Kuşçubaşı Eşref was an interesting figure in late Turkish history, a Circassian who grew up in the circles of the Ottoman palace, and who attended and was then kicked out of some of the most prestigious Ottoman military schools. He was a bandit, a soldier, and a spy working as a special agent in the late Ottoman period and World War One. Professor Benjamin C. Fortna is the director of the School of Middle Eastern & North African Studies at The University of Arizona. He has written a book detailing the fascinating life of this notorious soldier called The Circassian: The Life of Esref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent. I sat down to talk with him about his work.


Luke: Would you like to start by talking a little bit about yourself and your career?

Ben: Sure, I grew up in the States. My father was an academic and we spent some time in the Middle East when I was a kid. I learned a little Arabic and when I went to university I read Arabic, went back to the region, and then started graduate studies. When I got interested in the 19th century, I realised I needed to learn Turkish, or Ottoman Turkish, to study it properly. Then I switched and became more of an Ottomanist and got interested in the late 19th century. My dissertation and first book was on education and change in the late Ottoman period. Then I wrote a second book on literacy and learning to read. I looked at how the messages imbedded in children’s texts influenced how they thought about the wider world.

This latest project on Kuşçubaşı Eşref came out of the blue. It came by serendipity, I guess. I got back in touch with some old friends and it turns out that they were Eşref’s descendants and that they had some family papers around. Then I went and met with the family and they kindly gave me access to the materials. I used them as the basis of my book, added to, of course, with archival material from Britain, the Ottoman archives, and other sources. I tried to tell the story of this very interesting and colourful individual whose life tells us quite a lot, I think, about the changes taking place in the late Ottoman period.

Luke: Could you describe who Eşref was, and why he’s important?

Ben: You can see it in two ways: one, he’s simply a fascinating character whose life opens up the possibility of seeing this period of remarkable change and transition from a different perspective--I hope from a lively and interesting perspective. Secondly, because he is a controversial figure, by turns both insider and outsider, we gain through his life a very unusual perspective on this period. It’s certainly not the way it’s usually told from the official Turkish historical stance. It also says, I think, something about how nation states try to suppress aspects of history that don't really fit the expected pattern. The national history that emerges with the Turkish republic gives a very clear-cut but simplified version of the way peoples lives were reshaped from the imperial period to the nation state period. Partly because of his Circassian roots and partly because he ended up on the opposite side of the national movement and Mustafa Kemal, Eşref gives us a very different take on Turkish republican history.

Luke: How important was his Circassian heritage to him? How did that help form him as an individual?

Ben: That's a really good question. In some ways it’s hard to say because he doesn't really write specifically about his Circassian-ness or his Circassian identity. On the other hand, it’s clear it played a huge role in his connections. The very fact that he grew up in the milieu of the Ottoman palace was due to his father’s fellow Circassian connections in the palace. It allowed him to get a job, to escape the fate of most of the Circassians who were very down on their luck and had been completely devastated by the Russian takeover of their homeland in the Caucasus--most of them were quite poor. That was one of the ways his Circassian heritage affected him, just in his upbringing and the advantages it gave him, in terms of education, in particular. It allowed him to attend elite military schools in the capital. Throughout his carrier, it’s obvious that his Circassian connections of one sort or another were crucial to his networks, to his relationships. I think that focusing on an individual like this reinforces how important those personal connections are. Certainly up to the modern day in Turkey, but maybe especially so in that late Ottoman period, it was really who you knew. Even in childhood, some of the people that Eşref knew, whom he stayed close to, whom he stayed loyal to throughout his career were people he met as a teenager. So while he doesn’t talk about himself as a Circassian, in fact, he says at one point, "I never thought of myself as a Circassian nationalist, I thought of myself as a member of the Ottoman Empire; I worked towards keeping the empire intact." It’s clear that his Circassian-ness was pretty fundamental to who he was and the career prospects that he had.

Luke: That's something I find interesting. The Circassians weren’t part of the Ottoman Empire, so why did they end up having such a strong connection to the empire?

Ben: Well they had important historical links to the empire. The Caucasus had been a place of the recruitment of fighting men and also male and female slaves. The males tended to work in the bureaucracy or the military, the female slaves in the harem. Given their common Muslim background, a succession of Ottoman sultans saw it as the obligation of the empire to try and help them, and try to welcome them into the empire once it was clear that they were going through something like a genocide in the Caucasus. They were being forced to leave. In some ways, it's one of history’s forgotten genocides or mass deportations. The Ottoman Empire was in quite a poor shape to try and receive them, but it tried. It tried to use them to solve some of the problems in the empire. Ironically, this might have exacerbated some of the empire’s problems. They tried to settle the Circassians in areas that they thought of being of weak or dubious in their loyalties. In a way, these poor, bedraggled refugees who had, in a sense, been radicalised by the Russian assault on their homeland added to various regional and sometimes ethnic tensions in different parts of the Ottoman Empire. Certainly, the Circassians were among the most gung-ho recruits for the growing late Ottoman military and security apparatus. I think we have to see Eşref’s career path as very much conditioned by this constant demand for fighting men, especially loyal fighting men. That combination of loyalty and military preparedness was one that pushed the Circassians, perhaps more than other groups, towards the military and security networks of the empire.

