Turkish Coffee Evenings

Gül Baba Street, Budapest, from here

When Hungarian-Turkish relations and the common elements of the past of the two nations are mentioned, most Hungarians will surely remember two things: the period of Ottoman dominion (1526-1686), and the legendary Turkish hospitality, with which the Hungarian kardeșler (brothers) are received all over Turkey, from the Istanbul bazaar to Antalya.

Nevertheless, Hungarian-Turkish relations do not end here. They reach much farther, both in space and time. Its first period, long before the arrival of the Hungarian tribes to the Carpathian Basin around 896, is attested not only by our Turkic linguistic heritage, already mentioned by us, but also by the many common features in our folk music, researched by Béla Bartók, and, more recently, by János Sipos. These musical parallels have been impressively broadcast to a wider audience by the Moroccan-born Hungarian folk singer Majda Mária Guessous.

The Turkish folk song “Kurt paşa çıktı Gozan'a” (Kurt Pasha enters Kozan), collected by Béla Bartók in Osmaniye, and a Hungarian version collected by Zoltán Kodály in Hontfüzesgyarmat: “Üveg az ablakom, nem réz” (My window is glass, not copper), performed by Majda Mária Guessous. See here its video.

This Oriental heritage contrasts sharply with the hundred and fifty years of Ottoman dominion, whose indirect impact is still felt, and which, strictly speaking, started a little earlier, and ended a little later than in public opinion: the earlier with the successful siege of Belgrade in 1521, and the later, with the Treaty of Požarevac in 1718, when the Ottoman rule was abolished even in the last territory of historical Hungary, in the Banat of Temes. And the time brackets direct relationships, which can be further broadened, from the first military contacts in the 1370s and the subsequent development of the southern fortress system, to the “last Hungarian-Turkish war” which ended in 1791.

The survival of the memories of the hostilities in the 19th century was increasingly joined by a new pro-Turkish approach, together with contemporary politics (as we also mentioned in connection with Sándor Kégl’s Persian journey), as a new chapter of the modern idea of nationalism and a quest for the nation’s historical roots. This quest, as well as the popular 19th-century Orientalism, was the source of Hungary’s vigorous Oriental studies. Interestingly, although the knowledge gained during the Central Asian trips of Arminius Vámbéry gave an impetus to the idea of Pan-Turanism, this was never as strong in Hungary as in Finland or Japan, where it enjoyed high popularity (in pre-war Finland the association had forty thousand members), or Turkey, where, for some time, it was the official ideology.

All this and much more was discussed by Pál Fodor, Turcologist and historian, Director General of the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in his lecture “Hungarians and Turks in each other’s eyes”, held on 3 December in a series of Turkish Coffee Evenings, organized in the Bobula Palace by the Yunus Emre Enstitüsü, the Turkish cultural institute named after the 14th-century Turkish Sufi mystic poet.

The now four-year-old series began, in an exemplary manner, as a civil initiative. Ildikó Rüll, and Ágnes Tóth, graduates of English studies and international studies, respectively, organize it from month to month with great enthusiasm and love for Turkish culture. As a result, the series has by now become the flagship of the Turkish Cultural Institute of Budapest. Before the lecture, we talked to them about the Coffee Evenings, and Ágnes Tóth, who in the meantime has become a full-time colleague of the Institute, also spoke about its operation.

Ágnes Tóth

When was the Institute founded, what are its main objectives and programs?

Ágnes Tóth: The Institute was officially opened in September 2013, but we had already organized a number of cultural programs before that. The Coffee Evenings series was the first program held in this building. We also have other regular monthly events, like the Turkish film evenings, or a “Yunus Emre Conversations”, in Turkish only. We also have some special events, and take part in such popular programs, like the Night of Museums, but we also aim at collaborating with other popular event venues and academic institutions. In March we had a “Gül Baba Day”, where we organized a joint conference with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as well as an off-site concert. In addition, we also teach Turkish. Perhaps we are different from other similar institutions, that our language teachers can be only Turkish. I mean, now we also have a Hungarian teacher, but he also learned in Turkey, and we demand our teachers to have academic qualifications in Turkish universities, and to have graduated in Turkish language and/or literature.

What is the age distribution of the audience in the coffee evenings and the other events of the Institute?

Á. T.: This really depends on the programs. For example, the film evenings are visited by lots of young people, but the audience of the coffee evenings is variable, from university students to people in their seventies. Similarly, in the dance house and language courses, we have students from the high school to over seventy. So it is very diverse. We of course try to reach out to the young generation, but we do not want to efface scientific topics. In the field of music we also want to show a broad spectrum, from classical through folk to jazz. We have had all kinds of concerts.

How did the coffee evenings start? How did the idea come?

