The Selimoğlu Family Line During the Early Republic
Mehmet Selimoğlu was born in 1901 in the interior "home" village of the Selimoğlu family line, about twenty kilometers up the western valley-system. At some point, he attended a middle school (rüşdiye), probably in the town of Of. Later, he dabbled in "trade and farming," probably in the town of Of. In 1927, the year after the deposition of Ferhat Agha, he joined the Republican People's Party. He was elected chairman of the RPP in the district of Of in 1932, and he was elected mayor of the town in 1934. He continued to hold both of these offices until he was elected to represent the province of Trabzon in the National Assembly in 1946.
Mehmet was remembered as educated (tahsilli), bright (zeki), and energetic (çalıışkan). He had come of age during the first years of the nationalist movement. He had entered politics at the beginning of the one-party period. He had become mayor at the high point of the program of reforms. His assumption of the mayoralty therefore marks the definitive replacement of the old order by the new order. How was it, then, that the local transition from Empire to Republic resulted in a local public official, later a national public official, that eventually emerged as a leading individual from a large family grouping?
As it happened, Mehmet Selimoğlu was not at all well placed in his family line at the beginning of his mayoralty. He was not descended from Ferhat Agha or any other prominent member of the Selimoğlu during the late imperial period. He was from the interior "home" village of the family line, and so not a member of any of the "sets" (takıımlar) of the family line that were most numerous and visible in the town of Of. He did not have a large number of brothers, uncles, or cousins, since he was also not part of any large set of the family line in the home village. He married an older woman only after he had become mayor, did not have any children afterward, and so was not in a position to consolidate a wide circle of agnates, relatives, and friends. He was maternally (not paternally) related to a set of the family line in the town, but the relationship was strained by an earlier event of bride abduction followed by a vengeance murder in the 1910s. There were rumors that the sons of Ferhat Agha had abused and humiliated him when he was a boy. So he would not have had especially warm feelings for the set of Ferhat Agha, which was the largest circle of agnates, relatives, and friends in the town of Of. My interlocutors who were old enough to recall Mehmet Selimoğlu as a youth referred to him as "Little Mehmet" (Küçük Mehmet). The nickname is significant. He was "Little Mehmet," that is, not "Big Mehmet," a son of Ferhat Agha, who was senior to him. So "Little Mehmet" was not initially a leading individual of his family line.
At the time, any young man of the Selimoğlu who had become a Kemalist would not have been well positioned in the patronymic group. The senior prominent members of the family line were too closely wedded to the old regime to be able to adapt themselves to the new regime. Accordingly, Mehmet became mayor of the town without resorting to the old state society. And after becoming mayor of the town, he continued to remain apart from the vertical and horizontal solidarities of the old state society. That is to say, he made no move to use the office of mayor to consolidate a broad circle of agnates, relatives, and friends. On the contrary, during most of the decade he served as mayor, his associates were drawn from a narrow circle of district officials, civil servants, professionals, and merchants. He had become the mayor of bureaucrats, businessmen, and professionals in a small town where there were not very many of these representatives of the new modernity. By my estimation, his core constituency would have roughly consisted of five bureaucrats, one military officer, two judges, three lawyers, one doctor, five teachers, seven merchants, and three businessmen, some of who were not Oflus. All of these individuals would have been members of the RPP, and hence more or less radical secularists. Accordingly, Mehmet Selimoğlu felt no need to display himself in public as a believer, and he is not remembered as a man who was religiously observant. On the contrary, he is said to have had a number of unfortunate petty vices, including drinking and partying.
Mehmet Selimoğlu had personal qualities that had never before had a bearing on the rise to prominence of an individual in the district of Of, qualities that had no relationship to aghas and agha-families or hodjas and medreses. But even though his education, intelligence, and energy must be acknowledged, it was also the case that he would have been only one of a number of exceptional individuals in the town of Of, and therefore only one of several potential candidates for the mayoralty. That the Kemalist leadership nonetheless selected Mehmet Selimoğlu points to a policy of relying on local elites of the old regime. That is to say, they accepted one of the Selimoğlu. And in doing so, they may even have thought he was a leading individual of this large family grouping.
