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Marginalized Spaces of Action: Leisure, Humor, and Deviance as Social Protest in the Ottoman World

Panel X-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Our proposed panel investigates the evolution of the perceived transgressive activities and attitudes among the Ottoman subjects and their ability to challenge and transform power structures. Recent years have witnessed an expansion of the scholarship on the nonconformities accommodated within the everyday practices and the social life of Ottoman individuals and communities. For example, coffee consumption, recreational use of tobacco, alcohol, and other intoxicating substances, and petty criminality have been analyzed with regard to their potential to create subaltern cultures and identities. Moreover, prostitution, perceived as sexual deviance, and defiant attitudes among minorities have been investigated with an eye toward the resistance against power structures. Yet, to a large extent, such studies are discussed within the limits of their specific areas of focus, such as consumer culture, urbanitas, minority politics, gender studies, material history, or the global history of consumption. Meanwhile, we are still in the process of constructing a discourse on the particularities of social exclusion throughout the Ottoman period and the scope of action available to individuals and communities at the fringes of Ottoman society. Our panel aims to create a chronologically encompassing platform to discuss the subject’s act of creating consciousness through a search for alternative meanings and how this seemingly individual process relates to the limitations posed by the authority of institutions and social norms. Through papers on the intersection of social and cultural history, we hope to contribute to the expanding research on transgressive identity formations, subaltern cultures, and state-society relations. Since various textual genres articulate subjectivity differently, the panel incorporates variegated source types, including court registers, and biographical dictionaries, travelogues, poetry, miscellaneous scrapbooks, and historical methods like microhistory. Focusing on the period of the Balkan Wars and the First World War, the first paper explores how young women in Konya, ostracized as sexually and socially deviant, formed non-heteronormative and queer “sisterhood” solidarities that defied the Ottoman Empire's wartime sexual and nationalist politics. Through a case study of a seventeenth-century müftü known for his witty character, the second presentation teases the connection between humor and legal authority in the early modern provincial context. The third presenter explores the agency of Muslim drinkers in transforming the social and political fabric of seventeenth-century Ottoman Istanbul. Challenging nationalist and essentialist perspectives, the final contribution focuses on carnival festivities to offer an innovative approach to the identity formation in twentieth-century Ottoman Macedonia.
  • Zeynep Tezer
    Pir Mehmed bin Abdullah Üskübi (d. 1600s) was an Ottoman scholar-jurist who worked as a jurisconsult (müftü) in various Balkan towns, primarily in Skopje. His legal opinions (fetva), collected in two volumes, became popular reference works for Ottoman jurists, professors, and medrese students during and after his lifetime. Praised by the biographers as “the best and most eminent of the provincial müftüs” the life, career, the popular and literary reception of Pir Üskübi invite a striking comparison between the legal prescriptions of the Ottoman imperial enterprise and the factual legal practice in a local context. At the same time, in the Ottoman collective imagination as well as in scholarship, Pir Üskübi is even better known for an anecdote about his dismissal from a town’s jurisconsult position after making an obscene remark about male impotence. In fact, the source that depicts this incident—the mesnevi poem “Hamse” by the Ottoman biographer and litterateur Nevizade Atai (d. 1635)—contains other stories about Pir Üskübi’s witty exchanges with his colleagues and his habit of making fun of his own blindness. Moreover, a closer look at his fetvas reveals occasional satirical remarks embedded into his responses. What implications did this marked jocular element in Üskübi’s professional activity imply for his position as a moral authority in the local community? How did his humorous character relate to his active role as a jurisconsult in shaping the social and cultural life of the province? How can historians reconcile his intellectual reputation as an erudite scholar and his popular reception as a humorous character? By approaching humor as a potentially transgressive act irritating the boundaries of proper conduct in the religio-legal profession, this paper presents, through the case study of a popular müftü, a hitherto under-discussed facet of the tensions marking the power relations between the early modern Ottoman center and province.
