Oflus Come To the City
I first heard about the Of Culture and Assistance Association (Of Kültür ve Yardûmlaşma Derneği) at the time of its founding in the winter of 1967. By chance, I had encountered one of my early acquaintances who had been away from the town for some weeks. He had been looking after his firm in Samsun, where he was constructing an apartment building. Now he was planning to move the firm to Istanbul, where business was more promising. As he told me this, he mentioned that some Oflus living in Istanbul were launching a new association for the many thousands of their fellow Oflus who lived there. Each member would pay dues of so much a month, not to exceed 125 Turkish lira a year ($10 U.S.). With the accumulated capital, grants would be made first to needy students, but then to entrepreneurs who required start-up money for new businesses in the city. The organizers had anticipated that their association might eventually have as many as ten thousand dues-paying members, and they had calculated that there might be twenty thousand students in need of some assistance.
Some hours later, I heard someone report the same news to Salih Selimoğlu, who was sitting and talking with his friends in the Town Square Coffeehouse. They laughed together heartily, considering the whole thing a great joke; nonetheless, Salih was careful to interrogate the man who gave him the report and to learn exactly what the organizers intended to do. Eventually, I came to understand that the new Oflu association was similar to others that had been organized by urban migrants from other parts of the country from the 1950s through the 1960s. These associations were a direct result of the appearance of urban colonies of provincials in Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, and Izmir.
In the fall of 1986, I was able to visit the Of Culture and Assistance Association for the first time. It was located in the crowded Laleli quarter of Istanbul, just a few steps away from the old covered bazaar. The association still had thousands of members, probably more than ever. Its members had consistently sponsored various charitable projects for Oflus over the years, both in Istanbul and in Of. They continued to disburse monthly grants to students, and they were then raising funds for a student hostel to serve the new high school (lise) in the town of Of. When I learned of the composition of the association's executive committee at that time, I recognized the names of some of the most prominent merchants in the town of Of during my earlier residence there.
On the occasion of my visit, I entered the coffeehouse (kûraathanesi) that was part of the association, referred to by my companion as the "Of Locale" (Of Lokalû). It was more or less like the coffeehouses in towns and cities all over the country. Small groups of men were sitting, drinking tea or coffee, playing cards or backgammon, and talking at tables. There were no women present. My companion immediately encountered someone who knew him. The conversation that followed was broken by long pauses. It was as though we were sitting in a coffeehouse in the district of Of. The following excerpts are from my field notes:
The two men told my companion that in the coffeehouse a register was kept in which Oflus living in Istanbul listed their addresses and telephone numbers, both residential and business. My companion asked for the register and wrote down the name and address of his son, who had just set himself up in Kadûköy (across the Bosphorus) as an architect.
We were greeted by two men sitting at a table in the Of Locale [1st pers.: selamün aleyküm; 2nd pers: aleyküm selam, hoş geldin; 1st pers.: hoş buldum; 2nd pers: merhaba]. They were invited to sit and drink tea with them [1st pers.: merhaba; 2nd pers: nasûlsûn?; 1st pers.: iyiyim, sen de nasûlsûn?, etc.]. One of them was well acquainted with [my companion]. The other man did not know him, but said he had known his father. He told [my companion] that they were related to one another (hûsûmlûğûmûz var); the sister of [so-and-so] was said to have married [so-and-so].
The man then asked [my companion] his birth date, rather than his age [thereby contextualizing him generationally in the past rather than biographically in the present]. They discussed whether this individual and that individual was alive or dead, when the funeral was held and where, and also who had married whom. [My companion] was having some dental work done and apologized for his slurred speech. The man then told us that he had been in Australia for five years. He spoke admiringly of it as rich country with factories that had been financed with English and American capital.
Some weeks later, the editor of a new magazine invited me to be interviewed by a group of students at the Of Locale. His magazine was written and published by Oflus and directed at an Oflu readership, especially those Oflus living outside the district in the larger cities of the country, not only Istanbul, but also Adana, Ankara, Izmir, and Trabzon. On the occasion of my second visit to the Of Locale, I was shown a complex just to the side of the coffeehouse. I met with the students there in a conference room with comfortable armchairs and couches. After the interview, I encountered individuals whom I had known during my residence in the town of Of during the later 1960s. They had since moved to Istanbul, where they now had places of business. I also met men in their later twenties who said they remembered me from when they were children. I naively asked one of my acquaintances the location of the squatter settlements (gecekondu) in which migrants from the district of Of had congregated. Offended, he told me that the Oflus lived in apartments and houses in the better parts of the city, not in squatter settlements.
