Somebody to Lean On

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Large numbers of people came to the muhtar to get his signature, approval, or his testimonial; to conclude a private business deal in his presence; or simply to seek general information and guidance. His notebooks are, as already indicated, full of entries which, at first sight, seem totally unrelated to
his official functions as local headman of Kasap ƒlyas. The common denominator to all these transactions is, no doubt, the unmitigated confidence and trust that the muhtar had inspired in those placed under his administration.
For instance, the muhtar was fulfilling the functions of a modern public notary when he delivered one of the “seal authentication” certificates. This unofficial notarial function of the muhtar was in fact being put to a wider variety of uses by residents of the mahalle. Many of the inhabitants of Kasap ƒlyas chose Osman Efendi to witness and record some of their important legal and commercial transactions.
Here are some of the types of transactions that were brought to Osman Efendi’s attention and that were recorded in his notebooks: settlements of old debts, partial or total sales of houses situated in the neighborhood, the transfer of the right of use of a vakıf property in Kasap ƒlyas, the renunciation to
a legal right of inheritance in favor of another relative, a rental contract, and a spousal statement of agreement for divorce by mutual consent (hul’ or muhalaa’). Most of these transactions were probably later taken to the relevant government office (the land registry, the department of finance, the shari’a court, etc.) to complete the full legal process and to be officialized.
In all of these dealings the muhtar was acting as an authority in front of which a personal transaction or a commercial deal would receive its legal baptism, so to speak. For instance, there are a total of ten entries in Osman Efendi’s notebooks indicating a preliminary agreement concerning the sale of a house in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle. As an example, on September 14, 1887 a house was sold situated at 27 ƒskele Street as well as a 50 percent share in the shop right under it. The relevant entry in the muhtar’s notebook mentions the names of the buyer and the seller, the price of the house, and adds: “…the cession has been agreed upon with a view to carry out the necessary procedure,…”59 meaning thereby that the agreement would later be brought to the land registry to be recorded and the change of ownership to acquire full legality.
Our muhtar also took note of a few declarations of divorce by mutual consent. The legal address for such a change in marital status was obviously the shari’a court, which would register the parties’ intentions in the presence of witnesses and declare the marriage dissolved. Still, a few couples from
Kasap ƒlyas preferred to come first to the muhtar and had him record in his notebooks their common intention of obtaining a divorce, although they knew that this registration could have no legal validity whatsoever. We can only speculate on the reasons that pushed them to go to the muhtar before going to court. First of all, its practicality might have been appealing to these couples. Indeed, a written note of intention witnessed and signed by the muhtar could have eased the process in court either by helping to convince the judge and/or by allowing one of the spouses to be absent during the proceedings. Or, on a purely personal plane, these married couples might have preferred to address themselves first to someone they knew personally who would act like a confident and whom they could trust to protect their privacy.
Osman Efendi’s notebooks also contain, however, a number of entries that seem to signal not a provisional protocol pending a final agreement, but a definitive deal or transaction. Some of the entries represented more than just a vague agreement in principle. That is, they did not have to be taken
to an administrative office to receive the final stamp of legal existence. They already had full legal validity. Such was the case of many rental contracts in Osman efendi’s notebooks. Two—perhaps illiterate—people from the mahalle got together in the presence of the muhtar and signed a deal that they took to be perfectly legal. This deal was to leave no other written trace than the relevant entry in the muhtar’s personal notebooks. The rented property was in the mahalle and a local testimonial of validity by the local authority seemed sufficient to many people. On August 13, 1889 a warehouse at 42 Iskele Street was rented out, and the transaction in the notebook reads: “…Süleyman a™a has rented this warehouse until the beginning of April 1890 to Nikola son of Mihal for the sum of eight hundred kuruœ. Four hundred kuruœ have been paid and the rest is to be settled in February….”60
In these cases, Osman Efendi was again acting as a public notary, a witness, and a scribe to local private commercial transactions. The notarial function is obviously also present in the many powers of attorney (vekâletname) that Osman Efendi witnessed, signed, and issued. These were notes established for the use of two residents of Kasap ƒlyas, one of which was giving a power of attorney to the other. The notes specified who was giving whom a power of attorney, and for what period of time and specific purpose or transaction it was given. The muhtar signed the document and made the corresponding entry in his notebook. These powers of attorney, too, had a validity of their own and did not have to be registered elsewhere. The trust the inhabitants of Kasap ƒlyas placed in their muhtar was sufficient. The
notarial function of the muhtar was also to be accepted by third parties.

