Aziz BÜYÜKAŞIK, Investigative Writer
Serial no: 18
Sericulture was an important medium of livelihood for people in the region, almost all families were first and foremost engaged in sericulture. They gained a significant profit out of it within only a month or a maximum of 40-days of working in spring. When mulberry trees- the only nutrition for silkworms- were harmed due to a grasshopper raid, this brought along an unproductive year in sericulture.
A flock of grasshoppers covered and consumed all they say in the environment; the corps, the trees, and whatever was green. They not only ate the leaves, but also gnawed tree trunks as much as they could. People stopped their work and dealt with the raid in solidarity. There were no pesticides by then, so people had to develop their own methods, such as knocking hardly on tins to scare grasshoppers, or collecting and destroying their eggs. They also opened a huge long pit, stretched a curtain made of cloth or rush mat from one end to another, and waited near the pit with a shovel in their hands. As grasshoppers flied, they hit the curtain and fell into the pit, then people quickly started to fill the pit with soil using their shovels. This was another way of struggling with raids.
On the contrary, the season after the grasshopper raid was the golden year of sericulture. The occupation of Suleimān’s family was sericulture; while a standard family bred one box of seeds, they bred two or even three boxes each season. When silkworms start to spin their cocoons, they need large wooden bedsteads; that’s why the family moved outside the house to provide the whole house for the silkworms. They didn’t feel content even with this, and as opposed to all others who sell their harvest as raw cocoons, they unraveled the silk from the cocoons and sold it as processed silk. Suleimān and his two sons, Ismail and Ibrahīm, were masters of this occupation; they bought large parcels of land with the revenues they gained from sericulture to make up for the damage they had last year. They thought of purchasing cocoons and unraveling them in addition to those they produce themselves, and then stocking all. For this, they would certainly need a huge amount of capital since what they had would not be sufficient to invest. They had to find money for the business, and the only way to do it was Seyyid Kāmil. Seyyid Kāmil was the financial extension of the state order, the living-bank of the neighborhood. Whoever needed money, or whoever would marry his children would knock his door, and so did Suleimān and his family.
“How much do you need, and what is the due date going to be?” asked Seyyid Kāmil to Ibrahīm.
“Five hundred liras will make it, as for the pay-back, it could be three or four months until the end of the season; or six months mostly.”
“Go make a deed of a thousand liras, all accounts should be kept. You know, I actually don’t charge interests, take it as a petty share from your future profit. By the way, I will need the real estate deeds of a place as a warranty. Well, there’s no need for any of these and I trust you forever, but who knows? This is an ephemeral world.”
Seyyid Kāmil had a white beard and a fatherly temper. He wore a stripped robe called “tūbī”, which was an indication of dignity in those times, and a vest on it. He wore a white prayer cap called “ʿarqī”, and wound a red shemag on it. He also wound a soft, thick, black- white- striped belt to complete the dress. He was glued to his 99- beads rosary, and to prayers. He would tell his beads all the time and pray even while walking.
“Send my greetings to Suleimān Efendi, my door is always open for you for anything you need” said Seyyid Kāmil as he counted the money onto Ibrahīm’s hand.
* * *
Suleimān was heading towards the mill with his donkey loaded when he came across three or four men of Tahir Agha, with axes and saws in their hands.
“We were just coming to see you, Suleimān Efendi...” they said.
Suleimān stopped his donkey and asked:
“Go ahead, how can I help?”
“Agha sends his greetings. He needs timber for his construction; and you have fine poplar trees…”
“Aye aye, certainly. I’m going to the mill at the moment, you just go help yourself, choose what you like and get it. There’s a tree with a grapevine, though. Cut off whichever tree you like except that tree. Do not ever touch it, cut two trees rather than one instead.”
As the men set out to Suleimān’s house, he went on his way to the mill. Suleimān smelt a rat, though; he didn’t like the attitudes of the guys. What if they cut the tree he warned them not to, with all the grapevine covering all around it? Suleimān picked a number of baskets of grapes from that grapevine for making wine. This grapevine, which grew grapes for barrels of wine had a special importance for Suleimān. He was done with his business and got back, only to see that the glorious tree with the grapevine was cut off! The men regarded his warning as disobedience, and purposefully cut that tree. All the branches of the grapevine were shattered into pieces, the yet unripe grapes were scattered on the ground. Suleimān was driven mad when he saw what happened, but there was nothing he could do. He knew it was the penalty for his ‘disobedience’ to orders. Having surrendered in destitution, he took it on the chin. He knew that if he further opposed, he would be given a harsher punishment. No one had the right to choose against the order of the Agha, one not only had to provide what he wanted, but also transport it, as did Ismail and Ibrahīm, who went along with the men to carry the tree…
* * *
A stern system of exploitation was predominant in the region. It could be called “an extortion order”.