During a third visit to the Of Locale that same year, I attended a lecture that was given by a retired military officer who addressed a group of businessmen in the conference room. He was one of a number of Oflus who had distinguished themselves in the Turkish military (especially the army, but also the navy). Indeed, a resident of the old district of Of (the district of Çaykara) had been a member of the General Staff during the 1960s, after which he had become president of the Republic after election by the National Assembly. The talk by the retired military officer consisted of an insightful commentary on the contemporary political situation. A lively discussion followed, during which members of the audience asked the speaker penetrating questions. There were no women present.
Afterward, I was shown still other rooms behind closed doors. When I was taken behind the first set of doors, I discovered a few tables, waiters passing through, and a kitchen. I had been entirely unaware of the existence of this part of the association during my earlier visits. My hosts arranged for a meal to be served to me there, and I was able to talk with some children who had been born in Istanbul. I asked them whether they were themselves Oflu. One of the little girls insisted that she was not an Oflu, but an İİstanbullu, a response that amused my hosts. After my meal, I was briefly allowed to look behind yet another set of doors. To my astonishment, I discovered yet another dining room, crowded with men sitting at tables eating, drinking, smoking, and talking. There were interiors within interiors within interiors in the Of Locale.
Early the next year, I was invited to the annual celebration of the Of Liberation Day in Istanbul, which was held as close as possible to the official day itself, that is, February 28. The events were organized by the Of Culture and Assistance Association and took place in a music hall (gazino) in the Aksaray quarter of Istanbul, between the Laleli and Fatih quarters. I would estimate that about two thousand people attended this occasion. As the celebrants, both men and women, entered the hall, they were received by two lines of young men in formal evening dress who greeted them and escorted them to their tables. The seating was generally segregated by table, with the men sitting on one side of the table facing the women sitting on the other side. The women in attendance were dressed in various ways, according to their age, taste, and wealth. Some women kept their heads and arms covered, but there were also women without head coverings wearing fashionable dresses. In the course of the evening, some men left their tables to greet friends sitting elsewhere in the room. Most people remained seated at their tables talking among themselves and occasionally listening to the music. There were no formal speeches, such as I had heard during the meetings of cooperatives in the town of Of.
The entertainment consisted of performances according to the conventional format of a music hall in Istanbul, although some restraints were apparent. Men and women singers accompanied by different instrumental groups performed folk, pop, and classical songs. Alcohol was served at some tables but not at others. There was no belly dancing, otherwise common in most music halls. At one point, one of the members of the executive committee of the association called on those present to give generously to the building fund for the student hostel. He and others then passed through the tables with sacks for cash contributions. Toward the end of the occasion, after the professional singers had concluded their performances, a group of young Oflus mounted the stage and began to dance an Oflu horon to the frenetic music of the eastern Black Sea fiddle (kemençe), rather than the shrill music of the western Black Sea flute (zurna).
The celebration of Liberation Day did not make any reference whatsoever to the old republic of local elites, the aghas and the hodjas. This was a gathering of civil servants, professionals, shopkeepers, businessmen, and their families. They were men and women who had different political opinions and who followed different social conventions. They composed a Turkish nation not so much as a citizenry, but as a society, one that tolerated difference in the urban context, at least up to a certain point. It was possible for women to cover themselves or remain uncovered. It was possible to drink or not drink. It was even possible for the young men, some of who must have been born in Istanbul, to celebrate being Oflu by a folklore performance. In the district of Of, singing, dancing, and fiddling were frowned upon by the hodjas. Other than on Liberation Day, I never saw any such performances in the town of Of during the 1960s. But in Istanbul, young people from the district could represent themselves as a folk, perhaps for the first time in five hundred years. But this was but one of a number of new ways the Oflus of Istanbul were reimagining themselves as a society of a nation that had once been a society of an empire.
Before the end of my two-year residence in Istanbul (1986–88), I was invited to attend the opening of a second branch of the Of Culture and Assistance Association in the city of Kadûköy, across the Bosphorus. The earliest colonies of Oflus in Istanbul had been concentrated on the European side, but there were now also many Oflus who lived or worked on the Asian side. The second branch had been organized to provide the latter with a more convenient meeting place. When I attended the opening celebration, I was able to enter one of the association's inner rooms, which was crowded with men dressed in suits and ties who were standing and talking. Everyone was shaking hands, exchanging information regarding family backgrounds, village origins, and business activities. Those in attendance expected to meet Oflus whom they did not know. Some approached me to introduce themselves and to shake my hand, only to discover with some surprise that I was an American. The two branches of the Of Culture and Assistance Association were social clubs, not political clubs. The membership of both branches seemed to be distributed among a variety of political parties, as well as nationalist and religious parties. I cannot say in what proportion.
