Fontanier Experiences An Unacceptable Sociability
In 1827, the sixth year of his residence in the Ottoman Empire as an attaché of the French legation in Istanbul, Fontanier and a companion sailed from Redut-Kaleh to Trabzon on a boat with a cargo of Indian corn. The "Turkish" captain (un batelier turc)and five crew members all hailed from the district of Sürmene. Fontanier recounts the story of their setting sail, voyaging across the southeast bight of the Black Sea, and finally reaching the port of Trabzon. But what he recalls and relates was determined by only one of the voyage's episodes, an occasion when he found himself fearing for his liberty, if not his life, in the marketplace of Sürmene. He begins, "Before the anchor was raised, all of them performed their prayers [ablutions, recitations, exercises], and we crossed the depths at the mouth of the Copi River to the cries of 'Yallah! Yallah!'" Fontanier describes the departure by referring to the ritualized acts and words of the Sürmenelis, which they performed in unison as Muslims. As he begins his tale, Fontanier recalls the captain and crew as "Turks," just as he was himself something else, that is, not Turkish. Confined to close quarters with the crew on the boat, Fontanier could not but notice the otherness of the sociability of the Sürmenelis; however, it was his later experiences in Sürmene that led him to condemn and ridicule it.
As the boat approaches the coast of Lazistan, Fontanier is anxious to go ashore to find relief from his cramped quarters, and perhaps also relief from the captain and crew. To his annoyance, he learns that they are unable to disembark at Batum because the Sürmenelis are in a state of war with its inhabitants. A little further on in their journey, they encounter a storm that halts their progress for two days. Still, he is advised that they cannot leave the boat for fear of whom they might encounter on shore: "Such is the state of these miserable lands that the four or five districts of which they are composed, from Batum to Trabzon, are most of the time in a state of hostility such that the nationals themselves cannot approach without danger." Fontanier, trapped in the hold of a ship filled with corn, blames his predicament on the defective sociability of all the natives of the coastal region in general. At long last, the crew is finally forced to go ashore in order to repair the broken mast, but only after a careful reconnoitering. Fontanier is not permitted to accompany them. He is told that he would almost certainly be taken prisoner and held for ransom.
Afterward, they continue on their way toward Trabzon, passing one of the most beautiful coastal landscapes one might observe anywhere in the world. Fontanier is struck by the houses perched on hilltops and surrounded by thick vegetation, but he discounts their welcoming appearance, writing "A group of country houses well situated on the slope of a hill gives the landscape a cheerful appearance, but this would no doubt vanish as soon as one put one's foot on the land." He is anticipating the moment when he will be able to leave the boat in order to visit the marketplace in Sürmene. He is recalling how he at last escaped his shipboard prison, only to find he could not bear what he found ashore.
Concluding the paragraph that summarizes the voyage across the coastline, he sees before him a landscape of great wealth spoiled by the anarchic tendencies of its inhabitants. "No country could be more productive than these shores of the Black Sea, if only they were not the scene of utter barbarism and ceaseless war." And just at this moment (in the text, but not in the voyage), the coastal district of Sürmene, cherished by the Turkish captain and crew, incongruously comes into view. He writes, "Sürmene, which came into view after Rize, was the country of our captain and his crew. It was for them the promised land." The story of Fontanier's visit to Sürmene follows. It will include references to destruction, murder, kidnapping, pillage, and enslavement.
For Fontanier, the coastal region is a scene of utter barbarism and ceaseless war, in other words, a kind of hell. For the captain and the crew, it is the promised land. How is it possible that the visitor and the natives should have such opposed perceptions of the same place? What could the Sürmenelis find at all rewarding and enjoyable about their homelands? Fontanier will actually give us an answer to this question in the very terms that one might already predict. That which makes Sürmene a promised land for its inhabitants, their experience of sociability, is exactly what makes Sürmene a hell for the outsider. He begins to focus on their sociability, but only to belittle and discount it, consistently and systematically. As they reached the wide bay of the district of Sürmene, a small boat with a welcoming party aboard is launched from the coast to meet them. The leader of their hosts "had a rifle on his shoulder, pistols, a dagger, and an enormous powder horn suspended from his belt." This man is a friend of the captain of the boat. Fontanier composes a parody of their exchange of greetings, using the familiar form of address (tutoiement):
While ridiculing theSürmenelis, Fontanier nonetheless describes a discipline of interpersonal association. They boisterously hail one another, but by customary phrases and formulas (greeting/response: selamün aleyküm / aleyküm selam, hoş geldiniz / hoş bulduk, merhaba / merhaba). The welcoming party learns the infidels have the status of guests (misafir) and so extend their greetings to them. The captain and the crew are eager to rejoin friends and associates whom they have not seen for so very long (two weeks? a month?).
