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Early Republican History One Hundred Years after 1923

RoundTable IV-6, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
This roundtable examines the state of the historical scholarship about the early republican period as Turkey commemorates the centennial of the Republic. The field of early republican history has grown and transformed considerably in recent decades, moving away from its focus on the state and on political, intellectual and economic history into new subfields of history, expanding the scope of analysis by investigating new topics, and utilizing new sources and new approaches. In line with the democratization of the discipline globally, there has been growing interest in the history of everyday life and the lives of ordinary people in the early republican era. Groups such as women, children, minorities, workers and peasants as well as topics such as gender, environment, emotions, food, music, sports and health have increasingly become subjects of academic history. There is greater interest in supplementing the traditional archival and textual sources with other sources such as oral histories, literary sources, and visual sources including film and photography. The research is increasingly more theoretical, or interdisciplinary and more in dialogue with the current historical scholarship about other contexts, both within and outside the Middle East. The scholarship also crosses, or analyses critically, both temporal (Ottoman/republican) and political/geographical (national) boundaries, paying attention to empire to republic continuities and ruptures as well as transnational connections. The participants in this roundtable will discuss how their research contributes to the advancement of the field, reflecting on the challenges faced but also the benefits gained from the kind of research they do. Our goal is to generate further discussion and interest in these growing fields of inquiry as well as to identify and encourage research in other promising areas that have not yet received much attention among the historians of Turkey. The specific topics the panelists will discuss cover a broad spectrum of social, economic, and cultural history. They include alcohol, jazz music, photography, disease, and food, bringing a wide range of theoretical perspectives as well. Given that these represent only a small selection of the ongoing historical work about the early republic, we hope these presentations will generate further discussion about these and additional avenues of research, with participation from the audience. While this session focuses on the early republic, these topics, approaches, and sources are relevant to the history of Turkey beyond the single party era, and beyond Turkey as well, especially in the Middle East and the Balkans.
  • Rural and small-town annual fairs (panayırs) have been a part of Anatolian social life from the pre-Ottoman times into the 21st century. Most of the earlier historical scholarship about the fairs has either focused on the economic importance of the fairs within the context of Ottoman economic history, or analysed the fairs within the context of folklore studies. There has been a resurgence of interest in recent years, with researchers particularly from history, geography, and folklore investigating the recent transformations and the current state of the fairs. The majority of the recent studies about the fairs in the republican period are isolated theses and articles written in Turkish at some of the smaller Turkish universities, which has limited their impact on the English-language scholarship outside of Turkey. In addition, these studies concentrate on the recent developments and seldom address the fairs in the early republican era, a key period when the number of fairs increased rapidly throughout the country. This presentation will give a brief overview of the state of the field in the study of the fairs from the early republican era through the height of the fairs in the 1960s into their decline in recent decades, and then will discuss some of the possibilities the study of fairs offers for the history of the early republican period. The multi-dimensional function of the fairs, revolving around shopping, an animal market, food, and entertainment, raises a number of interesting questions for the social, economic, and cultural history of Turkey in the founding decades of the Republic. How did the fairs affect social and cultural life in provincial towns? How did they contribute to the creation of a national economy and national identity? What do women’s participation in the fairs tell us about women’s social lives and gender relations? What do panayır entertainments and their changes over time tell us about the role of gender and masculinity in Anatolian culture? What can we learn from the fairs about the social lives of itinerant entertainers in early republican Turkey? What conclusions can we draw from the Roma presence in panayır amusement parks about the impact of the Balkan fairs on Turkey? What can we learn about local culinary cultures and their transformations from panayır foods? Following a discussion of the above and similar questions, I will conclude with comments about potential sources and methodologies for further research.
