The challenge with accounts of events, firsthand or otherwise, historical or current, is that we are most often subjected to excessively creative interpretations, distortions, and projections based on the perspectives of those with power. For example, not too long ago I read a piece in the Canadian media stating that Russia’s attack on Ukraine had ended seventy-five years of peace. Prisoner of the Infidels: The Memoir of an Ottoman Muslim in Seventeenth-Century Europe, a translation of Osman of Timisoara’s (b. 1658 – d. 1731) journal by Giancarlo Casale, documents a subjectivity marked by a profound lack of social and economic power. It is the testimonial of a Muslim held captive by the Habsburg monarchy for over a decade.
Osman’s memoir begins with the loss of his parents and his move to live with an older sister who was married after her parents’ death. As a boy in his sister’s home, Osman was influenced by the young men in his life who were soldiers, so he used his inheritance to buy a horse and weapons and he entered adulthood as a fighter and soldier. As a protector of a city on the border of “Christendom,” Osman lead a relatively privileged life, but with the literal sounding of his city’s alarm bell, everything changed. What followed was approximately twelve years spent as a prisoner of the Habsburg monarchy. But this journal shows that as the years passed, due to his intelligence and diligence, he rose steadily in the esteem of his various captors. Eventually he escaped and returned to Ottoman lands, where he became a translator and ended his career as a diplomat. The journal was completed seven years before Osman’s death, and essentially created a new genre in Turkish literature.
With an intimacy that recalls Ibn Battuta’s early 14th-century travel writings on Hajj, Prisoner of the Infidels provides a useful and entertaining window into 17th-century Europe and the Ottoman-Habsburg wars. This memoir reveals a depth, nuance, and grittiness that standard historical accounts cannot hope to convey. It centers the human experience, covering everything from mosquito bites to separations from, and reunions with, family.
This firsthand account also demonstrates a profound religiosity. Osman’s religious and existential musings are punctuated by a profound religiosity: “no one can ever know the judgement that God in heaven has passed upon him. All we can do is follow our star and see where it leads us” (45). His journal makes early modern history practical and humanizes it, adding a welcome dimension to our understanding of the Ottoman-Habsburg wars.
One of the major strengths of Casale’s translation lies in its accessibility. This text, the first full English-language edition of Osman’s journal, reads with such ease that it’s possible to consume the book in a day, should one have the time (this is a good thing). Further, the book’s notes add depth while remaining uncomplicated by jargon (again, this is a good thing, even a feat). This is a book that anyone with an interest in Eastern European history could read and enjoy. It is recommended for historians who are invested in the particular and the personal. The book fills gaps left by larger-scale historical accounts, which often leave much to the imagination due to a paucity in source material.
Prisoner of the Infidels reminds us that one’s understanding a large-scale event like a war, as well as more mundane activities, is dependent upon context and lived experience. It shows us how unreflective and inaccurate the Canadian media’s allegation about decades of peace really is. And so perhaps a tangential benefit of Casale’s translation is its ability to make narrow perspectives at least comprehensible by comparison: without access to a broad range of stories, we are necessarily limited in our understanding.
Emily Victoria Hanlon is a PhD student of religious studies at the University of Ottawa.
Emily Victoria Hanlon
Date Of Review:
August 8, 2022
Giancarlo Casale is Chair of Early Modern Mediterranean History at the European University Institute and Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.
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