My Grandfather Mehmed Ali

My grandfather Mehmed Ali was an old-fashioned Turk. He wore a long beard and the traditional Turkish costume. Each morning he would sit down next to the "charcoal", the earthenware pot filled with live coals, sip his coffee and puff his long-stemmed chibouk. He would often gather with the rest of the elders and they would chatter for hours on end. Their talk would soon drift to the "One thousand and one nights" from Dobruja and it may well be that their stories kindled in me the interest in the enigmatic history of my native land. Around my village, Molciova, there were many mysterious, abandoned burial sites. Time and time again we climbed on top of the monument in Adamclisi, because from up there you could see clearly the Cumans' barrows scattered everywhere. Dobruja is the land of stirring mysteries ready to set one's imagination going. The woods close to our village were called the Circassian Woods, because Circassians were supposed to have been buried there. We came across strange tombstones which, of course, we did not study when we were children, but only later. Stones like those are nowhere else to be found in the area, although we searched all the quarries. And this ethnic group from the Caucasus – the Circassians – lingered in these parts half way through the last century, when there only five or six left, then they migrated to Anatolia. To this day the origins of the graveyard are shrouded in uncertainty. What is beyond question is that it has nothing to do with the Circassians. And so my grandfather and my native village had much to do with the fact that, after I graduated from the Turkish pedagogical institute in Medgidia, I entered the history Faculty at the University in Bucharest. Starting with 1953 I researched documents in Turkish at the Nicolae Iorga Institute for Historical Studies, then I became a reader in the Oriental Languages Department at the University and I also worked for the Turkish language show on the radio. Later I had to choose between these two jobs and I opted for the latter. Of course, I never gave up on history. Mehmet Ali Ekrem would not have been capable of such treason. In 1969 my first book came out – it was about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state. But before this first book was published and especially after that, I was mainly interested in the history of my smaller country, Dobruja and particularly the past of the Turkish-Tartar minority. The monograph, based entirely on documents, became a fact following the suggestion, and with the help of, my good friend Dr Ludovic Demény, and was discussed in the nationalities department of the Nicolae Iorga Institute. Later, with the recommendation of Mr Stefan Stefanescu, the director, the manuscript went into print. It is debatable whether the name Turkish-Tartar was appropriate, because there was a certain difference between the two, both with respect to origins and to the language. The differences are not quintessential, since the two peoples kept mingling throughout the centuries. The language spoken by the Tartars is nothing more than a dialect of Turkish. Before their adopting the Mohammedan religion they also used to have the same customs, the same religion, shamanism. But let us present the facts in a more systematic manner. After the Petchenegs and the Cumans, the ancestors of today's Turks came to Dobruja from two directions: the Tartars from the steppes on the north shores of the Black Sea and the Oguz Turks from the south, through Anatolia. The oldest surviving records that we know of date back to the time of Mehmet II the Conqueror (1451-1481). In a supplication addressed to the sultan, a family from Dobruja claim the lands they had owned since the time of Genghis Khan. During that period most of the Turks were converted to Mohammedanism, but found names even from the 16th century that betray their pagan orientation. Therefore, this had also been a lengthy process, just like the Hungarians' conversion to Christianity. The life of the Turkish-Tartars in Dobruja was for centuries determined by their geographical positioning. At the time of the empire the strip of land between the Danube and the Black Sea had been called "uci", which means summit, because it was a remote corner of the empire. This is precisely why the population was organized according to military rules. In times of peace, their main occupations were cattle breeding, agriculture, crafts and trade, but whenever danger loomed men jumped on horseback and rode to war. Is it not similar to the way Secklers used to live of old? Later, throughout the century, the native Romanian and Turkish-Tartar population was joined by other peoples who settled here: Greeks, Lipovans, Bulgarians, Turkish Christians (Tk. gagavuz), Germans. The disappearing Turkish Christians have an interesting history. In my opinion, they are descended from the Oguz Turks and they settled here in the 13th century, under the leadership of Saro Saltuk Dede, whose grave is in Babadag, the location of their first settlements. Later they emigrated to Crimea, whence they came back after a while. But only some of them, to the Vama Veche-Pietreni-Deleni area. They changed religions repeatedly. They came here as Mohammedans, turned Christian, then came back to the 'true" faith, but those we find here today are again descended from Christians. The great Romanian geographer Ion Simionescu was right to compare