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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Unfolding My Myth: Reflections on Studying the Ottomans in Turkey

My travel and studying in Turkey is now a memory.  Since returning last Friday, surviving a family reunion through the jet lag, and finally getting more than five hours of sleep, I’ve pondered the meaning of my experience.  While trying to think of an analogy, metaphor, or something clever, I went back to some of the quotes I had pulled up by Rumi, the great Sufi poet, who I was reminded of on this trip.  So much of the Ottoman and Middle Eastern world was historicized in poetry.  I had not realized the extent of this before, or how much it has contributed to the visual and artistic landscape. The following Rumi quote holds meaning for this experience:  "Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.  Unfold your own myth."

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.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day 18 Elites, Reform and the End of the Empire

Final day in Turkey. Flying out tomorrow. Spent the first two hours in class before heading out to one of the Princes Islands. Had a wonderful time with Dana, our Boston College professor, as we got lost from our small group and ended up at a little beach. Enjoyed some sunshine, a dip in the sea and great conversation. She has been so inspiring, as the most international person I have ever met. I am forever grateful for her and Barb's vision for our course and the perspective they have helped me gain.
Waiting for the ferry ride out to Princes Islands.  This is where the Sultan's family and elites would escape to in the summer.
Ready for a day at the beach.
Are these not the cutest Ottoman houses?
There are no automobiles on the islands.  Donkeys and horses will tote you around.
View from our walk to the beach Dana and I failed to find.  
We found another private beach close to this adorable neighborhood with a cute server.  It all turned out alright.  :-)
Enjoying my swim in the Mediterranean.
My tired feet...  I should have brought a pedometer along. I cannot imagine the thousands of steps taken. 

We enjoyed a wonderful sea bass dinner for our closing group dinner and then a group finale on the roof of the hotel with the view that has elevated us all during our time here. We each shared one or two or the most memorable experiences of this grand adventure, and I was struck by the connections I made with so many others. I have been on many teacher trips over the last several years, and this group  did not form cliques, was thoroughly engaged and thoughtful, while still being able to have a ton of fun. I believe I will be chuckling to myself for weeks over some of the inside jokes and hilarious moments we have shared in our quest to learn about the Ottomans. 
Good-bye Ramazan picnickers. Good-bye middle of the night sermons. 
Good-bye beautiful and unforgettable rooftop view of the Hagia Sophia. 
Is that some Turkish Delight I spy?  Getting ready for our closing exercise and group share. It felt like farewell therapy. 
Stacey, my new kindred spirit. Thanks for putting up with me for three weeks and keeping me in giggling fits. I felt like a college girl again. 
I'll miss you, Barb!  You are one of the smartest, and most fun women I know. I will miss hearing your stream of consciousness on the radio headset. 

It has been a joy. I am thrilled to go back home to my children and other life, but I will cherish this memory forever. 

Now, off to bed. Have to be at the airport at 4 a.m.!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day 17 The Late Empire and the West

The Art and Architecture Group started us off this morning with some themes they saw about the topics throughout our trip and gave us a few classroom application tips.  I have personally loved using art in my history classes to portray imagery about how people used symbols to portray feelings and sentiments of the time.  There is some great material to use of the Ottomans, one example of which  I learned from Michael, one of the teachers in this group who teaches art in an elementary school.  He shared with us an artist named Turhan Seljuk, who created a James Bond type character, which you can see at  This character can travel in time, has some very Ottoman friends and has the superpower of the "Ottoman Slap," a real move done by the Janissaries (military) of Ottoman times.  It was quite humorous, though not all of the comics would be appropriate for children.

Barb, who I love more and more every day, then gave a lecture about the empire's political and cultural aspirations of the 19th century and how they could simply not keep up with the industrialization and military might of the West, while at the same time nearby countries and/or those within the empire were achieving independence or causing trouble.  Despite attempts to modernize, there were still so many complicated issues, one of the fascinating ones of which was how women were viewing themselves.  Hopefully, I'lll be able to write more on this later, but elite and upper class women were quite torn over the Western fashions and how to see themselves within their own society.  Barb showed us some really interesting images, mostly from magazines and newspapers regarding women and issues like redesigning the veil, wearing corsets under traditional dress and so on.  

Our field trip today consisted of a tour to Dolmabahce Palace, built in the 1840s and finished in the 1850s, which became the new palace of the Sultans in order to try to stop their image as the "Sick Man of Europe."  It didn't really work, as the empire was obtaining loan after loan from other countries and went bankrupt 20 years after the completion of the palace.  It is a remarkable edifice.  The main grand hall is the largest room in Europe which holds also the largest chandelier in Europe, weighing in at over four tons!  It was like the Palace of Versailles but on a smaller scale without all the gardens and fountains.  It sits on a beautiful view of the Bosphorus.  Unfortunately, you cannot take photographs inside, but it is worth checking out the images on the the Internet if you are interested.  
My illegal pic I snapped inside before they told us no photography. Hey, there were no signs. 

This place also has significance in that Ataturk used the palace for the new republic of Turkey when he came to power and changed the alphabet from an Ottoman/Arabic style to the modern one used now in this building.  Ataturk died also in the palace, and all of the clocks there are set to 9:05, as that was the time he passed away in November, 1938.

