Turkophilia and the common life: a pledge, a bond, and a very special appeal

Exactly one hundred years to the day – the story of a British Scots-Irish family who learnt to love Turkey, of two rosaries and of a silver Koran. Bianet Turkish. Cumhuriyet.

Nigel Osborne
12 December 2017

An Anzac soldier gives water to a wounded Turk. Photograph taken circa 1916. Wikicommons Gallipoli file. Some rights reserved.December 7 – 9,1917, exactly 100 years ago, were portentous days for my family. My maternal grandfather Sidney was seriously wounded and badly gassed at the battle of Cambrai. According to my grandmother, it was the “last day of the battle", so it would have been December 8. Not surprisingly, some days later he had a heart attack. The incident is missing from the military archives, but it is recorded at the military hospital in Eastbourne where he arrived on December 28,1917.

This was not the first time he had been wounded. He had been shot in the right-leg thigh during the battle of the Somme, some time between September 26 – 30,1916, and had also suffered a gunshot wound (GSW) in late August or early September 1915 at Gallipoli. He was shot by a Turkish sniper. The soldier was either a very good marksman or a very bad one, because he shot my grandfather in the wrist. It was not life-threatening, but he would not be able to hold a gun for some time, and was evacuated to hospital in Malta, arriving there aboard HS Guildford Castle on September 12,1915. The Turkish sniper probably saved his life – the endgame at Gallipoli was of course horrendous.

My maternal grandfather was a loyal soldier, but with his Irish, working-class, leftwards-leaning background, he was no lackey of the British Establishment. According to my uncle, he thought the Gallipoli campaign was a “preposterous arrogance”. His view was that the Turks could easily have overrun the British Empire and French forces. But chose to avoid a massacre. According to my grandfather’s interpretation of events, they decided to “contain” the British in the hope they would see sense. He thought the Turks were “honourable people” and “real gentlemen”. He was particularly impressed that Turkish soldiers had thrown food and cigarettes across the lines for the beleaguered British troops. In spite of his wound, he became the first of my family’s Turkophiles, and remained so for the rest of his life. Particularly impressed that Turkish soldiers had thrown food and cigarettes across the lines for the beleaguered British troops… he became the first of my family’s Turkophiles, and remained so for the rest of his life.

On December 9,1917, at the moment my maternal grandfather was lying on a stretcher somewhere in Cambrai, his brother, my great uncle Dick, was entering Jerusalem with Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

It was also foul weather – cold and raining hard – as if a gloomy grey cloud hung over what was left of five hundred years’ rich and colourful history. In the text of his surrender Izzat, Mutasarrif of Jerusalem wrote: “Due to the severity of the siege of the city and the suffering that this peaceful country has endured from your heavy guns; and for fear that these deadly bombs will hit the holy places, we are forced to hand over to you the city through Hussein al-Husayni, the mayor of Jerusalem, hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years.”

With all due respect to rights of the children born on the land since then, Jerusalem was never again as peaceful or as harmonious a place as it had been under Hussein al-Husayni, the man who paved the streets, created the city’s modern infrastructure and founded the Red Crescent Society to foster Arab-Jewish understanding in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire. “Hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years”…

The Ottoman Empire had its low points, some very low indeed. But looking in from the outside, as empires go, it had a certain wisdom, tolerance and humanity. Above all, the Turks respected the “common life”; in Ottoman lands there were many mixed communities, largely accepting of religious differences: from Bosnia to Mesopotamia and the Sahel, church domes and steeples and synagogue clocks frequently stood side by side with minarets. The millet system allowed for a religious autonomy without sectarian division. In many places this cohesive social atmosphere remained long after the empire had crumbled. Only in 1990s was the Bosnian common life broken (I hope and expect not for long); and now, for the time being, the Syrian common life is being broken as I write these words.

The more my great uncle Dick experienced the campaign in Palestine, the more he learnt to respect the culture of his “enemies” and he too joined the ranks of my family’s Turkophiles.

At the same moment, one hundred years ago, when Dick was drinking arak in Jerusalem, and my maternal grandfather was lying in the mud of Cambrai, a Scottish soldier was tending to a wounded Turkish soldier lying in the desert somewhere near Tikrit. My paternal grandfather, James, had travelled from Bangalore through Bombay in April 1917 and arrived in Basra on May 1.

