The Muhtar, an Ottoman institution in contemporary Turkey

This post is also available in: Italiano

Reading Yaşar Kemal it is impossible not to be struck by the figure of the muhtar, a post dating back to the Ottoman Empire but still active in the Republic of Turkey.

Fundamental premise

In doing the article, I discovered that over time, many changes and variations have been applied to the laws I am about to tell you about. I have tried as much as possible to tell the current situation, but this text should obviously not be observed in legal terms as much as cultural, historical and anthropological.

In the footsteps of Yaşar Kemal

“The Wind from the Plain” by Yaşar Kemal was for me a real revelation, a text capable of revealing many and fascinating aspects of contemporary Turkey, including the figure of Muhtar. The latter will play a decisive role in “The mountain trilogy”, representing the ancient noble power, determined more than ever to maintain its power over the villagers, whatever the cost.

The Wind from the Plain

The extraordinary and fascinating thing is that Kemal’s book was set in the 1960s and that this office should still be part of the Turkish administrative system, in a way not unlike that seen in the novel.

The constitution of 1924

To find out better, however, we must take a huge leap back in time, going back to 1924, a decisive moment for the fate of the Republic of Turkey. In that year the Treaty of Lausanne will be approved, the dispute concerning Mosul will be definitively resolved and, more importantly, the Ottoman Caliphate will be definitively abolished.

Muhtar

This event will obviously have an incredible domino effect on the whole Turkish world, pushing it de facto to a rebirth in any respect. Precisely to cope with these events, on April 24 of that same year the new Turkish constitution will be made public, which updated the decidedly sparse 1921 (just 23 articles) providing the basis of Turkish legislation, then revised in 1961 and 1982.

The muhtar and the “Law of the village”

Atatürk’s initial wishes were without a shadow of a doubt to reform everything from top to bottom, but, as one might think, it is really complicated to complete such a plan and there are elements that, inevitably, are destined to remain the same. Impossible not to see in the “Law of the village”, in Turkish “Köy Kanunu”, many elements of the past that still make the figure of the muhtar and the villages very characteristic today.

The Wind from the Plain

According to this law, in fact, the muhtar is an intermediate figure between national and local politics, going in a certain sense to represent the function of the Italian “town mayor” (who is absent in Turkish villages), but with some differences very special. For example, the muhtar cannot in any way be affiliated with a political party, furthermore the latter must constantly confront the members of the “Village Council”, made up of some elected members (together with Muhtar) every 5 years and some members seniors who enjoy a permanent position on that council. In addition to representing citizens before the government, he also has different roles according to the area he represents; the muhtar of the villages, for example, also deal with: health, education, safety, traffic and public announcements, while those of the suburbs have mostly administrative-bureaucratic tasks.

The İmece, the extra weapon of Turkish villages

The muhtar acts as a guarantor of the collective well-being of the community and, for this reason, one of its faculties is that of invoking and using the İmece. The latter is a form of collective work that serves to cope with economic and / or material shortages in the face of an undoubted advantage and / or need of the villagers and, specifically, can be used on various occasions including: the construction of a key building (former school / mosque), street cleaning, major repairs, charitable works and even organizing a wedding party.

Muhtar

The İmece, however, can also be an effort of an economic nature, such as fundraising for the construction of new buildings in the village and / or even a simple charity. It is very important to remember that the İmece tends to be free but there are cases in which it can be applied without the consent of all the inhabitants. It seems that this system has been one of the foundations for services such as crowfunding and crowsourcing which are based precisely on similar purposes. A key detail is that the muhtar can be overthrown by the government if it does not prove efficient towards its people, removing the risk of exaggerated inefficiency.

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