  • In the 1990s, academics turned to Turkey’s early republican era with greater measures of focus and theoretical rigor. Numerous works that first emerged, oftentimes informed by humanistic and critical theories, looked squarely at the country’s emergent built environments, posing questions about the new republic’s displays of architecture, urban design, and adherence to modernism. As critiqued in subsequent works, however, quite a few focused on visual sources but limited their analyses of textual sources to those that emerged in the early 1930s and after. What likely began as a linguistic hurdle developed into significant historiographic oversights that scholars of the early republic continue to contend with—but also benefit from; a forceful impetus to explore the fullest range of the era’s documents thus arose. One significant new avenue came to encompass matters of disease, public health, and population. Stemming from related works and initiatives of the late Ottoman era, the overlapping early republican years’ sources contended with the period’s rapid developments in medical knowledge and science, the bureaucratization of public health, and the prioritization of particular maladies that plagued empire and republic alike. Of the latter project, leaders typically ranked and sorted diseases in terms of their urgency for intervention. Malaria, syphilis, and tuberculosis were at the top of most lists; additional ailments including STIs, trachoma, and typhus, among others, followed thereafter. In most instances, the designations directly corresponded with perceptions of lower lifespans, increased infant mortality, and population stagnation and even decline. For both the late empire and the early republic, a wider demographic discourse swirled that identified population collapse as a potential consequence of inaction, resistance to modern medical science, and an over adherence to traditional remedies. Geared towards overcoming the republic’s deficits in knowledge, its scarcity of medical professionals, and limited public awareness, state leaders and emergent institutions initiated a program of annual medical congresses. In my research, I focus on these congresses’ proceedings as a unique archival/document genre that reveal not only the state of medical science in this era but also of the scope of educational, socio-cultural, professional, and public challenges to affecting positive change. In this fashion, congress proceedings provide not only factual information but vital ethnohistorical insight into the practices, politics, and prejudices that beset the pursuit of modern medicine and public health in early republican Turkey.
  • Although food history is a rapidly growing field and has seen enormous advances in recent decades, very little work has been done on food in early republican Turkey. Food historians of the region have largely focused on the Ottoman Empire. There do exist a few recent works on cuisine in the early republic, but not enough. Some food history also shows up incidentally in other fields, such as works on state regulation of alcohol in medical histories or in economic histories of the development of state monopolies. The development of the Turkish taste for tea likewise shows up in economic histories showcasing the state’s promotion of a domestically-producible crop. However, an examination of food can tell us so much more. Some of the most important and interesting work on early republican Turkey in recent decades focuses on the common people and how they negotiated state-led reforms and changing identities. Food is closely tied to identity, and Turkish cuisine is intimately connected with the cuisines of what had recently become the surrounding nation-states. How were various dishes incorporated into an emerging national identity, and how did they contribute to the development of that identity? What effect did the state’s focus on literacy campaigns have on the production of cookbooks, and how did those contribute to a national identity? How severe were food shortages as the new Turkish Republic struggled to recover from the devastation brought about by years of war? How did people cope with food shortages? Turkish agricultural improvements are best studied for the post-WWII period, but began earlier. What new farming techniques or new crops (other than tea) were introduced? What changes occurred in elite cuisines as a result of attempts to create a more egalitarian society? Food is an interesting topic of study in its own right, but it is also an important avenue to begin exploring other topics, or to rethink existing studies and look at a topic in a new way. Food in early republican Turkey is a field that is ripe for research.
  • Considering the Site of Early Jazz The centennial year of the early republic affords an opportunity to engage with the republic’s early jazz history. I will talk about how the unevenness of jazz culture in the early republican years—understandings of, participation in, and access to—made space for creative possibilities and expressions, reactions and responses undergirding what was a vibrant debate of political, socioeconomic, and cultural direction at the ground level about jazz. First and foremost, jazz culture was based upon the live performance of jazz in the district, which then filtered down to the critique of it, the wearing of fashions associated with it, advertising the latest products that would be displayed on the street and the dance floor, teaching the latest dance steps, promoting dance contests and tea dances in public spaces. Dancing the Charleston, fox-trot, and one-step inscribed a new urban kinesthetic and invoked new ways of seeing and performing the body, to new media outlets, and innovative forms of music. Print culture, performers, and tales of travel highlighted transnational movements into the city. “There is always more than one map for a territory,” writes Jonathan Sterne, “sound provides a particular path through history.” Syncopated rhythms, drumsticks whirring, and knock-kneed, arms akimbo dance steps, as well as consumed bodies—twisted, addicted, policed, and transgressed—identified and recognized people as minority, foreign, and modern, which were not at all mutually exclusive. Central to my contribution is the construction of alternative archives to navigate the contours of early jazz culture.
