Popular books with brightly colored pictures on the covers to attract purchasers were stock in trade of the pedlars who used to travel through the towns and villages of Turkey. This type of cheaply priced publication printed in lithography first appeared in the mid-19th century and quickly became widespread. After a new Latin alphabet was adopted in place of the Ottoman Turkish alphabet based on Arabic script in 1928, sales of this type of book - the best-sellers of their time - soared. Written in a simple, flowing vernacular style for a literate but not highly educated readership, these books mainly consisted of stories that appealed to people of all ages. They included folk tales from the oral tradition, summaries of oriental classics, adventure stories, love stories, and stories of holy wars.
Pedlars carried their diverse wares in canvas packs slung across their chests and backs, their interior divided into compartments.
And as if this were not enough their shoulders, arms and necks were hung with strings of beads, buckles, mirrors, fine chains, whistles, laundry pegs, bunches of hairpins, bags of henna, alum and ginger, sewing thread and reels of cotton for lace. They wandered from village to village, delighting children and girls preparing their trousseaus, as well as readers of their selection of cheap books with colorful covers depicting the heroes of the story inside.
In the towns, too, pedlars offered their goods for sale in the squares, railway stations, and sidestreets, and could sometimes even be seen wandering through the poorer districts of big cities. They enticed customers by reciting quotations and lines of poetry from the love stories in their packs, and when a prospective customer asked about the story would summarise it with the dramatic airs of a professional meddah (storyteller), showing the pictures in the book to illustrate it. Some pedlars specialized in books, which they packed in large woolen bags carried by their donkeys, and their collections were more varied, including catechisms, prayer books, and Korans.
In the mosque courtyards vendors of prayer beads, skullcaps, mest (thin-soled boots for wearing indoors), tassels, and religious manuals, always had a stock of popular books in their boxes.
Today this type of popular book is rarely seen, and even secondhand copies are hard to come by. At most 120 pages in length, the stories were sometimes of the minstrel ballad genre, half in verse and half in prose, and sometimes stories of ancient battles from the early days of Islam. What characterized these books, and what was their appeal?
Whether about heroism or love, they all derived from the centuries-old tradition of oral literature.
They were therefore entirely classical in approach, with no influences from modern literature. The narrative style and conventions were traditional, varying only in the degree of detail used by the different writers in telling their stories. Many were summaries of oldfashioned tales, sometimes illustrated by naïve pictures. For a love story of more recent provenance to become the subject of a popular book, it had to have first been told and retold by the traditional storytellers in the conventions of that genre. The same held for adventure stories. For example, the story of the uprising of Cakircali Mehmet Efe which took place around 1910 only found its way into print in a popular book after years of repetition had transformed it into the stuff of legend.
These books were read and listened to over and over again, and the listeners would in their turn relate it to others. Why did this repetition not bore people? These were often stories in which people had listened to their grandmothers tell them as children, and to look at the pictures on the cover and on the pages while reading or listening to them again was a moving experience. These seemingly simple stories speaking of faith, loyalty, love, pity, joy, and sorrow, had lessons and morals to give. For people who could neither afford more intellectual literature nor had the level of education required to appreciate it, these books were a fount of worthy ideals and emotions.
Popular books were printed in large quantities from the 1930s to 1960s. Romances took first place, the best known of this type being Kerem and Asli, the Crystal Pavilion, Emrah and Selvi, Arzu and Kamber, Elif and Mahmut, Meleksah and Güllühanim, Tahir and Zühre, Hursit and Mahmihri, Asuman and Zeycan, Yusuf and Züleyha, Ferhat and Sirin, Leylâ and Mecnun, Beybögrek and Akkavakkizi, Dertli Hasan and Nazlihan, Yanik Ömer and Güzel Zeynep, Sümmani and Senlik, Derdiyok and Zülfüsiyah, Razinihan and Mahfirûz, Gül and Sitemkâr, and Dadaloglu and the Türkmen Beauty.
Stories of legendary heroes and their adventures were next in popularity, with the stories of Temmimdar, Sahmaran, the Forty Thieves, Seyfizülyezen, Hançerli Hanim, the Seven Scholars, Behram Gûr, and stories from A Thousand and One Nights. Then there were legendary tales of war and battle such as Ejder Castle, the Battle of the Three Roads, Castle of Blood, Berber Castle, Khyber Castle, the Battle of the Seven Roads, the Battle of Yemen, the Battle of Billuruâzam, the Battle of Bedir, and Nemrut Castle; epic tales of heroism about the Caliph Ali, Muhammed Hanefi, Merdimeydan, and Ebu Müslim; the story of Adam and Eve, and the poetry and ballads of Yunus Emre, Âsik Ömer, Pir Sultan Abdal, Karacaoglan, Âsik Hasan, Sah Ismail, Köroglu, Âsik Ruhsatî, Âsik Garip, and Dertli Ud.
Humorous tales were another popular type, featuring Bektasi dervishes, and such celebrated characters as Bekri Mustafa, Incili Çavus, Nasreddin Hoca and Keloglan.
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Books of dream interpretations, love poetry, samples of good letter writing, and religious subjects such as the Ramazan prayer, the Mevlit (nativity poem for Muhammed), and ritual forms of prayer were all to be found in the bags and boxes of the pedlars.