Oh, Ali Reis [the captain], welcome! Mahmut, Selim [the crew], welcome! Who are these infidels [Fontanier and his companion]?—They are sons of Frankish lords who are our guests and whom we are taking to Trabzon.—Welcome! [addressed to the infidels]. —What is new in the countryside? —Nothing at all. The son of the agha of Rize [Tuzcuoğlu] has killed his cousin out of jealousy and is in hiding with us. He's a nice kid. Ah! I forgot to mention that Hussein put gunpowder under the house of his neighbor and blew it up. Five people were killed. —That's astonishing! But what can one do? They are just children.
The captain and crew prepare themselves to accompany the welcoming party and go ashore. Fontanier introduces the theme of anarchy once more, but now the weapons and explosions are unmistakably the expression of an enthusiastic and vigorous sociability. He writes, "During this exchange, others were preparing the little boat, our captain and crew armed themselves, and all took themselves to the shore, as though at the conquest of an enemy country. Soon we heard a lively round of gunfire that, however, was not at all threatening. It was the greetings to which our people were responding." Even though the captain and crew have gone ashore, Fontanier is obliged to remain on the boat waiting for the return of the captain and crew. They do not soon reappear. Despite his desire to "get out of this hole in which I had been living for four days," he is obliged to spend another night on board. He does so in a state of fright and confusion, thinking "I simply could not easily understand how, in such a wild country, the captain could dare to leave his boat and cargo in the charge of no one but two foreigners who in the event of a robbery could not make any resistance." When he later mentions this, the captain is astonished at his concern. No such robbery would ever occur, he is told. The boat and cargo were under the protection of the local inhabitants the moment the anchor was dropped, so that no surveillance of any kind was necessary. Fontanier adds the remark, "What a singular mixture of honesty and barbarism!" Where, according to Fontanier, all manner of violations are endemic, there is nonetheless an entire range of violations that are not permitted.
The next day Fontanier and his companion are abruptly awakened by the crew, who have returned with a large number of their compatriots who are interested in buying some portion of the cargo of corn:
Again the description is a parody of the event itself, but it is nonetheless indirectly revealing. The dyer is intrigued by the Frenchman's eyeglasses, a technical instrument for the observation of others. The eyeglasses appear to the dyer as something strange, comical but also perhaps invasive. They reveal that the Frenchman is inspecting and analyzing, that is to say, mentally "depicting" the Sürmenelis. In response, the dyer "depicts" Fontanier by daubing his face with the blue dye on his fingers. If the Frenchman is to characterize him by means of an instrument of observation, so he will characterize the Frenchman as a Christian, that is, as morally deficient and hence socially contemptible.
As soon as [the Sürmenelis] saw us, they came to us and began to examine the different pieces of our dress. One of them, who had just come from his work as a dyer, took hold of my eyeglasses and, seeing my cheeks displayed the imprints of his fingers, found it amusing to continue the operation he had accidentally begun, and so set himself to daub my face in blue. He was more than a little surprised when I dared to push him away, and more especially when the captain intervened to side with me against him. "Isn't this fellow an infidel?" he said. "And do I not have the right to paint him, to do him harm?" These justifications appeared self-evident to him, so that the captain was obliged to plead with him at length in order to convince him of the difference between a Frank and a reaya.
But the eyeglasses have a different meaning for Fontanier. By his own account, he has just despaired for lack of a framework for understanding what he was seeing, that is, a mixture of honesty and barbarism among the Sürmenelis. Now, his eyeglasses are the instrument by which he is able to see, and therefore to describe, but also to judge. And so for Fontanier, the dyer's ignorance and effrontery are reassuring, at least in retrospect. Fontanier feels himself to be in possession of instruments that enable him to perceive and portray the "Turks," even as they are unable to perceive and portray themselves. He, by his own self-perception, represents a scientific and technological future. They represent a past condemned to anarchy by their ignorance. And so accordingly, just a few pages later, he will repeat the dictum of Fourcade, affirming that the "Turks" represent the feudalism of thirteenth-century Europe.
