- Crime and Punishment in Istanbul: 1700–1800 by Fariba Zarinebaf
The Ottoman eighteenth century is no longer the neglected “dustbin of history” it was once considered to be. It is notable that Fariba Zarinebaf is able to tell her story of the capital city in a time of tumult without many preliminaries or apologies, thanks to the growing secondary literature on the period and her focus on the center of the empire. The Tulip Age lies at the chronological center of the book. This period of extravagant consumption in Istanbul (funded by borrowing from future provincial revenues) was bookended by major upheavals in 1703 and 1730. In the opening section, Zarinebaf vividly describes the difficulties and dangers of the era: its displaced and mobile populations, its tumult due to disaster and disease, its wars and uncertainties. All of this sometimes led to crime, the topic of the middle section of the book. Crime, in turn, sometimes led to punishment, which is the topic of the book’s third section.
Zarinebaf draws on a wide-ranging pool of records. In addition to chronicles, travelers’ accounts, and other literary sources, she works with a range of materials from the Ottoman archives, notably Islamic court registers (for Galata and Istanbul from 1720 to 1735), prison and galley registers, police reports, and imperial orders. These sources carry her many decades past the 1730s; while their diverse content and chronological range enrich her story, they also spread it thin. The abundance of detail in this book obscures its narrative goals and their accomplishment. Along the way, many shiny beads are picked up, scrutinized briefly, then disappear, never to reemerge. None of this surfeit of information (the diversity of Istanbul’s districts [chapter 1], the threat posed by poor, single, migrant men [chapter 2]) is uninteresting, [End Page 693] but the data often comes in unrelated packets. In chapter 3, Zarinebaf offers a satisfying summary of the Patrona Halil rebellion of 1730, an episode that has received surprisingly little English-language scholarly attention in recent decades. Although Patrona Halil is described as an urban gang member, the chapter is never tightly enough linked to the book’s overall contentions (themselves obscure). A subsequent discussion of janissary and gang violence (pp. 119–121), for example, seems an ideal spot to recall the similar themes developed in the Patrona Halil chapter.
The second section of the book wrestles mightily with the diversity of its content. Zarinebaf chooses to organize it using familiar, modern-day, Western categories: “crime,” “property,” “vice,” “violence.” In so doing, she highlights her effort to provide rich material for comparison with other settings. At times, the anachronism of this structure is obvious, and the categories she employs sometimes bend the Ottoman story so far as to diminish its usefulness for world historical comparison. “Interfaith sex” (p. 92), for example, is a concept weighted with baggage not wanted on the voyage, and it does almost nothing to explain eighteenth-century Istanbul on its own terms. Much of chapter 5, “Prostitution and the Vice Trade,” treats activity that was regulated but not criminalized in eighteenth-century Istanbul. At other times, Zarinebaf uses concepts that offer a better perch for comparative study of world historical phenomena. For example, the circumstantial distinctions between types of theft that she details are intriguing: theft of perishables was treated less severely, theft during fires was treated more severely. But what is the right point of comparison? Types of crimes? Statistics? Institutions? Motives? Unfortunately, Zarinebaf does not give categories the sort of critical attention that might resituate Western models in light of Istanbul’s experience.
This point becomes more striking when we consider the comparison of Istanbul to Paris and London, which appears to be a central purpose of the book. While Istanbul’s characteristics are clearly articulated, those of the European referent cities are not. The characters of Paris and London are treated as assumed knowledge when they should not be; many Ottomanist readers of the book may be less familiar...