Image from Kitab-ı Bahriye by Piri Reis (first published 1521)
No Map Can Stop the Bats from Crossing the Border
Interview with David Selim Sayers
by Manuel Férez Gil (Santiago, Chile)
THIS interview was conducted for Oriente Medio News, a website devoted to building bridges between the Middle East and the Spanish-speaking world. The Spanish version, entitled “La desconocida literatura feminista otomana,” can be found here.
Manuel Férez Gil: Thank you very much, David, for taking the time to talk to us. Perhaps you would like to give our readers a brief introduction to your background, your academic career, and your research topics?
David Selim Sayers: I was raised by Ottomans in Constantinople. My grandparents, with whom I grew up, were born in the dusk of the Ottoman Empire, into a clan of Kurdish mystics that had migrated to the capital in the 19th century. My grandfather, Selim Gökhan, was raised in the Ottoman, then Turkish, military boarding school of Kuleli and went on to become a merchant. My grandmother, Nuran Gökhan, went into higher education and became one of the first and most influential female professors in Turkey, founding and chairing various departments of medicine. Growing up with these true Ottomans, in the most Ottoman of cities, made me an heir to that culture in a way no degree or diploma ever could.
I find that people, and milieus, are much more important in making us who we are than institutions. After my grandparents, the most influential figure in my trajectory was Talât Halman, Turkey’s first Minister of Culture and the founder of the Turkish Literature department where I got my master’s degree. When a person as extraordinary as Halman thinks a subject is worth his while, it becomes worth your while as well, almost regardless of what it is. Even though he didn’t even hold a Ph.D., Halman had managed to create the most stimulating academic milieu for Turkish literature in existence at the time. It was there that I first systematically learned Ottoman Turkish and started to systematically pursue my fascination for Ottoman and Turkish literature and history.
This fascination ended up taking me to research and teaching posts on three continents and in five countries, including Turkey, Austria, Germany, France, and the US. Currently, I am a founding faculty member of the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking (PICT), an independent, non-profit research and teaching center in Paris, France, as well as a permanent faculty member at the Department of Languages and Cultures of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in the same city, where I teach on topics including the city of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire.
MFG: Among your research topics is gender in the Middle East. Why don’t you tell us a little about this topic, not only in the contemporary Middle East but with an eye to history and to how it has been reflected in the literature?
DSS: Well, I could certainly devote whole volumes to this topic—and, in fact, I have! Recently, I wrote somewhere that I was so amazed by gender in Ottoman Constantinople because it was so different from everything I had taken to be normal, natural, or true until then. For me, the greatest benefit of encountering alternative cultural discourses is that they have the potential to expose my own unconscious assumptions, to make me realize what I thought I knew without even knowing that’s what I thought. And when it comes to gender, Ottoman Constantinople certainly does that.
The gender rulebook that people in the so-called West tried so hard to enforce in the 19th and 20th century, and that they are trying so hard to tear up today, simply does not exist in Ottoman Constantinople. This gender world is unconcerned not only with notions of heteronormativity that are so hotly debated today, but also with other notions, such as age-normativity, that are still not up for debate. Of course, this world has its own rules and restrictions, but they are sufficiently different from ours to make us question the universal validity of some pretty central beliefs.
But the identification of difference does not always lead to self-reflection. In the 19th century, Western thinkers branded the Ottomans as immoral and unjust because they didn’t conform to notions such as heteronormativity. And now, almost two centuries later, when countries like Turkey are doing their best to promote these very notions, at least via their media and education systems, they are branded as immoral and unjust for not embracing gender diversity. The lesson, I think, is that as long as you try to catch up with the ever-shifting goal posts of civilization, you can be sure you never will.
MFG: Among your books, we find The Wiles of Women as a Literary Genre. What is the book’s central theme, and why did you consider it important to analyze?
DSS: The wiles of women are a central motif we find among the most different cultures in the world. I realized just how global the motif really is when my friend and colleague Michael Barry told me that many of my Ottoman stories had actually originated in India. And even today, wherever we find the cultural motif of a woman using schemes and intrigue to get her way, we have the wiles of women at work. The book you mentioned is the first systematic analysis of the motif in Ottoman and related literature.
