Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Virtues of the Turk - The Sultan's Point of View - The Two Turkeys - The Reform Party - Universality of Corruption - Abuses of Taxation - The Peasant - The Turk Incompetent to Rule

"THE Turk is the only gentleman in the Balkans."

This was a remark made frequently to me as I travelled. It was generally made by Englishmen. Then came the remark that the Turk was quite incompetent as a ruler, and the sooner it was recognised by Europe that he is incapable of being either tinkered or coerced into what others consider good government, the better it will be.

Most Western men and all Western women shudder at the Turk as a nasty, unclean creature. Sensuality is thought to be his chief quality. The untravelled European, indulging in an imaginary' picture of a Turk, conceives him to be fat and greasy and lecherous, with no thoughts above the pleasures of the harem.

The Turk is no saint, but he is as moral as the average Englishman or American or Frenchman. It is exceptional for a Turk to have more than one wife. As for the ladies in the harem - a fact which stirs the ribaldry of the vulgar - the system is preferable to the promiscuity which disgraces Christian European cities. If comparisons must be drawn, I venture to gay the average Mussulman is quite as moral as the average Christian.


I don't discuss the merits or demerits of the Mahommedan faith, but, writing personally and impartially, I have had proof of "real Christianity " in many a Moslem land: courtesy, kindliness, hospitality. The Turk is a most strict adherent of the observances of his faith. Clean of body he generally is. He is no one-morning-a-week worshipper. He is never too busy to pray at the appointed hour. He never gets drunk.

Where we Christians of the West often make a mistake is that we persist in abusing the Turk because he does not view Turkey from our standpoint. We forget, or at least we ignore, that he is Eastern, that he has traits of mind entirely different from, and frequently incompatible with, our own. It may be we are entirely right and he is entirely wrong; but the Turk has his point of view, and it is from that point of view - rather than from wilful viciousness - that he acts. It is well to be fair and just, even to the Turk.

Measure him by European and Christian standards and he is wanting. But he is neither a European nor a Christian. He is a Turk, and above all things he is a Mahommedan.

That the rule of Turkey is out of shape with the sentiment of Europe is true. That the two will never mix is clear. That the methods of Turkish government in the Balkans must cease is inevitable.

The centre of Government, the Imperial Palace, is lacking in wholesome administration. It is not that the Sultan, Abdul Hamid, is not solicitous concerning the welfare of his empire. He is probably


the most hard-worked and perplexed man in Turkey. When I saw him at the Yildiz Kiosk he struck me as a man racked with cares and anxieties. The stories about debauchery can be dismissed as sensational fiction. That he does not readily yield to the demands of the Powers is not to be wondered at. He knows that there are rapacious Powers, and that the diplomatic advice given him will often, if adopted, be one step nearer the disruption of the Turkish Empire, to the aggrandisement of some of his hungry neighbours. You cannot convince a man of your good intentions when he knows you intend to despoil him.

Further, the Sultan has never had an opportunity to judge the political situation on its merits. As far as his talks with the foreign Ambassadors go it is a case of "pull devil, pull baker." Abdul Hamid has much shrewdness and vast suspicion. He has had no broad intellectual training. From his youth he has been surrounded by Circassian slaves and black eunuchs. The whole Government is riddled with the burrowings of cliques. The Sultan prefers to surround himself with strong ministers. A strong minister falls, not because the Sultan fears his strength, but because, so intricate and subterranean is Turkish intrigue, proof is soon provided by rivals that the Minister is plotting. It is a trait of the East to be convinced that the action of every man is dictated by motives of personal advantage. You cannot argue against it. It is inherent.

We use generalities in talking of Turkey - and


generalities are misleading. There are two Turkeys: the Turkey of the official classes and the Turkey of the people. We know little of Turkey as a nation, but draw conclusions concerning it from the corruption of the official circles. And whilst corruption is deep, rank, atrocious, we must remember it is the system of government which is at fault. Indeed, Turkish administration to-day has corruption as its mainspring. It is not secret, reprehensible, a thing which makes the Turk shudder. It is the ordinary and natural thing. If a man pays a high official £5,000 for a post worth £500, both understand that the money will be recouped by "squeezing" somebody else. It is open traffic, speculation, meaning there is to be cruel grinding, and that not one quarter of the taxes are ever expended on the purpose for which they are levied. All very wrong, of course; but it has been so long the way of doing things that it is exceedingly difficult for the Turk to imagine how it can be done otherwise.

I recall talking with a high Turkish dignitary on this very subject. He had travelled much and was acquainted with other countries.

Suddenly he asked:
   "Do you think it is Christianity which makes other countries less corrupt?"
   "Well, perhaps," I observed hesitatingly.
   "You have lived in America?" he questioned.
   "I have."
   "And do you think that much-abused Turkey is any more corrupt than municipal government in America?"


Reluctantly I was obliged to admit I did not.
"Ah!" he said hurriedly," and America prides itself on being a Christian country. We are corrupt, and we admit it; you Western people are more corrupt, but you don't admit it. Mahommedans are more honest than Christians."

