Jenny White (2008)
“The Abyssinian Proof: A Kamel Pasha Novel”. London, John Wiley, 397 pages, hardcover and Phoenix, paperback. ISBN 978-0-395-06205-2. Available through Exclusive Books, Riverwalk, Gaborone.
Jenny White is a professor of anthropology at Boston University in Massachusetts, United States of America (US). This is her fifth book and her second novel in her Kamel Pasha series. The first one was called The Sultan’s Seal. It was recognised as a Top 10 first novel and was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award. Her academic writing concerns Turkish society and politics. The Abyssinian Proof deserves attention now four years later, as an audio-book version has just been released in late December 2011. This is a marvellous cross-cultural and religious historical thriller that you can now both read and listen to.
Jenny White brings to her writing a love of Turkey, a fascination with history and how it impacts on societies, a broad sweep of multi-cultural experience and insights, a strong sense of comparative religion, and a unique ability to consider and describe material culture. Istanbul is an old and historical city. “The Greeks built their empire on top of what came before them. Constantinople was built on the Greek ruins, and Istanbul on top of Byzantium. Nothing is wasted ... there is a lesson there” (page 63).
The Abyssinian Proof begins on May 28 1453 in Constantinople. The Metochites family is entrusted to hide securely religious relics that have belonged to them for centuries. They have a link to Abyssinia. The family has strong ties there; Isaak Metochites explains to his seven-year-old daughter, who is half Abyssinian, the family line and who Theodore Metochites is. He built their Church of Saint Saviour in Chora over a century before. She has a future role there. Saint Savior in Chora contains a reliquary from Abyssinia, the Container of the Uncontainable, the Proof of God.
We meet Kamil Pasha on October 14 1887, in Istanbul. He is a well-placed Magistrate of Lower Beyoglu and a criminal investigator. He is challenged by the Minister of Justice to solve, in seven days, the problem of the theft of religious objects from various Christian and Greek Orthodox churches, mosques and synagogues, throughout the empire, but with Istanbul as the centre of the trade. Most of the thefts were from sites in the Old City, particularly from the communities of Fatih and Balat.
Kamil Pasha is single, handsome, youthful but mature, and has interesting human dimensions. He has a passion for raising exotic orchids. He has never married and has no children. He is closest to his sister who has married well and lives a good life in a fine neighbourhood. He has not travelled widely, but he studied law and criminal procedure at Cambridge University in Great Britain only four years ago. He knows from his time in England that many of the stolen objects are destined for that island. His task is not only to arrest the culprits in Istanbul, but also to find the middlemen and trace the illicit trade to its source in London so that with the assistance of Scotland Yard it can be stamped out.
Kamil Pasha quickly discovers what a complex set of problems he must explore. They will lead him to a sister he didn’t know that he had, and a possible love, who could assist him in his search. His close friend Malik who lives near the Kariye Mosque and has intimate knowledge of the Habesh, or former slaves of African origin, aids him.
“The Abyssinians were the most sought-after and expensive slaves; they were a
When key religious objects belonging to the Melisite prayer house vanish, Kamil Pasha notes to Police Chief Omar assigned to work with him, that, “Each loss is a counsel ... there’s much here to help us” (page 66). It is a long and circuitous route that must be followed over the space of a week. Along the way we come to know a number of fascinating characters.
One is Amida, Saba’s older brother, who has had many years living and studying in Abyssinia, and failed to return home when expected, pausing for a year in Egypt where he acquired devious tastes.
The medical doctor who will make house calls down into the Sunken Village is a Greek, Courtidis. The people appreciate his healing skills, but are also wary of him, particularly women. Omar and Kamil Pasha receive assistance from an unusual source – Avi, a homeless street urchin who is small and dressed in rags unobtrusive. He can tail suspects through mazes of narrow streets, cisterns, sunken tunnels and narrow passages where Kamil Pasha and Omar cannot go. Trusted, Avi proves most valuable in their investigations.
Ismail Hodje, knowledgeable curator of Istanbul’s most famous museum explains to them that Saba is really Sheikha Saba, “A Muslim woman who is a spiritual leader” (page 382). Saba was involved in ecumenical discussion involving all religions. This is her calling.
In Istanbul their investigations suggest that a man masquerading as Mister Kubalou (Cuba) is behind the theft of religious objects. Quickly things escalate as three policemen are killed and the mark of a large “M” is embedded in the backs of those eliminated. Kamil Pasha and Omar are up against an operation that has high stakes and will stop at nothing.
Kamil Pasha, wanting to learn more about the Proof of God, asks Malik but he refuses to reveal the 400-year-old secret of the Melisites. He does tell the investigative duo that, “These are not the people you are looking for ... the Habesh don’t steal, so much as provide a service to those who do” (page 165). Then there are secrets within secrets. And reasons for this talking in boxes.
“The Habesh they pray like Muslims, they say they’re Muslims, but they have their own rites”. Soon Malik is dead. They are surprised to find tattooed wings on his back. Having lost his friend, Kamil Pasha will now intensify the search. Time is running out.
Reading Abyssinian Proof, you will discover, is also a pleasant way to learn a great deal about the Ottoman Empire.
This book certainly elevates the standards that crime novels can reach out to achieve. You may find the love interests in it a bit distracting or peripheral, but tolerate them as they have a depth to them too and are part of the secrets to be revealed in this novel.