Turkish traces in Italian folk culture more surprising than expected


The geographical proximity of countries like Turkey and Italy overlooking the Mediterranean Sea have in the past produced various relationships. Some of these are favorable commercial exchanges, travels by land and by sea, complicated political agreements, periodical wars and espionage from both sides. The various relationships between kingdoms and republics of the Italian peninsula and the Ottoman Empire left many traces on the Italian written and oral culture. Similarly, Goiachino Rossini's lyric opera plays with Turkish themes, "The Turk in Italy and Maometto II," at the beginning of the 19th century was addressed to a chosen audience with a high social status. The many travel diaries describing the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century were read with curiosity by the middle class. Also, an uneducated populace tried to give meaning to the unstable relationships with Turkish people through tales, proverbs and songs. These folk expressions have not been forgotten. Although they may have lost their original meaning, they are still performed and bring on some ideas and prejudices about Turkish people, which seems to affect the new generations, as well.

We should be reminded that in the past the word "Turkish" was not exclusive for people from the Ottoman Empire, but was a general term in reference to Muslims, and the expression "become Turkish" actually meant "embrace Islam." This total political-religious identification exists currently, confusing many Italians who cannot distinguish Arabs, Turks and Iranians in the Islamic world.

Defining Turkish

To begin with, we will start with the expressions and proverbs still used presently, most of which were a result of commercial and political relationships with the Turks who happened to be precious partners. In addition, others were created during wars where the Turks were the enemy with sometimes fearsome soldiers or pirates who could unexpectedly arrive from the sea. Examples of such expressions are who "smokes like a Turk," which personifies heavy smokers. Who "speaks Turkish," such as Arabic or Chinese also personifies people with unclear and obscure language. Everybody would like to have a lot of money and to "live like a pasha" or "like a sultan." Even the famous Italian singer Betty Curtis in 1962 reminded us in her song "Soldi, Soldi, Soldi" ("Money, Money, Money"). Other expressions used are "feel like a Turkish at the Mass," which translates into feeling uncomfortable in a place you are not used to. Who "tries to teach religion to Turkish people" is losing time on an impossible task because as everyone in Italy was Catholic, the Ottomans represented a mostly unknown Muslim world. The strangest and most astonishing events are called "Turkish stuffs," and "Mom, the Turks are coming!" ("Mamma li Turchi!") is a cry of fear linked to the Turkish pirates' assaults on the southern coasts of Italy. Furthermore, since Turkish soldiers were so experienced and fearsome, "grasp a Turkish man's moustache" is a sentence used to describe an extraordinary fact, which means succeeding, with some luck, in something everyone considered impossible.

In some folk songs from the south of Italy, a fear can still be sensed from Turkish pirates who arrived on the coast to raid and conquer. During the bloody attack on Otranto in 1480, the Ottoman assault was probably sustained by Italian kingdoms, in perpetual competition with other Italian kingdoms and republics. "The haystacks look like Turks and the hayforks look like swords," says a rural song from the Puglia region. "Take the weapons, take the weapons, the bell is ringing, the Turks have arrived at the coast! If your shoes are broken fix them, I did it this morning […] Let's go, men, with your lama, your scary dagger; people want to be free. Hooray for the freedom of Sicily!" is a war song that woke up the Sicilians to patriotism against the Turkish pirates.

Who is Balaban?

There are several legends about Turkish people that can be heard among the entire Italian peninsula. To give some examples, starting from the north in the Trento region, specifically in the little village of Moena, every August people wear Ottoman customs and carry Turkish flags passing through the main streets of the village while the local band plays Ottoman marches. The aim to remember their Turkish forefather Balaban. Is it history or a legend? According to the people in the village, this is definitely history. They tell the story of a Turkish Janissary soldier who was injured after the battle of Wien in 1683 and took shelter in Moena where he was helped by the local people. Neighboring inhabitants gave the people of Moena the nickname "Turks" and looked suspiciously at them because they had taken care of an enemy. When the soldier got well he decided not to leave. He instead taught the locals how to fight and he later got married to a local girl. The whole village loved and respected him. Years later the inhabitants built a fountain with the Janissary's bust over it in order not to forget his memory. In the same region, in the little city of Rovereto on the shore of the Leno River there is a Turkish house, which due to its closed wooden balconies, is the only model of Turkish-Arabic architecture in that region. According to the story, when that city was under the control of the Republic of Venice some Turkish merchants lived there with their family. Since they did not want the controllers who worked on the bridge in front of the house to look at their women, they decided to close the balconies, in accordance with the Turkish tradition.A mysterious and lugubrious Venetian legend tells the tragic story of love and jealousy between the young Turkish Selima, who was enslaved after the Venetian victory in Lepanto in 1571, and the merchant Osman, who came from the Ottoman lands for commercial reasons. Another legend from the Venetian lagoon said that Nur Banu, the wife of Sultan Selim II (1566-1574) and daughter of an aristocrat Venetian family, was kidnapped by Ottoman pirates while traveling by ship from Venice to Corfu Island. In Tuscany, there was a similar story concerning Hürrem Sultan, known in the Western world as Roxelana, the favorite of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). In the southern region of Abruzzo, as well, it is claimed that Roxelana, whose real name according to this version was Domenica Catena, was a local girl who had been kidnapped by the famous pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa and returned to her city after 22 years bringing lots of gifts. Then she decided to become a nun, where she spent the rest of her life in a monastery.

Relationships between the Italians and the Ottomans left a trace on the names of several places. The Venetian caravansary Fondaco dei Turchi, where the modern-day Natural History Museum of the city is housed, hosted Turkish merchants since 1621. The Turkish bay in Otranto is linked to unhappy memories of war and death. The cliffs called Turkish stairs (Scala dei Turchi) in Realmonte, Sicily, and the Turkish towers of guard located all over the Italian coasts still stand there vigilantly waiting for unpredictable dangers.

From the north to the south we still hear Turkish surnames, related to different years and stories. Some of the names are Turko, Turk, Del Turco, Lo Turco, Turcone, Turcovich (in the northern Friuli region), Turchelli,Turchetti, Turchini, Turcato (in Venice), and Turco, Turci, Turchio,Turchieri, Turchieschi, Turchiaro (in the south in Sicily and Calabria).

Several unexpected Turkish words entered the Italian language; even those that have not been accepted in the official Italian language are still used in local dialects. The term "bailamme," for example, means noise of people brought together and comes from the Turkish word "bayram," which is a term used to indicate both the religious celebration after the Ramadan month and a sacrificial feast. In Venetian dialect, a lifeboat is called "caicco," from the Turkish word "kayık," which means "boat." In Genoese dialect the word "camallo," from the Turkish word "hamal" actually originates from Arabic, meaning a carrier who works in the harbor. "Cardascio," from the Turkish word "kardeş," which means brother and, more literally, womb mate, in Neapolitan dialect means "friend."

I would like to conclude with this beautiful word, "kardeş." After considering the long history of beneficial but sometimes uncertain and troubled relationships between the Italians and Turks, this word wants to be a wish of friendship with people who live just over there on the same sea and, despite religious and cultural differences, share with us more than we think: Historical contacts, temperament, physiognomy, tastes and a certain way of life and a system of values that are typically Mediterranean. Actually, in Italy we also say, "Italians and Turks: One face, one race."

* Masters' Degree, Turkish Folk Literature, Istanbul University

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