Sunday, November 10, 2013
"The Soul of a Turk" -- Achmed Abdullah (ALIEN SOULS, 1922)
Mehmet el-Touati is Turkish peasant, in late middle-age when the call comes, chanted by the green-turbaned mullahs in the mosques. The Russian is threatening to destroy Islam, they say, and holy war - jihad or, as it's spelled in the story, jehad - is declared. Mehmet el-Touati, along with ever able-bodied man in his village, signs up to do his share to defend the Faith from the Russians. They form the Seventeenth Turkish Regiment.
And they march, and they fight the Armenians, because they are told that the Armenians are in league with the Russians. And they march some more, and when the Armenians are all dead, they're sent after the Syrians. And the Greeks. And along the way they pick up some Prussian military officials, and the mullahs tell Mehmet and the rest of the peasants that this is right and just and good, because the Prussians are a distant sect of Islam, and their Emperor Wilhelm will help them smash the Russian and save the Faith. Metmet has his doubts, but Islam is in trouble and the Faith must be protected.
Then one day Mehmet el-Touati hears something not meant for his ears. He hears the Prussian drill sergeant serving his regiment as brevet-major speaking with his aides. He hears tell that the Russians have been smashed, and now the Seventeenth Turkish Regiment is to be thrown against the British and French on the Western Front.
Mehmet el-Touati thinks about this. He doesn't care about the British or the Americans. He signed up to defend the Faith from the Russian. With the Russian defeated, the Faith is safe and he can return home to his family. But he knows how the Prussian deals with deserters.
Mehmet el-Touati thinks about this, and makes up his mind the kill the Prussian.
This is a very different take on the First World War then I'm used to. Being an American, in history class I was never given more than the bare-bones outlines of the war before America's involvement, especially beyond the Western Front. "The Soul of a Turk" instead looks at a theatre of the Great War forgotten by American historians - that of the Middle East, through which the German Empire aimed to cut off Russian military access to the rich oil and mineral deposits of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, which made up much of the Middle East during this time, was allied with the German Empire against the Russians, hence the Prussian attaches to the Turkish soldiery on display here.
With its emphasis on the drudgery and discomfort of war and the insignificance of the individual , in some ways "The Soul of the Turk" reminds me of All Quiet on the Western Front, which would not be published until seven years after this story was; I'm not saying All Quiet was inspired by "The Soul of the Turk" in any way, just that both authors were likely drawing on similar experiences to guide their writing, though in Abdullah's case, filtered through a distinctly Middle Eastern belief in kismet and the guiding hand of fate in all things.