This great confidence was also manifest in the fact that the residents of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle often used the office of their local headman as a trustee, or as a depository for some of their precious belongings, mostly for the nominative government bonds (eshams) they possessed. The muhtar kept
these bonds at home and gave them back to their owners when an interest coupon was to be cashed personally. There are five such entries in Osman Efendi’s notebooks. Here is an example of a certificate of deposit, signed and dated from April 12, 1889: “…Helvacı 8—Fatma bint-i Abdullah, wife of Mehmed efendi the haberdasher, has new government bonds bearing a yearly interest of one hundred kuruœ in four instalments….”61
The office of the muhtar was also often used as a simple scribe or petition-writer by those—probably illiterate—Kasap ƒlyas inhabitants who had a request or a petition to address to some government authority. The loss or the modification of some identity papers was the single most frequent subject
of these personal petitions. But there were also, for instance, those who wanted to apply for a government job, those who wanted a written testimony of the amount of real estate property they possessed in the neighborhood, those who wanted an authentication of some official document in their possession, and so forth. Whatever the precise administrative problem was, the residents of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle first seeked the help of their muhtar. In their dealings with the faraway and formidable-looking Ottoman state apparatus, they knew that they had nearby .
A “bottom-up” view of the muhtar’s local authority and social functions implies that illiteracy,62 poverty as well as the ignorance of one’s legal rights, or of laws and regulations in general, were the main reasons for applying for his assistance. Osman efendi played the role of a sort of mediator between the government and the population at large. He was a paternalistic transmission belt from, for instance, the poor Arapkirli migrants to what was for them the unattainable spheres of the Ottoman government and of the central judicial and administrative apparatus of the Tanzimat period. A close, familiar, and trusted figure in the neighborhood, he was, for many of the locals, the semiofficial helper in all public affairs. The muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas provides an example of how the centralizing bureaucratic apparatus of the Tanzimat period made the muhtar take over some of the traditional functions of the local imam, at the same time the figure of the muhtar was made to acquire new areas of authority and intervention.
That Kasap ƒlyas was neither a central nor a very prosperous neighborhood is significant. This is reflected in the social distribution of the entries in the muhtar’s notebooks. We have a sort of a contrario indication on the social roles and functions that the muhtar was then fulfilling. Kasap ƒlyas
contained, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a few mansions belonging to, and containing, upper-class households. There was, for instance, the household headed by ¥evket Paœa, the former cabinet minister and that of Col. Sadettin bey. Both were living in their konaks situated on Samatya
Street (numbers 62 and 64, respectively). So was Nebil bey, a high-ranking foreign affairs bureaucrat (number 5). As to retired army general Ahmet Faik Paœa, his mansion was on ¥imendifer Street (number 19). All of these upperclass household heads appear in the list of property-owners of the mahalle drawn by Osman Efendi in 1885.63 These elite figures are also duly present, with their families, servants, and dependents, in the 1885 census.
Strangely enough, however, none of these elite households, and not a single one of their members, servants, and various dependents included, ever appear by name in the notebooks that Osman Efendi, muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas, kept for almost a quarter of a century. Obviously, they were all living in their
konaks situated within the neighborhood. But they have left absolutely no trace in the muhtar’s notebooks. During the long reign of Osman Efendi as muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas, not even the minutest operation concerning a member of these households was ever entered in his local records. Clearly, these upperclass households constituted quite a different sort of local inhabitant, and their relationship with the muhtar must have shown a different profile. They never came to ask for an authentication from Osman Efendi, for instance, nor for any sort of guarantorship. No transaction of theirs ever seem to have needed the legal baptism from the muhtar that many residents of Kasap ƒlyas eagerly sought. Nor did these Paœas and their families ever have to ask for any sort of signed and stamped note or certificate from their local headman. They never deposited their precious belongings or government securities with the muhtar. Their becoming full legal entities was never pending on the delivery of a signed certificate by the muhtar. It was certainly not for the muhtar to certify their moral integrity or propriety. Nor did they ever need him to act as a sort of mediator between them and some higher government authority.
It is difficult to attribute all of this to pure chance, and to dismiss the fact as a simple coincidence. It is the perception that these high-ranking bureaucrats and soldiers had of the muhtar’s status, authority, and social function that obviously made all the difference. And Osman Efendi knew his limits.
In their multiple dealings with the Ottoman administration, these notables never needed the services of the muhtar of the neighborhood in which they happened to reside. Whatever business they had with the law or with some government office, they settled it directly and, quite naturally, did not waste their time with the local headman, who was therefore simply skipped.
The rich and the powerful who happened to live in Kasap ƒlyas toward the end of the nineteenth century were conspicuously absent from Osman efendi’s late nineteenth-century notebooks. A few decades later, another highly respected Kasap ƒlyas muhtar of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s knew that the different households in the neighborhood needed different approaches. This is how this muhtar (a second-generation Alevî migrant from Arapkir himself) managed to colorfully express the duality: “.. .there are houses in which I can enter at any time simply by giving a kick at the door. But there are also those houses where, after knocking, I have to turn my back to the door and wait for an answer from inside or for an invitation to come in, and I can not turn back towards the house without having been invited to do so….”64 There were those numerous households that needed his help and had to submit to whatever authority he happened to hold. And there were those few households that simply did not need him at all. And a good muhtar knew the difference.

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