By Giancarlo Casale, editor and translator of Prisoner of the Infidels: The Memoir of an Ottoman Muslim in Seventeenth-Century Europe
Before the dawn of our narcissistic modern age, detailed accounts of intimate life—and particularly of the intimate lives of women—are excruciatingly rare, presenting a perpetual problem for historians. What a surprise, then, to discover that one of the richest sources to shed light on intimate life in 17-century Europe comes from the pen of one the continent’s most voiceless historical subjects: a Muslim slave.
Osman of Timişoara, a young soldier in a provincial Ottoman cavalry unit, was taken prisoner by the Habsburg army in 1688 and spent the next twelve years as a captive, forced to work first as a stable boy, and later as a household servant to a family of Viennese aristocrats. Many years later, after a daring escape and a successful return to Ottoman territory, he wrote an account of his experience, known today by the title Prisoner of the Infidels.
On its own, this act of authorship more than qualifies Osman as a literary pioneer: memoir was essentially an unknown genre in the Ottoman empire of Osman’s day, such that Prisoner of the Infidels stands as the first book-length autobiography ever composed in the Turkish language. But perhaps just as original as his idea to write a memoir is his decision to populate it with a rich cast of complex female characters, described with a level of candor and empathy that had no real precedent in Ottoman—or European—literature. Occupying the full range of possible social positions (from fellow captives and ladies of the night to blue-blooded noblewomen), and representing every sort of relationship to Osman (lovers, co-conspirators, predators, and women to which he was literally enslaved), these characters, and their portrayal through the eyes of a Muslim captive, open a completely new window into intimate life in early modern Europe.
Most of the women to appear in Osman’s memoir are pivotal figures in his own life story. But there are a few that he seems to have included simply because he considered them compelling subjects in their own right. Among these is undoubtedly “the stewardess” (we are not told her proper name), a woman with whom Osman travelled on a barge from Vienna to the Hungarian city of Mohács while on a mission for one of his masters. This intriguing character, who Osman described as “very famous,” apparently owed her fame to having cross-dressed as a man in order to enlist in a unit of Austrian dragoons. Successfully concealing her gender for several years, she was only discovered, and subsequently discharged from service, while undergoing emergency medical treatment because of a battlefield injury.
One of the more consistent features of Osman’s memoir is that, when speaking of women, he is loath to comment on their physical appearance unless he can find something complementary to say. His description of the Stewardess is no exception, as he acknowledges that “for a woman dismissed from a military regiment, she was quite beautiful,” especially appreciating her “long, white neck.” He adds that, despite her gender-bending career preferences, she was voraciously attracted to men (“a love-sick whore,” in his language), to the extent that, almost as soon as their voyage down the Danube began, she started a fling with another of Osman’s co-workers. Then, upon reaching the city of Mohács a few days later, she ran into an ex-lover from her military regiment. An argument broke out between the two men, which turned into a general brawl in which Osman felt compelled to take part “out of solidarity for my companions.” This ended badly for the woman’s military lover, who died a week later from a wound to the neck, after which “the stewardess” disappears from Osman’s story.
When it comes to recounting his own romantic entanglements, Osman is notably more introspective and sentimental, but no less forthcoming. An example is Margot, a 15-year-old Austrian handmaid who, secretly in love with Osman (then in his early twenties), one evening decides to boldly sneak into his bed behind the stables. Osman is at first stunned (“Was I dreaming? Was she an apparition?”), finally asking: “Most gentle girl, how could you come to such a place?” Margot’s answer is an elaborate and heart-wrenching declaration of her love, delivered as she furiously kisses Osman, “her tears dripping down one by one until they covered my face.”
