My dearest daughter,
Once again, I must begin a letter to you with apologies. First I must apologize for the time since my last letter – it took a long time to get here and, though by the grace of Allah we did not suffer any trouble on the journey, nobody had prepared for our arrival and the first six months have been chaos as we establish our place here. Secondly, I must apologize as always for my Italian. Though I have always respected the wisdom of our great Padisha Mehmet II (did I not serve in his wars for 40 years with no greater word set against him than complaint about my blisters?!), and I have no doubt that his westernization program was of great benefit to all of our Empire, this old soldier’s brain cannot come to grips with Italian, and I fear I will never be as proficient with it as my children. So my apologies for the clumsiness of my expression.
But no matter! Why am I wasting your precious time with my shortcomings, when I have so much to ask you about your studies? How is the university in Firenze? Are you enjoying Italian life? Your grandfather spent a year in Firenze, but mostly digging latrines for a tent city as the siege engines pounded the walls. Do you remember that small glass perfume bottle your dear mother used to use on special occasions? That was his sole and single memento from a year in Firenze, which he bought during the two days he had free before his forced march to Siena. When he looked at that bottle he would become strangely still, and I think something happened in that one night in Firenze … Anyway, because all I know of the city is my father’s romantic memories and the smell of your mother’s perfume, it has always seemed especially romantic and faraway to me. Ha! But it could not be further away than it is now, could it?
It is unseemly for a man of my age to speak of his own deeds before affairs of family and state, but I know your restless and quicksilver mind, and I think that you are eager to hear reports of life in the colonies. So let me tell you a little about this place that I have come to, which is so strange and alien and yet in so many ways such a paradise. In truth it is a pleasure for me to tell you this (please do not tell others how this old man has begun to brag so), for although I cannot confess to understanding our purpose here, I have fallen in love with this place and I am beyond proud that our new Padisha has chosen me of all people to lead our troops in protecting it. It is unseemly to speak of regaining the garden of eden, but it feels as if I have been put in charge of protecting a new world that is within our Padisha’s care. Such a responsibilty! God willing, I will not fail our glorious empire.
But enough false humility (oh how this old man has fallen that he would try and cover his prideful boasting in such a tawdry cloak). To the story! We arrived (thanks be to Allah the Merciful) without incident on a mighty fleet of 40 ships, though truth be told my men and I only occupied four of them. The ships sailed into a sheltered bay that I am told is called “Cayenne” after the French word for a spice that they grow here, and I beheld the most verdant and unforgettable scenery that one can imagine. Our colonists have carved out a quaint little town on the flat land at the beach, but beyond that stretches a line of hills cloaked in the strangest and most ridiculous trees you have ever seen. Beyond that is a forest so thick that were one to fire a cannon into it, the ball might sink to a stop as if one had flicked a pea into a sponge. Truly amazing! And the heat! I must tell you now, it is as if every day one wakes up in a Turkish bath, and spends one’s day working and drilling and exercising and eating all in that bath. Oh, how I missed the breeze off the Aegean when I first came here! For at night, the weather does not change – it is just that the punishing sun disappears, but the heat does not relent. And I am told there is no winter, nor spring – just a time of rains, and a time of less rains. Truly, Allah the Creator has an imagination beyond that of his loyal subjects, that he could think of a whole land devoted to torture.
I am lucky though, for I have a huge house of two levels, set on a hill looking over the town. It is built in the Spanish style, for the Spanish have been colonizing this land longer than us, and have learnt of how to make a home habitable in a sauna – and being a resourceful and open-minded people, did we Turks ever see any idea we liked that we would not steal? So it is that I have a home fit for a family I do not have, and the ballroom now is devoted to maps and exploration plans, and my captains trek mud over the polished floors, and drink wine slouched on the expensive ironwood chairs as we discuss which place to explore next… but my study! Oh, it is a match for anything I had in our old home, a corner room with a view of the bay and this great mountain in the distance, which is so thickly forested that it turns a kind of bluish colour in the afternoon sun, and is darker than the pit of hell at night. The wind blows through here, and I can look out over the pretty little bay and keep a weather eye on the shipping as I pore over maps and supply plans and try to make myself busy … for in truth there is nothing to do here now that we have our barracks and our order.
