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Rumi: The story of a devshirme

Mete Aygün


Historical Fiction

Kırmızı Kedi, 240 pages

The story of those who were called by one name when they were born and another when they died... This unusual historical novel shows the birth pangs, growth and transformation of the Ottoman Empire not through the wars, pacts and power but through the stories of ordinary people.

RUMI is a story of a metamorphosis. A story that begins in the 14th century in a remote village in the Balkans and ends somewhere in Anatolia. The novel tells the story of a young boy, born in a small Serbian village, who starts his life with the name Darko, is taken from his home, and grows up in the Ottoman lands, whose language, and customs he knows nothing about, flourishes and gradually turns into a young devshirme named Hayrettin, and becomes "Rumi" adopting the rules of Ottoman Empire.

The book covers a wide range of topics from military organisation to settlement politics, from customs and traditions to the ordinary habits of daily life in the Ottoman Empire. While Darko, the protagonist of the book, transforms into Hayrettin, and a member of the Ottoman army called Janissaries, he also accompanies the transformation of the Ottoman Empire. The author skillfully presents these parallel growing pains. This book is an impressive product of a comprehensive and detailed study spanning 15 years.


Can you tell us what Rumi is?

Rumi is the story of a transformation. This is the story of a small child who starts his life as Darko but goes on living as Hayrettin, a devshirme, who at an early age is taken from the homeland he was born and raised in, brought to a foreign land whose language and customs he is clueless of and transformed into a completely different person. But we are not only faced with Darko’s transformation to Hayrettin, his adventure is also the story of a land and a period, because almost every new character we come across in this story has a similar story of personal change. Farm steward Dursun turns from an ex-soldier who spent his years in one war or another without setting roots anywhere to a farmer tightly rooted in the land. Lady Dudu who used to be an unlucky woman, born far away and not very attractive ends up as a wise “mother” who lost her will to live but found inner peace after all she went through. Almost everyone goes through such a metamorphosis.  Through these life stories piling on top of each other, we reach the hidden story: Just like the people breathing its air, the country we live in changes, even if its memories are far behind. It’s the inner transformation of individuals one by one, and the macro transformation of the land and time they lived in that is at issue.

Considering your emphasis on change and devshirme, I wonder if there was a message you wanted to get across in Rumi?

There isn’t a single message. But the main message could be that what we call the “past” isn’t much different from the present. When you brush aside the usual historical characters and events, and take a look at the story hidden behind, you can find today, real people, usual lives, daily happenings, passion, grief and fear, all too familiar. That’s what’s natural. But official histories are synthetic! The heroes whose stories we read in Rumi are people whose names we won’t come across in the pages of history. This is the story of a few of the thousands of unknown heroes who became ‘Rumified’ while shaping the demographic composition of the land we have lived in throughout history. When you look carefully, you will realise that none of them are “heroes” at all, you can see all of them in daily life.

The period in which Rumi takes place is a bit outside of the usual historical narratives. Was there a special reason for choosing this period?

We can call it an interwar period, between the battles of Kosovo (1389) and Ankara (1402). The Ottoman state is not yet an empire. But after Istanbul is taken it will embark on that path. But that’s just around the corner and that’s felt immensely. Maybe, if not for Timur, Bayezid the Thunderbolt would be remembered as Beyazid the Conqueror and he rather than his youngest grandson would carry the title of Kayser-i Rûm. Though Ottoman Beys weren’t seen as ‘noble’ by other Beys, Beyazid had complete authority and overcame his position as first among equals to become that one who dictated a sultanate, in other words, the Sultan. The defeat would go on to ruin everything and his heirs would only be allowed to carry the title of çelebi for some time.

Unfortunately, in our history, this is a period of shame. We don’t like to talk about it at length or produce stories about what happened in that period. Despite it not being a dark period at all (because the first written documents about Ottoman history will emerge in this period and become a source for future histography) it appears to be purposely (or due to the lack of knowledge) put in the dark.

Without further ado, let me say this: What’s real is real. I personally did not refrain from facing up to reality and chose this period knowingly and willingly. While doing this, I choose to read it through the lens of common people.

In which land does this story take place?

The pre-Interregnum Ottoman realm. A bit of Anatolia, a bit of Balkan lands to the shores of the Danube. But it mainly takes place in the Sanjak of Hüdavendigâr, so Bursa. Bursa because back then every dynamic of the Ottoman world emerged from Bursa, the “state” was there. Gradually Edirne would go on to take the place of Bursa. Not long after, in the first days of the Interregnum… Every institution of the state would be moved to the other side of the water. Despite it having no economic superiority over Bursa, it was probably thought that Edirne was much more secure. This passion or fear was that strong, even after the fall of Istanbul many Padishahs including Fatih chose to spend their days in Edirne. But in the chronological time frame of our novel, Bursa was the core of the House of Islam and its crown jewel.

A double-layered flow is found in the novel. Firstly, our ‘hero’ tells of the situation he finds himself in. In the other part, we read both his and his surroundings’ story from a general perspective. Did you choose this style rather than a straightforward flow in order to put forward the ‘message’?

When it had begun to be written, it was single ‘layered’. It went on from the perspective of the narrator and in the simple past tense, later on, the tense changed. There is no issue in writing like this, it’s a solid way and you can write forever. But as the novel breed and its size increased, I started to think that the readings I did (I read it hundreds of times) started to turn into ones as monotonous as a metronome, rhythmic and passively consumed, almost becoming a spectacle. I like to reproduce the narrative, digging between the lines of texts. Hence, it was important to give this chance to my own text and at that stage I felt that the text was lacking. It could be good to add a new narrator, meaning a new ordinate, who could break this horizontal spread and form the bulk of the text. No one could be more fitting for this purpose than Hayrettin.

What’s the advantage of breaking up the rhythm? To alienate the reader and absorb the reader into the perception (we can also call this the message). I observed this obviously in readings of friends and family, I was faced with various reactions. As you would expect, I liked that a lot.

The second layer relieved the text because the construct gained a dialectical form, which is simultaneously economic and gives freedom in the chronological make-up of the chapters. Now, you don’t need to be realistic in the plane of time. The two narrators pass the ball to each other, in addition to flashbacks and flashforwards, like those between the childhood and adulthood of Hayrettin, occasional elaborations of the stories of other characters, creating different narrative units while the context, in other words, the structure, manages to stay in its place. So far, the impression I got from the readers is that the text is read fast and this is very good because it means that one of the structural aims is achieved.

How long did it take you to write Rumi? Considering you conducted research since it tells of a historical period, how much time did Rumi’s own story extend over?

Quite long. It started in the early 2000s in Paris. Actually, it didn’t start as a novel. Originally it was a radio play. But as time passed it changed on its own. So, the text itself, like the characters, contains a story of transformation. While, early on the text flowed like clockwork, it increasingly became harder. Because there was a lot to read. While writing a novel you can tell whatever you want, the work can be condoned, saying ‘After all it’s just a novel’. But if your text is in the ‘historical’ category one needs to research good and not present things that didn’t happen as if they had happened. As such, a lot of reading and research had to be done. As gaps entered the process, it took a lot of time to write “the end”. More or less 15 years…

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