Giancarlo Casale (ed.), Osman of Timişoara, Prisoner of the Infidels: The Memoir of an Ottoman Muslim in Seventeenth-Century Europe (University of California Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit, translate, and introduce this book?
Giancarlo Casale (GC): Prisoner of the Infidels is the first-person account of a young Ottoman soldier who, taken prisoner a few years after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683, spent more than a decade as an enslaved captive in Christian Europe. Written when the author was an old man, many years after his escape and safe return to Ottoman territory, it ranks as the first book-length autobiography ever composed in Ottoman Turkish. It is also one of the only Ottoman slave narratives to survive from the early modern period, providing an intimate account of daily life in early modern Europe from the unique perspective of a Muslim captive.
None of this would matter much, however, if it was not also an exceptionally compelling text to read. Although Osman of Timişoara led an extraordinary life, it is even more extraordinary that, with only a rudimentary formal education and virtually no cultural models to guide him, he was able to write the story of his own life in such an engaging way. He was truly a gifted writer, as well as a literary pioneer who created a new genre essentially from scratch. So my goal in editing and translating the book was simply to make this remarkable text available to a wider audience in English, and providing some context about the time and place in which it was produced.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
GC: At its heart, this is an adventure story, with fight scenes, intrigues, unexpected plot twists, cliffhanger endings, and a cast of colorful characters. But it is also at times unexpectedly intimate and introspective. In telling his tale, Osman also addresses quite profound themes related to identity, self-discovery through alienation, and whether it is even possible to fully “return home” after an experience of enslavement.
Another highly unique aspect of Osman’s writing is that his story is populated by a number of deeply complex female characters. These women enter the narrative in all kinds of ways: as villains, victims, accomplices, love interests, slave owners… there is even a woman who cross-dresses as a man to enroll as a dragoon in the Habsburg military. All of them are portrayed as complicated, three-dimensional characters, to an extent that I would say has no real parallels in other contemporary examples of Ottoman literature.
And in case you were wondering, the book also has some unusually frank erotic scenes too—involving Osman’s encounters with both men and women.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
GC: This is the first time I have ever done a literary translation (at least one that is book-length), and its content is quite different from my previous work, which has largely been about the history of maritime exploration, cartography, warfare at sea, and so forth. Still, there is an underlying connection with my earlier work too, in the sense that as an Ottoman historian I am fundamentally interested in connections between the Ottoman empire and the larger history of the early modern world.
Too much of what we know about early modern history is still based on the accounts of Europeans who, as merchants, diplomats, explorers—but also as captives—travelled to various places in the world and later returned home to write about their experiences. Osman’s account is a rare example of “reversing the gaze,” giving us a glimpse of what history would look like if the available sources were not so overwhelmingly Eurocentric. That is the fundamental reason that I decided it was important to try my hand at translating the text. But in the end I enjoyed the experience tremendously, to the extent that I became really attached to Osman at an emotional level. Now that the translation is finished and I do not spend time with him anymore, I really miss him!
J: Do you have a favorite part of Osman’s book?
GC: It is difficult to choose, but for me the most meaningful sections are the ones in which Osman recounts his final escape back to Ottoman territory. These are episodes dripping with contradictions; they begin with Osman realizing that, although the war has ended, his owners have no intention of freeing him because they have become too attached to let him go. So, he forges his own emancipation papers and, after a decade spent proudly refusing to forsake Islam, decides to pretend to be a Christian convert in order to safely make his way close enough to the border to make his escape. But he is racked by self-doubt over his “betrayal” of his master—to the point that his owner’s wife eventually appears in a dream and reassures him about his choice.
The tension steadily builds as Osman approaches the border, facing an ever greater risk of betrayal or recapture. Finally, without giving too much of the ending away, he makes the final dash to the Ottoman side in a crescendo of excitement, only to discover, once safely across, that the border is an illusion, as is any solidarity he expected to find among his fellow Muslims on the other side. In short, it is a richly ambivalent and profoundly subversive way to end what might otherwise have been a simple, one-dimensional tale of resilience in the face of adversity. It is one of the reasons the book stays with you long after you have finished reading it—or at least that was my experience, as a translator.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
GC: Osman’s memoir is one of the few—maybe the only—literary sources in Ottoman Turkish that almost anybody could honestly pick up and enjoy, regardless of their background or level of interest in the specific topic. If you are into historical memoir, travel literature, slave narratives, the history of gender and sexuality, or even if you just enjoy a good adventure story like the Count of Monte Cristo or Papillon, there is something in this book for you.
So I hope his book gets as many readers as possible, and also that people can appreciate it for its literary merits. As far as we can tell, Osman’s text was read by almost no one during his own lifetime, and his text was completely forgotten for more than a century after his death, only to be rediscovered by Western Orientalists in the late nineteenth century. Even today, to the extent that Osman’s text is known among scholars, there is a strong tendency to read it as a historical “source” that can be mined for information in a very straightforward way. But there is no question in my mind that Osman was a literary innovator and a master of narration, and I did this translation so that English-speaking readers would have the chance to appreciate him as such.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
GC: I am working on several different things at the moment, but the one most relevant to Osman’s book is a study of Ottoman diplomats and their travel accounts during the period referred to (sometimes controversially) as the “Tulip Age,” which also happens to be the time that Osman wrote his memoir. Of course, there were already plenty of Ottoman diplomats visiting various places in the world during earlier periods of history, but—strange though it may seem—they did not routinely sit down and write about their experiences when they came home. Or at least, if they did, their writings have not survived. But all of a sudden, right around the year 1720, Ottoman ambassadors started to write quite detailed accounts of their travels to a whole range of different places: France, Russia, Iran, Austria, Sweden, India, and so on. Individually, they are fascinating accounts, but collectively they form a truly unique body of sources: as far as I know, outside of Western Europe they are the only serial collection of diplomatic travel reports from anywhere in the world before the nineteenth century. And they have not really been systematically studied as a group, so there is plenty of room for new work to be done.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5: "Respite," pp. 68-70)
A few days later, my master decided to resign from his position as regimental tribune and prepared to leave. He planned first to travel to a place called Jasenovac on the Sava River, where he could settle his accounts with the regiment and collect his pay, and from there to continue on to Vienna. I was ordered to ready the horses for this journey. For him, I fitted out his thoroughbred riding horse. For me, there was a miserable black pack mount whose front legs were half crippled, upon which I also loaded a large chest filled with his things.
