The Interviewees

Interview with Malte Fuhrmann, July 2021

1- Your latest book ‘Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean: Urban Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire’ is a huge subject in terms of its coverage. Clearly you had to focus on certain key markers to designate signs of cultural shifts and these could vary from food, music, literature, clothing, architecture, press, sports etc. You primarily focussed on entertainment, language, contemporary writings and beer consumption amongst other human habits. Is there always an inherent subjectivity bias problems that can enter such an analysis such as how we may consider the interpretation of conservatively dressed women with their children consuming beer in a public beer garden today and mark that as an indicator within the whole flux of cultural shifts?

There is definitely the problem that, based on the societal codes we are used to from our own place and time of residence, we interpret meanings into pictures from other places and times. For example, if you compare street life in Turkish cities ruled by the conservative AKP and that of Hizbullah-ruled cities in Lebanon, you will see that the do’s and don’ts for what is permissible in the public sphere are completely different, not because one of the two political movements is more extreme than the other, but because the priorities of what is considered a threat to the public order and what is considered natural or permissible are completely different.

Likewise, it is a mistake to automatically project our present-day constellations onto the past. In today’s Turkey, in the discussion about consumption of alcoholic beverages in public, most observers believe that they are witnessing a struggle which has been ongoing for over a century between conservatives who defend sobriety in the name of decency and the protection of youth and the female sex versus progressives who find their opponents to be a superstitious and backward crowd.

I chose the photograph from a late Ottoman or early republican beer garden depicting a woman in chador sitting together with young women, boys and girls who are drinking beer in order to show that this simple projection of today’s struggles onto the past does not work. Beer was not completely uncontentious in the late Ottoman Empire; some did not like the taste, others were annoyed by the smell of the production, and some people claimed that beer-drinkers should not blindly imitate every fashion originating in the West. However, these dividing lines ran differently than those of the 21st century conflicts.

In brief, yes, cultural historians have to be extremely careful not to simply project their assumptions onto the past and be highly sensitive to the stories inherent in their materials. I chose the quays constructions and general urban development; entertainment especially in the form of societal balls, theater and opera, as well as beer drinking; national, educational, and gender identities; and finally anti-European practices as key issues to base my narrative on, but am well aware that the changes in maritime urban culture affected many more aspects of everyday life.

source: Tarih Vakfı

2- The term ‘urban culture’ suggests a ‘bottom up’ approach in examining the ways and habits of the lower and middle strata of the society, rather than dealing with governmental institutions and their officers and servants, such as bureaucrats and soldiers. In dealing with the civilian element of mixed Ottoman or post-Ottoman cities of the Levant coastline, is there always a danger of obsessing with ‘multi-culturalism’ and finding evidence, and thus inherent bias in these signs, such as the way people dress? How difficult is it to separate parallel evolving societies from the counter-notion of a ‘melting pot’? Do you think the bias could be heightened because some communities such as the Europeans left more written records to say the Moslem communities?

Nineteenth century Ottoman port cities have definitely seen their share of late twentieth and early twenty-first century political agendas projected onto them. Adherents of the world system theory propagated by Immanuel Wallerstein in the 1980s and 1990s branded port cities as “anomalies” and “outposts of European bourgeoisie”. From today’s perspective, this was a premature attempt to “decolonize” the history of the Ottoman Empire. While it had its valid points in criticizing Occidentocentrism, the world system theory had no real alternative vision and therefore indirectly served those who either believed in the true nation living in the heartland, supposedly unspoiled by the corrupting influence of the modern world, or those who reveled in the glory of the Ottoman Empire. The highly positive reading of the ethnically mixed and commercially very active port cities of the nineteenth century that nowadays dominates in Izmir and Salonica local politics is however also problematic to some degree.

