The Banners

11 minutes read

“What does he want this one to say?” Selim asked, his mouth twisting into the pained smile ordinarily reserved for disappointed parents. He scratched his head through the flat-topped, conical hat of his office – the office that disappointed him daily.

“The Grand Vizier would like the banner to say, ‘Dearest Pussy Infidel Garrison of the Soon to be Ottoman Golden Apple: Give up before we fuck you.’”

“Brilliant.” Selim sighed. “I guess the nice ones we put up before didn’t work. You know, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that you don’t wipe out and enslave a town week or two before and then expect us not to do the same with these people.” Selim angrily tugged the border brocade of his embroidered light blue, ankle-length coat.

The messenger looked down and shuffled his boots on the silk carpet. He was not comfortable with people like this. He was just a messenger, and upset people liked killing messengers.

“Amazing,” Selim continued. “This one is almost as good as the last one. Can’t he just get a writer or something?”

“Selim, I mean Effendi, I’m only the messenger here. And besides, I thought you were a writer.”

“I’m a fucking court scribe!” Selim replied angrily, “A lowly court scribe. Don’t assume that I wanted to be a writer or anything – oh, no. Not that. No, not any poetry for me, pondering the ages and nature and God. No, I was put here on Earth by God to write fucking documents ordering people to move around sacks of grain and gunpowder and telling them where to put the ox shit.’ Selim kept his head down, muttering bitterly to himself while trying to nod away what he thought was the supreme waste of his life and his meagre but adequate education. ‘Oh, Cannon Bey, you do this with Musket Bey, and both of you take a shit holding hands. What do you think? Fuck you all,” he seethed.

Selim was sitting in an airy tent filled with dozens of scribes all sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, the only sound the constant scratching of quills on paper. There was a siege on outside, but this quiet tent in the administrative centre of the heaving, sprawling, ocean of a camp rolling over hills and valleys, where thousands of orders and commands were issued every day, was the nerve centre of it all. Here they sat scribbling in silence, not even stopping to complain about their lives over tea. The shouts and occasional firing of cannon from a nearby battery seemed to stop at the tent walls, dampened by the ache of sore wrists and boredom that choked the air.

“Selim,” Melih said, almost pleading but not quite.

“Listen, don’t use my name! Refer to me by my title for once in your goat-fucking life,” Selim said, huffing and shrugging his shoulders angrily. He looked around – nobody seemed to mind the conversation. Someone across the tent slowly looked up, bored, and then returned to his writing. Selim was ashamed of the coarseness of his speech, at the crude soldier-speak he now employed, but was at a point in time where he truly could give a shit.


“My title.”

“I, uh, don’t really know what your title is, sir.” Melih was honest, as he was pretty sure that a scribe could not have him beheaded.

“Fuck it,“ Selim said, staring down another scribe to his right a couple over, until he returned to hunching over his stack of papers. ”Well, the last banner … does anyone even remember that one?” he asked the tent full of scribes, God and the rest of the world.

No one answered.

“Something about sons of whores and them being deflowered by musket barrels?” Melih said, searching his brain for something the Vizier would have come up with. He was still trying to decide if he was thankful or not for being unable to read, having been chosen for being both well spoken and a considered and delicate groveller. The more education one seemed to have and the higher up in position in society or the army they were, the dumber people seemed to be.

“Not exactly. That one was ‘Respectable future slaves: We will spread these fortifications open like the legs of your soon-to-be-ravaged daughters.’ That one at least had a decent metaphor.” Selim smirked to himself for a second and then his smile disappeared. He exhaled loudly through flared nostrils. “Well, at least we don’t have to embroider them an more. You know how long that took?”

“A long time?”

“Brilliant. Yes. And everyone wonders why we haven’t taken this be-wigged country yet. Wigs! Where do these so-called Romans think of this shit? Would Caesar wear a wig? Fake hair? Are you kidding? We’re the inheritors of Rome – not these fairy, uncouth peasants.” Selim suddenly realised that he was livid, almost shaking. “And nobody has even thought to think of doing these banners in their own mouth clicking language so they would know what the hell we’re even trying to intimidate them with.”

“Well, the Vizier tried that before having them in their own language, when we were still embroidering them. The prisoners taken locally that spoke German, the ones doing the sewing, were just giving away information about our troop capacity. Nobody here will sew.”

“Nonsense! The Imperial Corps of Tent Pitchers and Tent Makers can! That’s their whole job, sewing. But that’s not the point. This is a siege, we don’t have time for this bullshit. Sewing! Sewing! Are you kidding? No wonder we haven’t broken through yet, we’re worried about sewing.”

