Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ahmet Midhat Efendi, Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi


Opening Passage:

Have you heard of Felâtun Bey? You know who I'm talking about, old Mustafa Meraki Efendi's son! Doesn't ring a bell? Well now, he's a lad worth meeting.

Mustafa Meraki Efendi lives in a district near Beyoğlu, in the Tophane neighborhood. There is no need to provide the name of this district. You know the neighborhood, right? Well, that's all you need to know. (p.1)

Summary: The novel sets up a contrast between two young men, the Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi of the title, although in practice it spends much more time on Râkım -- deliberately, I'm sure, since part of the point is that Râkım would inevitably have a more interesting life. Felâtun Bey comes from a very wealthy family whose father has pretensions of cosmopolitanism. He thus raises his son for the alafranga life, the life of a Western European (which in this period still primarily means French, hence the word alafranga, although English customs are also a significant influence). This is seen even in Felâtun's name; 'Felâtun' is the Turkish form of the French version of a Greek name, Plato, and it's clear that Felâtun himself, picking up the pretension from his father, sometimes goes by the name Platon Bey, and monographs his suitcases, French-style, with a P. It's important to the story that Felâtun is not in any way stupid or malicious. He is not a hypocrite, nor is he faking his French manners -- how can you be faking something that is the only thing you have ever learned? But his life has a shallowness to it, as indeed it must, for he is a Turk who has not really learned to be a Turk due to his father's misguided notions of what a sophisticated education is, and to be alafranga is not actually to be French or English, but rather to be somebody who has picked up the most shallow customs of the French and English without having really grown up as French or English. We know his type very well even today, even in our own country -- the people of the world who are ignorant of life a few counties over and preserve no real family traditions but who count themselves (and are accounted by other people of the world) sophisticated and educated because they eat ethnic food and have a socially respectable education and have been tourists in Paris. And while you do get people like that who are like that partly because they are stupid and malicious, in reality most of them are like that just because they were raised to be people who were ignorant of their own traditions and customs, on the misguided assumption that this is what it is to be educated.

Râkım Efendi, on the other hand, grows up in a very poor Turkish family. Because of this, his education is not handed to him; he has to work for every single bit of it. What this means is that, while Felâtun and Râkım both have real talents, only Râkım's talents are properly cultivated. Ironically, growing up in a wealthy household has guaranteed that Felâtun's talents go to waste, because that wealth was used to pry him out of ordinary, run-of-the-mill Turkish life. Râkım has a facility with languages, so besides Turkish, he learns Arabic, Persian, and French. He actually has an enthusiasm for French literature, and this is quite important. The contrast between Felâtun and Râkım is not that the former is educated in French culture and the latter in Turkish. In reality, of course, Felâtun is a Turk, he lives in Istanbul, most of the people with whom he interacts are Turks. His life is an alafranga life, but an alafranga life is one way to be Turkish. And while Râkım lives an alaturka life, this is not a matter of repudiating Western ideas, customs, or arts. Quite the opposite: Râkım has close friendships with both English and French;  he is as fluent in French as Felâtun, and, if anything, he is far more enthusiastic about French literature than Felâtun is. But he lives life as a thoroughly Ottoman Turk who loves French literature. The point of the contrast is not that the Ottoman Empire should close itself up within an isolationist bubble but that it should learn, exchange, and interact freely with French and English culture without making the mistake of treating its own culture as defective for not being French or English.

There's a nice episode early on, when Felâtun is introduced to the Ziklas family, a well-to-do English family whose daughters Râkım is tutoring in Turkish. Felâtun repeatedly bungles minor issues of Turkish literature and language that even the English girls can easily see, because he is, so to speak, a cradle Turk who has never had to convert to being Turkish. The narrator points out that this is not because he is stupid or even really ignorant, but that he doesn't know how he has learned the Turkish culture he has learned:

Come on now! How is it possible that Felâtun didn't know the alphabet?

Well, it wasn't that he didn't know but there are some men who don't know how they learned the things they know. Especially in our country, most people who know don't know how they learned. Felâtun Bey was one of those people. He didn't know how he learned what he knew. Why does this surprise you? We even knew a clerk with beautiful handwriting who connected every letter when composing formal ministry documents. And yet he wasn't able to explain the rules of his own handwriting! (pp. 23-24)

This seems to me quite insightful. There are things we know because we understand them, but there are things we know only because we have become familiar with them. Felâtun has learned Turkish customs and language through osmosis; he was never given an education that would lead to understanding any of it. It's not something to be understood; it's just the arbitrary way things happen to be. He doesn't know any of the reasons, because his education didn't ever cover any of the reasons, and he never had to force himself to learn the reasons. This is a compact summary, I think, of how cultures deteriorate.

Felâtun eventually engages in the very alafranga practice of having a fancy mistress and gambling. Needless to say, this is not going to turn out well. Râkım has a more complicated story, because living the alaturka life in part means paying much more attention to personal connections than the social-appearance-obsessed alafranga life. Râkım will buy a Circassian slave, Janan, and eventually the two will fall in love and marry. It's a quiet life, without all the glitz and glamor of the alafranga lifestyle, but also without all the dissolution and dissipation. And in the end, it's a better way to be an Ottoman Turk.

Favorite Passage: 

Yes, this time the medicine had a stronger effect! The patient who could barely move in her bed started wandering around the room. Now, can you refute what Molière said about doctors? The most scientific aspect of being a doctor is understanding if a patient is dead; otherwise even if they can diagnose the specific disease, since diseases have many types, they can never discern its type. The books on pathology say there is no medicine for tuberculosis and all the medicines that are being prescribed are experimental. In fine print, however, the last two lines war, "There are people who survive this illness on their own." Now, when our Doctor Z-- saw that Jan was returning to life, he thought, "So this last remark in the pathology book is true!" Feeling surprised and after observing that the girl would definitely recover, he pranced around like Luqman the Wise. "If my mother-in-law were with me now, even she would pass herself off as Hippocrates," he thought to himself. (p. 144)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Ahmet Midhat Efendi, Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi: An Ottoman Novel, Levi & Ringer, trs., Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY: 2016).

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