SEPTEMBER 8, 2021
INSPIRED BY Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Zeynep Çelik’s Europe Knows Nothing about the Orient brings together Ottoman voices from the 1870s to the 1930s that rose against and challenged European Orientalist discourse. The result is an anthology that is compelling in its scope and content, and that in turn invites us to delve deeper into other “Oriental” contexts in order to further “complicate the history of cultural hegemony and help to present a world in which ideas traveled, became transformed, engaged in debates, and even turned into battlegrounds.” Çelik’s timely volume also provokes readers to explore the reactions of the so-called “Orientals” to their contemporaneous interpellators through the striking case of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire, at its peak, extended over three continents. It was a European empire as much as an “Eastern” realm even before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. While much of its territory was situated in Europe, the Ottomans also considered themselves the successors of the Roman Empire. Ottoman imperial ambitions continually challenged European powers, and the empire’s ever-expanding boundaries upset those powers repeatedly until the siege of Vienna in 1683, which marks the onset of the decline of the Ottomans — the moment the empire began to become “the sick man of Europe.”
The empire’s decline, however, progressed in tandem with what is often told as separate history: the steady rise of Europe as a colonial power since the 15th century, which forced colonized peoples to define themselves in opposition to Europe. Posited as the “uncivilized” other, the colonized had to assert their identities in terms borrowed from European discourses, in the process becoming more and more objectified since these discourses treated them as objects to be analyzed, explored, and in turn, domesticated. In science, philosophy, and art, the colonized other was the object of the European gaze: enchanting and primitive, zealous and despotic, it was a curiosity suspended in time.
While the Ottoman Empire was arguably an exception to European colonization, its territorial and political losses forced it to define itself in a similar manner to the colonized world. Lagging behind the technological advances, industrial development, and economic growth of Europe, the Ottomans were forced to defend what remained of their once vast multi-continental empire. However, their imperial ambitions were never abandoned but instead were transformed into an understanding of themselves as “benevolent” rulers, unlike the colonial empires rising in Europe. The texts in Çelik’s volume demonstrate the Ottoman resistance to Orientalist objectification while highlighting the construction of Ottoman identity in terms of an imperialist desire to maintain its status quo.
Çelik’s informative introduction to the volume, “A Critical Discourse from the East (1872–1932),” provides a detailed framework for Ottoman critiques of European Orientalism, which differed from one another chronologically, ideologically, formally, and stylistically. Çelik’s introduction weaves a narrative that not only addresses Ottoman imperial ambitions (and, later, Turkish nationalist aspirations) but also highlights the complicated context in which these ambitions grew into a discourse that sought to construct the empire as equal, if not superior, to Europe, despite its lack of industrialization and economic development. This narrative also accentuates the continuity of anti-Orientalist discourse across these two distinct eras of Turkish history.
Çelik brings together texts from different genres, from novels and poems to newspaper articles and scholarly treatises by late Ottoman and early Turkish Republican intellectuals. The primary sources, ranging from the work of well-known writers like Namık Kemal, Ahmet Haşim, Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil, and Halide Edip Adıvar, to that of lesser-known figures such as the journalists Ebüzziya and Ercüment Ekrem, have been translated into English by Aron Aji and Gregory Key. These various materials, she claims, “organically yielded themselves to classification into five categories: Grand Battles, Art as Measure of Civilization, ‘Oriental’ Women and Life at Home, The Unique Case of Pierre Loti, and Sarcasm as Vengeance.” This thematic organization provides a perfect entryway for understanding how Ottoman and Turkish intellectuals received and responded to the Orientalist attitudes of European scholars, writers, and travelers. As they attempted to find ways to remedy European ignorance of Ottoman culture and life, they also sought to remedy their own shortcomings in preserving their cultural archives and expanding research into Ottoman art and architecture. Mocking the ineptitude of the European Orientalists, these intellectuals struggled to understand the origins of their eerie confidence in their romanticized conceptions of the identity and lifestyle of “Oriental” peoples.
The first selection in the “Grand Battles” chapter is also the volume’s namesake: “Europe Knows Nothing about the Orient” by Namık Kemal, whose ideas were formative in the construction of Turkish national identity. While the article is short, it expresses common themes found in many of the texts. According to Kemal, there are a number of reasons why Europeans, otherwise so advanced in science and scholarship, have failed to perceive the “true character such as ours, which is so close to them that […] it might as well be touching their eyelashes.” First, it is possible that they don’t have access to adequate resources about the Ottomans, or that their native informants, the ethnic minorities of the empire who serve as their interpreters, are misleading them. Second, they have been beguiled by fabulist tales about the Ottoman Empire, such as the popular fantasies of 19th-century French novelist Pierre Loti (the subject of an entire section in this volume). Third, some scholars, such as Ernest Renan, consciously published deceptive ideas about Islam and the Ottoman Empire that became widespread. Finally, European scholars’ command of the relevant languages — Turkish, Persian, and Arabic — is generally, despite their boasts, laughable, which makes it impossible for them to understand their subject.