Yūnus confronted Seyyid Kāmil on the road.
“What’s up Yūnus? It’s been ages that we don’t hear from you. You used to invite me from time to time, but now it seems like I’ve been completely forgotten.” Seyyid Kāmil asked after they greeted each other.
Everyone had the responsibility to invite the Agha and his accomplices for a feast as a sign of proving and consolidating their commitment.
“May Allah grant you a long life, Agha. I’m broke nowadays. You know, we haven’t got a fertile harvest this year. I’m sure you’ll appreciate this.”
“What a thing to consider! What am I, a chopped liver? When did you knock on my door to return with empty hands?”
“May Allah raise it, Agha, I don’t know what to say!”
“You don’t? I’ll tell you what to do now; you will visit me tomorrow morning at the very latest, explain whatever your hassle is, and we will figure it out.”
Yūnus, utterly content with Agha’s sympathy, couldn’t wait until the morning. As soon as it was the dawn, he set out on his way to Seyyid Kāmil’s house. When he arrived, Seyyid Kāmil himself opened the door for him, mumbling his prayers and telling his beads.
“Ahlan wa sahlan” Seyyid Kāmil welcomed his guest. He led him to a seat, helped himself with a glass of his special drink, and passed one to Yūnus.
“Help yourself, it’s good if you drink it in the morning...” remarked Seyyid Kāmil.
As they drank from their glasses, they started to talk of business:
“So, where were we? You know, we are like brothers; I deem your trouble as mine. Now tell me how much you need, don’t hesitate...”
Yūnus, feeling embarrassed, replied:
“What can I say, Agha, as you might guess...”
“Ok, I got it” said Seyyid Kāmil. He reached for his pockets, took out a bankroll and started to count it onto Yūnus’s hands.”
“I wish these would fill the bill. You can pay back at your convenience. God be with you.”
Yūnus, having never seen that much money up to then, was in hog heaven. He thought such a favor should not be unreturned. So, the next day he put the saddlebag on his donkey and headed for the souk. He had the money in any case, so he bought whatever it took for a rich feast flowing with milk and honey. As women of the family and neighbors did the cooking and prepared for the feast, Yūnus wended his way to invite Seyyid Kāmil first, and his relatives, the Agha, his neighbors and whoever else came to his mind. All the invited came at dusk, to be confronted with a feast worthy of kings… Yūnus did not rest all night, rushed from one place to another to cover in case there was anything missing, and fluttered to put right any possible flaw. The guests ate and drank until late that day. They didn’t pass over to express their content as they were leaving blind drunk. This was the greatest reward for Yūnus, who was then content of having carried out his job perfectly.
A long time passed by, but Yūnus could not have the opportunity to pay back his debt. Whenever he came across with Seyyid Kāmil, he tried to find an excuse cringing with embarrassment, while the latter put a lenient attitude on.
“I told you before, that’s not urgent. When you have the opportunity, you pay. And that’s all.” he said. So he said, but he made no account of the form of repayment, the due time, whether any interests will be charged, or if so, the percentage of it… Seyyid Kāmil did not talk about it on purpose, while Yūnus couldn’t dare to do so due to Seyyid Kāmil’s lenient attitude.
After some time, they ran into each other, yet this time Seyyid Kāmil’s attitude was different.
“I’m not saying that you necessarily have to pay it soon, yet you need to give something as a surety bond. It is an ephemeral world as you know, so take it as just an assurance. Your olive grove would meet the purpose.”
Yūnus had an olive grove of five dunams. He took its real estate deed and handed it to Seyyid Kāmil as an assurance. As he took the deed, Seyyid Kāmil remarked:
“Once you pay the debt, you get the deed back...”
Yūnus smelt a rat, and decided to pay his debt back sooner or later. With this thought, he sold his cow and ox at the bazaar, put some more money on it, and finally managed to sum the amount he borrowed. As soon as he did so, he went to Seyyid Kāmil’s.
