The Traitor's Niche by Ihsan Effendi
Updated: Jan 25
It must have been a gust of hashish that wafted from a cracked glass hookah gourd as I tripped over a broken cobblestone on my daily saunter through the second-hand bookseller’s market in Beyazid, Fatih, Istanbul. Those who live under the Genoese tower of Galata and along the Francophile’s Grecian avenue of Rue de Pera on the European side of the Golden Horn, such as I, call the Old City old rightly, for it has seen its day.
Stumbling, I dropped my best walking stick, made from the core of a walnut tree. It is not a cane - I’m mostly gray under my bowler, but I’m virile as any youth. It bounced off some hobnobbing, fez-festooned fool’s foot and landed onto a rock jutting from the sludgy walkway. The impact sent a sliver through the gilded knob, which was engraved in the spirit of my vocation, with my name in block-print type. Back in London, I am a newspaperman of note.
I was a big deal, front and center on the global stage. I have since fallen, spiraled down, ending up back in my festering birthplace, my mother’s country. It’s a pit of mud at the lowest corner of Europe, where the edge of the continent slopes onto a rasped throat of a strait between two often insufferably overcast, temperamental seas.
The intoxicating hash fumes stung my eyes. I dipped my head under a marble fountain and stared back into its reflective water. I could see, even under the gray sky above, that I was all bloodshot. Who did I see leaving a dingy perfumery: none other than the godawful, ugly mug of the famed headhunter himself, Tundj Hata, in his signature sheepskin cloak.
He seemed in a rush, though I had to let on that I had read about him. Last week, I found the book The Traitor’s Niche. I noticed its clean white cover, and bought it new from my favorite bookstall owned and run by a Sufi sheikh from the Jerrahi sect’s lodge in Karagumruk, named Muzaffer Effendi. He purveys English reads, mysteriously hot off the press, as only the brightest of storefronts hold throughout the United Kingdom.
The gruff misanthrope, the mercenary assassin, the crescent blade of the Sultan himself, Hata, a most unsavory creature, emerged through the haze like I had read, as if surrounded by the mists of the Balkans wildernesses.
He gained notoriety among literati and tattlers alike after his last three captures tingled the spine of the Ottoman dynasty. His last trio of executions began with Bugrahan Pasha, condemned for failing to kill Ali Pasha, who was called Black Ali for his disrepute lingers, made worse by the victories of the Greek rebels he supported, and who were now advancing north from the Peloponnese to tear back the land from some four centuries of Muslim occupation.
Most recently, he decapitated Ali’s vanquisher, Hurshid Pasha, whose capital crime remains as mystifying as any other of the sultan’s whims, explainable only by the absence of Black Ali’s lost treasure in the slimy, octopus-like tentacles of his imperial grasp. The head of the empire’s most valued commander sufficed. It is a mockery of logic ridiculous enough to drown any sane man in mortal worry, be he chief eunuch or brewer of tea.
Hata’s face had been well-described in The Traitor’s Niche - the hennaed beard, flaxen face, spawn of the wintry Balkan fog. The account of his headhunting ventures, rendered by Albania’s expatriate writer of world renown, one Ismail Kadare of Paris, reaches certain heights of truth, and is a compliment to his literary celebrity, which if I may opine, is greatly served by the politics and exoticism of his Illyrian origins in contrast to the dominant, Anglophone worldview, though no less earned, for the prolific extent of his life’s work.
I approached Hata carefully. I knew that to meet his eye was enough to risk life and limb, never mind head and neck. And yet, alas, with all that I had learned, I would never have guessed he had the loose tongue of a wizened flibbertigibbet. Tantalizing rumor just issued like a wet rubber elastic between his teeth, reddened to the tint of blood for his addiction to the all-common stimulant of tea.
“Whatever happened to that rascally, impotent kid, that no-good, two-bit Abdullah, the lucky jobber in the employ of the sultan who guarded the niche where the heads of the traitors you procured for display at Sultanahmet?” I asked Hata, as we both scanned the crowds until our eyes rested on the peak of the Tokmakhan obelisk, and swung back around to each other.
I had rushed to catch him. The book cost me over 100 Turkish liras, 25 American dollars in total from that hard-nosed penny-pinching mystic Muzaffer, just to read about the macabre escapades of Hata and the hard luck megalomania of his victims. I wanted to be sure it wasn’t the novel equivalent of fake news.
“Word around town is the boy went mad,” said Hata, at that point still seeming to be a man of few words, whose silence resounded like an echo through a monumental valley.
He turned the other way as to continue on his way, and then stopped. From the corner of his mouth I could see a broad grin spreading across his pasty visage, covered as it was in the barbed fur of his matted beard.
“Tea?” he asked.
We walked a few paces, and sat on two square stools, whose seats were woven with bristly twine. With just one sip, Hata began to speak, his tongue lolling, unraveled and undone. He took another sip, tore a chunk of Turkish delight from a dusty tin saucer, and bit it with cracked and mostly absent teeth. His eyes flashed.
