Thursday, June 23, 2016

A History of the Ottoman Empire from 1923 to Today

We are excited today to be posting a new map and a new article related to the the nationalization of Ottoman history in Modern Turkey. As discussed in the article "A History of the Ottoman Empire from 1923 to Today," rival ideological movements in Turkey were laying claim to the Ottoman past well before the AKP and their Islamist predecessors did so with such enthusiasm over the last few decades.  This map, published Bakiş press in 1956, was part of a series of colorful charts and images prepared by teachers Avni Altiner and Hurrem Atayer to illustrate Ottoman history for children. What makes it interesting, I think, is how it visually nationalizes the Ottoman past, geographically re-centering it around a disproportionately large Anatolia. As in much of the rhetoric from the era, Ataturk's defense of Gallipoli and Fatih's conquest of Istanbul are presented side by side, for “It was the Istanbul Fatih took that Ataturk saved twice, once by stopping the enemy at Canakkale, once by driving him back after Dumlupinar. At each end of Istanbul’s five-century existence as a Turkish city is a great Turk." Moreover, in this map, the Empire's Middle Eastern holdings appear foreshortened, allowing for a greater emphasis on campaigns in the Balkans and against the Russians in the Caucasus. Scholarship today often presents "neo-Ottomanism" as an alternative to traditional Turkish nationalism. I hope both this map and this article help reveal that for much of Turkish history, a secularized and westernized version of the Ottoman Empire served a much more traditional role in nationalist historiography: a symbol of pride and military prowess, basically Turkey, just a bit bigger and more powerful.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Wait, was Rumi White?

The news that actor Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing Rumi in an upcoming biopic about the 13th century mystic's life has, not surprisingly, provoked some criticism. Using the hashtag #rumiwasntwhite, a number of people have pointed to this as another example of Hollywood whitewashing Middle Eastern characters. Indeed, there's a long and troubling history of directors casting white actors in lead roles as Middle Eastern characters while actual Middle Eastern actors get relegated to roles like "terrorist number 4." Absent any clearer historical evidence about what the Afghan-born Rumi looked like, it seems safe to conclude that his skin color was definitely darker than DiCaprio's.Which is why this whole story also sheds light on just how strange the history of race and representation really is.

For one thing, according to pseudo-scientific racial categories prevalent a century ago, Rumi was white. As the map below, and many others like it, reveal, people from the Middle East and South Asia were regularly categorized along with Europeans as members of the white or Caucasian race. At the same time, a competing racist tradition would have taken issue with the implicit assumption that DiCaprio, as an Italian-American, was fully white himself.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole anachronistic discussion of Rumi's race is the way he was portrayed in the centuries after his death. Today, Hollywood, along with American political and economic power, have helped spread American culture and beauty standards around the world. But in the 13th century the Middle East was subject to cultural influences from a very different direction. The Persian and Ottoman miniature-painting traditions through which many images of Rumi have reached us show the role of Chinese art in shaping aesthetic standards across the Middle East in the wake of the Mongol invasions. One result is that historical figures from the era often end up looking a little more East Asian in artistic depictions than they might have in real life. Which is to say that if Hollywood makes Rumi look whiter than he was, it wont be the first time the vagaries of geopolitical power have influenced his appearance.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sykes-Picot: More Alternatives

My vote for the most and least likely alternative to the Anglo-French division of the Middle East respectively:  
German Arabia and the New Assyria.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sykes-Picot Roundup

With the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement coming up on May 16th, I've put together a brief roundup of Afternoon Map's coverage of the issue. Following the centenary, I look forward to never discussing this again, perhaps moving on to obsessing over the Myth of Westphalia instead.

Stop Blaming Colonial Borders for the Middle East's Problems
The Atlantic, September 11, 2013 

"[Our fixation with Sykes-Picot] overstates how arbitrary today’s Middle East borders really are, overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible, and ignores the cynical imperial practices that actually did sow conflict in the region."

