A Village Remembered: The Armenians of Habousi - The Compatriotic Union of Habousi

Chapter 8:


After considerable changes in 1867 in the administration of the provinces, ancient pashaliks were abolished, and in their stead divisions termed vilayets were established. Each vilayet was under the authority of a Vali, or Governor General, and was subdivided into three or more sanjaks or districts, administered by mutesarifs, or sub-governors, and again subdivided into cazas and nahies, or cantons and communes, the latter being aggregates of from five to ten villages under a mudir, a kind of Justice of the Peace.

The village was governed by a kehya (head of village). While in mixed populated villages kehyas were mostly Turks, Habousi had Armenian kehyas for its merely Armenian population.
The Kehyas of Habousi reported directly to the mudir headquartered in Mezre. Kehyas were responsible for the villagers. They kept track of their deeds and their taxes, and they settled disputes among the villagers.

Besides the kehya, the village retained its internal administrative structure, an ancestral, self-sufficient form of government that was called the “Assembly of Elders.” The assembly allocated the taxes imposed by the government by family, according to each family’s ability to pay. Taxes were collected by a khojabashi (overseer) and a kzir (clerk). But the Assembly of Elders’ principal function was to oversee the life of the community, the amelioration of affairs, the betterment of the church, and the conduct of the elementary education of the time. It served also as a court of law, for settling arguments, conflicts, and other legal matters. Its decisions were generally taken as final. Habousetzies approached the government mostly in matters involving real estate.

The Assembly consisted of the village kehya and an even number of rayises (heads of families). They were elected by majority vote of the heads of the farming families, and the important literates and craftsmen. All families belonging to the village, whether large or small, had one vote each. In addition to the heads of families, however, the foremost teachers also had a vote. Voting was secret. The literate ones of the village would write the voter’s choice of candidate on pieces of paper. These ballots would be collected in a knotted cord sack. The priest and his deacon would count the votes.

The khojabashi was the general executive of the community, chosen by the Assembly of Elders, and responsible to it. It was an important and sensitive position and a profitable and desirable one. He also collected taxes, supervised the treasury, and cooperated with the Turkish officialdom to satisfy their various demands. The khojabashi received as his stipend two percent of all taxes paid by the villagers, plus fees in connection with sealing various official papers. His seal was officially authorized by the mayor’s office.

The kzir too was named by the Assembly of Elders. He was the general servant of the community. The kzir worked with and under the khojabashi and was a kind of “errand boy.” It was the kzir who assigned visiting government officials and gendarmes in homes of the village, where they received free board. He guided the police in their investigations. He was the village “newspaper” and town crier. He announced governmental decrees, important and weighty news, and the loss of donkeys and cows. He would call out the news in a loud and hoarse voice while standing at three or four important street corners.

The taxes and levees collected in the Plain of Kharpert in general were the following:
1- “Bedel,” a military tax, 1 to 5 kurush, that Armenians paid each year for each male in the household from the day of the child’s birth. In return, the boy was released from military duty.
2- “Emlak,” a property tax on houses, vineyards, and lands. The largest share was paid on land. With insignificant exceptions, these lands belonged to the aghas and begs, but the tax was paid generally by the Armenian tenant farmers.
3- “Temetiv,” individual income tax. This was paid by the storekeeper, artisan, and even the monger who eked out a living selling a donkey-load of hay a day.
4- “Hungak” tax, one-tenth of the total production of grain crops.
5- “Baghat,” a grape and fruit tax.
6- Watermelon garden tax.
7- “Sharab Akhshasi” wine tax.
8- “Khamchour” tax on sheep, cattle, and other livestock.
9- Cotton tax called the “cotton cut. “
10- Construction tax, on a new construction, or renovation.
11- Window tax.
12- Education tax. This was collected from the Armenians but none of the proceeds were allocated to Armenian schools.
13- Sanitation tax. This tax cared for sewage, protected water and food supplies, and was sent to the village physicians into the village for vaccination against smallpox.
14- All male subjects, 18 years of age and over, were required personally or through proxy to work for free on the building of new military highways or the restoration of existing ones. Each worker was responsible for his own sustenance during the four days of mandatory service. Often they were required to work eight to ten days instead of four, and few could get out of this service without paying a bribe.
15- “Mekara Take.” A few times each year the police would raid the village and confiscate donkeys, other beasts of burden, and sometimes their owners, to serve the government.

Habousi gave the Turkish government one-fourth of its annual income as the village’s tax payment. Those taxes included close to 2,500 pounds of wheat annually and similar portions of barley, broad bean, oats, and cotton. Despite these heavy taxes, Habousetzies enjoyed a better standard of living than Turks, who were known to constantly beg bread from the Armenians.

When cultivating fields in Habousi became insufficient for the increasing population, many villagers left to cultivate fields in the neighboring villages of Ichme and Zartarij. Others went to as far as Adana in Cilicia, and some left for the United States, with the intention of making money and returning home.

One of the consequences of this emigration was the perishing of sixty Habousetzies during the massacres of Adana in 1909, soon after the Ottoman Constitution was declared.

The government was extremely hard on Armenians. While collecting taxes, collectors and accompanying gendarmes often beat Armenians who were short of the required tax with rods until family members found a way to fulfill their tax payment.