The response to another radical measure of the program of reform, enacted during the same year that Mehmet became mayor, provides further evidence of this peculiar situation. The Name Law of 1934 required every citizen to adopt an official surname. It was at this time that the man who had been Mustafa Kemal became Kemal Atatürk. Similarly, all the citizens in the district of Of also chose new surnames. At this point the correction of a common misunderstanding is required.
It has been observed that "the Turks, like most other Muslim peoples, were not in the habit of using family names." Surnames were indeed exceptional, although not unknown, in many parts of the country. However, there were appellations that resembled surnames in the rural areas of much of Anatolia. It was commonly the case that a collection of agnatically related households in a village might designate themselves by a collective name. So household or family groupings sometimes chose surnames that were derived from these lineage or tribalnames. But they more typically chose a new surname from lists of officially approved surnames, since the lineage or tribal appellations were not always understood to refer to a family line.
Otherwise, it is not at all accurate to say that the Turks were not in the habit of using what could be regarded as surnames. Everywhere in the districts of Anatolia, from the seventeenth century forward, if not earlier, there were individuals who were designated by reference to the name of their family line. This was especially the case in the eastern coastal districts, where names of family lines were a matter of paramount significance. As I have already pointed out in chapter 1, the names of family lines, whether in the "oğlu" or the "zade" form, were used, both officially and nonofficially, to refer to the principal figures of the old state society. Unlike the lineage or tribal names elsewhere in rural Anatolia, these patronymics did not mark a person as a country bumpkin. Instead, they confirmed standing and position in the imperial system; hence, many individuals were loath to surrender them. Consequently, the old patronymics commonly, although not invariably, became the basis for the new surnames, simply by eliding the suffix. In the district of Of, for example, Selimoğlu became Selim, Muradoğlu became Murad, while Tellioğlu became Öztel, Bektaşoğlu became Bektaş, Şisikoğlu became Şişik, and Abdikoğlu became Abdik. The application of the Name Law of 1934 is therefore of utmost interest as an indicator of the transition from the old republic to the new republic.
As the deadline for selecting surnames approached (January 1, 1935), there were disagreements, even heated quarrels, among the members of some large family groupings. As we have already seen, these conglomerations of hundreds of households were comprised of a variety of sets (takıımlar), and each set was the potential basis for a faction. The members of different sets were sometimes tempted to formalize these latent cleavages, designating themselves by distinctive surnames. Concerned that such disputes might actually lead to civil disorders, the district officer is said to have taken steps to insure that the members of large family groupings all agreed to adopt the same surname. In one instance, it is recalled, he went to the length of summoning all the elders (büyükler) of the Tellioğlu, a large family grouping in the vicinity of the sub-district center. They had been quarreling about the adoption of a surname, and the sets were on the brink of splitting into different groupings. The district officer told the elders they were the most numerous family in the area and should stay together. He then informed them that he would himself choose their new surname by preserving in some way their old family name. Thereupon he dubbed them with the new surname "Öztel." So in this instance, a district officer, who is recalled as an ardent Kemalist, arranged for the continuation of the legacy of aghas and agha-families. He had done so as a practical measure of preserving the working relationship of the new state system with the old state society. He was a revolutionary in principle, but a conservative in practice.
However, in still another instance, a leading individual from a large family grouping specifically chose to disassociate himself from his agnatic relatives. After January 1, 1935, Mehmet Selimoğlu became Mehmet Sayıın, designating himself by a surname that does not seem to have been adopted by any other member of his patronymic group. The name he chose was a neologism, a "New Turkish" creation of the language reform that meant "esteemed" or "respected." At the same time, most of the other members of the family line had adopted the official surname of "Selim," thereby retaining a semantic hold on their old name, hence also a hold on its eminence.
Mehmet Sayıın had chosen a surname that at the same time asserted his attachment to the program of reforms and his detachment from the other members of his family line. And whatever his intention, his new surname could not help but suggest that the old name he had explicitly refused was disrespected in that his new name was respected. So by the choice of his surname, Mehmet Sayıın appears to have been a radical Kemalist; however, he was pushed by circumstance to become conservative in practice, even if he was a revolutionary in principle.