Luke: One of my favourite books ever is The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Is it fair to compare Eşref to Colonel Lawrence?

Ben: Well, of course, in some ways it’s fair, in some ways it’s not fair. To begin with, Eşref didn't like the comparison himself. Ironically, in light of the fact that people have claimed that Eşref’s life has been turned into a legend, is exaggerated, and has been subjected to a lot of hyperbole, Eşref felt the same about Lawrence. He and his colleagues were more concerned about the people behind the scenes, people who Lawrence was working with but never got the dubious benefit of all the media hype and spin. But in each case, there is a kernel of authenticity, which we can perhaps say adds to the legendary character of these two individuals. They had very different circumstances, of course, very different origins, but there is the romantic legend about both men.

Luke: Just to indulge my romantic side, did they ever meet?

Ben: As far as I know, they didn't meet, but Eşref does appear in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. When Lawrence tells of Eşref’s capture by the forces of the Arab Revolt, Lawrence felt that the tide was turning in their favour. He devotes some paragraphs to talking about Eşref, his capture, and his being paraded round as a trophy. I think his dagger was given to Colonel Wilson, who was a crucial figure from the Ottoman perspective, more important than Lawrence. It’s unclear if they ever met; I don't think they did. They were certainly aware of one another.

Luke: One of the really interesting things about Eşref’s life and career is that he goes from being a bandit, to being in the army: out of Ottoman control, and back into Ottoman control. How was he able to shift so easily from these informal positions to formal ones?

Ben: I think that part of it was due to the fact that the Ottoman Empire was under such stress. Especially after 1911, it was engaged in continual warfare until the end of the empire. What that meant was that while the empire was, in theory and sometimes in practice, modernising along rational lines, especially on the military side, and was becoming more organised, still, because of the panicky situation and the perceived need to defend the empire at all costs, there was fertile ground for bringing in and relying on a very traditional mechanism: one of volunteer forces that are a part of Ottoman history going back centuries. It's a funny mix: in the last decades of the empire they were relying on some really informal structures. On the one hand, they were carrying on with the restructuring with the influence of German military forces, and the creation of an elite officer corps with people like Enver Pasha, on the other. It was very convenient for people like Enver to rely on a network of involuntary, private, off-the-books operations and individuals. It was a marriage of convenience, you might say, between the traditional voluntary forces and the more structured, rational, line of control type of military thinking.

Luke: To what extent did the Ottomans let Eşref go loose? Because he did get into conflicts with Ottoman command, didn't he?

Ben: Yes, there were fault lines that were felt at various points up to the very highest ranks of the Ottoman military. There were some generals who really had no interest in working alongside, or even tolerating, the volunteers and there were others who thought that they were highly effective fighting forces and that they were extremely loyal. They wanted to harness them especially given the stress that the empire was operating under and the existential mentality that the empire was in a fight for its very life.

I think a real turning point was its involvement in the Balkan Wars. The First Balkan War was such a terrible defeat for the Ottoman Empire; the enemy got so close to the capital. Also, the fighting was so brutal and the atrocities were incredibly harsh. That really turned the thinking of the Ottoman leadership, especially in the military. Enver, I think, already had the idea of a force spécial: a force loyal to him that he could deploy at will. After the Balkan Wars, when he reorganises the special organisation, this crucial off-the-books vehicle that he’s established, there is no longer any doubt in his mind that its going to be a very effective tool for keeping the empire together. And, as you said, there was conflict with Eşref; particularly, the top brass had no interest in dealing with people like him. They thought that such people were almost criminal in their background, that they didn't play by the rules. And still to this day, the history of the First World War, written generally by Turkish staff officers, has really pushed aside the contribution of these people because they were not part of the command and control structure.

Luke: Except, it seems to me, for Enver Pasha, would it be mischaracterising their relationship to call them friends?