He was first of all posted to Baghdad, then sent for several months to patrol the desert, where he got to know his Turkish “enemy” at close quarters. There were numerous skirmishes, and far from centres of military command, there were informal exchanges of prisoners, and even fraternising.

In November he fought in the battle of Tikrit, the last major battle of the war in Mesopotamia. Once Commander Ismail Hakki Bey had withdrawn his troops, the British were not particularly interested in occupying the town, so my grandfather James was once again assigned to desert patrols, shadowing the retreating Ottoman army. It was during this time that he found the wounded soldier; in fact he assisted several Turkish soldiers – it was his way – but this one was special. After my grandfather had helped him find a more comfortable position, dressed his wounds as best he could, and had given him the water left in his bottle to drink, the Turkish soldier, with maybe his last burst of strength, tore a silver Koran on a delicate chain from around his neck and gave it to my grandfather. It was a moment that was to have an impact on three generations of my family, and still impacts on me personally, to these very days in December 2017.

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 13.48.03.png

James Osborne Mesopotamia 1917 Of course I do not know the exact moment this happened, but my grandfather, who liked to tell this story, always said it was “a few weeks after the battle of Tikrit”. The battle of Tikrit was over on or around November 5,1917, so a “few weeks” would take us into early December 1917. According to my grandfather’s military record, he was back in Basra before the end of December, ready to be transferred to the Royal Engineers in preparation for the construction of the Basra-Baghdad railway, so he cannot have been in the area of Tikrit much later than mid-December. Somewhere around or between December 7 – 9 would be the most plausible and of course the most “romantic” supposition.

My paternal grandfather was the biggest, most ardent Turkophile in my family. He had admired the Turks in battle – their toughness and their courage, and appreciated their personal qualities in peace: their dignity in relative poverty, and their passion and generosity. He would lecture me when I was a small boy, telling me the Turks were “the most noble people walking the earth”. Of course this had a huge impact on my young mind. Eventually, when he saw what kind of person I was going to be, he gave me the Koran. He would lecture me when I was a small boy, telling me the Turks were “the most noble people walking the earth”… Eventually, when he saw what kind of person I was going to be, he gave me the Koran.

I visited Turkey as soon as I could. I arrived in beautiful, exciting Istanbul as a hitch-hiker when I was 17 years old, and carried on to explore the Middle East. On the way home, I stumbled on an unexpected resonance of Turkish culture in former Yugoslavia – in Bosnia. I fell in love with the music of Sevda, and have sung it ever since. Sevda is the music of the Bosnian common life, with influences from the music of the Adriatic, the Slavs, the Magyars, the Roma, the Ladino Jews, Italian opera and Viennese Romanticism. But the core is Ottoman: the Turkish makams and a moving poetic language of words derived from Turkish, or Arabic by way of Turkish – words like akšam (akşam - evening), bulbul (bülbül - nightingale), dilber (dilber - a beautiful person, in Sevda, “lover”), kara-krzli (kara-kirmizi - black-red), šadrvan {şadırvan - marble fountain) or zeman (zaman - time). In 2007 I wrote what is probably the first Sevda opera; I was given permission to do so by the leading Bosnian Sevda musicians – they said they were too close to the tradition to do it – it would need someone both close and far away. In 2007 I wrote what is probably the first Sevda opera; I was given permission to do so by the leading Bosnian Sevda musicians… it would need someone both close and far away.

The silver Koran became a talisman in my life and the life of my family. And what it represents has become almost a pledge or a bond. As a family we see ourselves, in our small and very humble way, as friends of Islam. This commitment has been tested over the last 30 years or so, as Islamic communities, and the “common lives” associated with them, have suffered horrendous violence and injustice. I believe I was responding to the call of the silver Koran when I supported the Bosnian Government during the genocide. I had the privilege of working as a volunteer directly for leading politicians (for example Haris Silajdžić, Foreign Minister and Zlatko Lagumdžija, acting Prime Minister) and even of helping write speeches for President Alija Izetbegović.