Ottoman intellectuals like Ahmet Mithat express shock that Europeans “who conduct serious research” have not been investigating the Orient in the same scientific manner. For Kemal, the problem is that Orientalist scholars “approach Islam as an enjoyable hobby as they do the belief systems of certain savage tribes.” The solution to this problem, according to most of the texts gathered in the volume, is either for Europeans to actually master the languages of the peoples they are studying or for the Ottomans who know European languages to enlighten their interlocutors. For other scholars, such as Şevket Süreyya, Celal Esad, and Ismayıl Hakkı, deeper research and scholarly production on Ottoman and Turkish history and art would not only right the wrongs perpetuated by European scholars but would also enable a non-Eurocentric approach to the history of the Ottoman Empire.
But such scholarship also sometimes reproduced colonialist hierarchies by vaunting Ottoman and Turkish civilization over that of Arabs, Persians, and Africans, as is the case with Celal Esad’s hierarchy of the arts, which places Ottoman architecture above Persian and Arab architecture. According to Namık Kemal, once further research was conducted and made accessible to the Europeans, the world would see “the Ottomans’ heroic eminence and the beauty of their morals,” which is to say the Ottoman State’s benevolence as a unique empire permitting its subjects to practice their own religions and speak their own languages while promising security from assault on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity. What comes to be termed Ottoman exceptionalism is basically an imperialist discourse, prominently figuring into discussions of women’s position and the status of domestic slavery in the Ottoman Empire, as well. Selections from Fatma Aliye’s 1896 book Women of Islam, for example, include the author’s claim that women in the Ottoman Empire enjoy a superior social standing to that of European women, as well as her justification of the domestic slavery of Circassian women.
Another point of contention for Ottoman intellectuals is Orientalist scholars’ insistence that Orientals cannot learn new ideas or even understand their own culture. “Because we are Muslim, it seems, we have an iron ring clamped around our heads,” exclaims Namık Kemal, “and that ring keeps our intellect closed off to all forms of knowledge, all forms of learning, all forms of new ideas — and we still do not even know it!” Writing in 1919, Ömer Seyfettin mocks this attitude by relating the story of a French traveler who, desiring to learn about life behind the closed doors of Ottoman houses, finally spends a night at the home of the narrator’s wet nurse. As he explores the house at night, he stumbles upon a room that functions as a closet and laundry, and yet the French traveler insists that it is a secret sanctuary: “[E]ven your trunk rooms have something mysterious, something incomprehensible, a sacred air about them,” he claims, telling the mocking narrator, “You are blind to it. […] Obviously you can’t see.”
For the Orientalist, in other words, the Orient is, or has to be, a sacred, mysterious land populated by a people who have no idea about their own history, no means to learn about their own lives, despite living them. As Ahmet Haşim puts it in “The Hospice for Storks,” Orientalist scholars’ “amazement at our works of art” displays a breathtaking underestimation of native intelligence — to the Orientalist, “it is astonishing that we made something beautiful.” Gregoire Baille, the owner of a “hospice for storks” in Bursa, responds to this sentiment in the most patronizing and romanticizing manner by claiming that the technology that led to the opening of the Panama Canal is less worthy of his excitement than a handmade Oriental artifact. While normalizing and rendering banal European technological advancement, this response also reduces Oriental subjects to a primitive position — as if not an inch of progress has been made since the ancient Babylonians, as if the Orient itself is a living and breathing ancient artifact.
The insightfully selected and efficiently translated texts in this volume bear witness to the emergence and entrenchment of European Orientalism from the perspective of its subjects. Çelik’s book invites readers to reflect on the Orient’s own entanglement with Orientalist discourse — for example, in the Ottoman Empire’s and Turkish Republic’s definitions of themselves as exceptional governing bodies that at times were in constant need of affirmation from their European peers while at other times aligning themselves with the colonized populations struggling against European imperialism. Europe Knows Nothing about the Orient is an invitation to finally begin investigating Orientalism from the other side, from the perspective of the “Orientals,” with all the attendant complexities and contradictions.