The motif seems to imply that women are smarter than men, who usually fall for the tricks that women use to get what they want. But the apparent stupidity of men is actually a kind of complacency based on male privilege: since society usually works in men’s favor, they don’t need to develop their wits to get what they want. Guileful women, in contrast, can be read as anti-heroes who use their wiles to subvert oppressive social norms that are stacked against them. They are scrappy underdogs, and we cheer for them.
But things are not quite that simple. Usually, in such narratives, women don’t use their wiles for some kind of greater good, but for self-serving and ultimately self-defeating ends such as doomed sexual escapades. While they are doubtlessly intelligent, their intelligence is frivolous and counterproductive. And it ultimately ends up serving men since it alerts them to the necessity of guarding their order more closely. We need to be careful, then, what we cheer for: a narrative that seems quite emancipatory on the surface might still reinforce gender stereotypes in unexpected ways.
MFG: The contemporary Middle East is going through an era of redefinitions and resistances that challenge the state and authoritarian order established after World War II. How do you understand these contemporary processes? What are the most decisive tensions and dynamics in the region?
DSS: When I was a doctoral student, I once randomly picked up a library book called The Mammals of Pakistan. There were many maps in it, showing the geographic distribution of this or that mammal across the territory of Pakistan. But the most curious thing for me was how the shading that indicated each mammal, for instance a specific type of bat—humans were not included, to the best of my recollection—would always end right at the border, as if some magical barrier stopped the bats crossing over from or to India, say, or Iran.
I get a similarly weird feeling whenever someone asks me about something like the order, tensions, or dynamics in the Middle East. Of course, I could sit here all day and isolate, or differentiate, the Middle East from other parts of the world. As we know, that’s how most policy makers and think tanks on the Middle East justify their existence. They artificially carve up the world, declare their expertise on a part of it, and claim to provide solutions to problems they have themselves invented.
But no map can stop the bats from crossing the border, and Syrians wouldn’t be in Europe today if Europeans hadn’t been in Syria first. If we really want to find out what’s going on in the Middle East, the best way to start is with its connection to wherever we are. And instead of trusting some self-declared expert on TV, why not ask a real human being, like that taxi driver from Pakistan and your Moroccan dentist? Or—let’s be even more daring—how about crossing that border yourself? If I’ve learned anything from my travels, it’s that most narratives I’m fed at home simply aren’t true.
MFG: You participated in the English translation of two very interesting books, The Struggle for Modern Turkey and Muhacirname: Poetry’s Voice for the Karamanlidhes Refugees. Why did you pick these works to translate, and what do they contribute to our reflection on the Middle East, especially regarding the role of women and minorities?
DSS: First of all, let me thank you for bringing up the subject of translation. Most scholars aren’t too keen on translation, since these scholars’ value to the system is measured by the number of peer-reviewed papers they publish per year, and translation is a thankless and demanding job that simply does not pay off in those terms. But even the translation of a single, key text can change how we look at a country, a history, or a literature, in a way that a thousand peer-reviewed papers never could. My mentor, Talât Halman, was a translator. He translated Shakespeare into Turkish, and the Anatolian folk poet Yunus Emre into English.
The first book you mentioned translates the autobiography of Sabiha Sertel, an Ottoman-born woman who became Turkey’s first female journalist. The second book is a collection of refugee poetry composed by members of an Anatolian ethno-religious community that was forcibly displaced in 1923, with the foundation of the Turkish Republic.
When the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious Ottoman Empire was abolished, certain of its populations became an embarrassment to the nation-states that replaced it. In the case of Greece and Turkey, the problem was one of religion. Between them, the two countries were home to around 1,5 million people who were Greek, or Turkish, in all respects, except that they had the wrong religion. The nationalist imagination had no room for Christian Turks or Muslim Greeks; if you were a Muslim, you had to be a Turk, and if you were a Christian, you had to be a Greek, or you had to become one. So the two countries staged a so-called “population exchange,” which basically meant that they expelled almost everyone with the wrong religion to the other country.
