Help and Control

Among the entries in Osman efendi’s notebooks those that were compulsory records were only a small minority. Our muhtar was performing a number of functions that went far beyond his strictly official duties. To assist his flock in all of their official dealings Osman efendi was in fact fulfilling the functions of a notary, or those of a witness, of a scribe, a petition-writer, those of a guarantor, and of a middleman. He acted as a scribe for those who could not read or write. He wrote petitions on behalf of those who had to apply to a government office. He apposed his signature as a witness in deeds of sale
of real estate situated in the neighborhood and often entered the full deed in his notebooks as if he were a notary. He was often called to witness the conclusion of this or that commercial deal between two residents of the neighborhood. He acted as a guarantor of the identity, moral integrity, and social and marital status of many of the inhabitants of his mahalle and this gave them access to some public benefits. Whenever one of them needed to be supported when dealing with government authorities, the first person whose help was required was the muhtar. Osman Efendi also had to transmit all official notifications addressed to a resident of his mahalle. Besides, he recorded many of the changes in property rights of privately owned land and houses in the neighborhood, as well as the details of the marriage acts performed by the imam of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque.
Helping the inhabitants and controlling the mahalle as a whole were functions that had a high degree of overlapping. It will suffice to give but a few examples as illustrations of the types of entries that fill the pages of Osman Efendi’s notebooks.
There are, first, what were then called the official declarations of poverty (fakir ilm-ü haberi). These were official statements, signed and stamped by the muhtar, certifying that such and such a person was poor and was therefore entitled to receive assistance from a public organism (the Red Crescent, a philanthropic foundation, other types of poor relief, etc.). The “poor” could also be exempted from the payment of a fee (e.g., a child’s tuition) or of a tax. The statement, stamped by the muhtar, contained information on the identity and the address of the person in need. Here is an example of such a statement, entered on November 7, 1887: “Hamam Odaları street, number 18—Vahide Hanım, sister of Mehmet Tevfik Efendi, scribe of the thirty fifth regiment of infantry…is a widow, cannot provide for herself, and is in a pitiful state.”50 Of a similar nature, but more numerous, are those entries that
Osman Efendi grouped under the heading of dispatches to the hospital (hastahaneye sevk). These were documents given by the muhtar to the poor and sick of the mahalle and which, it seems, enabled them to receive free or inexpensive medical assistance. For instance an entry in the muhtar’s notebooks dated from October 28, 1887 reads: “Samatya caddesi 53—Fidan Kalfa, daughter of Abdullah, born 1250 a.h., ill and to the hospital….”51 There was a total of about thirty such entries in Osman Efendi’s notebooks.
For all practical puposes, these “dispatch” documents fulfilled the same function as the “official declarations of poverty.” The local headman was thereby helping some of the poor of his mahalle. With these two types of documents the muhtar was creating the legal basis of a specific right. A great service was being rendered to the local poor because it was the muhtar’s signed and stamped official declaration that obtained for them the right of access to a free lunch or to medical care. A pauper would not obtain assistance or relief from any official organization without the muhtar’s written statement, nor would he be taken care of in a hospital.
In other instances, the origin of a personal right was not the muhtar himself, but the law. Nevertheless, the local inhabitant who had that specific legal right, or was legally entitled to a particular benefit could not effectively exercise his right or obtain his benefit without a document signed by the muhtar. Osman efendi had to control and guarantee the beneficiary’s identity as well as personal and residential status before he or she could benefit from what was, after all, only a full legal right. Two categories of personal benefits were particularly concerned here: the transfers of pay (sipariœ-i maaœ) and the retirement pensions (tekaüt maaœı). The transfers of pay were instances in which a civil servant of the Ottoman government (and this was particularly the case for the military) who was posted far away from the capital had ordered his salary to be paid to a member of his family residing in Istanbul.
