years later than his homonym).

His teaching life has lasted as long again, but has not been without turmoil. I first became aware of him during good days in his first stay at Benfica (2009–2015), headlines such as “Jesus is very content with his eleven”. One appreciated his constructive use of language: “For me, a manager has no past nor future, he only has past”, “What was Benfica before me?”, “The manager has to see things that no one else sees”.

Jesus 1

Which leads me to an unlikely but striking encounter with the painter Paula Rego at an exhibition of hers in Cascais in 2014, which he later described: “A manager is like a painter. […] Paula Rego said to me there was a figure called Maria and she is crying, and I thought, oh, is she crying? I can’t see anything—but she knew she was crying. It’s like the manager.”

Having passed through Sporting (2015­–18), Al-Hillal (Saudi Arabia, 2018–19) and Flamengo, Brazil (2019–20), where he managed an astounding series of successes, Jesus found himself irresistibly called back to Benfica (a name which sort of means “May it be well”), with dreams of renewed glory. “We’re not going to play for the double, we’ll play for the triple… and we’ll crush them” [vamos arrasar], though he was careful enough to admit “I don’t know what tomorrow will be”.

Jesus 2Jesus in upbeat mood at crucifixion rehearsal.

Things didn’t go too well, on the Second Coming, Covid took its toll (not easy to see how he was more prejudiced than the others, but he suffered: “One day you can think of eleven and the next you’re without three players”. And more went wrong, results weren’t coming, there was disquiet in the plantel. Since Herod (Luis Filipe Vieira, the boss, who’d been to fetch him, the Messiah, from Brazil in his private jet) had just been put away for massive corruption, Rui Costa (choose your own avatar), the stand-in and subsequently elected president—himself a hero as a player—wanted to make his own mark…

Some headlines from this final playout:

Rui accused of not defending Jesus

Soap opera of Jesus creates bad feeling

J. Jesus ever more alone in the Light [Luz, Benfica stadium]

Because here’s the rub: some Wise Men (top brass from Flamengo in Brazil) had come from the East (if you go the other way round) in search of Jesus again—but found him unavailable, or at least hesitant (he was in mid-contract, after all). And they didn’t wait for an answer, but went off to Poland, and behold, they found Paulo Sousa, manager of the Polish national team; he too was under contract, but hey! it’s only money to get out of it…

More headlines:

Sousa contratado, Jesus amuado [pissed off]

Jesus desolado com Flamengo

And then Jesus was sacked anyway—or rather, both sides agreed it would be best for him to leave: “I came thinking I was a solution and not a problem”… Classic “despised and rejected” (even worse, having been eagerly sought)—but being football, and not life, there’ll be a sequel. Meanwhile Jesus has been seen—and photographed, of course—walking his dogs on the beach in Troia, a wonderfully-named peninsular south of Lisbon, no one else in sight. He’s been offered, or his name linked with, several comebacks in various countries, but no doubt he’s being cautious.

So the Second Coming of Jesus to Benfica ended sadly. I was reminded of a story by Borges, Ragnarök. The parallels are not strict, but what if the gods come back and we don’t like them, they’ve lost touch from being too long away, we can’t even understand what they say (Borges), what if (Christian eschatology) He comes back, and it doesn’t work, doesn’t apply, it’s a flop? If I were a god, I wouldn’t risk it. Too late for that lesson, J. Jesus…

(Jesus’s technical assistant, a sort of Peter, is carrying on pro tem. His results so far are more or less like those of Jesus. His name is Nelson Veríssimo (“absolutely true”). He looks like a decent bloke.)

 


SJ: This is a sequel to my post on Jesus jokes. For the Three Wise Men, see here (The life of Brian)—and, more seriously, here. Just as essential reading as Nick’s anagram tales is the ouevre of Patricia Lockwood, also rejoicing in language and the ambivalence of the Christian Message. Click here for a roundup of wacky headlines, and here for more sporting drôlerie.

Barry Cryer

Cryer

The much-loved Barry Cryer, who has died at the age of 86, was a mainstay of the British comedy scene (Guardian tributes here and here; from Mark Lawson, and the splendid Jack Dee).

Best known for his appearances since 1972 on BBC Radio 4’s I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, he provided endless gags for a range of comics from Morecambe and Wise and Les Dawson to Kenny Everett and Rory Bremner, working fruitfully with Ronnie Corbett and Graham Chapman.

One of his own favourite jokes:

A man drives down a country lane and runs over a cockerel. He knocks at a nearby farmhouse door and a woman answers.

“I appear to have killed your cockerel”, he says. “I’d like to replace it.” The woman replies: “Please yourself—the hens are round the back.”

Here’s an audio playlist:

For more giggle merchants, see e.g. Tommy Cooper, Steven Wright, Sean Hughes. For more challenging routines, try Lenny Bruce, and Stewart Lee has his very own tag.

Squaw

Squaw

No great surprise that squaw, one of the few supposedly Native American terms that my generation absorbed in our youth through the insidious influence of TV, is now widely considered “offensive, derogatory, misogynist, and racist”, as an interesting wiki article observes.

In English the word was first used in colonial literature in 1622. An article in Indian Country Today makes a token attempt at balance (“squaw is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman”; see also here); but even if linguists are correct to query the connection of the S-word with the C-word, there are plenty of reasons to reject the term.

In 1968 Loretta Lynn (herself of Cherokee heritage) could still sing Your squaw is on the warpath (1968)—an otherwise impeccably feminist song:

And the experimental Native American singer Jim Pepper included Squaw song on his 1971 album Pepper’s Pow Wow. But by then squaw was among a whole range of stereotypes that were being discredited. For such images in well-meaning early documentaries, see my post on Navajo culture, under “On film”; see also Native American cultures: a roundup.

In November 2021, in line with decades of work by Indigenous activists, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland furthered the movement to remove offensive place-names.

See also Stewart Lee‘s demolition of fulminations against “PC gone mad”.