Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Like any major urban area, eighteenth century Istanbul was inhabited by people from a seemingly endless array of walks of life, from the sultan and his entourage and sprawling staff down. The neighborhood in which the sometimes fiery, sometimes tender sufi saint Hasan Ünsî lived, while it stood hard by the walls of the sultan’s palace, the Topkapı, was a world away from that rarefied atmosphere. In the houses and workspaces and places of worship ordinary people, men and women, lived and toiled and prayed and plotted and did their best to get by. Şeyh Hasan was for some inhabitants a source of comfort and repose, while for others he was a source of humor or of potential easy money. In the two accounts which I have translated and lightly annotated below, we see two different women’s interactions with the saint, as well as glimpses into their everyday lives, glimpses that are quite valuable in reconstructing the diversity of ordinary women’s lives in this period and place. There is a lot that could be said about these stories and the contexts relevant to them, but I will limit myself to a couple of remarks.

In the first story, we meet a woman- who, interestingly, is named here- about whom we have but a few tantalizing details. Described as being Bosnian, we might guess that she had ended up in the city- perhaps her husband was or had been a military man posted in Bosnia?- and had fallen on hard times (the main point of the story). While I have not come across any other descriptions of her particular line of work as a sort of handywoman, it seems likely that such services would have been appealing to ordinary households without the luxury of slaves or hired servants. The rest of the story is relatively self-explanatory, though, as in the previous installment, note the ease with which Uzun Havvâ comes into the şeyh’s presence and interacts with him.

The second story introduces in greater detail the mother of the menâkıb‘s author, Ibrahim Hâs. The ‘set-up’ is that Ibrahim is telling how he came to ‘repent’ at the saint’s hand and take up a dervish life under his tutelage- which happened while he was still a young man living at home. Here we learn that his mother was herself effectively a saint, practicing immense austerities at home (modeled to some degree after Şeyh Hasan, who also tended to remain at home), even as she maintained a close relationship with the saint. We know from the survival of a dream-diary and correspondence with her Halvetî şeyh by a woman in Skopje, described by Cemal Kafadar in an article on Ottoman self-writing, that it was not unheard of for a woman to send her dreams to a saintly şeyh for interpretation. Here, however, Ibrahim’s mother goes directly to the şeyh, as opposed to writing to him, something that we are given to understand she did on a regular basis, and in so doing helped to give direction and greater meaning to her own ascetic pursuits and identity.

Ottoman Yastik
A 17th century Ottoman yastik, or pillow cover, a typical feature of domestic spaces (Boston MFA 77.256)

1. There was a poor Bosnian woman, named Bedümli Uzun Havvâ, who lived in a rented room below my home in the Hocapaşa quarter. For a fee she would look after the daily affairs of her neighbors. One day a neighbor came to her with a sick child. [The neighbor lady] said, “Go and take this child to Şeyh Hasan Efendî in Aydınoǧlu Tekke and have him recite a prayer, and put these pâras [1] down in his presence,” giving the Bosnian woman some pâras.

Taking the child and the pâras, the woman went to the venerable Şeyh. After having pocketed two of the pâras she had been given to present to the Şeyh for his prayer recitation, she put the rest before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “Look now, what of the other two pâras?” But the Bosnian woman said, “Only this much were given, only this much!” The venerable Şeyh replied, “Ah, but there are two pâras in your right pocket—did I not see how many pâras were given to you? And do I not know whether in taking the pâras you wanted to deceive me or to try me?”

As he said this, fearful the woman took out the pâras she had taken and placed them before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “You did this on account of your poverty, but take care not to speak untruthfully and do not try (imtihân) anyone. Be patient in the midst of poverty, and God, exalted is He, will provide you with the necessities of this life below!” Having said this he gave the woman forty pâras, then gave her the two pâras [she had pocketed]! The woman said, “My sultan! I took those pâras, thinking, ‘The Şeyh won’t know.’ And indeed by poverty is great such that as of tonight they would have been my entire livelihood. But now you have done such good!”

The venerable Şeyh gave her some further good counsel, and the woman, having kissed the Şeyh’s noble hands, departed. She returned the child home, then went home herself. This poor one [the author] learned of this story from the telling of his mother and from her neighbors living there.