The beneficiaries who resided in Kasap ƒlyas had to have Osman efendi’s written and signed approval. Osman efendi had regrouped the entries concerning the transfers of pay and the retirement pensions under the title of monthly allowances (mahiyyât). There are more than forty such entries in his notebooks, all concerning the years from 1883 to 1892.
The muhtar’s powers over the inhabitants of his mahalle were not, it seems, much smaller than those of the imam in former times. A couple of examples will suffice to show how the vested rights and interests of many of the neighborhood residents could be denied a de facto existence without a written statement from the muhtar. On July 10, 1890 Saide hanım, living at 2 Sancaktar Street, receives from Osman Efendi a written statement that specifies that “…Saide hanım has the benefit of a transfer of pay [sipariœ-i maaœ] from her brother Ismail Zühdü, who is a first lieutenant in the second army, fifteenth regiment, second regular battalion, second squadron….”52
With that document, Saide hanım could receive her brother’s pay. The document, which may seem redundant at first sight, and the parallel entry in the muhtar’s notebooks signify simply that, for all practical purposes Osman Efendi had, in the name of the whole mahalle, recognized Saide hanım as being precisely Saide hanım. Osman Efendi signs another document on March 9, 1890, and entitles Mehmet A™a, a former customs house guard living at 5 Samatya Street to receive a monthly retirement pension of 144 kuruœ. “Samatya street, 5—The former customs house guard Mehmet A™a has been allotted a retirement pension of one hundred and fourty four kuruœ” reads the entry in the notebooks.53 Another entry in the notebooks, dated June 22, 1892, for instance, allows a widow to receive the retirement pension that was being paid to her now deceased husband. The document reads: “Hafize Resmiye hanım, the widow of the deceased Halim Efendi, former scribe in the Ministry of Defense, is presently alive and has not contracted a new marriage.”54
The muhtar is here controlling and certifying that Hafize Resmiye hanım has apparently no other financial resource than the retirement pension of her deceased husband. These entitlements signify that the muhtar had considerable power over those inhabitants of the neighborhood that needed his signature, testimony, and approval.
From a purely formal point of view, what Osman Efendi did was simply to provide a statement confirming a person’s identity, kinship situation, and marital status. But without that written statement neither Saide hanım, nor the retired Mehmet a™a, nor the widow of Halim efendi could benefit from
what in fact was their full legal rights. The muhtar was double checking these entitlements and Osman Efendi, in the name of his whole mahalle, was, in a sense, collectively guaranteeing these people’s good faith. In a sense, people became full legal entities only through the muhtar’s intercession.
Apparently, in the eyes of the Ottoman administrative apparatus, a muhtar’s sponsorship had more weight than the official identity papers that began to be delivered by that very same Ottoman administration right after the 1885 population census and registration. These official identity docu-
ments (called Ottoman certificates, tezkere-i Osmani) had apparently not yet been widely distributed and, a fortiori, were not considered as sufficiently convincing proof of a person’s identity. A guarantee/sponsorship by the muhtar—the direct eyewitness of an Ottoman subject’s daily life and demeanor—was still deemed necessary for official proof of identity and/or of marital and personal status.
The seal authentications (mühür tasdiki) were yet another sort of certification of identity that the muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas very often had to deliver. Ottomans used regularly a personal seal in lieu of a handwritten signature. This was totally unrelated to literacy or social status. Personal as well as official documents were stamped with the seal of the writer, the ultimate model being the seal of the Sultan, the imperial tu™ra. Almost everybody had a personal seal made of metal or of a precious stone. As to the engraving of seals, it was a widespread and honorable occupation—sometimes even an art. The problem, of course, was that these personal seals could be easily reproduced or counterfeited.