I think you have probably heard wild stories of the natives, but I beg you not to credit them. They are a shy and reclusive people, who speak a quiet and dignified tongue and comport themselves with dignity when they are not hiding from us. I must say, they dress in a way that would bring shame to you were you to see them, and though tiny in comparison to my Maurician soldiers, they are tough beyond measure. As I write I can look out of my study window and see a group of them gathered by the quay, waiting for a fishing boat to come in that they might unload it. They work for small trifles but especially for weapons of steel, or guns; they return to the hills at night and have some fiendish magic by which they can work their way through the impenetrable forest of the inland, and though I do not speak their language my Italian linguist tells me they have enemies inland, who have never seen a Turk, and who cower and flee at the mere sound of a rifle. Our Austrian biologist warns me we should not give them guns – he claims that these people are like animals, and asks what would happen if we gave the wolf a rifle? – but I do not credit his strange imaginings. Whatever next, will he claim Turks are like unto the apes that the romans kept in their circuses? No, these people are but humans, humans who have strayed from the sight of god. We give them guns, and they will use them to kill other humans. Is it not like Europe?
In many ways though the colonists are more fascinating than the natives. Walking through our little town is like being in a souk in Smyrna, or the armies I told you about in the height of the conquest era! There are a thousand races, and a thousand languages being spoken, and everyone trying to make their little piece of home here on this strange wet land. And the army even more so! When I was a lad, our army was all Turkish, and it had no form or substance – just a gang of young men really, our lances glinting in the sun, intoxicated on bravery and conquest but with no sense of order or discipline. I remember none of us wore the same clothes, or even used the same weapons, and for a year somewhere in Hungary I wore a Hussar’s blue jacket with a Tatar hat I had taken somewhere in Sarai, and I never gave a thought to what anyone in my group was doing – I just went to war for the joy of it. But my men now, they all wear the same clothes, they march in line and they are scared of fighting. There is not a lance in sight – just muskets – and I think many of my men have never met a horse. But they would fight a dragon if they needed to! These tall dour Austrians, and my short but feisty Hungarians, and my laconic Italians – they have no courage, any of them, when they are by themselves, they would rather write poems and lie in bed than fight, but when they fight – my god! Had I met them when I was young, I would never have survived long enough to feel the pride of being your father. As our Mehmet westernized, so he dragged his army forward, and old men like me have to take up the habit of command, or we are forgotten – because our old habits are no good in a soldier.
But I must confess to you, I do not really understand why I am in command here. This land is verdant, but we do not know what to grow or do with it. To the east are the Castillians; to the west, the British. We have come to this colonial game far too late, and most of this land is already taken by the three great European powers. My Padisha tells me that we are not here to take land from the natives, but to take land for the natives – because if we do not, someone else will. But I think it is a pitiful effort – we cannot take but a scrap of land that has been left for us by the Spanish and the British, and meanwhile huge tracts of Asia lie smothered under the suffocating rule of barbaric empires like the Horde or the Nogai. If we must rescue someone, should we not rescue our Muslim brothers from barbary, rather than bringing western enlightenment to a people who will eventually meet the Spanish? And I am told that in the British quarters the natives die in their thousands from British disease. Is this what Allah the Merciful intended for the future of Islam, that most of its people would labour under barbary while its chosen people strived to bring the teachings of our holy book to a handful of benighted souls on the edge of the world? I think we should be looking to Asia if we wish to extend the munificence of our empire!
However, please do not mistake my cynicism for a lack of will – of course I serve our Padisha’s will. And I must confess, being here changes one! I know before you went to Italy I told you I would never accept that a daughter of mine would study, let alone work, but every night now when I take my evening walk I stumble on some marvel – a plant no one in our kingdom has ever seen, or a pretty spotted cat slinking away in the gloom, or some new flower – and I think that your impatient mind would find satiation here. Are you still planning to continue studying biology? Because if I comport myself well in the next few years of defending our colonists, I could perhaps ask our Padisha to send you here, and have you document some of these new flowers. Is that not the purpose you saw for yourself when you fought with me to study? And is not the central focus of Turkish life the collection of new knowledge? I bid you come here if you wish, to further your studies and collect knowledge of this strange new world for the glory of our Empire and Allah the Creator.
Please tell me more of your life in Italy, and reassure this aging soldier that your studies are going well. I will be here, sweating and cursing and making a new world for Islam. I hope that I can share it with you someday.
Yours in piety,
ps I enclose some of this spice “cayenne”, taste it warily for it is deadly. Also a local drug called “coffee” that is rather good for when one needs to stay awake; and some sketches of the plants and animals I have seen. None of them have facility like yours, so I beg of you to consider coming here to further your studies. But, bring a fan!!!