Anyone who thinks fiction is stranger than non-fiction has not read enough History.
I spent last weekend in the rarefied company of scholars of the Ottoman Empire. I was fortunate to be at a conference-workshop organized by renowned Ottomanist and mentor-par-excellence Prof. Virginia Aksan of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada under the banner “Living Empire: Ottoman Identities in Transition, 1700-1850″. She was ably assisted by Vesel Simsek and Edita Marinic in pulling together a polyglot group of historians from Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Britain, the US, and Canada to explore a critical “middle period” in Ottoman history.
Conferees shared stories of soldiers and rebels, travelers and homebodies, clerics and clerks, governors and prisoners, sultans and domestics, and many more individuals of all walks of life in an effort to get at the meaning and significance of identities. How were people identified and did they identify themselves. How salient were political, ethnic, religious, kinship and occupational categories?
These stories came from all corners of the Empire; from the capital at Istanbul to peripheral towns like Bougie on the Algerian coast; from the lands of the Hungarians and Bulgars in central Europe and the Balkans to the Arab-speaking territory of geographical Syria; from Sarajevo in Bosnia to Homs (yes, that Homs) in Syria; and from the estates of Cyprus to outposts on the frontier with Russia north of the Black Sea.
These stories came from the period of Ottoman expansion in the 15th century to the period of re-centralization in the first half of the 19th. Here is one story which returned to me as I was passed through US passport control.
In 1792, a group of Greek-speaking corsairs who were subjects of the Ottoman sultan and, yet, had been caught in the service of Russians (arch enemies of the Ottomans) went on strike in an Ottoman prison. They were protesting a plan concocted by Russian and Ottoman officials in the aftermath of a war to turn them over to their fellow Christians and former employers, the Russians. “No way!” the Greek prisoners said. They preferred to go back to their homes on the islands of the Aegean (perhaps to resume their piracy) even if it meant converting to Islam, which, in the end, they did. Who were these people? Ottomans? Greeks? Russians? Christians? Muslims? All of the above? A hybrid of two or more of these?
What a difference 200 years makes.
A couple of hours after I heard this story, I was proceeding to the plane for St. Louis from Toronto. I had to present my passport at least a half-dozen times so that American and Canadian officials could ensure that I am whom my passport says I am and nobody else. (On an international trip earlier this year, my eyes were scanned for extra measure).
It is as though my fellow travellers and I were prisoners of a different sort; prisoners of an identification card. Without that card each of us is nobody. Due to an accident– my father’s refugee status and a love affair– I happen to be carrying the platinum card of passports, the passport of passports.
I couldn’t help but think those Greek-speaking pirates who were Ottoman subjects in the employ of the enemy and who had turned from Chrstianity to Islam on a piastre had more options, not to mention the gumption to protest to both Sultan Selim III and to Empress Catherine the Great.