Other rumors might have circulated widely in earlier periods, but without a doubt these new ones should have produced the greatest effect. The current reports concerned the abolition of the office of curser. Their effect should have been as great on those whom this eventuality could not fail to vex as on those who were ready to delight in it. The former group included, first and foremost, the individuals directly concerned, as well as their friends and relations. Among the latter were die-hard liberals, punctilious critics, and that host of irresponsible men who rejoiced at every shock to the established order, and every suppression of a guild, be it even of bakers.
But in those years the Empire was going through a period of significant reform, and not a day passed when the people could not be heard talking about the ideas behind new decrees, the restructuring of the administration, of the financial system, of the armed forces, and so forth. This was so much the case that the news, good or bad, of the abolition of one of the oldest offices of the centuries-old state was received with relative indifference.
By and large this measure seemed logically attributable to the modernization efforts put into motion by this ramshackle country, especially as a result of its recent and ever more conspicuous rapprochement with Europe, the consequences of which were bound to make themselves felt, sooner or later, in the very structure of the state.
In fact, this type of silent curse, or traditional anathema, delivered with arms extended and palms bare, must have seemed pretty archaic at a time when the first newspapers had made their appearance in the capital and when the state, in obvious imitation of European countries, had reorganized its intelligence services, the activities of its ambassadors, the reception given to foreign plenipotentiaries, and so on, to say nothing of the adoption of unusual behavior like intoxication through the consumption of spirits. All of these were practices borrowed from the accursed world of the Christians.
All winter long, it was said, the Grand Vizier and the Sheikh-ul-Islam clashed continually over precisely the issue of the silent cursers. Ever since the post of prime minister had been entrusted once more to a member of Albania’s Köprülü family, people had expected nothing but complications from the Muslim clergy as well as the military caste. Earlier, when they had filled this highest of offices, the Köprülüs had already thoroughly diminished the corps of cursers, although they had not completely abolished it. It was at their insistence that the corps’ numbers had been reduced to the point where there was just one curser for each urban area of over five thousand inhabitants. Their restrictions also applied to army units commanded by anyone not on the general staff, and to the navy, where only the flagships enjoyed the privilege in question. Above and beyond these measures were the suppression of the cursers’ right to wear uniforms, the reduction of their emoluments, and even an obvious downgrading of the curser in chief’s position in the order of precedence at official banquets. Yet all of this truly did not amount to much in comparison with the Köprülüs’ final assault, after they had succeeded in persuading the Padishah to do away completely with the occupation of curser.
The lack of concern shown by the affected parties at the promulgation of the decree lasted only a short time. In the second week of December, from all of the provinces of the Empire, multitudes of cursers started to flow into the capital. The majority of them, without being absolutely certain, had caught wind of the reason they had been called together, and their indifference yielded to a mood that grew more sullen by the hour. They disembarked from all sorts of conveyances hired for the occasion and in the end nearly filled up the inns and hostels of the capital. According to some estimates, the new arrivals must have numbered around eleven thousand, or as much as fifteen thousand according to others, but still nobody knew for sure how many there were or what was impelling them to overwhelm the city.
Many thought that this pilgrimage, as was often the case, had as its purpose the presentation to the Sovereign of some request, or perhaps of grievances related to the peril hovering over the future of their trade. Then the residents of the capital learned that the cursers had by no means traveled there of their own accord. They had actually been summoned there from wherever they might be and to the suspension of all other business, so that they might participate in an expanded assembly over which the Grand Vizier would preside in person. Thus, far from dissipating, the uneasiness of the residents of the capital only multiplied.
In the late hours of that Thursday, the eve of the gathering, the apprehension in people’s minds increased to the point of general anxiety at a level they had seldom experienced. Such a large number of deliverers of damnation brought together in one and the same town . . . Was it truly imperative to take such a step?
But right away the residents pulled themselves together and tried to change their tune, as if they had just committed some grievous offense that might bring calamity into their lives. Yet, for all that . . . Could not such a vast assemblage of persons practicing the business of anathematizing have been organized somewhere else? And this accursed assembly itself-could it not be held here with merely a subset from among the corps, or could there even be separate meetings in each of the localities where they lived and pursued their malign activities? And what if they happened to take offense at something and started sowing their execrations everywhere?
Like a cloud loaded with rain, anxiety spread out over the quarters of the capital, one after another. A rumor circulated that the curser in chief of the land had been seen in the central district; he was underway in his carriage adorned with the emblem of the Supreme Imperial Malediction. The speculation was that he was making his way hurriedly from the palace of the Sheikh-ul-Islam to that of the Sultan, in the hope of making a deal or forestalling some imminent decision.
The meeting slated to culminate in the proclamation of the decree took place in the enclosure of the old Manège at the Imperial Palace. It was cold. By the thousands, the imprecators, their countenances choleric, listened to the Grand Vizier’s address. Most of them still had puffy eyes as a result of the rough night they had had to spend in the freezing inns. Some, chiefly from the ranks of the veterans, had come wearing their old uniforms, a kind of faded heavy cloak on which the crest of the Supreme Malediction was barely recognizable-a style of dress that gave them the appearance of tramps.
From the start of the session, their eyes were searching in vain among the Vizier’s retinue for a trace of their patron, the curser in chief. Shortly before the Prime Minister’s speech, rumors spread among some of them that his second-in-command had lost his mind or else had taken his own life the night before, after his final efforts to hinder the issuance of the fatal decree had met with failure. According to some other reports, the grand master of the Malediction had not gone mad or committed suicide but had been appointed ambassador to Austria.