the varied population in Dobruja to the bird universe in the Danube Delta. I would complete this comparison by adding that the movements of this population, so hard put to the test, resemble the migration of the birds. Because of the frequent ward they often had to leave and take refuge but they always came back, like they did after the independence war of 1877-1878. Despite their peregrinations the Turkish-Tartar population was never considerably diminished, due both to the natural increase rate and to the constant infiltration and settling of the Tartars from Crimea. Their mass relocation in these parts began in 1783, when the tsar wiped out the khanate in Crimea, still ruled at the time by the dynasty of the Golden Horde state. The last great migration wave occurred after the Crimean war of 1856, when the descendants of the ruling family also came to live in these parts. Soviet historians identify the cause of this migration in the fact that Tartars were unable to fit in the new social, economic and administrative order, which was entirely foreign to their mentality and customs. And then, to a Mohammedan Tartar it was a sin against his religion to lay hands on a weapon in a foreign army. My book The History of the Turks in Dobruja deals in detail with the causes of the Turkish-Tartars' emigration from Dobruja. The first departure fever, early this century, had my great grandfather's and my grandfather's generation leave their homes, while the second wave abandoned the steppes of Dobruja after 1927. It is a complex issue, influenced by various factors. The authorities of the Romanian state always supported the cause of the Turkish school and respected the traditions and religion of the Turkish-Tartar population. Unlike the representatives of local administration, who sought to build fortunes at the expense of the meek Turkish shepherds and farmers. Besides, the new economic system, with its manifold complications, was completely alien to the Turkish population. Many of them did not know how to adapt to their changing situation and hit the road. Things took a new turn for the worse after the First World War. The agrarian reform – which we know was only partially accomplished – brought further complications to the plight of the Turkish-Tartar householders. As a result of the amalgamation of the lands, many became vagrant or were given poor quality lots far away from their homes. The constantly quicker pace of the social-economic changes gave rise to new conditions which made the Turkish-Tartars living in the countryside, with a deep respect for tradition, to choose emigration. At the same time, emigration was also stimulated by the propaganda in Turkey: the new state was in need of labour force. And is there a cheaper work force than the immigrants? My book describes the history of the Turkish-Tartars in Dobruja after 1877-1878, and the chapter on cultural history refers exclusively to this period. I couldn't say when the first Turkish schools in Dobruja were opened, but the travel notes of the Turk Evliia Celebi, known both to Romanian and Hungarian historians, mention various Turkish schools. Because wherever there was a mosque there usually was a school as well. Obviously, these schools were not opened in honour of this traveller's passing through, so further research should attempt to uncover the earliest records relevant to this issue. Turkish schools continued to teach pupils after 1877-1878. There was an elementary school in almost every village, but also secondary schools in Constantza (Kustenji), Babadag, Tulcea, Harshova, Medgidia. Before Kemal's 1923 revolution (when the school system was secularized), the mullah school in Babadag, and later the one in Medgidia as well, were enriched with pedagogical sections. The fact that the education system was so well organized was due on the one hand to the Romanian state, as pedagogues were paid by the state, and on the other hand to the relations between the Turkish and the Romanian state, which evolved in a favourable direction since early in the century. Unfortunately, after World War II, officials with no experience in the field of education or culture reckoned without one basic historical fact, namely that Turkish-Tartar schools had taught the literary Turkish language for centuries, and introduced the Tartar dialect in the curriculum. A Tartar pedagogical institute was set up in Constantza, but it proved so unfeasible that it had to be closed down in 1960 for lack of students. The reasons were self-evident: a tradition based on a secular practice cannot be replaced through the institutionalization of superficial phenomena. Today, the literary Turkish language is an optional subject for every Turkish-Tartar pupil. Interesting cultural innovations appeared in the lives of Turkish-Tartars in Dobruja after 1877-1878. Printed press became a reality. It was a natural thing, since the Turkish-Tartars, who had turned into a national minority, had to create their own cultural life if they were to preserve their identity. This independence was, of course, relative and it was influenced both by the new Romanian culture of European inspiration and by the progressive movement The Young Turk. To me, the history of printed press in Dobruja can be divided into two periods: before and after World War I. Our first publication, Şarkiat (The Dawn) appeared in 1898, followed by Sadakat (Faith) and Seda-i Milie (The Voice of the