Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Book of Dede Korkut

I don't remember how I first heard about the Book of Dede Korkut. It could have been in my numerous readings, over the years, about the world's epics. I knew, however, that the Book of Dede Korkut was the national epic of the Turkish people, part of the Islamic epic tradition.

I had a copy of the book for several years but had only managed to glance at its first few pages. This year, I decided to read and teach it in my "Hero and Trickster" course. At the back of my mind, I wondered whether there might be connections between Dede Korkut and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and more interestingly, between it and the Homeric epics. For many years, I have pursued the relationship between the Greek epic tradition and folklore traditions around the Mediterranean and beyond, in view of entrenched, but mistaken, notions about the Homeric epics and Greek culture in general, especially around the question of origins.

There are elements in Dede Korkut that remind us of similar elements in other epics, including the Odyssey. In the story of Goggle-eye, for example, we see echoes of the Cylops story in the Odyssey. More striking, perhaps, are similarities between Dede Korkut and other Islamic epics I know, such as the Utenzi wa Rasi 'l Ghuli of the Swahili. To inspire Swahili readers, I mentioned Dede Korkut on my Swahili blog.

The Book of Dede Korkut is a window on the Oghuz Turks, how they saw and defined themselves and their place in the world. Seeing themselves as Muslims, they are always conscious of their duty to fight the infidels. Their young boys grow up waiting for the day they will go fight the infidels. In any confrontation with infidels, for whatever reason, the Muslims see themselves as fighting for Allah and the Prophet.

We can use the epic of Dede Korkut to examine our own ideologies, such as nationalism. Just as the Muslims in this epic define themselves in opposition to the infidels, just as their Muslim identity depends on the existence of the infidel, we ourselves seem to need enemies, real or imagined, to define and sustain our national identity and nationalism.

After teaching texts based on more familiar world-views, I thought Dede Korkut was a valuable source of understanding the complexity of the world and how different societies define themselves and one another. All the students in my class were non-Muslims. I kept reminding them that according to the Oghuz Turk viewpoint reflected in Dede Korkut, they and I are infidels. We are the enemy. It is valuable for all of us to know and acknowledge how others see us, especially when, as in Dede Korkut, they are so sincere. We invoked Carl Jung's concept of the shadow in efforts to understand this phenomenon.

Teaching Dede Korkut, has broadened my understanding of the epic genre. The poetry is very moving, even in translation. I wonder how much more powerful it is in the original. Aspects of the narrative technique of this epic reminded me of the drama of Bertolt Brecht. I have also learned about the global reach of Dede Korkut, extending, for example, as far as Brazil.

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