The "Intimate Other": Practices of Exclusion in Late Ottoman Society
Session VI-06, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as new and competing forms of identification rose in segments of the Ottoman society, the Ottoman ruling class and the state attempted several formal and informal mechanisms to render its diverse population legible. Many scholars have focused on the “millet-system” and non-Muslim populations to understand the modernizing Ottoman state’s role in implementing forms of exclusion and inclusions. Few have examined often elusive forms of incorporation and exclusion that do not register in the Ottoman imperial archives, namely, societal codes, semi-legal distinctions, the role of race and ethnicity, and accepted sets of behaviors that colored members of the Ottoman society in positive or negative lights. Distinctions appeared not only through economic or government-related differences but also as social practices and discourses about notions of ethnicity, race, and civilization played a central role in a changing imperial society.
This multidisciplinary panel, titled “The ‘Intimate Other:’ Practices of Exclusion of non-Turkish Members of Late Ottoman Society,” focuses on rarely discussed forms of exclusion and inclusion which emerged as forms of ethno-racialization and took hold in the Ottoman metropole and in the provinces between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By presenting four cases of African-, Kurdish-, and Arab-Ottomans as forms of discrimination and exclusion this panel scratches the surface of Turkey- and Istanbul-centered Ottoman histories. The four cases presented cut across class divides, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and studying ethno-racial discrimination, and how it manifested in Ottoman society and in Ottoman laws, with ramifications in the post-Ottoman era. We aim to show that the traditional understanding of a religiously stratified society, whether as millet vs. non-millet, or Sunni Muslim vs. non-Sunni Muslim other, does not capture the full complexities of Ottoman society and power dynamics which were also influenced by racialized notions of belonging. All papers address the question of how political and economic change involved the transformation in social identification and stigmatization in the Ottoman age of steam and the telegraph.
This paper is based on my current research on the lived experiences of some Arab-Ottoman imperialists who lived in Istanbul during the last 50 years of the empire. Using sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical approach to analyzing a person’s habitus, it examines disposition and relationships between the social spaces of these Arab-Ottoman elites and the wider Ottoman imperial elite society during a time of rising ethno-racial differentiation in Istanbul. Focusing on a few individuals, it provides a micro-historical perspective into the lives of imperial loyalists, as they rose and fell in the Ottoman metropole—rising during the rule of Abdulhamid II and then struggling to maintain their position of privilege as they participated in and were subject to ethno-racialization, prejudice, and suspicion after the Young Turk revolution. Their journey from being core members of the Ottoman ruling class, to “intimate others” by the beginning of WWI, provides an example of the impact of late imperialism and early ethnonationalism on the lives of non-Turkish Ottomans living in Istanbul at the turn of the century. A culmination of decade-long research into the personal and professional lives of these men and women of the Ottoman metropole, this paper provides a surprising insight into where a Sunni Muslim, Arab-Ottoman, member of a global imperial class positioned themselves and how that evolved as the empire’s internal and external political and social dynamics changed. This paper is part of a larger project which calls on historians of the Ottoman Empire to embrace experiential history as a way to break our dependence on state archival narratives and to transcend the hard-to-shake traditional analytical paradigms and assumptions the field.
Following the proclamation of the Second Constitution in 1908 and then the countercoup of 1909, the former guards of the harem, the African eunuchs, lost their jobs and became more visible in daily life in Istanbul. The curiosity about their private, post-harem lives became the topic of a 1914 novel, Wedding Night: The Lovemaking of A Eunuch. Belonging to a body of erotic literature published under suggestive titles yet with rather punitive plot lines that became popular in early 20th century, Wedding Night, in an unprecedented way, focuses on Ethiopian Amber Aga as he tries to settle in his post-harem life with a concubine at home and a soon-to-be wife. Amber is immediately marked by his Ottoman Muslim male neighbors as an outsider for his geographical origins, color, and sexuality, particularities that gave eunuchs their liminality and authority to monitor the sexual life in the harem. Outside the confines of the palace and in a society with pre-drawn boundaries, however, Amber’s ambiguous sexuality creates confusion and anxiety, one that quickly turns into an anxiety over masculinity and loss of imperial power that marked Ottoman fictional texts since 19th century. In this paper I will discuss how imperial masculinity redefined and eroticized over the body of an African eunuch and how the eunuch in the early 20th century context replaces the dandy, the effeminate fop of the Tanzimat novels, the embodiment of political and sexual anxieties.
When the Young Turks and Kemalists declared new regimes in 1908 and in 1923 respectively, they put forth grand narratives of radical change. This article, by contrast, highlights the continuity across the Hamidian (1876–1908), Young Turks (1908–1923), and Early Republican (1923–1938) eras in colonizing Dersim, a Kizilbash (Alevi) Kurdish–majority region in Eastern Anatolia. Due to its unusual geographic and demographic profile, Dersim toward the end of the nineteenth century became a domain where the Kurdish, Armenian, and Kizilbash questions came together and clashed with the project of Ottoman and Turkish state building. Subsumed under the banner of Eastern Question in the literature, these interwoven questions placed foundational limits on the late imperial and early republican state in the realms of ethnicity, religion, and geography and turned Dersim into a battlefield for Turkish state making. The article defines Dersim as a nonstate space and considers government policies towards it as internal colonization, thereby challenging the official narrative and the existing historiography foregrounded around the axis of rebellion and suppression. It argues that the Turkish state’s violent transformation of Dersim in 1937–38 marked the completion of a process of state building and centralization that was set in motion in the early nineteenth century and that intensified in Dersim following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. The article puts the continuity argument in conversation with the idea of Ottoman Orientalism and proposes that an ideational need to sustain and expand the state motivated both late imperial and early republican state actors in their policies towards Dersim.