“Agha, forgive. I know this debt issue went too far, so let’s do away with it.” he suggested, and he took the money out of his pocket and handed it to Seyyid Kāmil. The latter counted the money, took out his thick notebook, and started to thumb through its pages. After he found the relevant page, he examined it and made some calculations.
“It has been two years since I gave you the money, just a few days less than a year, which means the amount you’re paying at the moment constitutes only one third of the total amount. Here I note down.” said Seyyid Kāmil.
Yūnus was shocked to hear that. He couldn’t say anything for a while, then he asserted:
“But how, Kāmil Agha? How could such a thing happen?”
Seyyid Kāmil, rather flagrantly, answered:
“This is only for your sake, since you are not a stranger, you’re not equal with others for me, you know.”
“Had I known, I would have found a solution long ago!”
“I have no fault, you said you didn’t have enough to pay, so I didn’t push you.”
“Well, that’s right.” said Yūnus, unable to take further the conversation due to his astonishment. Seyyid Kāmil took it again:
“Had you paid after one or two months, I wouldn’t have asked for a penny more; but two years…”
Yūnus did not say a word, he stared at a point, thinking. He was desperate. Seyyid Kāmil, having caged his hunt, launched on his last move:
“We are close friends, I have thought of a favor for you.” he said, and then he took back the money he had just taken from Yūnus out of his pocket.
“Take this money back” he proposed. “I will put a bit more on it, if you waive from your olive grove in exchange. Think well, you have two or three days to decide.”
Yūnus took the money back and wended towards his house. He couldn’t sleep all night, he thought over and over, and finally decided that he stood no other chance than accepting Seyyid Kāmil’s offer. He visited Seyyid Kāmil early in the morning and renounced his decision that he would waive from the olive grove. Seyyid Kāmil:
“Go arrange a waiver claim, bring it to me, and take your money.”
Yūnus went to the Imam of the village and had the waiver claim written. So it wrote on the document: “I, Yūnus ibn Ḥasan (Yūnus, son of Ḥasan), hereby waive and release any and all claims on my olive grove in the location of… in favor of Kāmil, ibn Murshid.” He signed the paper, and so did the Imam and two witnesses. Then he took the document with the signatures of the Imam and two witnesses to Seyyid Kāmil. Seyyid Kāmil took the document.
“Do not reck so much thought on it, it’s not even worth it. We are all just passengers in this world, we’ll take nothing in the end.” He said to console Yūnus.
Whenever Yūnus passed by the olive grove that was once his, he sighed deeply, thinking about how he lost it in exchange of a feast, and worse still, how he lost it to the people he invited to that feast.
* * *
Kurşunlu Han in Antakya was a cocoon bazaar; it was the local center of the silk and cocoon market. It could count as the branch of Aleppo, which was the top center of the silk and cocoon market and the commercial and industrial center of the region. The shopkeepers always kept an eye on Aleppo, since a large majority of the products were sent to Aleppo. Ismail came to Kurşunlu Han to check on the market and returned with wicker baskets full of cocoons and pleasant news:
“One raṭl silk is nine hundred kuruş today.”
The next day:
“It is nine hundred and fifty today!” he joyfully remarked. “It’s almost one thousand, it seems that it will most probably go up.”
All the family woke up early in the morning, lit the fire under the furnaces, and unraveled about four- five raṭls of silk with two furnaces. They were all surrounded by enthusiasm and willingness to work.
People who wanted to sell cocoons came and went incessantly. So the family decided that they needed supplement, so they discussed about borrowing money from Seyyid Kāmil. Ibrahīm suggested that they consult Seyyid Kāmil.
“If you need anything, do not hesitate. You always have a door open for you here.” said Seyyid Kāmil upon their visit.
Suleimān was hesitant to get into debt:
“Let’s not borrow money, we can collect a certain amount of capital from what we already have. “
“That would be a pity. The prices are going up day by day, so it doesn’t make any sense to sell the harvest right away.” opposed Ismail and Ibrahīm, and they knocked Seyyid Kāmil’s door again:
“We need your guidance again, Kāmil Efendi, the harvest is pretty fertile this year.”
“You will absolutely need guidance. The best is, come listen to my suggestion: I’ll provide the capital, you’ll do the work. We’ll become business partners.”