Most of these people lost their homes, their milieus, their livelihoods, their property, and had nothing but destitution waiting for them on the other side. The poetry they wrote in reponse to this catastrophe, I would once again argue, does not so much tell us something about the Middle East in particular, but about humanity in general.
I know you have another question about Sabiha Sertel coming up, so I’ll save her for later. But I can’t finish this part without mentioning another friend and colleague, Evangelia Balta, who is the reason that Muhacirname exists. I met Evangelia at a summer school where I was teaching many years ago while at the same time frantically trying to finish my doctoral thesis. Like a fury of Greek mythology, she would ambush me between classroom and office, shove pages of poetry at me, and make it very clear that nothing short of their immediate translation would be tolerated. In retrospect, that book’s greatest gift to me was to bring Evangelia into my life.
MFG: There are two important historical figures that feature prominently in your research and publications: Turkish author Sabahattin Ali and Turkish journalist and feminist Sabiha Sertel. Could you introduce us to these figures?
DSS: Sabahattin Ali and Sabiha Sertel were very close friends, so It’s quite appropriate to mention them in the same breath. Sabiha and her husband Zekeriya were active as publishers both before and after the end of the Ottoman Empire. They were also politically engaged intellectuals who saw their publications as a platform for promoting a vision of a Turkey that was politically and economically independent as well as socially progressive and egalitarian. Through the various newspapers and journals they founded, they built up a milieu of young writers and artists who went on to have a crucial influence on Turkish culture.
The central figure of this milieu was Nazım Hikmet, a communist poet and activist who came to the Sertels as a copy editor and is today considered to be the most important figure in the history of Turkish poetry. Both Sabiha and Sabahattin were highly influenced by Nazım, who contributed much to their development as writers and thinkers. But even beyond Nazım—who was, by the way, a good friend of Chile’s own Pablo Neruda—theirs was a thriving intellectual milieu where many people inspired each other, both challenging and supporting each other’s work in a spirit of solidarity rather than rivalry.
The works that emerged from this milieu became very popular, which posed a big problem for Turkey’s ruling elite that controlled the country in an autocratic fashion, avoided thorny domestic issues such as land reform, and, from the late 1930s onward, became increasingly enthralled to global, hegemonic forces like Nazi Germany and, after World War II, the USA. Critical of all these things and more, public figures like Nazım, Sabiha, and Sabahattin were threatened, persecuted, and imprisoned. Sabiha became the first Turkish woman to be taken to court for her writings. Sabahattin Ali was assassinated. And both Nazım and Sabiha ended their lives in exile.
But despite such calamities, I do not view these people’s lives through a tragic lens. Rather, I see them as role models who show that it is possible, as individuals and a milieu, to lead a life that matters. These are people who combine intellect and conscience, don’t bow down to pressure or crowds, and produce inspiring and impactful work. They are not passive victims but hardcore activists. I have always found inspiration in them, and they have given me the drive to surround myself with challenging people and the courage to push myself as far as I possibly can.
MFG: Contemporary Turkey is still struggling with tensions inherited from the Ottoman Empire, especially regarding women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. Why hasn’t modern Turkey resolved these identity tensions?
DSS: I’m curious, where exactly do you think these tensions have been resolved? Again, I fear that by localizing such problems in a specific country and culture, we detract from their universality in our time and age. Tensions regarding identity issues such as ethnicity, religion, and gender certainly exist in Turkey, but they are symptomatic of broader global trends: just look at identity politics and the culture wars in the USA, where women recently lost the universal right to abortion—a right they still enjoy in Turkey today.
I think that the tensions you mention are, in fact, not Ottoman but modern in origin. Like all agrarian empires, the Ottomans had very little influence on the day-to-day affairs of local communities, and for centuries, the empire maintained a so-called pax Ottomana in which the most varied ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups coexisted and gradually meshed in an inconceivably intricate geographic pattern. This was not because the Ottomans were so benevolent, but simply because the best way to run a massive agrarian empire is by leaving local communities in peace so they can focus on the task of agriculture.