Ben: I don't think it was a friendship of equals. There is evidence, some of which is in the book, that Enver was very fond of Eşref; he invited him to his konak; there was an exchange of gifts. Enver’s aide de comp was a Circassian so I think there was a network of Circassians whom Enver relied upon. Enver was very much a supporter of these guys when things got dicey. Enver, I think, saw the possibilities. The other interesting thing is that a lot of these men were very close to the founders of the Turkish Republic. When the republic was founded its leaders tried to distance themselves from the more unsavoury of these characters. The truth is that Mustafa Kemal fought alongside them. I know when he went to fight in Libya he was traveling alongside some of the most notorious of these brigands turned special operations fighters. It was very much part of the background of this period, but they haven’t always been treated very kindly by historians. The military always saw them as rogue elements, not easily controllable. They weren’t being given promotions or pensions like most of the Ottoman officers were, so they were expected to enrich themselves and to stay outside the chain of command. There was actually a utility, from the Ottoman command’s perspective, to have plausible deniability so they couldn't be blamed for what these guys were getting up to. There was kind of a mutual use and abuse that was going on there.

Luke: One of the tools that Eşref uses throughout his career is the idea of Islamic nationalism. Was this an idea that Eşref genuinely believed in or was it just a tool that he used to motivate local fighters?

Ben: That's a good question. It’s tough to answer that question without thinking about the larger context. That concept has been denigrated in most of the history. I think if you look at what these guys were saying, there was a bit of cynicism about it. For example, they always thought that the Germans were putting too much emphasis on Islamic revivalism, for example, declaring jihad in World War One. On the other hand, there’re clearly cases where they adopt that route. They bring together a number of Muslim VIPs to rally forces in Libya, also in World War One there are battalions of seminary students, things like that, the whole jihad question itself. I think it’s worth another look. I think it's been dismissed by historians a little too easily. I don't think that it means that people believed that because they invoked Islam, or raised the banner of jihad that miracles were going to start happening on the battlefield. But, I think given the way they saw the tensions between different religious communities in the empire, the idea of Islamic solidarity was in some ways an important least common denominator. There was a rational utility in trying to extract as much loyalty and motivation as could be gained from that.

Luke: I wonder if these ideas of Muslim nationalism led to his eventual falling out with Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish Republic?

Ben: I think it played a role. It has to be seen that there was a rift between Enver and Enver’s people and Mustafa Kemal and Mustafa Kemal’s people. If you look at what Mustafa Kemal does as he consolidates power in the National Forces period, he works very carefully to remove anybody whose loyalty was not one hundred per cent. Given the really intense relationship between people like Enver and Eşref it was really interesting to see on whose side were these guys going to fall. In some ways, the more important story for subsequent Turkish and Circassian history is the case of Çerkes Edhem, a close associate of Eşref himself. At a certain point, it seems that despite the efforts that Edhem expended behalf of the national liberation movement, his popularity and his success became more than Mustafa Kemal could bear, and a split perhaps became inevitable. Edhem, like Eşref, was someone who was very close to Enver and had been part of his team, so when Mustafa Kemal and his supporters made this break with Enver and Enver’s people, the fault lines were running throughout the whole officer corps, but particularly for the Circassians. They were in a difficult position because they wanted to fight for their country. As we see in the book, Eşref joins the National Struggle as a regional commander, but I think that the tensions and the mistrust were so strong that it was easy for any of these characters to fall foul of Mustafa Kemal’s group. We see that Eşref makes some mistakes in the National Struggle period and there is not much trust or tolerance for that in Ankara. It was almost inevitable that these splits were going to open up.

Luke: Could an argument be made that some of the problems we see in the modern Middle East can be traced back to the forces of Islamic Nationalism that Eşref and people like him encouraged? Or is that too much of a stretch?

Ben: Well, you can look at it from a different perspective. Some of the problems that we see in the region stem from an assumption held by a lot of people, both in the region and outside it, that in the 1960 and 70s, Islam like all religions would eventually wither away. This was at the heart of Westernisation or modernisation theory; the "rest" was supposed to come to look like the West and religion was something that, as people become educated and developed, was expected to fall away because it is supposedly irrational and not part of the modern world. Of course, this kind of thinking has been contradicted since the Iranian Revolution. Even before that even because there was an idea that you could just deny the Islamic nature of the majority of the region and the sense of Islamic history. This doesn't justify crazy activities on behalf of Islam but it is true that most of the regimes in the post World War Two period were brutally secular; they often didn't have much interest in or tolerance for how things appeared from a Muslim perspective. Western states both in the Soviet camp and the Western camp did very little to mitigate that kind of approach. I think it was almost inevitable that there was some kind of pushback or reassessment that would come out in a number of ways. It was further complicated by the fact that Western states like the US were in a position of great influence in these countries and weren’t sympathetic to, lets say, the Islamic impulse of these countries. Turkey is in some ways the most exaggerated example because of the radical nature of Kemalist secularism. Because of the strength of the Kemalist state, it took a lot longer for the Islamic side to emerge. I don't need to tell you, as someone living in Turkey, that you can’t really imagine the contemporary scene without those who wanted to involve Islam in politics feeling disenfranchised and really persecuted by the Kemalist state for a long time. It's a pendulum swing; I think it takes different forms in different countries because of the different conditions within those countries, but it has to all be seen as a larger swing of the pendulum.