We set out with two Croatian footmen as guides. On the first day, we left Ivanić and headed toward the Sava River, making good progress. But on the second day, the weather quickly turned wintry, with both rain and snow beginning to fall, such that the roads became flooded and nearly impassable. After a few hours, my horse was exhausted, both from the heavy load and because its front legs were half lame. And since I had neither spurs on my feet nor a riding crop in my hand, I simply could not make him go. My master made the most of my difficulties, shouting, “Carry on, Turk!” and riding up behind me on his powerful horse, striking me two or three times for every blow he dealt my mount.
I was at my wit’s end by the time evening fell and we reached our stopping place. But praise be to Allah! Through His wisdom, the Sava had overrun its banks, making the river crossing to Sisak impossible on horseback. My master decided to cross by boat, and to leave me with the horses in a Croatian village near our second stopping place, where I was lodged with a Croatian family. My master left me under the watch of a regimental supply officer spending the winter there, while he set out for Jasenovac by boat.
In this village, I continued to tend to the horses. But when my work was finished, I had a chance to spend time with my new neighbors and the other villagers, with whom I soon became very intimate. Men and women alike were most eager to talk with me, saying, “A Muslim Turk has come to our village!” Some of them invited me to gatherings, or to their homes to share food and drink. In addition, every day someone from the village would be charged with bringing a meal to my lodgings, and whoever’s turn it was, he would first come and ask, “What would you like to eat?” I would always answer, “Don’t cook anything with pork or pork fat. Anything else you make, I’ll eat!” I also got an okka of wine every day to wash down my meal.
I stayed in that village about fifteen or twenty days and enjoyed myself immensely, even to the point where grown Croatian girls would take me by the hand, one on one side and one on the other, and bring me to their private chambers. They would show me every attention, sitting alone with me for an hour or two in the greatest intimacy, and suggesting songs for me to sing in the Muslim or Bosnian style.
At that time, I myself was still at a tender age, having barely turned eighteen. And while I hardly counted as handsome, neither was I ugly, since every creature in his youth can claim some measure of beauty. At such a stage of life, and under such circumstances, it is no easy task to keep control of oneself when presented with such an opportunity. But the Almighty—exalted be His name!—in His grace and goodness created me bashful, such that I let thousands of perfect opportunities slip by. Then, while reasoning with myself, my libido would scold me, saying, “But the opportunity was there for the taking! Those fresh young girls were right next to you, and you knew how eager and willing they were! If you’d gone to work on them, what of it? You’re a guest here for ten or fifteen days, what else were you waiting for?” And with such thoughts I would be overcome with regret.
Then my judgment would answer these thoughts with more sensible ones, saying, “Here you are nothing but a forsaken captive! If you act improperly and the word gets out, who knows what the laws and customs of this place are, and who can say what will happen if they decide to apply them? For one little moment of pleasure, you could get yourself in a heap of trouble! And what if you spread your seed and leave someone with child, then what?” With such thoughts, together with my aforementioned bashfulness, I held myself back, and a thousand opportunities passed me by.
During this time, because of all the invitations I was receiving, I neglected the horses to the point that they became mangy and malnourished. One day, the supply officer who was lodging me came to see the horses and realized that I had been neglecting my duties. Now my master, when he had left me in this man’s custody, had said: “If my captive fails to take proper care of my horses, teach him a lesson with a good beating!” So the supply officer called me up to his house, saying, “I’ve got something to tell you.” Not suspecting anything, I went over to the house and climbed the stairs, when what should I see but the supply officer carrying a rope and a heavy cudgel into a storage room.
Inside, the supplier had a captive, a ten-year-old boy named Mahmud who was the son of an imam from Lipova. He sent the boy outside, and when he came out I saw that he was in tears. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “My brother,” he said, “my master is about to give you a beating, that’s why I’m crying.” As soon I heard this, I leapt down the stairs and turned left, running back toward the house where I slept, which was four or five houses away. Then, without being seen, I crossed the yard and went into a barn or feeding house in the rear, where I hid beneath some bales of hay.
The supply officer came out, asking everyone, “Where’s the Turk?” They all answered, “He ran away.” Then he came to the house where I was hiding and asked the owners about me. Since they would have protected me even if they had seen me, they said, “We haven’t seen him, we don’t know where he is.” Then the supplier searched every corner of the premises, but couldn’t find me. By this point, he was beside himself, thinking: “Oh, now I’ve really gone and done it! I let the Turk get away, and if he runs off, I’m the one who has to answer to his master!”
In all I stayed hidden in that straw for two days and two nights. Each day, the daughters of the house brought me food and drink. Finally, with their reassurance that the supplier had agreed not to beat me, I came out, and from that point on I took good care of the horses…