Turks in northern Africa yearn for Ottoman ancestors

Turks in northern Africa yearn for Ottoman ancestors

September 19, 2010, Sunday/ 12:22:00
To the descendants of the Ottoman Turks in northern Africa, today’s Turkey is a continuation of the Ottoman Empire. They are also filled with a tiny bit of resentment, arising from the feeling that they have been “abandoned.” They demand to know why the Turks left them there.We started a journey across the Mediterranean to locate traces of the grandchildren of the Ottomans in North Africa. We started in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, from where we took a minibus-cab to Tunisia, and then to Algeria and Sudan. In every city we traveled, we were surrounded by people holding Ottoman passports, deeds from the days of yore and faded black-and-white pictures of grandparents.

We were actually surprised by the enthusiasm for Turkey, such as the zeal shown by a 60-year-old Algerian man trying to learn Turkish, and a Tripoli woman convinced that she was of Ottoman origin because she has the Turkish word “bey” in her last name. What a magical word Ottoman can be! For many it is almost synonymous with pride and honor. Let’s take a look at these grandchildren of the Ottomans and their bittersweet stories.

Algerians are grandchildren of Barbaros

It is hard to tell if Nasira Bursalı is about to cry or not. How can the feeling of abandonment be transmitted inter-generationally? I am talking to a well-dressed woman who is only in her 30s. She works as an executive in a tourism company. She prefers to speak in French and not Arabic. This indicates a form of elitism that is deep rooted in this country’s history. We are surprised and also crushed under the weight of being treated as “returning Ottomans.” We do not understand why Nasira is so touched by seeing us.

We think of Barbaros (known in the West as Barbarossa) Hayrettin Pasha, the great seaman, pirate and naval commander and the conqueror, architect and father of Algiers. Bursalı and others are the “old Turks” who stayed in Algeria and are today the grandchildren of Hayrettin in the eyes of the Arabs here. How did they get here, and why didn’t they return? In fact, there were scores of immigrants from Anatolia in the 312 years of Ottoman rule in Algeria. The Algerian Turks that we look for today are the grandchildren of those Anatolians. Bursalı lives in Tlemcen, a fertile city of Algeria near the Moroccan border. Her great-grandfather, Muhammed Bursali, ruled for three years in Algeria, when he came here as an Ottoman pasha. Her great-grandmother was from Bursa. “I want to go to Turkey and look for my ancestors. I don’t know what I’ll find, but maybe I’ll find some relatives,” she says.

You have a Bursa lady in Algeria, but how about an İzmir lady? There is, in fact, such a person. Latife İzmir owns a china shop where she sells kitchenware, including glassware from Paşabahçe. She is surprised and happy to see us. Her great-grandfather sailed to Algeria in the 18th century. He was a jeweler and a watchmaker. She tells us: “My father Abdurrahman Bey also did this profession. You should see my father; he is a typical Turk with his complexion and red fez. We grew up listening to news about Turkey in the house. He knew some Turkish words related to food and the names of some traditions from the Ottoman times. He once traveled to Turkey, and the customs officer told him, ‘Your name is not an Algerian name, it is a Turkish name. You are a Turk.’ My mother was from İstanbul, and bulgur, a food that Algerians do not know, was always served in our home.”

Latife Hanım has five brothers who are all married to women of Turkish descent. “I married an Algerian man because I couldn’t find any Turks,” she giggles. Before we leave, she says: “We heard that the Turkish Embassy is trying to locate those of Turkish origin. They say they will give us Turkish citizenship if we go to the embassy. My father has some documents including an old ID that can prove that. What’s more important, our last name is İzmir. Is there anything more important than that?”

