Dreaming in Ottoman

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I was at the Apple Store recently to get the battery on my Mac replaced. Apparently, if you burn the Mac for 18 hours a day for months on end, certain parts begin to wear down. I guess that's something to keep in mind for my advancing old age. 

While I was at the store, I mentioned that I work on Turkey (naturally, I was selling copies of Turks Across Empires out of the back of my car in the parking lot of the mall). It turns out that one of the employees of the Apple Store was a Turkish guy from Istanbul, who was dutifully marched out to meet and converse with me. When I told him I worked on Ottoman history, he jokingly asked me if I was planning on returning to Turkey to work as a language teacher. 

It was a good joke, because in recent weeks Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan has proposed making the study of Ottoman Turkish a mandatory subject in Turkish high schools

Ottoman Turkish, for those of you who don't know, is the term that people use to describe the Arabic-script form of the Turkish language that was employed in the Ottoman Empire. Roughly five years after the Turkish Republic was created, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk mandated that the alphabet be changed from Arabic to Latin script. This was done in November of 1928. Two months later, on January 1, 1929, the new alphabet became mandatory, and the Arabic-script alphabet became illegal in most forms of publication. 
"Women's World" (Kadınlar Dünyası), early 
20th century.

While the so-called "alphabet reform" has generally been presented in terms of a broader program of "westernization" taking place in Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, it also needs to be remembered that there was an important political dimension to this development. Prior to the 1920s, most of the people who were literate in Turkey were religious personnel, many of whom were opposed to the changes taking place in the country. By changing the alphabet, and making the publication of Turkish in the Arabic alphabet illegal, the new regime was effectively rendering many of these individuals illiterate overnight. So, the change was about more than just "trying to be western," as it also included an important political dimension.

Even more insidiously, the alphabet change placed the interpretation of history even more within the hands of experts. When I teach this to my students in Montana I ask them think what it would be like to try to read the Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation, or other pre-20th century document in a different alphabet. The vast majority of people in Turkey do not read the Arabic script, and therefore have traditionally only been able to read primary source documents produced prior to 1929 through the mediation of professional historians--who, in the days of Atatürk, were public servants working for state universities who published only through state-owned presses. Say what you want about the Latin script being more appropriate for Turkish than the Arabic script (a very debatable point), the move from one alphabet to another made it virtually impossible for non-experts to interpret their country's history independently. 

Of course, the switch from Ottoman to "modern" Turkish did not only involve changing the alphabet, but also the language itself. Since the 1920s, thousands of Arabic and Persian words were expunged from Turkish, replaced by newly-created Turkish ones, a process that continued throughout much of the 20th century. Nevertheless, what exactly constitutes "Ottoman" depends to some extent on the document one is reading. My training in Ottoman Turkish, for example, consisted mainly of reading bureaucratic documents, books and journals. Ottoman poetry, meanwhile, was usually written in a language that was much different from the government and media language that I learned. Religiously-themed literature or manuscripts were also quite different, and all of these materials changed over time. Remember, the Ottoman Empire existed for almost 700 years. There is no single Ottoman Turkish.  
 Before and after the alphabet switch

In principle, I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to teach Ottoman Turkish in Turkey. After all, it's a good thing for people to be able to read their country's history on their own, without the mediation of experts. The early republican regime purposefully cut off its citizens from Ottoman history, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to restore that bond. 

Ottoman archival document, late 
19th century 

The question, however, revolves around how this is done. As is the case with some much that has gone on in Turkey over the past decade of AK Party rule, my guess is that we're merely going from one form of authoritarian thinking to another. 

Rather than working to allow Turkish citizens to familiarize themselves better with their past, my sense is that Erdoğan is probably more interested in instilling a certain interpretation of the past into the minds of the students who will be taking this class. In this respect, Erdoğan is once again showing himself to be, more than anything else, a product of the Turkish Republic. While in many ways Erdoğan clearly represents a break from Kemalism, in a lot of other ways he's a perfect reflection of the Kemalist system. This is a point I've made elsewhere on this blog.

Regarding the teaching of Ottoman in Turkey today, my first question is: who on earth are they going to find to teach these classes? My guess is that, rather than train people to actually read Ottoman, they'll probably use people who have studied Arabic as part of their religious education. On the one hand, this will be a jobs program for religiously-educated supporters of the AK Party, and on the other hand this move will make it easier for the government to teach students a certain kind of Ottoman Turkish, and therefore a certain kind of Ottoman history. The sort of materials that complicate Ottoman history--the materials that reveal just how complex and interesting a civilization the Ottomans created--will not be covered in these courses. Rather, they'll probably emphasize the Islamic nature of the empire, in keeping with the AK Party's larger political agenda. 

But why is it possible to do any of this in the first place? It all goes back to the decision to ban the Arabic script in the republic's early years. People in Turkey often grow up with very simplistic views of Ottoman history. For decades they were taught that the Ottoman Empire was a sort of Islamic theocracy. Kemalists demonized the Ottoman past, or at least certain elements of it, while folks like President Erdoğan grew up thinking of the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic paradise. In fact, the situation was a lot more complicated than that, but partly because of the fact that the past was cut off from the present in the first place these one-dimensional views of the Ottoman Empire have persisted. 

If Erdoğan's plan ever comes to fruition, my guess is that--after several years have passed and enough people have actually been exposed to the Ottoman language--people's attitudes in Turkey regarding the Ottoman Empire could end up taking some unexpected directions. This is because the empire was a lot more complex than the people leading the Ottoman language charge imagine it to be. No matter what the motivations of the folks encouraging the study of Ottoman might be--and I think it's fairly obvious what they're driving at--the results could very well bring some unintended consequences. 

If more people in Turkey do start studying the Ottoman language and actually become capable of reading Ottoman, many will be surprised by what they find. Indeed, that's precisely what happens when you start learning foreign languages and expose yourself to information first-hand.     

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  1. Very nice comment, doc. I think I would add that the introduction of the European alphabet and the banning of Ottoman script were yet another aspect of the Republic's strategy to utterly wipe out all representations of the Ottoman past in the public sphere as a way of eradicating any opposition to the new Kemalist regime in Turkey. The Kemalists did everything they could to de-legitimise all things Ottoman because the greatest potential opposition to Kemalism was from those who clung to the political and religious values of pre-1923 Turkey.

    1. Çok mersi, Gordon. These were, in fact, the points that I had in mind while writing, albeit without your elegant phrasing. Thanks for reading, Jim.