I realized I could apply this statement in regards to my preparation for and trip to study the Ottoman Empire. Though I am not a textbook fan, I opened the high school world history textbook prior to the trip to see what it had. (Yes, I admit I haven't done much in teaching about the Ottoman world in my career, but partly because I felt so incapable.) I found very little. History teachers in the U.S. often focus on the history of the Western world, but this is part of the story I have tried to challenge in the past several, post 9/11 years. My experience in Turkey brought me from the point of only being able to recall the most basic facts of the Ottoman world, to a rich, hands-on experience traveling chronologically and literally along the roads of the empire, from its beginnings to its break-up at the close of World War I. While the historical narrative for generations has been one of decline for the empire, I was challenged to unfold an alternative.
In my journey, I found a compelling story, where though the empire struggled militarily and politically with the competition of an industrializing and democratizing West, a complex and fascinating social and artistic history was unfolding. I found the dynamics of what the empire seemed to accomplish so well--tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity, a merciful state healthcare system and other public endowments, and authorities who were willing to carry out punishment for abuses of these goals, combined with their challenges to weave an intricate history unacceptable to me to categorize as declining. The empire competed with the industrializing West, and by the end of World War I, 98% of Muslims lived under foreign rule. Of course, Turkey was not one of those countries, but other than it and Saudi Arabia, most Muslims were living under imperialism. Now, the Ottomans certainly ruled what can accurately be called an empire too, but the imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries was key to many of the conflicts since. Is it that surprising that a surge in nationalism occurred? As the Middle East was divided up like a cardboard box, and religious and ethnic groups forced away from their homes to new ones by often distant powers determining what the new nationalist states were to look like, it is not difficult to see these roots of the current crises today. No, self-inflicted decline is the myth I am still on a road to unravel.
Another issue I wanted to confront was my own perception of the current Muslim world. Over a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit Morocco and teach in a classroom. That was immensely helpful, but I've been fascinated ever since and wanted more understanding. I recall the stress levels of close friends and family who were worried about my safety in a Muslim country, which was heightened by the protests in Taksim Square the month before I left for Turkey. I know I also watched those events with great interest, reading the Hurriyet Daily News and other news media about the events. As an American, I cannot help but side with the protestors, who are trying to protect public space and who were not allowed freedom of assembly and speech by an increasingly conservative and authoritarian prime minister and government. In my passion for global education and teaching global competencies, it is evident that many students, and American citizens for that matter, fail to take the time to understand the complexities and specific details of global current events, particularly in the Muslim world. A great deal of paranoia exists. I cannot be satisfied with this and have desired to also challenge the underlying stereotyping I must also own up to on my own. I want to face those myths and unfold the reality. I do not believe travel is the only way to do this, though I think it helps immensely. Reading various perspectives, trying to understand and sometimes combat them are what will help our world be not only more tolerant but hopefully accepting. I enjoyed listening to several Turkish citizens, including our own tour guide, the incomparable Macit (pronounced Majit), a woman my age with young children who spent time at the protests and talked with us, and some teachers we visited with at a university. I went to Taksim Square, walked down Istaklal Street and never felt unsafe, though the many protest signs, political graffiti, and broken windows reminded you of the significance of what is occurring there. In addition, our engaging professors, who have great knowledge on the Middle East, helped answer many questions I posed. Particulary, Dana Sadji, a Boston College professor, really had me intrigued by her own microhistory of her family with ties to the West Bank, Jordan and Syria.
Finally, going to Turkey during Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) and visiting mosques impressed me immensely and helped me debunk some of the myths I had carried. I watched the quiet piety of thousands of Muslims, as they sat on their picnic cloths and waited for the cannon to sound the official iftar (breaking of the fast). I sensed the spirit of the event, as many restaurants did not serve alcohol during the month and cafes were almost barren during the day. It made me reflect on my own fasting, which Mormons do on the first Sunday of every month (24 hours or going without two meals) or during other significant events, where groups and families may hold special fasts. Like members of my faith, Muslims use the time to purify, give thanks, and think of those less fortunate. Of course, there are varying levels of worship, like in any religion, but being there during the fasting made me ponder on my own commitments, my own purity and my service to those less fortunate. It was something I did not expect, I must admit, but it was too powerful to ignore. Further, I appreciated the opportunity to visit many mosques and see droves attend Friday and noon prayers, as they left work and other responsibilities temporarily. The artistry and beauty of these buildings awed me. I could seen in every one the will to worship God, through the architecture, art and calligraphic writing of names of Allah, Mohammad, other prophets and Quranic verses. While I did notice that women had different areas for prayer and washing, those I saw appeared reverent and peaceful. As a member of a faith of which has been criticized about women's roles, I wondered if I was at all perceiving differently, as I know my views of my role in my faith are different than those of our critics.
In short, my Ottoman studies experience was myth altering and life changing. I am grateful to be an American and for my rights protected under the Constitution, with a division of powers and checks and balances. At the same time, however, taking Rumi's advice, I am not satisfied. I recognize that Americans, myself included, have work to do in understanding other world views and perceptions. As a teacher and a parent, I hope to help my children and students to question, collaborate, communicate and investigate the world, as we unfold our myths together.