Rıza Bey İbrahim

Rıza İbrahim Bey had trouble in school with his teacher up until the day he finished high school, because the teacher would change his name -- spelled Rıza as in Turkish -- to Reda. His teacher would also mock him for being “a Turk who doesn’t speak Turkish,” which was the only thing that offended him. He actually applied to the Turkish Embassy once in the 1990s in the hopes of finding a tutor who would teach him the language. But in the midst of chaos in the country, during which foreigners mostly withdrew behind embassy walls, the Turkish Embassy did not even reply to his request. In fact, Rıza Bey started learning Turkish nine years ago. And he remembers the exact date: April 5, 2001. He learned it so well, he even taught Turkish in the same place.

Like all the other Turks of North Africa, they feel a little bit isolated and abandoned. But Rıza Bey believes that his family exaggerates their pride in their heritage. He explains: “I don’t like racism, but I think my family is acting a little bit racist. They only talk to Turks.” He says that as a child, his grandmother used to say, “We were the rulers, we were the upper crust, and now look at us.” He says: “Yes, we are of Turkish descent, but we have become people of Algeria now. Two centuries have passed. We don’t have much of an association with Turkey whether we like it or not.”

Although he is realistic about his background, his family elders are highly emotional about the issue. They do not want to see today’s Turkey. “For my family, there is no such place as Turkey any longer. We were Ottomans. It all ended for us when the caliphate was abolished. Turkey is not our Turkey. For my family, being Turkish is being Ottoman. After 1920, they said it would be impossible to return. They said we’ll stay here, this used to be Ottoman land. I had to travel to Turkey on my own because of the old-fashioned ideas of our grandparents.”

Here we also meet Rèda Etchiali, who asks us to write his name the Turkish way: Rıza Kılıçali. This is important, he says, because if his last name is written as Etchiali -- the way the French deformed it -- a Turkish reader would not be able to understand that he is a descendant of another great naval commander, Kılıç Ali Paşa. He is actually the author of a book about Kılıç Ali Paşa, as he was encouraged to write it by his grandfather. “My grandfather taught me many Turkish words. He always told me, ‘You are Ottoman.’ My grandfather was a real Turk. He always received newspapers from Turkey,” he says.

A painter in Tunis

We must be the only worried passengers on the train to Sid Abu Said. The French tourists seem relaxed under the heat, waiting to see the white Tunisian houses. The voice of a man who shouts, “Tunisia is a five star hotel!” echoes across the French cruisers that bring in hundreds of tourists to the coast. The locals that they once exploited continue to serve them, to make sure that the “master” is comfortable and well rested.

And why are we worried? Because we will meet Hadi Türki, a painter who once used to be very famous but hasn’t done much painting in the past few years due to poor health. We are not sure what his reaction will be. He is one of the Ottoman grandsons that we have researched, but we don’t know if he will want to talk to us. Once we get there and meet the 90-year-old Türki, we realize that we were right to be worried. It is not that he is treats us badly, on the contrary, he is very polite. The meeting is very emotional, but he is restrained by partial paralysis. We don’t want to exhaust him, but we have to find out about his family history. The youngest son of the household Semir saves us, saying: “Talk to Mustafa, my older brother. He knows it all.”

We meet Türki’s older son Mustafa in Tunis the evening of the same day. He is an emotional man who says, “I would love to be able to speak Turkish with you.” We never thought that the people we would be visiting, completely out of nowhere and unannounced, would be full of such a yearning and a sort of homesickness, as if they had left Turkey only yesterday. Can you imagine hearing someone say, “It has been 129 years since the Ottomans have withdrawn from this country,” or “You do not know what being left behind means. I lived in Tunisia, but I want to die in Turkey.” Why? When Türki’s great-grandfather Hacı Hamid Semerci came in 1870 to Tunisia as an Ottoman army major and settled here, there was no way he could know that he would cause such unhappiness for his grandchildren. We ask Mustafa Türki why he doesn’t move to Turkey since they love it so much and feel the deep wound of having been left behind and he explains, “I don’t, because I am worried that I might not return.”