The proposal sounded very appealing to Ibrahīm:
“Sounds good, but I need to consult the family” he said. Later that day, the family gathered. Ismail went with the idea; however, Suleimān fiercely opposed to it:
“Don’t even dare! Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile!” he warned them. But who cares? They discussed the issue at length and despite the warnings of Suleimān, they decided to settle the agreement with Seyyid Kāmil. Now that they also had the capital, nothing could stop them. They frequently visited the Han and returned happy as clams on high tide. The silk prices were soaring day by day, even by hours. A thousand and one-hundred, a thousand and two-hundred, a thousand and three-hundred… As they saw this, they started to buy more and more cocoons, they no longer waited for sellers to come, but went to villages themselves to buy the cocoons. As one went to villages, others unraveled silk at the furnaces. They got up very early and worked tirelessly at two furnaces. Once they lit the furnaces in the morning, Seyyid Kāmil came and made himself comfortable on cushions prepared for him under a tree, and noted down the amount of products bought and sold in his notebook. In the evenings, he measured the silk unraveled that day and noted it down, then went to his house. This went on for three months. Suleimān and his family packaged the products of the day, lined them up, and put them near their storerooms which were already full.
The silk prices were unusually increasing. While they were seven hundred- eight hundred kuruş at the beginning of the season, they went up to a thousand and seven-hundred, then a thousand and nine-hundred; which meant one to three profit. The prices ceased to rise when they reached one thousand and nine-hundred; they didn’t fall down, either. It was the exact time to sell the silk; but they could not take any step without Seyyid Kāmil’s confirmation, so they visited him:
“Kāmil Efendi, the prices are rather appropriate now, they do not seem to go up any further. Shall we sell the products and settle the accounts?” they suggested.
“No need to hurry, I won’t sell them until the prices are two thousand.” he firmly refused. He is the boss, and what he said would be carried out. Following this, Ismail and Ibrahīm went to Kurşunlu Han and followed every fluctuation in the market. It first kept unsteady, it rose and fell down, and each time they returned from the Han, they visited Seyyid Kāmil to inform him of the market.
“Kāmil Efendi the market is unsteady, it might very likely fall, so let’s sell the products and settle the accounts.” they proposed, but he dug in his heels.
“Never ever! I won’t sell anything before the prices reach two thousand. It will, you will see!” he insisted.
All the family was worried with unease; Suleimān was constantly grumbling:
“I warned you, but you didn’t take my words. We invested with all we had, worked our fingers to the bone for months, and then? Wait for his mood! We are the ones who work and get into debt, he doesn’t care a bit! That must be what people call ‘to be tied to one’s apron strings’!”
Ismail and Ibrahīm tried to console their father:
“Do not worry, father! Under these conditions, we are still making profit. Even if the prices don’t rise, we are still making profit.
“If you have any profit by then… Expense brings along cheapness. If, now or later, you see large amounts of products brought to here, then check on the prices. “
Suleimān was experienced, and he wasn’t wrong with his prediction. As an alternative to natural silk, which got expensive, large amounts of artificial silk was imported from Europe and released into the market. Artificial silk, which was new in the area, became widespread within a very short time due to its low prices when compared to natural silk. The reign natural silk possessed was replaced by artificial silk and its prices started to drop drastically. All producers got worried, and looked for ways to sell off whatever they had, which led to a blockage in the market. Having risen up to one thousand and nine hundred, the prices fell gradually to one thousand and seven-hundred, then to one thousand and six-hundred, to reach one thousand and five-hundred at the end of the week.
As prices fell, worries grew among Suleimān’s family. He visited Seyyid Kāmil day and night, trying to persuade him:
“Kāmil Efendi, you see the market, let’s finish this job sooner or later.”
“The market will pull through in a short time, the products are more valuable than money, let’s wait more.” said Kāmil on all occasions.
The family got into other debts apart from Seyyid Kāmil’s. As they bought the goods, they paid part of it in cash, and assumed to pay the rest upon the sales. The due dates of debts came one by one, so lenders knocked on their door. If there were few lenders, that wouldn’t be so hard; but there were many, each coming after another. Suleimān was feeling ashamed:
“Until this age, I haven’t had a lender knocking my door, not a single one. What befell on me, my God! Move heaven and earth, but relieve us from this situation.” he begged.
İbrahim and Ismail’s sole job was to go to Kurşunlu Han and checking on the prices. As soon as they saw some stability or a slight increase, they rushed to Seyyid Kāmil’s:
“Kāmil Efendi the lenders don’t let us breathe. The prices are alright nowadays, let’s sell the silk- or at least part of it. We can’t stand having lenders at our door all the time.
