This "first autobiography ever written in Ottoman Turkish" upended every expectation I had of it, right from the beginning. The ‘infidels’ in the title refers to Christian Europeans—that at least I could see coming. But the fact that the writer, Osman, is from the Ottoman city of Timişoara, which is in Romania today, and his parents were Muslims from what is today Serbia—well, that was the first of many delightful surprises, not the least of which is that Osman is an excellent raconteur who balances empathy for his captors with an unceasing desire to return to Ottoman lands and be free.
These surprises come quite quickly, starting in the first pages of the Introduction, where translator and editor, Giancarlo Casale, points out how “…Osman’s home region, the Ottoman Balkans, was an island of comparative tranquility” for most of the 17th century. Imagine that—a time when the Balkans weren’t balkanized! But all of this changes with the Ottomans’ siege of Vienna in 1683, which they appeared to be winning until a relief force headed by King Jan Sobieski of Poland turned the tide through “…what is remembered as the largest calvary charge in European history…” Within a year, the Hapsburg Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire had joined forces against the Ottomans, taking back much of Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia while the Republic of Venice took many Peloponnesian islands and besieged Athens to the south.
In 1688, the Ottomans lost Belgrade, the city where Osman’s father was from, and shortly thereafter, Osman was captured in Lipova, just north of Timişoara. This is where Osman’s story begins—and look at the power of the first paragraph:
What a mix of humility and hubris, high literature and pulp! You feel right from the outset how this is truly an epic journey—one that inspired Osman to write the first autobiography ever written in Ottoman Turkish.
Once Osman is captured in Lipova, he is given to his new master, Lieutenant Fischer, “…a man very short in stature and of such an evil disposition that he confirmed the proverb ‘All tall men are half-wits, and all short men are devils.’” Fischer demands a ransom for Osman’s return, giving Osman an official document to allow him to travel to the Ottoman side and back, holding another slave as surety.
Osman and some companions go to Timişoara and get ransom money, returning to the city of Szeged where they are supposed to give the money to their captors. But the army has moved on, and Osman and the other captives have to try and catch up to them.
In fact, Osman is captured by bandits when his travelling companions select him to go up to them and ask if he can buy bread. Once they’ve captured him, they strip him down, and find his ransom money. They speak in Hungarian, thinking Osman won’t understand, so he is able to eavesdrop:
They have set off and are about to kill him when they get greedy, realizing Osman must have travelling companions who also have ransom money with them. So they return to search the area where they caught him, at which point Osman makes a run for it:
Osman ends up escaping the bandits, and returns to the Army, but without the ransom money. Then he sees the bandits—incredibly, when he tells Fischer, the bandits are caught and the money returned. But Fischer refuses to let Osman go, saying that he fears for Osman’s safety.
I don’t want to ruin all the twists and turns that Osman’s journey takes, or the way you can’t believe what incredible good—and bad!—luck this person has.
Nor is this a one-sided tale, for later on, fellow Ottomans sell Osman out, even as he also befriends many honorable Hapsburgs. Through it all, Osman stays focused on freedom—even as his hometown of Timişoara is captured by the Hapsburgs. And, as we find out in the Introduction, after his slave autobiography finishes, Osman ends up actually returning to the Hapsburg Empire as a diplomat, negotiating at the table with his former masters.
This is one of those rare finds, a pivotal historic document that is also an intensely good, literary read.