  • This presentation looks at how the production and circulation of family photographs both as objects for memory-making and as tokens for self-promotion and self-representation helped to construct, mediate and disseminate a collective visual repertoire of the early Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. Family photographs played a key role in reinforcing and circulating, but also, to some extent, renegotiating the desired, normative image propagated by the rulers of the newly established nation-state. Family photographs of the time point to the classed nature of the modern Turkish citizen image and reveal how Turkish citizens, especially those of the newly constituted urban middle classes, actively participated in the making of the aesthetics of citizenship through self-representations in portraiture. The overwhelming number of urban middle-class representations in vernacular photographs is an indicator of the regime’s heavy investment in encouraging and implementing a modern, secular image of Turkishness. However, the desired image was not always faithfully reproduced but sometimes tweaked, by incorporating elements from Ottoman and Turkic traditions, by pushing the boundaries of gender norms or by introducing playfulness. In this context, photographic inscriptions were central to the circulation patterns of family photographs, contributing to memory-creation and identity-building processes in modern Turkey. Accordingly, this presentation looks at how the citizens of the newly established modern Turkish state used photographic exchanges and inscriptions to build shared memories that reinforced a distinctly classed and gendered self-image. In a period when visual culture was tightly organized by the Kemalist single-party regime, family photographs offer a social space that helps to illuminate how Turkey’s nation-building process, including the formation of citizenship and the construction of the increasingly secular new public life, unfolded at the level of the everyday lives of its citizens, as they visited photography studios or engaged in sports and leisure activities in public space. This presentation thus explores how the aesthetics of modern Turkish citizenship as performed in family photographs in the early years of the Republic operated at the intersection between personal memory and social history, and the ways in which it negotiated the Kemalist discourses on the formation of collective memory of the modern Republic.
  • Drawing on examples from the single party era (1923-1950) and the time of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government (2002-) this presentation will discuss the role of emotions in Turkish politics. As a result of these governments’ strong ideological premises and claims to transform state institutions and society, these two periods stand out in Turkish history for the governments’ heavy use of symbolic-performative practices. Symbols and performances, ranging from the arts, aesthetics, and entertainment, all the way down to manners, tone of voice, gestures, and discourses, function by evoking emotional responses within their audience. If they appeal to people emotionally, they can be quite effective in shaping people’s perceptions of reality, creating group identity, solidarity, and collective memory, and mobilizing support. In other words, they construct the cultural and emotional prisms through which people perceive and evaluate the broader policies of the government. Although there is a large literature on symbolic-performative politics in Turkey, the emotional dynamics have not been systematically studied until recently. First, I will provide a brief overview of the newly emerging literature on the politics of emotions in Turkey. I will discuss how these analyses contribute to the literature on Turkish politics and how they help us understand major political issues such as authoritarianism, political polarization, and conflict. The second aim of my discussion will be to call attention to the similarities and differences in the emotional communication conveyed by the symbolic practices of the single party government and the AKP government. I will argue that extensive use of symbolic politics in Turkey politicized almost every object from food and dress to music and visual arts. Such politicization exacerbates cultural contestation and political polarization by invoking strong emotions. Symbolic-performative contestations increase the emotional value of people’s identities, making their ideological implications more sacred and non-negotiable. As such, they contribute to escalating political tensions and public unrest by creating hardened political identities, curtailing meaningful deliberation, and undermining common norms.
  • Intoxicants and Early Turkish Republic The topic of alcohol has long intrigued researchers and writers. Beyond the works of wets, drys, clergy, public health professionals, and essayists and literary authors, the corpus tended to lack considerations of time, place, and even culture. The emergence and then-steady inflow of social and cultural historians’, anthropologists’, and archaeologists’ works, however, facilitated wider and deeper inquiries regarding the relationships between states, societies, and intoxicants. One of the earliest sites of alcohol production in the world, today’s Turkey, presents innumerable opportunities to critically engage with the many dimensions of drink and drinking through time. By focusing on intoxicants during the early republican era, we may employ the alcohol question as a lens that can aid us in discerning and situating the many dynamics that were at play; public health, identity, modernization, secularization, industrialization, and foreign affairs, among others. In Turkey’s history with alcohol, the Great War was a turning point. In the war’s aftermath, determined members of the parliament demanded a legal prohibition along the line of American model and succeeded in seeing their bill ratified. Turkey’s prohibition endured four years (1920-1924). This experience, however, reveals much that lies beyond the religious-secular divide. There were also major diplomatic dimensions. Intellectuals, statesman, journalists, doctors, and religionists all mobilized to achieve prohibition and to generate American support. Through historical sources, we clearly see that not all who were involved in Turkey’s prohibition demanded it on religious grounds. The alcohol question thus functions as a launching pad for examining international relations, among other concerns. Alcohol also was notable in the early republic’s industrialization efforts. Standardizing production in tightly regulated factories allowed the state to depict its final product, factory-produced rakı, as a symbol of its capacities to affect both sanitary standards and mass production. This was starkly contrasted with late the empire’s make-shift basement production of rakı that relied on imported industrial grade alcohol that was then mixed with essences. Modern rakı production was also touted as an achievement for Turkey’s farmers as the state turned to them rather than imported spirits.