Selim was educated, and just about everyone around him wasn’t. He was one of the few who could read. He wasn’t even sure if the Sultan could actually read. He claimed to like reading and, according to everyone, read a lot, although nobody had ever seen him do it in public. ‘Fat bastard probably has someone read to him,’ Selim thought. His mind went back unbidden to the medrese where he had learned to read and write and had been so proud, beaming up at the teacher who patted his head gently, smiling down at him.

The Ottoman war machine was a extremely precise and well-oiled one, but, like most autocratic machines, it was prone to reflecting brightest the dumbest ideas by those highest up. How Selim wished he had become a merchant, like his father, so that he could just sit around all day and talk about how amazing he was to other merchants.

“Well?” asked Melih.

“Well, what?” replied Selim, looking up from the carpeted tent floor. Lost in the patterns and weaves, he couldn’t see straight for a moment or two.

“Yes, effendi,” continued the messenger, shaking his red, conical cap slightly, casting around for something to look at. ”The banner."

Melih was hoping that he could tread the tightrope he was treading that moment by not looking like a complete imbecile and getting some sort of answer for when he went back to report to the Grand Vizier.

The Vizier for sure could have him beheaded.

"Okay, you know what? I’m so utterly sick of this inanity. I swear I’m ready to volunteer for one of these Janissary suicide charges the Vizier is pissing away our forces’ lives on. Where are they?”


"Where are they? These banners?”

“Um, I don’t know.” Melih’s general confusion and nervous treading through life hung frozen.

Selim stared at him. “So, what happened to them? Where did they go?” He shook his head in sudden defeat. “For fuck’s sake,” he muttered, starting to bite his nails. "What the fuck am I doing? Does it even matter where these things are?”

"Probably not, sir.”

“I need to see them. I really just want to see all this embroidery that should have been reserved for tapestries and gifts with Koranic inscriptions – like anyone could even read them – but was instead wasted on another one of the Vizier’s bullshit ideas.”

A couple of quills in the tent room came to a scratching halt when the Vizier was mentioned. Eyes darted around the room, then all hastily returned to their papers.

"I don’t know – maybe in one of those marquees that they use to entertain in. Uh, why do you care, Selim?”

"Why do I care, you ask? I’ll tell you why I care – because I don’t think the idiocy of this imprudent siege has gone far enough, and I want to see how farcical things have become. That’s why. Who cares about this Vienna, anyhow? The Vizier wants this golden apple shambles and he won’t know what to do with what little of it is left. There’s no treasure, there are no women left. Those Crimean animals have either killed them all or sent them back home to their little Black Sea wasteland in chains.”

But Selim’s words fell like seed scattered on stony ground: Melih had silently padded backwards out of the tent during Selim’s last tirade and left him to complain and sulk cross-legged on the floor with papers piled neatly around him, inkwell and pen laid horizontally in front of him.

To Melih’s mind, Selim was a frustrated person. A person whose job was to read and write things which seemed to make him miserable.

Melih preferred not knowing things.

Selim knew that how the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa got the idea to make these banners was a matter of great discussion in the camp. Everyone from the court attendants and the cooks to the Janissaries, to the officials and high-ranking sipahis wondered. The current theory coming from the pilav makers was that the Vizier was convinced that the artistic merit and beauty of the banners alone would convince the Austrians that they didn’t stand a chance. This made complete sense to Selim: the Vizier was a self-obsessed imbecile and would have an utterly fatuous idea like this and be absolutely convinced in front of his little naked mirror and in his oh-so-grand heart of hearts, that everyone agreed that he was indeed right.

“Beauty? Are you kidding? What do these barbarians care about beauty and the sublime?” he screamed silently to himself. “We’re here to kill and enslave these people, not paint flowers! … Well, actually,” he thought, “if it was up to the Sultan we are here to paint flowers. How in God’s beautiful names is this corpulent dullard in charge, anyhow? Why hasn’t someone killed him yet?”

Selim entertained the notion for two seconds that he should be in charge, but quickly banished it deep, deep, deep in his unconscious, where he put the wood nymphs and flying carts. When he saw the amount of childish, petty chicken shit my-rug-is-better-than-your-rug-and-I-need-to-have-silk-walls-inside-of-my-tent-just-like-this-other-guy bickering that was running this war, he was glad he wasn’t in charge.

Selim stood up suddenly and stomped out of the tent after Melih, parting the canvas doors with a swipe and a whoosh of anger. He knew he would catch him up at the engineers’ line, as he knew he liked to go there to chat. As ever, Selim was amazed at the amount of equipment they had and all the kit they would construct. It looked like a wizard’s tower down here, filled with all manner of cogs, winches, levers, pontoons and ropes. He realised that the engineers not building bridges and other skilful structures were, as ever, drinking tea. Actually, everyone who didn’t have cholera or some other pox also seemed to be sitting around drinking tea and shooting and blowing up things less and less these days.