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Once There Was, Twice There Wasn't - A Review

Anyone wanting to truly understand Turkish culture would do well to read the book, Once There Was, Twice There Wasn't by Michael Shelton. Knowing the stories, jokes, and tragedies of a culture is one of the keys to understanding the language and learning how to build bridges to the people.

Once There Was, Twice There Wasn't relates fifty insightful stories set in Turkish culture, focusing on Nasreddin Hodja. Author Michael Shelton points out Nasreddin Hodja is a figure known throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, as far as China, Eastern Europe, and from Siberia to North Africa. The difference is that Turks claim him as a Turkish historical figure born in 1208. He lived in Central Anatolia, in Horto village, and his tomb in Akshehir may still be visited. Just that reason places this simple story book on the "must read" list for any serious student of Middle Eastern and particularly Turkish culture.

The author does not explain the culture or the words unique to Turkish culture. However, the subtle aspects of culture shine through clearly and are explained with in the context of the numerous stories.

For example, reflection on the manner in which Nasreddin responds to his enemies will enlighten the observant to see a non-western way to communicate in Turkey and in Middle Eastern culture especially. Not only communication patterns, but the themes of honor and shame are demonstrated consistently in these stories.

Relationships, especially family are highly valued, and the great lengths Nasreddin and his wife go to give hospitality even when they had nothing is still the practice and custom in the Middle East today. Friends, family, and strangers are to be honored and shown hospitality no matter what, and in this honor is given to the host as well.

What I love about these stories of Nasreddin Hodja is the simple wit and wisdom often displayed through Nasreddin's responses - words and actions - in each of the 50 stories. Shelton has consolidated and (re)written well-known stories in an entertaining and lively manner.

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