This formula only stops working once you get industrialization—rendering the agrarian mode of production obsolete—and, as an outgrowth of industrialization, nationalism—born out of the desire to create large, homogeneous workforces. The political project of carving up the Ottoman Empire into nation-states has resulted in a string of genocides and other atrocities on former Ottoman soil that continue to the present day, ranging from the Armenian Genocide in World War I all the way to the Bosnian Genocide in the 1990s and the Yazidi Genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State in recent memory.
Not so long ago, Turkey offered the world a beautiful example of how such tensions can be resolved—in the anarchic space of Gezi Park, Istanbul, liberated from state control during an occupation by the people in the spring and summer of 2013. I was fortunate enough to participate in this occupation, and to see how the most varied segments of Turkey’s population, from Kurds to Turks, from Sunnis to Alevis to atheists, from straight to queer, were able to joyfully coexist once the hand of the state had been lifted. The lesson to be learned in terms of future political activism is one I invite everyone to ponder for themselves.
MFG: Contemporary Turkish literature is virtually unknown in Latin America beyond one or two globally marketed names. Could you tell us a little about the themes and leading figures of modern Turkish literature and poetry?
DSS: I like the way you put that: “globally marketed names.” The Turkish name—or, at best, two or three names—you’ve most likely heard are pushed by a global PR and marketing machine that has very little to do with what is appreciated, read, or relevant in Turkey itself.
Finding alternatives to this dictated mainstream is hard anywhere, anytime. We must be willing to look beyond monopolistic channels of distribution. Let me return to the example of the Sertel milieu. Back in the day, no mainstream publisher would take a chance on something by Nazım Hikmet, Sabahattin Ali, or Sabiha Sertel. That is why the Sertels founded their own publishing houses and printed their own journals, newspapers, and books. It is only after their deaths that such figures are commodified by publishers, universities, and the like. Institutions they couldn’t have entered alive name centers after them; people who would have crucified them write volumes in their praise.
Today, too, these alternatives exist, and thanks to the internet, they have become much easier to access around the world. Some years ago, my friend Murat Gündoğdu told me about a Kurdish rapper from Turkey by the name of Heijan. I went on YouTube and found a bunch of abysmally produced videos to lyrics spat over stolen beats. But the lyrics themselves were everything—everything from life in the Istanbul ghettos to the painfully modest dreams of a Bağcılar thug, everything from the struggle of the Kurdish people to the plight of picking up girls on a budget. Today, Heijan still largely self-produces, but he has reached an audience of millions.
The example shows there is much to be discovered globally if only we are ready to rethink literature beyond novels and poetry. And sometimes, these traditional forms can also be translated for us in unexpected ways. Murathan Mungan, one of Turkey’s outstanding contemporary poets, can easily be enjoyed around the world thanks to his collaborations with two seminal Turkish musical acts—the folk band Yeni Türkü and Müslüm Gürses, a towering figure in the Turkish popular genre of arabesk. Ironically, Gürses himself was taboo to Turkey’s cultural elite until Mungan “translated” him.
Finally, let me give the example of Kurdish author Kemal Varol. I first met Kemal when we were both master’s students with Talât Halman. We lost touch until, many years later, I was having dinner with Gaye Petek, a pillar of the Parisian Turkish community and a friend and mentor of mine since I moved to Paris. Leafing through Gaye’s library, I was suddenly arrested by a novel with Kemal’s name on it: Haw, a tale of the Turkish-Kurdish southeast told by a canine narrator. I asked Gaye about it, and she told me that a Franco-Turkish association with which she was involved would soon give an award to the novel’s French translation. I went to the ceremony, reconnected with Kemal, and found out that another of his novels, The Festival of the Troubadours, had recently been adapted to film by Netflix.
I am a big admirer of folklore, and I am overjoyed that the internet has reintroduced us to emergent, folkloric forms of cultural dissemination, where simple word of mouth and the right succession of links can lead the curious explorer to undreamed worlds, and where the gatekeeping posture of the paid expert, critic, or professor is simply no longer relevant.