Accepted Paper:

The Skull Speaketh in Many Tongues. On the Transposition of the Story of the Speaking Skull in the Turkic World  


Kristof D'hulster (University of Ghent)

Paper long abstract:

The Story of the Speaking Skull - who commonly goes by the name of Jumjuma Sultan - is found throughout the Islamic world, among the Arabs, Kurds, Persians, Pashtuns, Balochi, and Indonesians alike. As the Turkic Islamic world is no exception to this, here too, the skull speaks in many tongues. Indeed, its story has been written down in Khwarezm-Turkic, Ottoman, and Chagatai, and has been sung by the Azeri ʿāşıḳ, the Kazakh öleñşi, and the Uyghur baḫşı.

Rethinking each available text as an instantiation of this widely shared story, this paper starts from the observation that these instantiations hover between a (narrow) translation and a (broad) adaptation. In order to demonstrate this, two unpublished 19th-century manuscripts, one Chagatai-Kazakh and one Chagatai-Uyghur, are juxtaposed and explored in terms of the strategies of transposition applied therein. What translational and adaptational strategies did their respective performers apply while tailoring the story to the needs of their target audience? Building on these data, the paper argues that these transpositional strategies are correlated to a number of variables, such as the socio-linguistic axis of orality-textuality and the socio-religious axis of local/lived-normative/textual Islam.

As such, this paper makes the skull tell not only its own colourful story, but also a vivid story of 19th-century Turkic literature as it moved between oral and written, and of 19th-century Turkic Islam as it moved between yurt and madrasa; in short, a story of the vitality and flexibility of language and religion in a world on the eve of a new era, when boundaries were to be reset radically.

Panel LIT-06
Gender, Identity, Multiculturalism