Of course, the Of Culture and Assistance Associations in Laleli and Kadûköy did not represent all the ways in which the Oflus had mutual interests and contacts. The Oflus also shared some new intellectual projects. For example, I have already mentioned the editor of the new magazine for Oflus. His name was Haşim Albayrak, author of Of and Çaykara (1986), which describes the social history of the old district of Of. A picture of "Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk" appears on the frontispiece. A chapter bears the title, "Were Turks the first settlers of Of?" and then reaches a positive answer to the question. On the other hand, the book cover represents the tombs of three hodjas credited with converting Christian Oflus to Islam during the seventeenth century. By these features, the work composes a history of the district of Of that fuses the official nationalism of the Turkish Republic with the official religion of the Ottoman Empire. Just a few years later, Ömer Asan would publish another kind of book, Pontic Culture. The title of the book uses a word that has negative connotations for Turkish nationalists since it is a word that Greek nationalists use to refer to the eastern Black Sea region. One of the initial sections bears the heading: "Who were the first natives of Of?" The author asks the question only to illustrate that it cannot be definitively answered. To make his point, he illustrates how any kind of official history or official identity is insufficient to recognize fully the richness of a people's past. He then argues that "Pontic culture," that is, eastern Black Sea culture, combines all kinds of heritages, but especially Hellenic and Turkic. The last section of his book consists of a Turkish-Greek dictionary of terms current in the villages of the districts of Of and Çaykara. These two examples of different intellectual projects mirror different circles of interpersonal association among the Oflus of Istanbul. Albayrak's readers are probably not Asan's readers. But there were still other kinds of projects and circles among the Oflus in Istanbul as well.
To survive in the great city, the Oflus had deployed a discipline of sociability in all kinds of ways for all kinds of ends. Several of the Oflus had become prominent Mafia bosses in the city, while a large number of Oflus appeared among their followers. I had heard about "Oflu Hasan" during the 1960s, when he was one of the most infamous of the "fathers" (babalar) in Istanbul. By the late 1980s, others had taken his place. One of the Oflu "baba" was said to receive daily visitors who came to pay him homage in the old style, stooping down and kissing his hand. One of my interlocutors told me that the Oflus had only learned the "mafia business" (mafia işleri) after coming to Istanbul, but they were very good at it because they "stuck together" (tutkunluğumuz var).
Some of the Oflus were also followers of religious leaders (Şeyh) who were connected with religious brotherhoods (tarikat). The latter were principally Nakşibendi, but some were perhaps Kaderi. I have the impression that these kinds of religious associations were not circumscribed by place of origin, and so not necessarily headed by, or limited to, circles of Oflus. But I have very little information about such religious leaders and brotherhoods. Most of my friends were pious, regularly performing their daily prayers, but they were not interested in religious leaders or brotherhoods. Perhaps this was a characteristic of the educated generation that came of age during the first decades of the Republic. Although I am not at all well informed about baba or Şeyh, I will venture a generalization. In regard to the Oflus, I would say that these two new types of leaders represented the reformulation of the tradition of old local elites in the urban context. The baba can be seen as a "fallen" version of the old agha. He is surrounded by armed followers. He receives visitors who pay him homage. He even serves as an intermediary between the state and citizens, fixing traffic citations and so on, for example. But unlike the old aghas, he is a shadow figure of urban life who lacks the legitimacy of state appointments or a community following. In contrast, the religious Şeyh can be seen as a "risen" version of the old hodja. He would appear to be a religious exemplar rather than a person of learning who offers instruction in ethical thinking and practice. So in effect he is "above" the context of a state society based on ethical thinking and practice. He is the focus of religious identification and association among urbanites whose daily lives are structured by economic rather than communal interactions.
I have been told that one of the baba from Of was a descendant of one of the old aghas. I have also been told that one of the Şeyh from Of was one of the last graduates of the old hodjas. If these facts are true, and my information is rather poor, I would nonetheless insist that both are new figures of the urban context (both in Of and in Istanbul), but at the same time adapted from the old imperial coordination of power and religion.
It was the prior existence of a public life in the district of Of that enabled the Oflus to immigrate and prosper in the greater cities of the country. However, in the absence of aghas and hodjas, who were still dominant figures in the district of Of, the Oflus in the greater cities formed associations that were less conventional, hence more inventive, and as a consequence, more differentiated and variegated. By the 1980s, however, the town of Of was becoming more and more like a city.