But on the occasion itself, when actually faced with the dyer, Fontanier is disturbed and confused. The dyer, by his own self-perception, also feels himself to represent the future, one based on an ethical rather than an instrumental relationship of self and other. He is a believer whose own social thinking and practice are in accordance with a divine truth and law. By this universal and transcendent standard, he is able to recognize Fontanier, the observer, as an unbeliever who espouses a corrupt, hence inferior, version of that divine truth and law. He therefore makes fun of Fontanier, removing his eyeglasses and daubing his face with dye, portraying him as he sees him, as an unbeliever deserving humiliation. So, then, Fontanier has found himself in a land and among a people who associate with one another on terms that confirm he is both different and inferior. This would hardly be troubling in itself, save that the Sürmenelis exclude and diminish Fontanier by principles so closely resembling those by which he would affirm they are different and inferior to him. Fontanier is shaken by the question of who it is that holds the future. It is perhaps the memory of this existential question that so terrifies him. As if to confirm that this is so, the story of his encounter with the dyer is followed by another encounter during which he feared for his personal safety.
Later that same day, the agha of the coastal settlement comes aboard. He is in the company of the young man who is the son of the agha of Rize (Tahir Agha Tuzcuoğlu) and who had assassinated his cousin two days before, thereby meriting a place among the bodyguards of the agha of the coastal settlement. The latter lectures Fontanier about the "indisputable superiority of Turkey over all other sovereign powers, not failing to indulge in abuses of the Russians." He receives a lesson and an example of how the form of sociability of the Sürmenelis, which is also that of all the Trabzonlus, is the basis of an indomitable sovereign power. He has been told exactly where the local elites and their social formations fit in the Ottoman Empire, but Fontanier does not register this information. He tells his story of course as a joke. The "Turks" are so badly informed, so seriously overestimating their world position. But the joke is also a kind of self-reassurance provoked by a moment of powerlessness.
Following their meeting, the agha gives Fontanier and his companion permission to enter his territories. They leave the boat and visit the marketplace of Sürmene. During his tour, he repeatedly mentions the signs of underlying civil disorder and social injustice. The traders keep guns at their side in anticipation of an alert. The thick walls of the houses serve the purpose of defense. Toward the end of his tour of the market, he witnesses a scene that once again unsettles him. The Christian shopkeepers, unlike the Muslim shopkeepers, are not permitted to carry arms. Unable to defend or assert themselves, they must submit to forced labor in the fields of the agha. Fontanier next describes an "observation" that instills terror: the arrest of one of the Greeks who has failed to report for such duties. Identifying for a moment with his co-religionist, he fears he too might be seized and impressed. Immediately following this statement, he returns to the subject he can neither comprehend nor forget:
He is surrounded by males who congregate in the bazaar. But he and his companion are not one of the group. They do not subscribe to the right beliefs. They do not dress the right way, and so they have become a spectacle. Fontanier and his companion feel themselves alone and isolated in a crowded marketplace. This moment of exclusion is coupled with one of abandonment:
I was able to observe [faculté de remarquer] the order with which this operation [of forced labor in the fields] was carried out, not without fearing, however, that I too might be required to take part.
None of the Turks [sic] who dwelled in this country resided during the daytime in their houses; all were in the bazaar where they smoked and conversed with one another. They joined their families only during the evening.
Fontanier now complains of desertion by the captain and crew, whose company seemed so oppressive only the day before. Seeking relief from a sociability that excludes and diminishes him, he and his companion return to their lodgings in the hold of the boat. He prefers bobbing up and down in the bay of Sürmene to the stares of the crowd in the market.
Our captain, so as not to seem too much in a hurry to see his wife, had his children sent to him the day of his arrival. Then he spent the night with one of his friends. It was the following day before he took himself to his family and house. He did not invite us to accompany him there, even though he should have considered that it was not very agreeable for us to traipse about in this kind of forum where all the male population had come together and where our foreign dress attracted an excessive amount of public curiosity. We resigned ourselves to returning to the boat, where at least we were left in peace.
What was heaven for the Sürmenelis, to associate with others, had for a moment been the hell of Fontanier. Confronted with the threat of another kind of future, he had for a moment lost confidence in his own faculties that positioned him in relationship to the future. After two more days in the hold of the boat, about which we learn nothing, he leaves for Trabzon. When he arrives, the first thing he will seek is an antidote to the alien sociability of the Sürmenelis. He concludes the chapter, "I took myself to the consulate over which floated the French flag, and I found there M. Beuscher, whom I had come to know at Constantinople, and in whose company I could forget the exhaustion and dangers of my trip." Fontanier instinctively knows the remedy for his experiences in Sürmene, even as he cannot exactly name or recognize that other kind of sociability that had so disturbed him.