And that was precisely when the muhtar was asked to intervene. Many residents of the mahalle requested from their muhtar an authentication of their personal seals, either because they had lost an old seal and had had a new one made or because the transaction that they were about to conclude
or the government administration with which they were to deal or to which they had presented a sealed petition had requested a bona fide authentication of their personal seal. Commercial deals between people who did not know each other well enough and that involved a future commitment of one of the parties could, understandably, also be accompanied by an authentication of the seals and identities of the signatories. Osman Efendi’s notebooks contain a large number of entries indicating that such a
certification had been delivered to a resident of Kasap ƒlyas. The shortest of these entries simply indicated that such and such a person’s seal had been authenticated and really belonged to him or her. More complex authentications delivered by the muhtar also specified why the document had been
requested. Here is an example, dated from June 10, 1889: “…Major ƒbrahim ¥em’i Efendi has lost his old personal seal, and he will use his new one to retrieve his deposits from the Trust bank. . . .”55 There are also much more detailed entries in the notebooks, entries in which not only the precise transaction in which the authenticated seal is to be used is specified, but also the price of the good sold, and names, occupations, and addresses of the witnesses, and so forth.
In a number of other instances, what the muhtar was brought to guarantee was not just the identity or the marital and social status of a person but his very personality, his morals, respectability, and character. Sometimes the sharia’ courts of Istanbul required such a document in order to accept as valid the testimony of a particular witness. And what government official could know that person and weigh the testimonial value of his word better than his local headman, the muhtar, a firsthand eyewitness to that person’s primary familial situation and daily social behavior? There were many public admin- istrations that also asked for such a written statement of moral propriety.
Hence, Osman efendi not only had to guarantee the identity of the residents of his mahalle, but was also often called to evaluate and sponsor their overall “respectability.” On August 5, 1887, for instance, a note was delivered to Ali bin Osman who was asked to testify in court. Osman Efendi states that Ali
“…is a person of integrity and his testimony is acceptable….”56 Two years later, on August 16, 1889 another resident of Kasap ƒlyas, Mehmet Arif Efendi, who had applied to a military school, is given a note from the muhtar stating that he is “…a respectable person….”57 Every time some resident of
Kasap ƒlyas had to move to another Istanbul neighborhood he rightfully asked for a note of introduction addressed to the muhtar of his new mahalle and stating that, in his previous mahalle, he had been well-behaved and “respectable” (Fig. 4.2). Before the muhtar, it was the imam of the neighbor
hood mosque who provided the residents of the mahalle with similar documents of paternalistic protection and moral patronage.
Osman Efendi also delivered a number of signed and sealed notes (there are eighteen of them in his notebooks) for those who were short-term “guests” in the neighborhood. These notes were very appropriately called notes of overnight stay (beytutet pusulası). They concerned almost exclusively students of a boarding school or of a military college who were to spend a night or two a week with a parent, a relative, or a friend living in Kasap ƒlyas. For the student, these notes had the significance of a temporary legal “residence permit.”
As to the school or college, it was thus released from its responsibilities for the time the student spent away from the school. Here is an example of such a note, given by Osman Efendi on June 7, 1889: “Hamam Odaları street, 15—Hayri, a first year student in the ƒmperial medical school, will spend the
night at his father’s house when he is on permission.”58
It may indeed seem quite artificial that, on the one hand, so many of those “notes of overnight stay,” obviously quite insignificant from the point of view of local control and security, were handed out by the muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas to various schoolboys while, on the other hand, an effective registration and con- trol system for the massive number of rural migrants from Arapkir and elsewhere could never be fully implemented. The Ottoman administration implicitly required that the muhtars, and especially those of the capital, control and be informed of practically everything that happened within their mahalle. The ideal muhtar was supposed to keep all local residents under a sort of moral supervision and check and control even the most minute and insignificant population movement. We understand now that this was not within the realm of possibility. But still, a conscientious muhtar would behave as if an exhaustive and absolute local control mechanism was within reach. And that is perhaps how
the zealous recording activities of Osman efendi should be interpreted. Although they had inherited some of the traditional powers and responsibilities

of the imams, the muhtars were, after all, the local representatives of the centralizing and modernizing thrust of the post-Tanzimat bureaucratic reforms.


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