The scene, deeply touching and with the distinct flavor of authenticity, nevertheless has certain features that are repeated in all of the romantic encounters that Osman narrates—of which there are several, including one involving, in the place of a female lover, a teenage boy. In each of these, he is careful to always present himself as the pursued rather than the pursuer. And while acknowledging an initial willingness to be seduced (with Margot, he “returned her kisses and embraces, and for a time twisted and turned together, this way and that”), in every case he is eventually held back by combination of bashfulness and prudence. In his encounter with Margot, ever mindful of how “for the sake of one fleeting moment of pleasure, a person can find himself bound by both legs and made captive to the most miserable kind of slavery, even harsher than the one I had experienced up to that point,” the result is that he sends the girl away before their love has been fully consummated, and then locks the stable from the inside as she weeps pitifully from beyond the door.
Such fleeting encounters, however, pale in comparison to the complexity of Osman’s relationship with the one woman he could not refuse: the Countess Charlotte Ursula von Limburg-Styrum, who, together with her husband, was Osman’s legal owner during his seven years in Vienna. An immensely rich and powerful woman, married to the Habsburg high commissioner of war, she was inevitably an intimidating and comparatively distant presence for Osman. Even so, he portrays her as benevolent, genuinely concerned for his wellbeing, and ready to use her power to protect him—including from her husband, a stern and intemperate man. At the same time, however, hers was affection with a bite. She made no secret of her desire to see Osman become an official protégé of her husband, and to this end repeatedly pressed him to convert to Christianity, a move that, in addition to endangering his immortal soul, would have meant giving up any hope of ever returning to his former life.
Osman resisted this pressure as graciously as he could. But it weighed on him so powerfully that, when the Ottoman-Habsburg war finally came to an end, according to terms that should have given captives such as himself their freedom, he found himself unable to ask the countess and her husband for emancipation papers, convinced that they would be “disgusted with him” and refuse. Instead, he hatched a complex and dangerous plot to escape without telling them, and to cross the border incognito.
Just how conflicted Osman felt about this decision to abandon the woman that was at once his captor and protector can be understood from a dream that came to him during the darkest hour of his subsequent escape. Osman dreamt that he was hounded by dogs as he desperately scampered up the mountain of Sremski Karlovci, straddling the Ottoman-Habsburg border. At the top, he saw a palace perched on the mountain’s summit, with the countess, alone inside, pacing back and forth. Osman was terrified, but, turning her head, the countess smiled at Osman and said “Do not be afraid. We are happy to see you, too.” Jolted awake, Osman interpreted the dream as a sign that, despite his betrayal, the countess was still watching over him, and would ensure that he would cross the border safely.
Several other women were equally instrumental in the story of Osman’s escape, although in each case for quite different reasons. The most tragic is an unnamed Muslim captive in her early teens (“not yet thirteen, but by the looks of her more like nine or ten”) who is Osman’s co-worker in the countess’s household. One night, the countess’s steward—essentially, the girl’s boss, and the man responsible for guaranteeing her physical safety—came home drunk, snuck into her room, and raped her. The morning after, trusting no one but Osman, she comes to him in tears, revealing the crime (“He has led me astray like a devil, and has broken me. My bed is covered in blood!”).
Osman, at first, does his best to comfort her. But then, swearing her to secrecy, he methodically instrumentalizes her tragedy to gain leverage over the steward and, eventually, to pave the way for his escape. For the reader—at least, for the modern reader—the insouciance with which Osman reveals all of this is deeply troubling, and one of the few moments in his tale in which he seems anything less than a fundamentally sympathetic figure. At the same time, it is a moment of unvarnished reality, made all the more credible by its unblinking lack of sentimentality.
Shortly after this episode, Osman introduces one of the few genuine villains of his story, a certain “Fatima of Belgrade,” who had grown up as the daughter of a pious Muslim hajji. She was captured in the Habsburg conquest of her city and eventually made her way to Vienna, where, in Osman’s words, “she acquired a taste for Christian customs, to the point of becoming a notorious whore.” As a result, she had not once but twice contracted syphilis, and was “reduced to wandering the streets of Vienna in squalor.”