  • As opposed to the general wisdom, which does not usually associate alcohol with the Islamic world, alcohol consumption was prevalent in the Ottoman Empire. Focusing on this fundamental topic, this paper investigates how the consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslim drinkers, from Ottoman sultans to ordinary Ottoman individuals, transformed the social and political fabric of seventeenth-century Istanbul. I argue that the habit of alcohol drinking by Ottoman sultans—such as the famously heavy drinker Murad IV (r. 1623-1640)—elites, and ordinary subjects contributed to the essential role of alcohol in Ottoman society. The convivial gatherings that accompanied alcohol in public and private spaces (taverns, private residences, etc.) constituted a significant component of Ottoman society, shaping urban life, state-society encounters, morality, religiosity, and sociability. These gatherings had even a considerable impact on the temporary nature of alcohol-related prohibitions imposed by the imperial and local authorities. To support these claims and provide a more nuanced understanding of the topic, this paper draws on a wide array of historical sources, including the city’s Islamic court records, the Ottoman Imperial Council registers, Ottoman chronicles, and Ottoman and European travel narratives, and benefits from analytical approaches of microhistorical studies. By doing so, this paper makes scholarly interventions in the few existing studies that argue that alcohol was limited to the royals, elites, and non-Muslims in the early modern Islamic world. Furthermore, it advances the burgeoning debates around the reconceptualization of Islam as a religion based on the coherence of contradictions.
  • Dr. Tugce Kayaal
    The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and the First World War (1914-1918) were two major events that altered the social, cultural, and political structures of the late Ottoman Empire. With the collapse of the social categories – particularly ethnoreligious, age-and gender-based categories – the wartime government deployed new measures to police those who emerged as the "deviant" actors of the Ottoman society. Provincial cities like Konya became the new, relatively isolated spots where the state could rehabilitate such individuals into the community through proper intervention. However, the archival records from Konya as well as local and national newspapers, narrate the stories of Turkish-Muslim and Armenian-Christian girls escaping the orphanage and getting dismissed for their morally harmful effects on their peers, two Armenian girls getting caught at the train station as they were running Konya due to the harsh circumstances, and the so-called dangers surrounding young girls engaging in deviant intimacies and sexual practices. The representations of friendship and intimate bonds among the young girls of Konya who were initially placed there at the state's order to be disciplined and rehabilitated introduce the emergence of a "sisterhood trouble," meaning various forms of non-heteronormative bonding, friendship, and solidarity networks young girls created to navigate the harsh circumstances of war. In this paper, I explore the notions and representations of friendship and sisterhood in the late Ottoman Empire between 1910 and 1923 by analyzing the experiences of orphans, prostitutes, homeless women, and women engaging in homoerotic intimacies. By using orphanage registrations, local and national newspapers, and state documents, the paper deploys a queer approach to the concept of "sisterhood" and argues that it functioned as a venue for ostracized young women of the wartime society who formed the sexually and socially deviant subcultures of Konya to establish their intimate bonds and a form of queer wartime solidarity that disrupted the ethnic, religious, and sexual boundaries imposed upon them. By following the lead of scholars offering a queer reading of friendship, such as Alan Bray, Anjali Arondekar, and Kathryn Babayan, this paper provides a queer reading of sisterhood as a troubling and non-heteronormative practice and space defying the Ottoman Empire's wartime sexual and nationalist politics.
  • This paper asks to what extent the performances in carnival festivities can demonstrate identity formation process in Ottoman Macedonia in the first decade of 20th century? The revisionist historiography on nation-state and identity formation challenges essentialist and nationalistic perspective and illustrates shifting and multi-layered processes of identity formation. Building up on this approach, this paper takes carnival festivities as a new lens through which ordinary people’s transgressive but playful experimentation on identities can be understood for its ambiguous and complex nature. Carnival festivities at the turn of the 20th century were annual urban and/or rural occasions of public revelry and subversion in Ottoman Empire. These were mostly mobilized and organized by the people, for the people and was associated with the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire. Outside the hegemonic tools of identity construction, carnival can be considered subaltern, disorganized and ambiguous form of expression in which masquerades utilized play, mockery and disguise as their main tool. To demonstrate, this paper focuses on cases which came to the attention of Ottoman authorities due to the involvement mockery of imperial and Islamic values, protests targeting other independent states, churches and communities, as well as celebration of identities and national affiliations that were considered “harmful”. As part of this task, the performances in these cases are contextualized against the background of the early 20th century Balkans together with taking into consideration the particular cosmology that carnivalesque environment creates. As a result, the cases from carnivals in different cities show that identity formation did not replace old forms and affiliations with a new and monolithic one, but instead occurred in a creative co-existence of multi-layered meanings and symbols. Use of various disguises, ethnic and political symbols reveal that people were experimenting with identities that were cut across various lines. Religion and ethnic categories of the pre-nation-state period, were becoming more intertwined with affiliations to independent churches and states in the imperial context in the insurgent and violent context of the early 20th century. By doing that, this paper aims to incorporate ordinary voices and performances into the discussion of nationalism and identity formation as well as consider Ottoman carnivals as a social phenomenon that contributes to the discussion of transgressive identity formation, subaltern cultures and state-society relations.