Woman and boy going to the hammam
Woman and boy on their way to the hammam, from an early 17th century costume album depicting various people one might encounter in Ottoman Istanbul (BM 1928,0323,0.46.122)

2. It happened on the 15th of Ramadan, 1117 [December 31, 1705]. Up till then, I [Ibrahim Hâs] only attended the tevhîd sessions [2] and busied myself with the discourses of the venerable Şeyh. I slept a lot during the daytime [3]. One day while sleeping alone I began talking in my sleep. My mother came to my side and listened to what I was saying, and when I awoke, my mother said to me, “While you were sleeping you said some wondrous and strange things!” I replied, “What did I say?” My mother then repeated back to me one by one the things I had said [4].

Now, my mother had undergone repentance under the supervision of Şeyh Hasan, and she was a master of ascetic exercise and devotion, with great intensity. She never lay down flat, but rather only sat, night and day, sleeping in the place she would sit during the day, not sleeping through the night, though she would not light a lamp, maintaining purity, zikr constantly upon her tongue [5]. She lived in this manner for some fifty years. She was as a divinely-accepted elder sister to the Şeyh, and was a master of miraculous deeds, manifest after her death as well. Most people are incapable of doing the sorts of things she accomplished.

So my mother, rising to go, said, “I am just now going to visit the venerable Şeyh—for I had a dream-vision, which I’ll relate to him, and I can also relate to him what you said in your sleep!” But, kissing her hand, I said, begging her, “Go to the venerable Şeyh but please don’t tell him about what I said in my sleep!” She assented to my request, and rising went to the venerable Şeyh. My mother reported [what happened next]:

“When I came to the şeyh I went in to him and kissed his hand, and he gave his leave. Sitting down, he interpreted my dream [6], then afterwards said, ‘Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?’ I replied, ‘No, not at all!’ But he said, ‘There is a word within you, come, speak it.’ I replied, ‘No, I’ve nothing else to say.’ So he replied, ‘Your son, Ibrahim, today said things in his sleep.’ At this I swooned and was bewildered. I said, ‘My sultan, the words that Ibrahim said while he was lying asleep alone at home are already known to you, so there is no need for me to repeat them!’ He said, ‘That is so, nonetheless, you tell them to me.’ So I said, ‘Today, sleeping at home, he said this and this,’ and so one by one repeated the words to him. The Şeyh asked, ‘Did he say anything else?’ I said, ’No, this is all he said.’ To which he replied, ‘Did he not say this word?’ I had forgotten that word, and so had been deficient in what I said to the Şeyh, but now it came back to my mind. I replied, ‘My sultan, he did say that but I had forgotten in and so made a shortcoming in what I told you—pardon me my heedlessness!’

He said to me, ‘He will wear this turban-wrapping (sarık),’ pointing as he spoke with his blessed finger to the black turban-wrapping upon his head [7], then adding, ‘And he will become this,’ pointing with his blessed hands at his blessed chest, and in this connection spoke many other good tidings and of other things, some of which I did not understand but which I did not have the resolution to ask about further!” So my mother reported to this poor one, and in hearing this unveiling and miraculous deed of the venerable Şeyh and his good tidings to this poor one, I was bewildered and confused…

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 290-292, 322-325. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[1] A pâra (from a Persian word meaning ‘piece’) was a unit of money used in the later centuries of the Ottoman Empire, replacing the devalued akçe.

[2] That is, sessions of zikr- remembrance and recitation- and sufi dance.

[3] Further along Ibrahim notes that before his investiture by Şeyh Hasan he was a rather listless young man, lacking confidence in himself; it is also interesting to note that the phenomenon of teenagers wanting to sleep through the day is not exactly new.

[4] We are not given the actual content of Ibrahim’s sleep-speech, interestingly.

[5] Note that this rather severe form of asceticism seems to have had particular purchase in Istanbul and elsewhere in Anatolia during this period, but less so in the Arab provinces, reflecting a long-running debate within Islamic societies over the place and role of ascetic practice.

[6] Dream-interpretation of course has a long and vast history in Islamic societies, with the ability to interpret dreams frequently a marker of sainthood, or a part of the ‘professional’ duties of a shaykh or other figure, with both being true here.

[7] The black turban-wrapping, which Hasan received from Karabaş-i Alî (‘Karabaş’ meaning ‘black head’) was bestowed by Hasan upon his official delegates (halifes).

A silver pâra from the reign of Sultan Mahmud I (1730-1754)

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One thought on “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

  1. Pingback: Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady – Thicket & Thorp

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