Luke: My next question is quite a big one. I wonder to what extent has researching Eşref’s life and reading all these new documents changed your perspective on the late Ottoman period, World War One, or the early Republic?

Ben: That is big question. Before this project, my work had focused more on civil questions, public education, childhood, and things like that. When I was looking at the late Ottoman state, I was looking at the civil state and not really at the military side. That was a fascinating opportunity, and in many ways, a steep learning curve just to understand the basic vocabulary of these guys and their mentalities. Also, there was the Circassian element; looking at someone like Eşref, you become attuned to the different ways of looking at ethnicity in the Turkish Republic because these people were a minority and in some ways they didn't fit in. The flip side of encouraging a mono-ethnic, monolingual culture in the Turkish Republic was that there was a lot of suppression and encouragement to forget, let's say, the very complicated ethnic composition of the Ottoman Empire and what remained of it in the Turkish Republic. It was taboo for many years to talk about Georgians or Circassians, or whatever. You had to be a Turk and speak Turkish. There are a lot of cultural aspects that have been--suppressed is a strong word--let's say encouraged to disappear for the sake of national unity. Looking at someone like this, who was quite mainstream in some ways, he went to the military academies until his character emerged and he was kicked out. There are parallels to him amongst the Circassians who took to the Ottoman establishment like ducks to water; they go through the academies and become top officers but not on the rogue side of things. In one way, the mainstreaming of these people is what you’d expect of the Ottoman state and the Turkish state, but you can also see where it doesn’t work, where people rebel against the authority structures. Seeing it through a different ethic lens, I think, helps us problematize what we have sometimes been encouraged to consider as a preordained or scripted process by which people move from something big and unwieldy like the Ottoman Empire to something neat and tidy like the Turkish republic. This is supposed to happen in an scripted way, yet it doesn’t always, for the majority of people: they’re quiet, they go along, they agree. But there were a lot of people, who either voted with their feet, rebelled, or didn't like it but they took it. I think this was the case with someone like Eşref, even though he was somewhat of a unique character. This whole process is more complex than we’ve been led to believe by the typical textbooks.

Luke: How is Eşref perceived in modern Turkey? Is that perception accurate?

Ben: He’s very much a polarising figure.  On the one hand, he’s seen by some as being part of the history that's best forgotten. He’s kind of an embarrassment, a rogue for many people. Worst of all, for them, he was someone who broke with Mustafa Kemal. In the crimes of Turkish national history, that's pretty high.  There are a lot of people who are keen to disparage his story, to look very skeptically at him. The instinct for many is to want to denigrate him. The one book that has been written about him in Turkish really tries to cut his whole legend down to size. The title is Kuşçubaşı Eşref from Legend to Reality. It’s an attempt to push back against this legend. On the other hand, you have people who, in quite a hyperbolic fashion have created a romantic legend about him, where he is seen as the worlds greatest spy, he’s the Turkish Lawrence, he’s a kind of James Bond figure. There is a lot of exaggeration, and a lot of romanticism. What I was trying to do in the book was to go where the evidence took me, which was inevitably to side with neither camp but to try to find the reasons that such a figure could be coopted by either contrasting view. It’s a typical academic’s response to things but you know there are cases where people read so much into history that you have to go back and look at the facts, hard as they are in many cases to find. I think one of the reasons that he’s become such a legend is that things happened off screen, so to speak. A lot of it happened out in the desert and there are no corroborating sources. It’s just his word and there is also the fact that some earlier historians who wrote about Eşref weren’t very beholden to the facts.

Right-wing Turks have typically wanted to see him as a missed hero who, because of political reasons, has been cast aside and vilified. For them it was kind of a great injustice that this happened.

Luke: What will your next project be?

Ben: I don't know. There are a couple of things that come out of Eşref’s story. I would like to work on the narrative by his second wife Pervin because it's a unique document. We don't have many things written by late Ottoman women. Particularly women like Pervin who were so close to the action and had interesting insights not only on the political side but also on the social side. What it was like to be the wife of someone who was always away. It’s a story of the demise of the empire in its own right. I don't know what form that will take. I’d like to do some more work on that because it give a more gendered perspective to this very male world of the special organisation and the military doings of the late Ottoman period. 

Luke: My last question, we are the Bosphorus Review of Books, so what are you reading right now?

Ben: I’m taking advantage of the summer holiday; I’m reading a short novel by a Mexican writer, Yuri Herrera. It’s called Signs Preceding The End of The World which is about a young woman crossing the border into the part of the world where I live now, southern Arizona, and dealing with people traffickers, drug lords and the forces of the US government. It’s a little break from the world of academia. 

Luke: Thank you for talking to us.