Ildikó Rüll

Ildikó Rüll: Both Ági and I lived in Turkey, both of us fell in love with its culture, and both came home very enthusiastic, looking for the occasions to encounter this culture also at home. We met at one of these events, and we decided to organize something regular. This is how the coffee house talks were organized on every first Wednesday. We wanted to establish an informal talk evening, choosing one topic for each occasion from this huge, culturally diverse palette, to which we invite an expert, but we ask him to only introduce the theme in thirty minutes, and the rest is based on the questions of the audience, so these evenings are usually very interactive. I remember we started with eight participants, sitting on the top of a little tea house, it was very cozy. Later, the rumor spread, everyone invited more people, we wandered from place to place for a while, and since last February we are stably here. The institute was not yet officially open then, but we were happy, because this is the best place for this series, and they were also happy, because this is still the flagship event of the institute. We are glad that we managed to form a pretty good base over four years, we meet many returning faces, a community has been formed, and we also learn from these nights, because none of us is a Turkish expert. The themes are developed according to what interests us, but the audience can also suggest topics.

Á. T.: And it is also important, in which topic we find a lecturer, because there are a lot of themes that interest us, but there is no expert in it.

Why exactly the Turkish culture?

Á. T.: We still do not know the answer to this question. (laughing)

I. R.: I used to answer that there are things you do not necessarily have to rationally explain.

Á. T.: We have no Turkish family bonds. Our story was just so much, that both of us went to Turkey and fell in love with it. I was there first at a summer university organized by a student organization. It was then that I fell in love with the country, and since then I have tried to go back as often as possible.

I. R.: And my first time was a private journey. Maybe this is why the Turkish coffee evenings are so successful, because we look at it in a different light, in fact everyone is an outsider. This is why we intend to organize informal lectures, which are intentionally different from university lectures. We always tell at the beginning, that there are no bad questions, everyone can ask anything or comment on anything, they should not be afraid to share their opinions and thoughts. Our aim is to get more people to endear to this culture. Or if someone thinks that he or she is only interested in the Turkish crafts, but not in history, then after a couple of events we can show him that history and literature can also be interesting, so we can broaden the horizons of those who are already interested in the subject at some level.

What do you know, how much you are known in Turkey?

Á. T.: News about the institute regularly appear in Turkey, since there are a number of news agencies, and their local representatives regularly come to our events, report on them, and some of their reports are published, some other not. The institute’s first birthday was for example very much heralded in Turkey, but I do not know whether the coffee evenings were also mentioned.

I. R.: I think not yet, but fortunately in Hungary increasingly more people speak about us, which we are very happy about, because this started as an absolutely civil initiative, no one was behind us. This is a good news story, how one can start such an event in collaboration with others.

It was surely not simple to finance it, especially in the beginning…

Á. T: Yes, initially we went to places where we did not have to pay rent, and we always bought chocolate on our own money for the lecturers, who, by the way, present completely without pay. And then, as the event grew larger, we had to go to locations where you had to pay rent, had to pay for the technology, the sound, the projector. We solved this by visiting several Turkish businessmen – not just one sponsor, because in this way they probably would have not supported us, but a different person each month, who paid that small rental fee for us, and in exchange we of course indicated their logo and announced their names. But there were also some occasions when we could find no sponsor, then we collected donations. As Ildi also said, we had many recurrent guests, who saw that we had been working on this for many years, and that we really loved to do this. We put a small box at the entrance, and we said that if they liked the evening, they should contribute with as much as they wanted…

I. R.: …and in fact, everyone contributed with fifty cents, one euro, and thus we collected the amount for the next location rent. Thus we were able to organize the next occasion with them and for them.

How did you choose the sponsors? Did you for example try to find a sponsor who could be linked to the subject of the evening?

Á. T.: No, we looked for them only on the basis of acquaintance.

I. R.: Since we both did this along with our major work, it was not so consciously considered along a thematic line. Now, as Ági works in the institute, we also try to adjust the coffee evenings to the themes of the institute, which change every month or two months.

What are your future plans? Do you also plan other programs, for example urban tours focusing on the Ottoman monuments of Budapest?

Á. T.: The regular events will go on in the Institute, and we will certainly participate in the Night of Museums. As until now, we will seek to find a special theme for each month. Next May, for example, will be special, because it will focus on gastronomy, there will be traditional breakfasts, dinners, cooking courses.

I. R.: Many people come to us and say, how good it would be if we organized such a urban tour, so we consider it. In reality, everything depends on human resources, whether we can focus on this as well, and have enough energy to organize it. But it would be very good, so, that a community has been already formed through the coffee evenings, on which we can already build.

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Photos by Dániel Végel on the evening, from the Facebook site of Yunus Emre Budapest.