The Middle East that Might Have Been
The Atlantic, February 13, 2015

"The King-Crane report is a striking document—less for what it reveals about the Middle East as it might have been than as an illustration of the fundamental dilemmas involved in drawing, or not drawing, borders. Indeed, the report insisted on forcing people to live together through complicated legal arrangements that prefigure more recent proposals."

Forget Sykes-Picot. It’s the Treaty of Sèvres That Explains the Modern Middle East
Foreign Policy, August 10, 2015

"[L]ooking at history through the lens of the Sèvres treaty suggests a deeper point about the cause-and-effect relationship between European-drawn borders and Middle Eastern instability: the regions that ended up with borders imposed by Europe tended to be those already too weak or disorganized to successfully resist colonial occupation."

There is no Al-Sham
Foreign Policy, June 17, 2014

"Consider the moniker "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham." Both Iraq and al-Sham are place names with their own historical and political cachet, but it’s telling that ISIS’s leadership couldn’t come up with a single geographical term to describe its current area of operations." Also I think that sand berm in the picture was built by Saddam Hussein.

Make Your Own Middle East: The King-Crane Commission Choose Your Own Adventure

"Filled with confidence and an American can-do spirit you are certain that straightening out the future of the Middle East is something you can handle. If you choose to be an esteemed theologian, philosopher and President of Oberlin College, click here to Travel around the Region as Henry King. If you choose to be a wealthy plumbing parts magnate, outspoken anti-semite and slightly-too-large-pith-helmet enthusiast, click here to Travel around the Region as Charles Crane."

The Kurds and Sykes-Picot
Bipartisan Policy Center Blog, Feburary 10, 2016

"It’s easy to see why Kurds in particular would resent the borders that emerged from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. But a closer look at the historical origins of these lines reveals that the Kurds did not lose out through bad luck or arbitrary imperial fiat. Rather this history shows some of the embedded challenges that faced Kurdish nationalists a century ago, and sheds light on the factors influencing regional politics today."

Finally, two other fantastic pieces I wish I'd written:

The Middle East, Hallucination, and the Cartographic Imagination
Daniel Neep, Discover Society, January 3, 2015

"Maps of various new Middle Easts are neither concrete policy proposals nor plans for action, but abstract thought-experiments the portentousness of which is so elephantine that not even the authors can entirely feign ignorance of the pachyderm in the room."

 Lines Drawn on an Empty Map
Sara Pursley, Jadaliyya, June 2, 2015

"It may be that no modern nation-state has been called “artificial” more times than Iraq. While most scholars are quick to admit that all nation-states are artificial, in the sense that they are created by humans, Iraq, it would seem, is more artificial than most."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bulent Ecevit on the Obligations of the Intellectual

In conjunction with this week's Ottoman History Podcast on Bulent Ecevit, we are republishing a particularly timely article of his from the 1950s, translated by Sarah-Neel Smith. For more on art, Ecevit and the 50s, including several other articles referenced in the podcast, download Introduction to Art Criticism with Bulent Ecevit. As Sarah-Neel writes in her article
 The document translated here was written by former Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. Ecevit’s biography is strikingly unusual: in the 1950s, before his official entry into politics, he worked as a journalist, art critic, and founder of one of Turkey's first modern art galleries. His writings from this period span the cultural and political realms, making them a rich source for exploring the intersection of art and politics in mid-century Turkey. In this particular essay, the young writer used the imagined scenario of a conversation between strangers to evaluate the ways in which Turkey’s intelligentsia (aydınlar) had contributed to the country’s recent experiment with multiparty democracy. The column takes the form of an imaginary encounter on a public bus between a hostile member of the elite and an impoverished, uneducated member of the halk (people, or masses). His conclusions were damning.

Bulent Ecevit, "Aydin"in Derdi, Ulus , October 10, 1956

He’s either a professor in a department, a rich businessman, or a high-ranking bureaucrat. With his clothes, the way he walks and talks, he’s a complete “Westerner.” He is one of this country’s “luminaries,” one of our “select few.” On the bus, after surveying from head to toe a poorly dressed man with a patched shirt who sits across from him, he will turn to the man next to him.