Unsettled by the fate of their fallen countrywoman, Osman and the other Muslim captives of Vienna organized a collection to pay for medical treatment. But he will later come to a regret this act of charity, when he runs into her again during the final, frenetic phase of his escape. By this time, apparently cured of “the French affliction,” Fatima was married to a thuggish Armenian colorfully nicknamed “Number Nine,” with whom she settled in the Serbian frontier town of Petrovaradin. Here she made her living blackmailing Muslim fugitives as they tried to sneak across the border. No fool for Osman’s disguise, she immediately recognized him and, unable to shake him down, reported him to the authorities, nearly costing him his life.
Finally, perhaps the most intriguing of all the female characters to emerge from the pages of Osman’s narrative is the one who comes closest to being his equal and a true companion—even though, likely out of deep respect for her privacy, he never mentions her name. She shared a bond with him as his countrywoman, her father being a Muslim hajji from Timişoara, Osman’s hometown in what is today eastern Romania. And like Osman, after an almost unbelievable story of tragedy and endurance, she too ended up as a domestic servant in the same Viennese noble household were Osman served.
As Osman reconstructs her incredible life story while recounting his own adventures, it is impossible to avoid imagining how his book might have been different—and yet the same—had she written her memoir instead of him. Like Osman, her misfortunes began in 1688, the same year as his capture, when she was seized by a Hungarian cavalryman during the Habsburg siege of Belgrade. Shortly thereafter, however, the cavalryman’s regiment commander, Count Claudius Florimund von Mercy (a well-known historical figure), laid eyes on her and, struck by her grace and elegance, fell madly in love. Asserting the right of commanding officers to claim for themselves any prisoners taken by their troops in battle, he demanded the woman for himself. Unable to refuse this request, but unwilling to hand over the girl, the cavalryman instead drew a pair of pistols from his belt and shot her twice, striking her on the side of the head with the first shot, and in the leg with the second as she fell to the ground.
Miraculously, she survived the attack. After two months in the care of the count’s personal surgeon, she was then sent to the opposite side of continental Europe, to von Mercy’s ancestral hometown of Metz, in what is today northeastern France. She stayed there for several years, but never resigned herself to her fate, and eventually attempted a daring escape. Somehow, as a single Muslim woman, she managed to make her away across Germany, Austria, and most of Hungary, until she was eventually discovered and recaptured in the city of Pécs—over a thousand kilometers from Metz, and just a few dozen from what was then Ottoman territory.
After her recapture, she was sent to the household of Osman’s mistress, the Countess von Limburg-Styrum, working side-by-side with Osman whom she worked for three or four years. Osman is coy about the precise nature of their relationship during this time, other than saying that they “got along well.” But if they were more than co-workers, this apparently did not stop Osman from planning his own escape without consulting her. Nevertheless, she somehow learned of his plans at the last minute, and “with pitiful wails and a thousand pleas,” begged him to take her along. Although Osman foresaw “no end of trouble,” he could not bring himself to say no. The two agreed that they would dress as Austrians and pose as husband and wife, heading to the border together with forged travel documents. The result is a heart-pounding adventure, with unexpected twists and turns worthy of a Hollywood plot. But once they are safely across the border, the two mysteriously part ways, and Osman does not mention her again.
Just how close were Osman and his companion? What kind of life followed her escape? Did the two ever meet again? And what became of the other women whose lives intersected, each in her own way, with Osman’s? The Muslim child, kidnapped, raped, and forced to continue to live and work for her rapist. The cross-dressing stewardess, made complicit in the murder of her former lover and brother-at arms. “Fatima of Belgrade,” living as a Christian and preying on her former countrymen. Or his owner, the Countess, who continued to haunt his dreams even after his escape. What lives did these women continue to lead?
These are all questions to which the final pages of Osman’s memoir, heavy with melancholy and loss, do not give answers. But what his memoir does do is give us the tools to imagine the many possible lives these women might have lived—lives which, without his memoir, would have been literally unthinkable.