There is a strong and growing reform party in Turkey. But all government is essentially conservative. Every man who wants change - however genuine are his convictions that the change would be beneficial - is in antagonism to the existing government. There is one of the great stumbling-blocks to improvement in European Turkey. All educated Turks, away from the official class - and many of that class also - realise that the present condition of affairs in the Balkans cannot continue indefinitely. They recognise that Turkey can only remain part of Europe by getting into line with the rest of Europe. Every step, however, in that direction is a step to revolution, and the sympathy of the rest of Europe is behind it. Accordingly, we have to recognise this primal fact: the Sultan and the Turkish Government - shortsighted, or even blind, if you will - are fighting for their existence in resisting the reforms which to us, standing aside, seem so reasonable.

Our sympathies rightly go out to the Christians living under Ottoman rule. But the oppression of the Christians is not all due to religious antipathy on the part of the Mahommedans. It is also due to politics. Mourad Bey, one of the most enlightened men, deeply anxious foithe welfare of Turkey, said:


"I affirm with all the energy of which I am capable that before the advent of the first consular agent, and, above all, of the first missionary among us, the Christians of the East were more tranquil, more free, and more happy than to-day." The Sultan, ignorant and superstitious, sees in all the movements to improve the lot of the Christians deep designs to effect the smash-up of his Empire. And, within limits, he is quite right.

Whilst Europe is perfectly justified in placing many of the Balkan troubles at the doors of Abdul Hamid, we have to remember his upbringing, his environment, and the traditions of the Caliphate. It is easy to say "Clear him out of Europe." But he is in Europe; he is master of a considerable section of Europe; we have to deal with him as an autocrat. All civil and military, and nearly all religious, power is in his hands. The country is divided into vilayets or provinces, ruled by Valis who draw small salaries but become exceedingly rich. The law is confused and conflicting. There is the sheri, or sacred law of Mahommedanism, and the civil and commercial law, based on the Code Napoleon. Christian evidence is never accepted against that of a Moslem. Theoretically it is accepted, but in practice it is not. All appointments to offices are in the hands of superior officials, rising, step by step, to the Sultan himself. It is only because the summit is reached in the Sultan that he himself does not pay for his dignity. Everybody beneath pays in some way or other.

The gathering of taxes is pernicious. Collection


is farmed out to the highest bidder. For a lump sum down - he usually pays much more to the Vali than the Vali hands on to Constantinople - the collector is empowered to demand one-tenth of a man's crop and invariably gets much more because he assesses the crop at far above its value. If the farmer makes any bother about the valuation he is prohibited from gathering the crop at all, so that he has nothing but ruin before him. The consequence is that the peaceful, law-abiding, and hard-working Turkish peasant, slaving from dawn to sunset, barely gets sufficient from the sale of his crop to keep life in the bodies of himself and family. "If, effendi," a peasant said to me one day, "I finish the year's work with a profit of a medjedeh (about 4s.) I thank Allah!"

The tax-gatherer squeezes every piastre out of the peasant; his superior squeezes the tax-gatherer; the Vali squeezes the superior; the court clique at the Yildiz Kiosk squeezes the Vali. Further, the peasants have to deal with the zaptiehs, or policemen, poor creatures, irregularly paid and rarely fed, who can only keep themselves alive by exactions from the already wretched agriculturists. I use the word "wretched" from the European point of view. The Turkish peasant, like other Turks, is a fatalist. He accepts whatever comes. I usually found him quite happy and singing, though he is born to constant, grinding labour. Taxes, in districts where there have been public improvements, such as railways, are collected by the Department of Public Debt, representatives of the foreign


bondholders, competent men as a rule, certainly just, who avoid the bloodsucking which is elsewhere so general.

It is the Turkish peasant - as Turkey has practically no manufactures - who bears the financial burden of the Empire. The officials, like parasites, live on one another, from mighty dignitaries at Constantinople down to the meanest who squeezes the life out of the peasant. Yet the peasant, as I have said, is invariably happy, and only halts in his work so that he may kneel, place his forehead on the ground, and thank Allah for His goodness.

The point not to be lost sight of, however, is that the Turk is by nature incompetent to rule. For the five hundred years he has been master of the Christian population he has never shown a recognition that the position implies responsibility. His ideas have travelled no further than that by right of conquest the soil is his, and he is justified in living on the labour of the conquered. Despite his slouch there is something of the nobleman about the Turk. He never lacks dignity. In mixed towns of Turks, Bulgarians, and Greeks, the Turks are easily marked by their cachet of distinction.

The Turk has not and will not assimilate with Christians. The Christians are inferior; Allah has placed them in subjection; massacres are useful things to enable the Mahommedans to get possession of things the Christians have no right to. The Turk's moral sense is dulled by his fatalism: kismet, and by the degraded position of his women.

Everybody is suspicious of everybody else. A


tremor of fear runs through all the official classes. A rich man is afraid to proclaim his riches, for those in authority would soon trump up charges to despoil him. The policy of Turkey is to sit still and do nothing. When anything is done under compulsion it is done slowly. Yavash, yavash! is the guiding principle of Turkish administration, at the beginning, at the end, and all the time.

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