We had lunch on our own, as we got dropped off at Taksim Square for that and a scavenger hunt with our age level groups. I was in one of the high school groups with Clara, Ron, Eric, and Patrick. After walking around the hot palace and grounds, my group, myself included, was grumpy and uncaring about the scavenger hunt. We decided to eat lunch together though and see what we could find easily and make a plan. Before finding some American food, yes I resorted to a crispy chicken salad at KFC, we found a bookstore and realized we could knock out a few of our items, like Harry Potter in Turkish, a guide book to the area we were in, and my favorite, a recipe for a hangover. I, of course, don't drink, but because I had already purchased a recipe book, I had seen a recipe in there for tripe soup (not sure that sounds good even if I needed it) that was for this purpose. So I knew what to look for. 
We were having so much fun, and after feeding our bodies in an air-conditioned room, we decided to win. We did too!  Those who know my competitive side, know this is no surprise. 
A political party sign
An embassy; there are several along here.
Fistik (pistachio)
Pic of a religious figure statue
Had to have a pic of an alter
The front of one of the Catholic Churches along here. 
One of the several Christian churches tucked behind Istaklal Street.  
A water fountain
A view of the Bosphorus from Istaklal street was actually kind of tough to find.
This one was for the fez hat. We think we should have had bonus points for finding someone wearing one. 
No problem finding evil eyes. :-)
We had to find an Armenian name--they end with ian.
Clara, Ron and I:  The Champions!  We were hot and sweaty, but what you don't see right behind us was an amazing gelato shop. Raspberry and dark chocolate for me!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day 16 Ottoman Social Institutions and Urban Culture

Started the morning in the classroom again with an interesting lecture by Dana and the use and importance of public space in the empire. We talked about the courts, markets, fountains, hamams, and coffee houses and what we can learn from them to discover the social history of the Ottomans. We also had the presentation of the Daily Life Group.

This was followed by a long walk looking at architecture in Istanbul and a lot of signage and words to help understand the social, economic and artistic fabric of the city. 

Our walk began with a look at the changing architecture.  Here is a 19th century building, now a school.  You can see the European influence.
Same school
Another 19th century building.  This one has the Ottoman coat of arms.  It is now a language academy or something like that.

We learned that if you see the funny C, (which says ch), with an i, it means maker of something.  In this case, it is the maker of paper products.
This is the entrance to a han.  Hans or caravanseries, were mercantile places like bazaars with separate shops.  These allowed people traveling also a place to stay.  
This was the Iranian consulate.
Iranian consulate
More Ataturk craziness.  If you have not check him out, do so.  He is a hero here.
Another han
See the ci?  Now, if you put oglu after it, it means "son of" the maker of something.  Helva is a sweet treat.  Can you figure this out?
More interesting architecture.  This one has the rounded protruding windows.  Again, more European influence.
This is not my favorite, in fact if you are German, don't be offended.  This was created by a German architect, and is simply not appealing.
I could not help but shoot this shot by the hideous German building.  This is advertising clothing for a boy's circumcision, a huge affair, which brings him to manhood.  I believe I wrote about this before.  Boys are very spoiled during this event, getting gifts from many friends and family at a big party.
See the German writing?
Ottoman writing, and possibly Armenian?  I cannot remember.
This was the tomb of one of the sultan's wives.  She was a Russian slave originally, but got some "fancy digs" for a tomb, in the words of professor Barb.

We had tea at a marvelous sweet shop.  Wow!  We shared some divine treats.
Tulips are everywhere.
We then got entrance through the gate at Istanbul University, where we were able to walk up the Byzantine walls and get a magnificent view of Sulimanye Mosque, which we visited the other day.

Again, this is part of the mosque complex.  These shops supported the mosque.  There was a hospital, soup kitchen, and there still are the adjacent madrasas for religious schooling.
I so wish I had purchased an Ataturk flag.
This is the closest thing there still is to an Ottoman coffee house.  This serves a slightly alcoholic yogurt drink called boza, which is quite popular.
Ataturk's photo in the boza shop.
Doesn't he have the greatest smile?  I found Turks to be the most delightful, fun people.  They love to laugh at themselves and joke around.  He is giving us a good demonstration.
This was a tea cup Ataturk drank from, which is mounted in the boza shop.  What did I tell you?
We walked past the Valens aqueducts. These were completed by the Roman emperor Valens in the 4th Century, A.D.!  I loved these.

This was followed by the group presentations of the Gender Group and the Military Group.  But the very best part of the day was our long Cooking A la Turka class!  Fantastic!  Fun! Will be forever memorialized in my brain.  Fifteen of us elected to take this class where we all were schooled in some basic Turkish cuisine.  We made the most delcious meal and then ate it!  Have I put in enough exclamation marks?  Can you say unctious?  Wow!  Those who know me know my love of cooking and great food.  This was the most fun I've ever had in the kitchen with a group of people who have become such great friends over the last 2 1/2 weeks.  

Will explain the pics later, plus adding more from others who were there. I opted not to bring my big camera and be worrying about it. 
How does that garlic smell, Susan?
I hope Brent likes tomatoes. 
Cutting garlic. 
Though we did use a lot of olive oil, it was not the whole can. :-)
These stuffed baby eggplant boats are called "The Imam Fainted," possibly because they were so good or also because he was shocked at how much good olive oil his wife used.
Preparing the figs for their spiced syrup bath.
I was massaging the herbs into the beef and lamb mixture for the stuffed grape leaves. 
Brian and I were attempting to show our awe at how amazing the stuffed grape leaves are smelling. I don't believe I got the correct expression. :-)
The bathing figs.
The dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) are under these plates to keep them weighted down and together. There is a science to every step of this process.
The spicy lentil soup, the best we had. 
This was my favorite. I almost fainted too. 

The figs tasted like a bite of Christmas in July. 
Mint tea?  Yes, please.