Nation). But these publications had very limited scope. One of them, mouthpiece of the immigrant opposition, was The Young Turk, another one militated in favour of a development in the relations between the Romanian and the Turkish state. Between the two World Wars the role of printed press also changed: it discovered its specific task as nationality. Alongside Bora (Tempest), Ildürüm (Lightning), Tuna (Danube) and other Turkish language publications, there appeared in Dobruja bi- and trilingual publications, like for instance Gümüs Sahil (Silver Shore), which came out in Turkish, Romanian and Bulgarian. A remarkable informative role was played by Ciardak (The Porch), addressed to the countryside population. Turk Birli (Turkish Unity), a publication meant for the young people, also played an important part in this period (1930-1940), as it constantly encouraged the strengthening of the relations between Romanians and Turkish-Tartars and at the same time contributed to cementing the unity between Turkish and Tartar young people. Numerous Turkish artistic and sports associations appeared. These groups often travelled to the countryside, where they organized cultural evenings, presenting traditional songs and dances from Dobruja, reciting verses from our poets and even staging amateur theatre under the influence of the young Turkish dramaturgy. The influence of Kemal's revolution was visible also in that intellectuals from Dobruja became aware of their own value and even of their duty as creators of values. Turkish-Tartars from Dobruja had taken a first step towards modern development. Alongside the popularization of scientific knowledge, our sole cultural magazine, Emel (The Ideal), took it upon itself to discover the treasures of folk culture and make them self-conscious. Among those who were published in this magazine was our most prominent poet, Mehmed Neazi (1878-1931), who was buried in Medgidia. His poems were never put together in a single volume and, since they went into print in various Turkish publications in Dobrujea, collecting them is a fairly difficult task. But I shall endeavour to accomplish it. I should also mention book publication in the Turkish dialect spoken in Dobruja, because between the two World Wars it was a reality, even if it never reached the same scope as printed press. (Between the two World Wars about 80 Turkish publications came out, longer- or shorter-lived.) I would dwell a little on the activity of two of the authors, because their work is valuable as a source for researchers focusing on Dobruja. Dr Ibrahim Temo was an outstanding figure of the Young Turks movement, but persecutions forced him to take refuge in Medgidia. He was a doctor, taught at the mullah school and, thanks to the numerous leaflets on health issues he produced, he can be thought of as a pioneer of knowledge dissemination. His memoirs, published in Turkish, include valuable data, both with respect to the history of Dobruja and to the evolution of the Young Turk movement. He was the most prominent and the most polyvalent of the Turkish intellectuals in Dobruja. Nonetheless, the one whom I consider to be my predecessor, and my model, is the journalist Negip Hagi Fazel who wrote – also in Turkish – the first survey of the history of Turkish-Tartars in Dobruja. It is primarily a journalistic work and, in the absence of critical historical sources, the data it includes is not decisive, but the sociological and ethnographic descriptions are valuable records documenting the life of Turkish-Tartars in Dobruja in the inter-war period. When do I feel more at ease? When I leave on vacation and the train reaches the steppes of Dobruja. To me even the air is different there. In my village I sit with my former classmates, with my friends and we chat at length. Whenever I can I take every opportunity to attend weddings in the village and other celebrations. I notice that Turkish-Tartars have preserved their authentic traditional customs of old. And, of course, I still sit with the elders and listen to their stories. It is true, they no longer wear their traditional costume, but the story-telling gift they have not lost. The historian Mehmet Ali Ekrem (1926-1999) was undoubtedly the most important specialist in the history of the Turks and Tartars in Dobruja. Influenced by his Crimean-descended grandfather, as well as by his studies at the Muslim Seminary in Medgidia, he focuses his research on history and furthers his education at the Faculty of History in Bucharest. His first book, entitled Atatürk, Founder of Modern Turkey, which came out in 1969, was followed by the long overdue volume Turkish Civilization, in 1981. In the 80's, he only managed to publish two volumes of Turkish folklore from Dobruja – Bülbül Sesi and Tepegöz – but was not able to promote any of the results of his research. He only became part of the international scientific arena after 1989 and he published dozens of studies in magazines. It is during this period that several volumes came out: Turkish-Romanian Relations Between the Two World Wars (1918-1944) (1993), The History of the Ottoman Empire and of South-Eastern Europe (1300-1918) (1994), From the History of the Turks in Dobruja (1994) and Turkish History in Romanian Chronicles and Artistic Creation, published in Ankara in 1993. It is also after 1989 that he has the opportunity to disseminate, ex cathedra, the results of his life-long studies.

by Zoltán Rostás