“There you have it,” he’ll say, “that man sitting across from us is our destiny. If democracy is brought to a country where eighty percent of the population are illiterate, that’s exactly what our country will look like!”

We have heard such words at least once a day for years. During our blackest days, our hearts feel themselves darken a bit more with such words; on days when we lack conviction it is as if we even discover wisdom in them.

Most often, we do not even consider that intellectuals are an insignificant minority in every country across the world, including democratic countries. Even in countries where ninety-nine percent of the population are literate, perhaps eighty percent of them are, if not completely illiterate (kara cahil), then uneducated (cahil); but to this day democracy has not led to the sovereign reign of ignorance (cehaletin hükümranlığına) in a single one of those countries!

Bülent Ecevit. Bülent & Rahsan Ecevit personal archive.
Photograph by Ulus staff photographer, 1956.
When thinking of successful democracies, England and the United States are the first examples that come to mind. If you compare our poorly dressed, illiterate man (kara cahili) in a patched shirt to someone from one of these countries who pursues the same vocation (for example, a shepherd or a construction worker) but who is a literate know-nothing (okur-yazar cahili), who is well-groomed, who chills his water in the refrigerator, and who watches television at home in the evening, you will either find no difference in their mentality at all or you will find in favor of our poorly dressed, illiterate man with his keen intelligence gained through a more difficult life struggle. What is more, know-nothings from those countries also lack the faith and respect for education possessed by our completely illiterate man. But in not a single one of those countries has the ignorance of the majority prevailed over the future of the nation. While there may have been small trade-offs, ultimately the most progressive ideas and the most inclusive perspectives won out.

In fact democracy is not, as we assume, a system of government that discounts the voice of the intellectual minority, or neglects to count their vote. Democracy is a system of government that teaches humility to the intellectuals, and, through this humility, teaches them to heed the concerns of the majority, and to interest themselves in their concerns. These principles can only be realized through democracy, so that, even within the poorest neighborhoods that lie along his path, the intellectual will grow accustomed to going door to door and preaching the benefits of progressive thought and open-mindedness.

Our intellectuals have still not managed to save themselves from the pridefulness and feelings of superiority of autocracy and the single-party regime, from the indolence that comes from occupying the head of the table. They have not yet managed to take sufficient ownership of the “progressive” ideas that they have overheard or snatched from books, so as to be able to convince the majority to believe in them as well; they have not been able to summon enough faith to face self-sacrifice or danger for the sake of disseminating those ideas. Without themselves believing in the “progressive” ideas that they have acquired, they aim to force-feed them to the majority while avoiding the burdensome effort of convincing others.

That is why it is wrong for an “intellectual,” one of our “select few,” to survey the poorly dressed, illiterate man sitting across from him from top to bottom and say, “If democracy is brought to a country where eighty percent of the population are illiterate, that’s exactly what our country will look like!”

In fact, the proper response to this intellectual, who is “Western” in his dress and manners alone, should be: “If democracy is brought to a country where eighty percent of the intelligentsia are either haughty and spineless, lazy and dyspeptic, or fearful and lacking in belief, this is what our country will become!”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Democracy and Original Sin in Turkey and the USA

In his first trip abroad as president, Barack Obama brought up the Armenian genocide in an address to Turkish parliament. Sort of. Instead of actually mentioning the genocide, he noted that America “still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation,” as well as its “past treatment of Native Americans.”  Each country, he went on, must “work through” and “reckon with” the past.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Thinking back on Obama’s words today, he may have inadvertently highlighted one reason American liberals are so infuriated by Turkey’s refusal to even acknowledge the Armenian genocide: when it comes to really wrestling with historic crimes, our country sets the bar pretty damn low. When it comes to slavery or the treatment of Native Americans, more often than not, we as a nation are willing to acknowledge that bad things happened, hesitant to go much further beyond that. Frequently, we fit our historical failures into a tidy narrative of national progress. In my high school history textbook, for example, tellingly titled “Toward A More Perfect Union, ” we watched as our nation fought to overcome its sins one by one, ending slavery with the Civil War and segregation with the civil rights movement. Rather than whitewash our history, we turn it into a story of constant self-improvement. This version of history, in which our country has constantly aspired to live out the full meaning of our founding creed, can serve as a compelling call to action. But it can also become a source of self-satisfaction that prevent, say, any serious discussion of reparations. In contrast to Turkey's crude denialism, America has worked out a remarkable, hard-fought compromise between those who think we should confront our history and act accordingly and those who don't think we have anything to confront. Collectively, we never quite get to the point of honestly wrestling with the past. Rather, we get just close enough to feel good about ourselves while confidently evading any real accountability.