In Sarajevo during the siege, I saw the horror inflicted on children – so working with Bosnian artist friends I helped to develop a music and creative arts therapeutic programme for children and young people that was well received and appeared to be successful; it has since become a standard intervention. It is the work with which I have attempted to keep the pledge and the bond, working in Kosova, Chechnya, the Palestine Authority, and most recently in Lebanon and Syria. In Lebanon I work with a wonderful NGO called SAWA for Development and Aid. They are all young people and they were the first to help Syrian refugees arriving in the Bekaa Valley in 2011. SAWA is entirely inclusive. Our CEO, Rouba Mhaissen, describes herself, as “Sushi” (she is of mixed Sunni and Shia heritage). We also have Druze, Christians, Sufi, Buddhists and atheists. But the driving force is a beautifully creative and dynamic Islam. It is the most loving and effective organisation I have ever worked for. Great things get done and impossible tasks are achieved on the wings of good spirit and good faith. SAWA get by on far too little ad hoc funding, but make a major impact on the lives of refugees in the Bekaa Valley. I shall be travelling back to SAWA and the Bekaa when I leave Istanbul on December 9. SAWA is entirely inclusive. Our CEO, Rouba Mhaissen, describes herself, as “Sushi” (she is of mixed Sunni and Shia heritage).

I have a great team of Syrians working with the children. Mahmoud is from Ma’loula and speaks Arabic and Syriac as well as the closely related Aramaic, the language of Christ. I remember asking Mahmoud why he carries two rosaries in his pocket. He showed them to me: one was a normal string of beads – a misbaha, the other had a small cross attached to it. I asked him why he carried both a Muslim and Christian rosary in his pocket. He replied, “I come from Ma’loula. I love my town. For centuries Muslims and Christian have lived together in peace. This is my way of expressing my love for my town.”

The common life of Syria thrived under the Ottomans. It is now under massive threat. The dynamics of the cruel war in Syria have been directed, both intentionally and unintentionally, towards dividing communities. The great powers that have meddled in this conflict have had little idea of the consequences for Syria and the world. We have allowed the tacit campaign against the common life, and a related campaign-by-default to go on much too long and far too far. The common life is not a sentimental delusion. It is in reality as hard as nails. It is the only way people can live. Those who have tried to live differently – from Nazi atrocities to the Russian pogroms – have perished, and perished violently. We cannot deprive our children of the clear air and healthy human eco-system of the common life. The common life is not a sentimental delusion. It is in reality as hard as nails. It is the only way people can live.

I have come to Istanbul because I am my grandfather’s grandson. Exactly a hundred years ago, my grandfather James tended to a Turkish soldier lying wounded in the desert. I have come a hundred years later to try to help another Turkish soldier in distress. He is not a soldier of war; he is a soldier of peace. His name is Osman Kavala – Osman Bey. If I think of my two grandfathers’ descriptions of the Turks as “honourable people”, “real gentlemen” and “the most noble people walking the earth” then Osman Bey fits the description in every detail. He is a man of the highest principle. He is scrupulously honest, rigorously truth-seeking, brilliantly effective in everything he does, devotedly caring and magnificently generous. Osman Bey is a wonderful ambassador for Turkish culture and for the values of empathy, passion, justice, tolerance and human dignity that characterise the Turkish way of life.

He is now in prison, apparently accused of in some way undermining the state. His friends know that this is impossible. He may well have been active using culture and the arts to improve relations between Turkey and its neighbours, but his friends are witnesses to the fact that this has been done in a spirit of pure patriotism and full loyalty to the Government and legislature of Turkey.

I have brought two things with me to Istanbul. The first is a petition from ten leading international activists in the world of culture and peace-making. We believe that the arrest of Osman Bey is simply a mistake. We appeal to President Erdogan, Prime Minister Yildirim and the Grand National Assembly to review this case as a matter of urgency; if the indictment, whatever it is, can be filed quickly, it will at least give Osman Bey the chance to defend himself.

The second thing I have brought to Istanbul is the silver Koran. One family means nothing in relation to the might of Turkey, but we have kept faith with you for three generations and a hundred years. Please keep faith with us and make sure Osman Bey is dealt with justly. In the name of an old Ottoman soldier’s silver Koran, please either release him, or at least file the indictment.


Nigel talking to Osman (left) at the Salzburg Global Seminar, 2014. All rights reserved.

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