Rustem Bey is a fictional character in the novel “Birds Without Wings” by Louis de Berniéres. It is set from 1900 to about 1923 in western Anatolia, mostly in a small town which represented the wild mix of peoples and cultures of the Ottoman Empire. There’s also more than you might have ever wanted to know about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
I really recommend this book to anyone interested in history, Islam, Turkey and early 20th century Nationalism, so I’m going to hide the rest because of spoilers.
Rustem Bey is the aga of the town of Eskibahçe, which means he’s the landlord of the whole place. You could consider it a sort of feudal system, in that he owned all the houses and land in the area, but it was considered his responsibility to look after them. The town isn’t really big enough to consider him any sort of representative of government, but you could argue that he typified a somewhat benevolent relationship between local lord and peasantry that’s consistent through much of human history.
Rustem Bey lives alone in a big house, because his whole family died from a plague. This plague is apparently common from the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca.
But we’re first properly introduced to Rustem Bey when he discovers that his wife is being unfaithful to him. He was set up with the marriage with the warning that she had always had affection for her cousin, who was a bad sort, but they thought she would grow out of it. Apparently she didn’t.
In his anger on discovering this, he kills her cousin/lover, drags her out by the hair into the street, and proclaims that she is an adulteress. The punishment for adultery as generally understood in sharia, is death by stoning. The townsfolk start doing this, stoning and kicking her, but are stopped by the local Imam, who stops them to save her life. He and his wife nurse her back to health, but there is only one place for her to go once she has recovered: the local brothel.
Rustem Bey, having lost all his family, never having had any emotional connection to his wife, tries to satisfy the longing in his soul for partnership by following the fantasy idea of acquiring a mistress. Not just any mistress, but a Circassian, who have the reputation around the Empire of being exceptionally beautiful. He journeys into the roughest, dirtiest part of Istanbul to find her, and find her he does… even though it’s all a fake. He has no idea what Circassians look like, and his mistress is actually Greek. She even takes a small vial of chicken blood, to simulate losing her virginity (again).
Still, they become happy and she manages to light up his life despite the lie she is living… but he feels what the Imam calls a “wavering in his soul.” It is the trouble of feeling and knowing in his soul that he did something very wrong, even though his religion, his society, and everyone he knows told him it was right. Even as he grows happy with the energy and independence of his mistress, his wife wastes away in the brothel, used by all the men of the town who want to try out the landlord’s wife, giving birth to endless syphilitic children.
Rustem Bey is, in short, a great character. Through him we are introduced to modernizing Turkish ideas, in conflict with their old relationship to Islam. We are introduced to the vicious punishment of stoning adulteresses, the feudalistic responsibility he felt and that others ascribed to him, and the attitude and relationship in traditional Islam between husband and wife, and man and mistress.