It was clear that he had not a few stories under his belt, but the sudden opening up, enough to allow them to pour out like a deluge was surprising. It seemed a knee-jerk reaction to the introduction of scalding water infused with the caffeinating leaf streaming into his gullet.
He then shifted on his stool, and reached into his coat pocket for his chibouk, a long, thin stem of chestnut wood carved into the shape of a curved knife. And it seemed to double for an edge sharp enough to cut a man. By how he held it alone, it looked like the smoker had stabbed not a few of his victims with the diabolical, custom design. He obviously took added pleasure in the combination of tobacco and blood.
“Poor fellah went impotent before loss his mind. Had himself new bride and all they say what looked best prettiest dame this side of the land. I overheard him and doctor blurting out the privacies of his infertile sack, and its droopy entrails that went and hung ‘bout him without a bit of concern to reclaim the pride of his dud manhood,” said Hata, brightening up with excitement over the topic, like the worst gossipmonger, matchmaker auntie in the uptown districts of Istanbul, socializing to old age between forest plantations and waterfront mansions.
“That there doctor done prescribed the return of his little lady’s hairy patch to regrow back, that that would cure his lack of initiative,” Hata cackled, spitting up a greenish, yellowy mucous into his tea and drinking it up without a flinch of a thought. He packed his chibouk with ink-black hashish and ripped it hard after lighting a match on the rough of his stubbled neck, reddening his skin, lightly bleeding himself in the process that might appear to be all show if it weren’t enacted by him, the vilest figure in sight. Dark grey smoke poured from his nostrils and through his thick beard, scenting the quickly intoxicating air. I became a little more intoxicated myself.
“That damn, spoilt chile done hear bout Bugrahan’s harem past Trabzon, how them orgies they done make his face like that a tawny golden hue. Abdullah just went red. If that wan’t enough then it was the 22-year-old bosomy Vasiliqia who some told was so good at pleasing that 80-and-some-year-old Black Ali that she done make him dry for a spell,” said Hata, pausing to think, unable to resist his lascivious imagination.
“Last straw, that lucky number Vasiliqia done did the same to Hurshid, his conqueror, whose big head I cut right by order of Sultan mister, no one knows why,” said Hata, as he struck another match off a leg of his stool, and drew the rest of the hash in his chibouk with one inhale. Blazes sparked from the bowl as he closed his eyes while he held the rough smoke in his lungs till he looked about to burst.
“If not for sex, then power, and for some us mens they’s all the same anyway, why we kill and die. That what happened to the Abdullah, though in his prime. He went off rattling on about being a rebel what fit for the Niche. I ain’t even hear a whisper from the superior, it was just plain simple delusions of grandeur that he had,” Hata went on, exuding a pained mixture of diversion and gloom.
“I woulda try talk sense to the boy, what authority give Sultan, more better than to cut him I’se bet. They done sent him to the swamps where they kills wives who cheats. I just thinking on the how she feels, oh his goodly, fresh wife. I got one me own too, you know, ain’t just blood and guts here. I got heart too. She make mean stew I tell ya, with her Circassian parentage she told, got mixed with them Aegean skins. A real catch she is. I a lucky feller,” said Hata, cracking a smile and taking a sip of his second tea, chewing off the last bite of stale Turkish delight.
“That’s right. We keeps to ourselves yet but I go on out to the ends of this here dynastic territory to catch the head of a high and mighty dick wad. I come back with dick, keep the wad. It’s fair. But in you right about young Abdullah, he a casualty of this here done sick old man’s imperial fancy. I seen it with mine eyes. It ain’t going to last not much longer. Them war rebels in Greece threatening humiliate these here Ottoman kings to their last breath. I know it through and through, better than most. I seen it with mine eyes. I seen it, smelled it. It’s a death stench. It’s a head getting hacked off, slowly and painfully, from its writhing body,” said Hata, looking out over the rows of smoggy, soot-born cafes, where teeming packs of news criers who had long lost their voices sat, still as stone, retiring to idleness and death, mute and stoned.
With that, Hata stood up and walked away without saying one more word. He was not the type for listening. He was in a hurry, surely to see his better half. Looking at the musty mob of Sultanahmet, I thought of Kadare’s line, that its square is “like a swimming pool whose water changed every half hour”, that its unearthly momentum is “narcotic”.
The place does inebriate like a pagan spell, with a dizzying, maddening sense of infinity, like a portal where certain elements of time and space are suspended. I am struck by the uncanny premonition that its overfed tourists, fragmented sites, and done up dilapidations will be just about the same in 100 years, even when it’s the 2020s, only the severed heads will have decayed with the memory of an empire dead, without an afterlife.
Ihsan Effendi was an Ottoman-English newspaperman born in 1788. His review of “The Traitor’s Niche” was first published on June, 5 1822 in The Sunday Times of London following the assassination of Ali Pasha in January of that year, an international sensation. He remained exiled in Istanbul after declaring bankruptcy on newspaper row in London.
The Traitor’s Niche
by Ismail Kadare
Trans. John Hodgson
200 pp. Counterpoint. $25