After Mehmet Sayıın assumed the mayoralty, he began to accumulate other public offices as well. He became the chairman of the Turkish Air Association (Türk Hava Kurumu), chairman of the Red Crescent Society (Kıızıılay Cemiyeti), chairman of the Children's Protection Society (Çocuk Esirgeme), chairman of the Of People's House (Of Halkevi), and chairman of the RPP. He was also director of the Ferry Boat Agency (Deniz Yollarıı Acenteliği) and caretaker (mütevelli) for the endowment (vakııf) of the town mosque. As my interlocutors remarked, "Little Mehmet was the government." In this regard, he had succeeded in fully "replacing" Ferhat Agha, who might also have been described in such terms. But if he was similar to his imperial predecessor, he was also different. He had begun as an outsider to his family line. He had disassociated himself from his agnates by choosing a unique surname, and he risen to prominence under the auspices of the one-party regime.
Although I have relatively good information about his accumulation of public offices, I have very little information about his motives. It is possible that Mehmet Sayıın was in a certain sense forced to accumulate offices. Any local office that he allowed to escape his personal control would have been commanded by a circle of agnates, relatives, and friends, most probably one that would be led by a member of his own family line. He may therefore have concluded that a local public official like himself would have to serve as the dike against the interpersonal associations of the old state society.
There is some evidence for this. In the course of acquiring public offices, Mehmet Sayıın was sometimes obliged to anger members of his family line. For example, he became the director of the Ferry Agency, a public office more lucrative than most, only by removing one of the descendants of Ferhat Agha. More tellingly, perhaps, the one public office that he never succeeded in fully controlling appears to have remained in the hands of leading individuals from large family groupings. This was the directorship of the Agricultural Credit Cooperative, another that was more lucrative than most.
The organization of agricultural cooperatives had first begun during last years of the Empire. They were originally intended to curtail the dependence of producers on usurious loans, but they also served a number of other functions. The cooperatives collected contributions from villagers in order to establish a capital fund. The same villagers could then apply for financial assistance as agricultural producers. The cooperatives bought tools and supplies in bulk at wholesale prices, passing along the benefit to the villagers. The cooperatives rented warehouses so that the villagers could store their crops until such time as they might be sold at the best price. And finally, the members of cooperatives were able to take advantage of government programs intended to stabilize prices and encourage production.
The first Agricultural Credit Cooperative (Tarıım Kredi Kooperatifi) was organized in the district of Of in 1931, before Mehmet Sayıın had served as mayor. Its first director earned himself the nickname "heathen imam" (gâvur imamıı). As for the cooperative, it became known as the "imam's bank" (imam bankasıı). This man appears to have achieved a minimal literacy by studying in one of the religious academies, although he was said to never perform his prayers or attend the mosque. According to the story told to me, the "heathen imam," "uneducated but clever" (tahsilsiz fakat kurnaz), would go to the villages where there were members of the cooperative, set up a table, lay out stacks of papers, and place two bags at his side, one on the left and the other on the right. The members would then come to him and sign papers that he presented to them. This done, he would take money from the bag on the left, give the signers a small percentage, and then drop most of the money in the bag on the right. He would then use this money to give loans to various relatives (akraba), friends (arkadaş), and youths (delikanlıı) so that they became indebted to him and supported him.
The director of the Agricultural Credit Cooperative, together with some kind of executive council, was elected by its membership. This being the case, it would have been difficult for Mehmet Sayıın to control the cooperative since he lacked a circle of agnates, relatives, friends, and partners among the villagers. On the other hand, the "heathen imam" had been a municipal employee of Ferhat Agha, and he was from a family line that had been associated with the Five Party during the previous century. So it is likely that the cooperative had remained in the possession of a circle of agnates, relatives, friends, and partners once centered on Ferhat Agha. The Agricultural Credit Cooperative was probably the last bastion of the old state society in the town of Of. If it was, this would explain in part how it was that the descendants of Ferhat Agha came to monopolize the public life of the town during the 1940s.