Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ceyda Karamursel reviews Prisoner of the Infidels

Osman of Timisoara. Prisoner of the Infidels: The Memoir of an Ottoman Muslim in Seventeenth-Century Europe. Trans and ed. Giancarlo Casale. Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2021. 224 pp.

Review by Ceyda Karamursel

11 May 2023

Osman lived an exceptionally remarkable life. He was born in Timișoara (in today’s Romania) in the late 1650s and grew up in the relative tranquility of his region, amidst the widespread turmoil of the seventeenth century. His fate took a dramatic turn in the early 1680s, however, when the Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna. Osman found himself first serving as a soldier in a local cavalry unit, and not long after as a war captive of the Habsburgs, a condition that lasted for the next twelve years. During this time, Osman waited patiently for his ransom to be paid, enduring the same fate as all captives and slaves—confinement, torture, hunger, disease, and when he eventually attempted escape across the border, a near-death experience. Yet not all of his experiences were unfavorable. A polyglot in nature—as most people who lived in the multiethnic Ottoman and Habsburg empires were—he used his linguistic skills to earn the trust and affection of his captors, eventually securing a position as a servant in a Viennese nobleman’s household. From then on, he not only acquired proficiency in several new languages but also gained a new trade as an expert pâtissier, following his apprenticeship with a Parisian chef.

Be that as it may, Osman’s true renown, at least for us, stems from his decision to document his eventful life in writing. A literary pioneer of sorts, Osman composed what would become “the first book-length autobiography ever written in Ottoman Turkish,” despite the fact that he neither had proper education, nor any “direct cultural models to guide him” (p. xv). The result is an unfiltered firsthand account from an ordinary person, a source that is quite rare in Ottoman history, especially during the early modern period when “baroque erudition” tended to dominate literature (p. xv).

Osman’s autobiography had a variety of other peculiarities, too. For one, it had no clear title, nor an indication (at least not at first glance) of its genre. Moreover, the original text did not possess any section, paragraph, or sentence divisions, nor did it contain any punctuation marks, as was typical of most Ottoman literature. These factors likely played a role in delaying the text’s discovery and publication, which finally happened in German translation only in 1954, nearly three hundred years after its creation. This first German edition was followed by a latinized Turkish version in 1971, and a French one in 1998. Although scholars of Ottoman history have relied on these versions for decades, an English translation had not arrived until a little over a year ago. The Prisoner of the Infidels, then, is the first English translation of this curious creation, translated and edited by Giancarlo Casale, a preeminent historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire and, as such, is an invaluable addition to the printed source materials used by historians and enjoyed by general readers.

Besides being a splendidly enjoyable read, The Prisoner of the Infidels is also a valuable resource for both academic research and teaching. It provides a unique perspective on the early modern Ottoman Empire and Europe, revealing the intricate and fluid social relationships that determined the boundaries of seemingly fixed categories such as religion and ethnicity as seen by an ordinary individual. It is important to note that the accuracy of Osman’s account is less than certain since there is limited corroboration from other sources. In other words, it is unknown how much of his narrative is self-created, especially given the lack of outside evidence to support his claims . Yet, as literary historian Aslıhan Aksoy-Sheridan notes, Osman’s account was not merely an “outward testimony of an historical experience” but also a “self-narrative that reveals the emotions and frustrations experienced by one particular Ottoman subject.”[1] And even if Osman had manipulated his experience to suit his own self-fashioning, are lies and fabrications not as valuable as accuracy for a meticulous historian?


[1] R. Aslıhan Aksoy Sheridan, “Nostalgia of a Frustrated Ottoman Subject: Reading Osman Agha of Timișoara’s Memoirs as Self-Narrative,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 53 (May 2021): 324.