We walk through narrow streets and bazaars in Medine, the heart of Tunis, and walk through a splendid outer gate and up a steep staircase. Who is up here? Ahmet Jelluli, the grandchild of the last Ottoman Bey who served in Tunis. He is wearing Ottoman-style attire and a red fez. The artifacts in his house could be artifacts in a real museum. He doesn’t want to interview with us, though. “I am proud to be seen as the last representative of the Ottomans here, but I am not a party leader or an important person.” However, he agrees to chat.

He says his ancestors were among the first “beyliks” that came to Tunis. “My great-great-great-grandfathers … it is a history of 300 years.” We didn’t expect this grandson of a Bey to speak to us about Ottoman history starting with Selim II and the conquering of Tunisia, but he sums up the reason for conquering the land: “The Ottoman Empire did not come here for oil. They came here to honor Islam.” He has been to İstanbul, which he associates with Faith Sultan Mehmet, whose tomb he visited all three times he came to the city. What is more, he went in the same clothes he is wearing now. We are surprised, we ask him, “So these are not your indoor clothes?” “No!” he says. “I have not worn anything but this since 1973. I wore these clothes to Dolmabahçe Palace and Yıldız Palace and everyone looked at me in a friendly way.”

Tripoli, a lover we cannot leave behind

In Tripoli, we see that the relationship between the nations of Turkey and Libya is very warm and that the two have mingled like the thread in yarn. We decide that the cordial relationship here is extraordinary. There was something about Tripoli, something different; there is an air of friendship that we would not see with our own next-door neighbor, Syria. It is like meeting your aunt who has married and moved to a far off land years later. Tripoli has the familiar look of someone who misses you, a wee bit resentful, a bit strange, but still friendly. Somebody finally tells us the secret here: “My dear daughter, Turks looked back on Tripoli with tears in their eyes as it floated behind them like a white boat on the Mediterranean. But be sure that looking behind wasn’t the only thing they did. They followed it, they walked through hidden and dangerous paths and fought for it. They either never told you, or you were quick to forget. Leaving Tripoli was as difficult for them as it would be for a young man to leave his lover. What can I tell you, girl, if you are not already aware. You are stepping on the last piece of African land to have been severed from the Ottoman Empire. It is from those days that this familiarity, this closeness, comes from.” Abdurrahman el-Benghazi, whose grandfather died in the Balkan Wars, makes one thing about Libyans clear: “Don’t confuse us with other Arabs. We always stood on the side of Turks, we always fought alongside them. We never staged any uprisings.”

Sudan: The last stop

We also visit Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to visit Ottoman grandchildren and see how they are doing. The first contact between the Ottomans and Sudan started when Yavuz Selim conquered Egypt. The first Ottomans to come here were soldiers and administrators. The Ottoman administrative system did not establish roots as deeply here as it did in other parts of North Africa, so those “left behind” are the grandchildren of soldiers or Ottoman civil servants who served here.

About 187 years ago, Ömer Abdülkerim Bortelli, a soldier in the army of Mehmet Ali Paşa, came to Sudan, never to go back. He established a family in the city of Medeni. His descendents still live in Medeni today. His granddaughter, Fethiye Hanım, says she doesn’t know much. We turn to her daughter, İman Hanım, who is a doctor, hoping maybe she could tell us something. İman Hanım says of her mother’s side: “They don’t know much about Turkey or speak Turkish. But they have always seen themselves as Turkish. They are proud of that. They never say they are Sudanese. And they look different, too. They are lighter colored.”

The real surprise here is that İman İsa Beşir, or İman Bulut with her new last name, is married to a Turkish engineer who works in Sudan. One would think they easily and happily married her to a Turkish man because they are of Turkish descent. This is not what happened at all. Hüseyin Bulut had to ask for their daughter’s hand 10 times. Her uncle, who is proud of being Turkish, did everything he could to prevent a secular Turk from taking his niece away from the religion. This is how they perceive Turkey. Finally, he was able to convince İman’s uncle. İman says contrary to moving away from Islam, she has become more religious after her marriage.

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