Christmastime Research in Istanbul

Friday, December 29, 2023

I've spent the last couple of weeks in Istanbul, and it's been good to be back. 

March, 1992: I'm the one in the jean jacket

It's always interesting to come back to the city where I lived between the ages of twenty-three and thirty. The seven years that I spent living in Istanbul in the 1990s had a profound impact upon the life that I've led ever since. This is where I worked my first real job, rented my first apartment without roommates, and had my first adult-style relationships. It's the place where, without really thinking about it in such terms, I ended up re-inventing myself. 

With the exception of 2003 and 2020-2021, I've come to Istanbul every year since returning to the United States in 1999 to begin graduate school. Sometimes these trips have been for periods of several months, and other times, like now, for just a few weeks. And even though I've spent 2-3 years, collectively, living in Istanbul since 1999--researching and writing as an academic working on Ottoman and Turkish history--I'll always associate Istanbul with my experiences here from before graduate school, prior to the time that writing about Turkey became my job.  I think that this, more than anything else, is the reason why I continue to feel driven to read, research, and write about this part of the world. 

And that's what I've been doing these last couple of weeks. 

Nothing Lasts Forever

The Ottoman archive (BOA) moved about ten years ago to their present location in Kağıthane, a rather prosaic location compared to the archive's previous site in Sultanahmet. Back when the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) still had its guesthouse in Arnavutköy (on the Bosphorus), it was possible to travel back and forth to the archive by boat. I have fond memories of returning to the guesthouse at the end of the day, drinking tea and proceeding steadily forward on the water while honking cars sat locked in traffic for miles on the seaside road to the left of us. 

Those were good times. 

So there were, of course, howls of protest from researchers when the archives moved. That was no surprise. In my experience, professional academics are some of the most conservative people around--not in their politics, but rather with respect to just about everything else. Any change whatsoever to our routines tends to be resisted ferociously. In truth, I didn't like the move, either. 

But hey, nothing lasts forever--even cold November rain. Axl Rose taught us that. 

Listen to the Archives

I have to admit, though, that working in the archive now is a lot easier than it was before. The reading room is a lot bigger, for one thing. Something else that speeds up the process is the fact that nearly everything that I need has been digitized. Back in the day we used to receive the actual documents, which meant that if someone else was working with them we'd have to wait days, sometimes weeks, until the other person was finished with them. 

Working with the originals also meant that we had to read the documents at the archive and take notes. The first time I ordered something back in 2004, I felt so intimidated upon looking at the materials that were delivered to me. How on earth am I supposed to read this, I wondered. It was possible to order photocopies of most of the materials, but this took time and there was only so much one could order. I didn't want to look like a chump, ordering copies of everything I looked at, so I just toughed it out and tried my best to work with what I had in the reading room. It certainly wasn't easy, though. 

Now researchers do keyword searches on computers located inside the archive. Ordering documents is easy, and at the end of every day I have hundreds of pages of materials burned onto a CD-Rom. Each image costs only half a lira, which means that even a thousand digitized pages only comes out to fifteen dollars or so. 

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to this. While keyword searches are undeniably helpful, they do tend to privilege whatever topics the researcher is already looking for. This isn't always a good thing. For example, the first time I worked in an archive of any sort was in St. Petersburg in 2002. I remember asking an archivist, in my then-halting Russian, about materials relating to "pan-Turkism." Had a keyword-based computer system existed back then, I would have immediately found documents with the phrase 'pan-Turkism' and gone on to work with them. However, because, I was forced to work through the documents systematically, I came to realize that the individuals and movements that I was interested in were, in most cases, described in the archives as "societal activism" (obshchestvennaia deiatel'nost'). Had I been relying solely on a keyword search, I might have never have found all of these other materials, nor would I have learned one of the most important element about working in such settings: you have to listen to what the archives are telling you. 

What does it mean to listen to the archive? It means, for one thing, not trying to impose the concepts that you privilege upon what's available to you as a researcher. In an archive as large as the BOA in Istanbul or the RGIA in St. Petersburg, you can find at least a few documents in support of pretty much any argument you want to make, no matter how far-fetched. 

I see this kind of cherry-picking in the research of scholars who, in most cases, spend relatively little time in the archive, and instead rush in, grab what they can, and leave with exactly the sorts of documents they were looking for. For those scholars who have the luxury of spending months going through the archives more systematically, however, there's much more opportunity to go beyond the 10-15 documents that support whatever preconception one had prior to commencing their archival research. This is my third research trip to Istanbul in support of my current project, and I feel like only now am I beginning to get a sense of what the archive is telling me. 

So, in a place like the BOA, it's obviously great to be able to do keyword searches. The important thing, though, is to balance these searches with more systematic examinations of materials that don't necessarily conform to whatever one is looking for at the outset. That means paying attention to the types of materials that come up in the keyword searches and then looking through "neighboring documents" that sit alongside the materials you find but which don't necessarily tell you what you want to hear. That way, you can get a better sense of the context surrounding the materials that a keyword search turns up. Sure, you can find a number of documents telling you x. But what if there are ten times as many that tell you y?

Christmas in Istanbul

I love coming to Istanbul in the wintertime. It's less crowded than in the summer, both in general and in the archive reading room. Christmas, in particular, is a time that I really like spending here. It's a regular workday, and most people in Turkey assume that Christmas is on January 1. Indeed, all sorts of secular aspects of Christmas, such as Santa Claus, are appropriated in Turkey as part of the New Year's celebration. Even the plainclothes police would get in on the act. 

Dancing, saxophone-playing Santa Claus. It's
starting to feel like an Istanbul Christmas.

As I've discussed elsewhere, back when I lived in Istanbul in the 90s, it felt like a secret holiday. I would take the day off work, go to touristy places in Sultanahmet that I never went to otherwise, and treat myself to a luxurious breakfast. I'd even stick my head into the Catholic church on İstiklal Caddesi--the only time in my life that I've ever been in church on Christmas, and it's in an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country.  

What I only began getting a taste of after spending several days in Istanbul was the part of Istanbul that sustained me throughout my twenties. And it's something that I still see amid all of the sterile stuff that can overwhelm the senses here. Riding shotgun in a late-night dolmuş, eating stinky fish somewhere, drinking strong tea out of smudged glasses with strangers. There were thousands of moments of this sort that today all blend together, but which at the time all contributed to an overall sense of well-being and belonging. 


All in all, it's been a nice trip. I've been staying in my old neighborhood, which has been nice. A lot of the places I used to go to are now closed, of course, but some of them remain. Last year, for example, I bumped into my old barber Mustafa, and the other day I bought a copy of the New York Times international edition from the old newsstand in my neighborhood. Interestingly, he still calls it the Herald Tribune

But it's not as if this is my first time back in the neighborhood since 1999. Even during the times when I was staying at the ARIT research guesthouse in Arnavutköy, I still made a point of come up to Teşvikiye and seeing how things looked. I love this area.  

At the same time: I gotta say, coming back here feels different now that I own a house in Montana. Back when I was living in my apartment in Bozeman, I used to think that I'd probably live in Turkey again after retiring from the university. But since buying a house a couple of years ago, I'm not so sure anymore. For the first time since living in Turkey in the 1990s, I feel connected to a place in a long-term way. I never thought this would happen--because I never wanted to buy a house, to be honest with you--but investing in property has, in turn, led me to feel emotionally invested in my surroundings to a degree that I had not previously anticipated, and which I frankly hadn't felt since I was living in Teşvikiye all those many years ago.  

But then again, you just never know. As Axl Rose sez... 

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