An Ottoman novel: Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi

An Ottoman novel: Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi

William Armstrong -
An Ottoman novel: Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi

Galata Bridge, ca. 1892–1893, photographed by the Abdullah Frères.

‘Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi, An Ottoman Novel’ by Ahmet Mithat Efendi, translated from the Turkish by Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer (Syracuse University Press, 176 pages, $14.95)

One of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most potent strategies is to slam his adversaries as foreign-influenced elites detached from the “real people” and authentic “national values.” His own government’s conservative and Islamic-rooted project, steeped in an idealized version of Ottoman-Turkish glory, is said to be the only legitimate expression of the national will, essentially delegitimizing all rivals. There is nothing unique about this kind of demagogic populism, but in Turkey it is based on cleavages that go back deep into the Ottoman era. 

An Ottoman novel: Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi The question of Westernization and its discontents stretches back at least as far as the advent of the Ottoman Empire’s Tanzimat reforms in 1839. Announced by Sultan Mahmut II, these reforms aimed to reverse the slow decline of the “sick man of Europe” through new institutions influenced by the Napoleonic Code and French law. Modern educational institutes were established throughout the empire, religious minorities were granted greater equality, and legal changes were made based on civil rather than religious law. While many today still credit Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with modernizing the country in a single stroke after establishing the Turkish Republic in 1923, he was actually building on Ottoman foundations.

Defensive modernization was not just a question for statesmen. Ottoman intellectuals from the empire’s many religious communities grappled with how best to adapt strides forward in knowledge made in the West. Facing nationalist movements on the imperial periphery and increasingly rapacious European powers, it was an existential question about the very survival of a society and state that had persisted for over five centuries.

“Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi” by Ahmet Mithat is one of the earliest examples of the Ottoman novel and it is today seen as the representative work of the era. First published in 1875, this didactic book contrasts the lives of the two eponymous central characters to explore possible models of social change. Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi are young men in Istanbul, both comfortable in the Ottoman capital’s fashionable European milieu. Felatun is the spoiled son of a rich man, who provided him with a generous monthly income that he spends lavishly. Thanks to an expensive education he is intelligent, articulate and fluent in French. He has a job as a government official procured through family connections, but he is too busy having fun to show up at the office. Described at various points as a “waster” and an “egotistical vagabond,” (in Melih Levi’s and Monica M. Ringer’s unfussy translation, the first ever to appear in English), Felatun is perhaps the first example in the Ottoman Turkish novel of what would become a familiar type: The alafranga dandy or “züppe,” passively mimicking Western mores.

Rakım, on the other hand, comes from an impoverished background. Through hard work he has managed to gain a post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the irregular salary has forced him to find other means of paying for his continued studies: Tutoring, translating, writing. He is conscientious and disciplined, familiar with European cultural achievements but respectful of local Ottoman traditions. In contrast with the feckless Felatun, Rakım is modest and grounded.

Ahmet Mithat is making a not very subtle point. “When you look at these two young men from the moral point of view… How perfect!” the narrator says playfully at one point. “We are offering you two kinds of morality by showing you the behavior of two young men of our time. You’re free to choose the one you prefer. You’re also free to dislike both of them!” But it is clear which character’s life is preferable: Rakım is rewarded for his thrift and hard work; Felatun’s dissolute lifestyle leads him to ruin. While the general tone of the novel is light-hearted and amusing, it carries a stern moralizing message.

Many of Ahmet Mithat’s contemporaries believed in the wholesale upheaval of Ottoman society in favor of European practices. He was clearly more hesitant. A passage he wrote in 1898 is included as an epigraph to this edition: “If we try to Europeanize only for the sake of becoming European, we shall lose our own character. If we, on the other hand, add the European civilization to our own character, we shall not only preserve, perpetuate, and maintain our character but also fortify and refine it.” Some later intellectuals tried to pigeonhole Ahmet Mithat as a reactionary, opposed to the reforms necessary to save the empire. That is unfair. His ideal figure, Râkım, is worldly and knowledgeable about Western culture, familiar with the positive sciences. He frequents the salons and clubs of fashionable Beyoğlu, but in moderation. He is a modern Ottoman, not a fake European.

Ahmet Mithat himself was an example of the East-West synthesis he advocated. He was born to a family of very modest means in Istanbul’s Tophane in 1844, his father a small-time cloth merchant and his mother a refugee from the Russian Caucasus. He went on to become a prolific author, producing around 250 works including translations. To support his family he set up his own foot-operated printing press at home in 1871 and produced various literary journals. In 1878 he started publishing “Tercüman-ı Hakikat” (Interpreter of Truth), which would appear virtually uninterrupted until 1922.

Ahmet Mithat championed reforms to simplify the Ottoman literary language and was referred to as the “People’s First Teacher.” “Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi” is certainly prescriptive and it doesn’t stand up very well to modern critical scrutiny. But it is a fascinating historical artefact.

* A version of this review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here.