The Vizier’s address was brief. In his oration he mentioned the role that innumerable cursers had played throughout the centuries; whether known or unknown, they had contributed to the strengthening of the Ottoman state. Hundreds of years have elapsed, he reminded them, since the day when the ordinary soldier Shahin, at the very moment he was succumbing to his wounds in the middle of the desert of Kizil-Koulleva, stretched out his hands-palms open in a sign of damnation-in the direction of the Mongols, thereby throwing the enemy into such profound disarray that they had not kept up their ferocious assault. This curse, delivered by the hands, was the first of its type in the history of the world. Indeed, it went on to form the basis for the imprecation known as the Supreme Malediction. This imprecation, in turn, became the most important institution and symbol of the Imperial government.
The Grand Vizier continued by citing a number of curses that have remained famous and would henceforth be entered into the annals of history, such as those cast in the twelfth century upon the mountains of the Balkans; the one on Constantinople before its fall; and the curse that affected all of Europe in 1367. These were followed by the maledictions targeting Poland; Kruja, the capital of Albania; the steppes of the Crimea; and the Mediterranean, whenever the Christian fleets were hostile and on the move. Then there was the anathema cast in secret upon the foreign ministers of the great powers gathered in Paris just ten years ago, as well as the one aimed at the north of Greece during the winter of 1641, and so on, not to mention the thousands and thousands of sundry curses directed at fortresses, bridges, enemy entrenchments, castle gates and battlements, embassies and official banquets, and so forth. These maledictions had helped the Ottomans overcome, by force of arms or strength of spirit, every obstacle set up to impede their progress.
When this part of his harangue was over, the Grand Vizier paused and then took a deep breath; everyone sensed that he was now about to launch into the material meant to sow bitterness and dejection among them. That is indeed what happened. His remarks, until then calm and lucid, abruptly grew dark and obscure like a winter afternoon. Convoluted, dotted with foreign terms, his sentences had become difficult to comprehend; nonetheless, this confusion did not prevent his listeners from grasping what they had always held to be an impossibility: that their profession was abolished, effective immediately.
Nobody, try as he might, managed to fathom the motive-simply a raison d’etat, to be sure-that led to the adoption of a measure like this. Some of them furtively studied their hands, and others did so openly, but the same query registered in everyone’s eyes: what could this mean, this “effective immediately”? For perhaps the first time in their lives, the majority of them realized that their hands were capable of no other work and that, for them, the time to learn another trade was past. These were no longer the hands of a curser-just look at what is dangling at the end of these arms! These thoughts ran through their minds, and many of them began to harbor a seed of rancor towards their own profession and towards themselves, for having embraced it so wholeheartedly, sparing neither effort nor sacrifice nor intrigue to advance their careers. But they also felt rancor toward the state, which, after having permitted the magical action of this drug to operate on them, was cutting them off, even though they had gotten addicted. As a matter of fact, what were they going to do right then and there? How were they going to raise their children?
As if he had read the thoughts of so many of them, the Grand Vizier responded to the relentlessly increasing anxiety with two short sentences. The Ottoman state, which, in its gentle attentiveness, never forgot anything or deprived anybody of his due, had made one final, far-sighted provision for them. As of today, the cursers would find that they have been allocated pensions for their retirement on the same scale as all other civil servants, and, in a special dispensation, without regard to age.
The Vizier paused again briefly and then, as if he were now in a hurry to interrupt the sighs of relief rising up in the hall, he concluded his speech in a resolute tone of voice, quite perceptibly tinged with menace. Let no one go away from here thinking that the state would abide grumbling or recriminations in the matter of the decree just promulgated. Nothing remained, then, for the ex-cursers (God, how sorrowful that expression sounded when the Vizier employed it for the first time) to do but return to their distant cities, market towns, and provinces without unburdening themselves to anyone about what had just happened-and even without dwelling on these events themselves. They were to impress forcefully upon their minds the fact that the decisions of the state were the only completely just ones in this world.
Such were the final words of the Grand Vizier, whereupon he turned abruptly toward the door to his right. It opened, and the Vizier, followed by his attendants, departed without so much as a glance or a nod at anyone.
That same afternoon the cursers left the capital riding in the same sorts of improvised transportation that had brought them there. The humid weather, the intermittent rain, the mired wheels of the post-carriages some of them had borrowed-all this added to the gloom of their departure. The old uniforms bearing the emblem of the Malediction, which a number of them had donned once more, suddenly seemed even more threadbare, and they made one think of the raiments of ghosts in the gloom of dusk.
At the same time that they felt relief, the inhabitants of the capital also experienced a certain melancholy at seeing the cursers leave this way, haggard, their features darkened by fatigue. During the days that followed, people continued to talk a lot about them, especially in the government offices. And then the comments become less frequent, only to flare up again a bit when the report surfaced that another practice-this time, a modern one adapted to the new conditions-was starting to replace the ancient anathema. People even went so far as to provide details and diagrams of this new method of imprecation. But ultimately there seemed to be nothing to this new practice but false rumors.
And such was the nature of the cursers’ final evocations, and thus they were covered up, little by little, by the primordial dust of oblivion.
The translator would like to thank Pamela Hedrick and David Bellos for their helpful comments on this text.
From Ismail Kadaré, Oeuvres: tome troisième (Paris: Fayard, 1995). Copyright Fayard. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2006 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.