In discussions of Turkey’s genocide denial, many people, Turkish and American, cynically suggest the real issue is reparations. If Turkey admitted it had committed genocide, the theory goes, something, maybe international law or the US congress, would then compel it to pay compensation to the victims.  If this is really the concern, then let the US example serve as a reminder that there’s no need to worry. If anything, as we’ve discovered, apologizing for about past sins can be an excellent way to defuse the any expectation of financial reparations

Last April, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide led Americans to devote an unusual amount of attention to 20th century Turkish history. Turks, in turn, devoted an unusual amount of attention to 19th century American history, using every internet forum available to suggest that American interest in the genocide was hypocritical in light of our own country's troubled history. The difference, of course, is that in America we have long been able to talk openly about slavery, or the fate of our continent's indigenous population. In fact many of the people most vocally urging Turkish society to confront its past have also pushed Americans to do so as well. 

But with each passing year, a growing number of people in Turkey are openly discussing their country’s past. Now it appears Turkey may finally be on the verge of realizing that when it comes to wrestling with history, they’d do better to emulate American hypocrisy than condemn it. For example, any basic cost-benefit analysis would have long ago led Ankara to realize it would be cheaper to ignore non-binding congressional resolutions than pay millions of dollars to lobbyists in order to defeat them. Or Ankara could have used the language recently employed by the French president, who simply explained that his country's debt to Haiti is moral, not financial. But what prevented Turkey from taking this approach, at least up until now, was not a fear of reparations but rather national pride. Specifically, though, a kind of national pride reflecting the fact that from the late 19th century to the Cold War, condemning Turkey's barbaric behavior was a favorite excuse for imperialist land grabs. After World War One, the Armenian Genocide in particular was an oft-cited justification for the dividing Anatolia up between Western powers. In short, Turkey never had the luxury we did in America, where our geopolitical power let us confront history on our own terms, comfortable that we would only face the consequences on the rare occasions we chose too. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mapping the Arabian Nights: a collaborative research project

In generations past, Orientalists would retire to their studies to peruse lavishly illustrated volumes from their multi-lingual collections of The Arabian Nights. My own collection takes up half a shelf in a closet next to my bathroom. But as I was perusing it the other day, or at least looking at the pictures I did notice something interesting: the drawings in the 19th century British edition I have are clearly based on Egyptian architecture and street scenes, while the drawings in a German edition from the same period look like Istanbul. Meanwhile, in the one early 20th century Turkish version I've looked at, the setting appears vaguely Far Eastern, kind of a French art nouveau version of Japan.

I have no idea how representative these books are, but it would certainly be interesting, and not entirely surprising, if Western Europeans tended to illustrate the Arabian Nights according to their country's colonial possessions (or aspirations) in the Near East, while countries close to the region where  Europeans set their Arabian Nights had to further exoticize the stories by setting them even further east, and perhaps further removing themselves from the scene by using European styles to do so.

There's an excellent book about the history of illustrating the Arabian Nights in English, but it would be fun to see a comparative look both at how it was illustrated in other places, be they colonial powers or Middle Eastern states. In some cases the settings of the stories themselves almost certainly shaped artists' decisions but in other cases contemporary cultural factors must have done far more to inform their fantasies.

Anyways, if anyone has a copy of the Arabian Nights whose illustrations they think they can connect to a particular place, please send us in a picture or two and we can try to compile a collection. If we get enough responses we can do a completely unscientific map of where the Arabian Nights took place in different places over the past two centuries.