Kāmil Agha has merchant concerns:
“If we would sell the silk, we would have done it at first. The prices fell, because everyone rushed to sell their products. You will see that sooner or later, when no one has anything else to sell, the prices will reach two thousand, maybe even more. We will stick to our first rule: no sales until we reach two thousand.”
While Kāmil Agha insisted stubbornly on two thousand, the prices dramatically dropped this time just like when they rose.
The two brothers were stuck between their greedy partner who thought of nothing but making more profit, and the lenders who were constantly at their door. The nagging of the family was added to it. Silk prices were still on decrease by the way, within one or two months, they regressed to the amount at the beginning of the season, even less. Let alone making any profit, this meant a half-and-half loss. After some time, the regression halted, there was a relative steadiness in the market. The reality finally started to sink in with Kāmil; he accepted that there was no point in waiting for longer. In the end, they made the deal with someone, and sold the products. While the products were being loaded, measured, or the accounts being settled, Kāmil Agha was always there to supervise. All in all, he was the boss.
“Come by tomorrow to settle the accounts” Seyyid Kāmil ordered as he put the money in his pockets.
The two brothers made their accounts. They no longer expected any profits, they gave no account of their strenuous efforts, or toil that lasted for months. The only thing they wanted was to get rid of the lenders.
When they arrived at his house, Kāmil Agha welcomed them in a way they wouldn’t guess. A rich feast was waiting for them.
“Ahlan wa sahlan. Here you come, you also invited us to feasts.”
Seyyid Kāmil was generous about feasts. Whenever he is to settle accounts with someone, he first prepares a feast for him to win his confidence.
Ismail and Ibrahīm thought that a good welcoming would be the sign of a good account. They ate and drank, but all they thought about was their account. After a long meal, Kāmil Agha finally started to talk about the accounts. Kāmil had already made his counts. He opened his notebook, made long calculations, and then expressed the result. He made the calculations for his own benefit, no doubt, according to which he obtained his capital with the interest that accrued, let alone sharing the loss with the family. The money earned from the sales could merely meet the debt he lent. Ismail and Ibrahīm would gain a petty share of the money which would be far from being sufficient to pay their debts. Ismail:
“But, Agha! We are downtrod in this case.”
“We have nothing to do. Prices don’t show us mercy!”
“Ok, they don’t, but aren’t we partners, should we not share the loss?”
“Not by a long shot! I’m not your partner. You asked for support, and I provided that to you. That’s it!” Seyyid Kāmil rejected.
“And what about all our debt? How on earth can we pay off all the debt?
“That’s your problem, not mine. Was it necessary to be so greedy? You could have made done your business according to your conditions.”
The two brothers understood that they wouldn’t be able to convince him. hey stood up, said goodbye, and went out.
“You forgot the deed. Hey, you forgot the real estate deed!” Seyyid Kāmil shouted from their behind. As he gave it to them, he suggested:
“I could do a favor for you. Waive you claims on the land subject to the deed, and I will pay all your debt off. Give me the debt list.” he recommended.
İsmail and Ibrahīm couldn’t know what to say in response to this unexpected proposal.
“We need to think, and consult the family.”
They went back home. Father Suleimān was outside the house, waiting for their return. He immediately understood the situation before they spoke a word.
“I told you, give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile...”
“What is done is done, Father. This is a lesson for us...”
“An expensive one, all the same.”
They talked about Seyyid Kāmil’s offer. After paying some thought Suleimān spoke:
“We don’t stand any other chance. We have to accept it. He will not let any others buy the land from us, since he was the one who demanded it, so go and finish this tomorrow.”
All the efforts of the family were in vain. Added to this, they even lost their soil they had bought. On the other hand, Kāmil Agha extended his lands with practically no effort. He never took interest from anyone- it was only a “petty share” from the profit.
To be continued…
1) A title of nobility which was used in the Ottoman Empire, and is still pratically used to address to someone (for males).
2) ‘Agha’, or ‘aga’ was a honorific title in the Ottoman Period who held a privileged position and authority in social life.
3) ‘Dunam’ is a unit of land used in the Ottoman Period that represented the amount of land that could be ploughed in a day.
4) “Raṭl” or “batman” is a unit of measurement used in the Ottoman Period, corresponding to 3 kg.
5) ‘Kuruş’ is a Turkish currency subunit.