As for the question whether our sources overrepresent the non-Muslims and especially the foreigners, that is definitely so. Especially the consulates of the capitulatory powers, which acted as courthouse, registry for movements, marriages, and deaths as well as source of assistance kept voluminous archives. While some of the files located in Smyrna/Izmir burned together with all of downtown in 1922, the consular archives of Salonica/Thessaloniki/Solun/Selanik and also of Constantinople/Istanbul mostly survived. You can find endless volumes originating in these cities in today’s state archives in Austria, Italy, or France. These document hardly ever depict their subjects in isolation, but usually show them at the center of a web of entanglements with Ottoman nationals as well as holders of other foreign passports, which is why they are of such value not only for diaspora studies, but also for urban history.

Nonetheless, I must admit to some lopsidedness in my own book too. While from the Austrian archives I have managed for example to extract the life stories of a Montenegrin working class family that immigrated to Salonica, a sex-worker from what is now Western Ukraine who lauded her life in the brothels of Galata, or a Moravian private educator who ends up running a business on the Ottoman railway frontier – all of them non-elite characters who hardly ever make the pages of history – I hardly managed to discover Turkish characters of an equally non-elite character. As Edhem Eldem has pointed out, for the larger part, I stick to “the usual suspects” of late Ottoman modernity, such as the museum director Osman Hamdi Bey, the theater critic Ahmed Şuayip, or the feminist writer Fatma Aliye. This is not to blame on the Ottoman archives, which despite their limitations are incredibly rich; the responsibility is mine.

3- You highlighted a photo in your presentation of a crowd outside the Olympia movie-theatre in Salonica in 1917, post-Ottoman period, where the movies are presented in French and English. Does multi-lingualism as clearly evidenced here automatically mark this audience as being more aware of the ‘outside world’ and do you find it interesting that the population of Salonica did not object to the French language movie being depicted in Istanbul from which presumably some had to flee recently with the turmoils of the time and since for the Greeks Istanbul represented the capital of the long-occupying power? Could we argue that nationalism back then was also perhaps more nuanced as this Greek population would have almost completely been in degrees of contact with Moslem civilians, as the city was Ottoman only 5 years before?

One should of course not over-interpret multilingualism. Off hand, it is a practical skill. But in the port cities in particular, French had served as the lingua franca of the late Ottoman educated classes. On the eve of the war, there is even a debate in Salonica newspapers whether French spoken with a Levantine accent and using local terms should not be accepted as an official dialect of the standard language, just as Provençale French. And at the point in time when the photograph is taken, in 1917, the vast majority of the Salonica inhabitants are not Greek. Sephardim and Muslims together make up the vast majority. To turn that city and all the others I have studies into national cities, that is, to make Smyrna and Istanbul Turkish and to make Salonica Greek was not over in 1912 or 1923, but was a long and protracted process. Not only did the Greek state expel Salonica’s Muslims and the Germans murder almost all the city’s Jews in their concentration camps; the arriving Greek-Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor had in part to be taught to speak Greek rather than Turkish and to refrain from cultural practices that the authoritarian government considered Asiatic, such as performing Rebetiko music. The huge Jewish cemeteries had to be plowed over, mosques and tekkes (dervish convents) were either torn down or hidden by housing blocks, while ancient churches and Roman remains were accentuated by the new street grid. Making Thessaloniki Greek and Izmir Turkish took decades.

source: public domain

4- Is ‘Europeanisation’ a term like ‘Multiculturalism’ a problematic term that can be used lazily without analysis and empirical data of what that change means and how far into the society it permeates? You focus on the shorefront of Smyrna / Izmir as a case point to highlight what you term ‘identities between experiment and restriction’ without going into the ethnic divisions of their inhabitants so the focus stays on the city as a whole. Do you think some researchers have focussed too much on the trope of Smyrna and other ports being ‘the pearl of the Levant’, ‘Paris of the East’ and such like and then painted a picture of a mini-Europe within a sea of Ottoman domains? Do you think examining similarities in development trajectories of Ottoman port cities can be as illuminating as examining the visible differences when compared to similarly situated Western port entrepots?

Of course it is a problem that ‘Europeanization,’ just like ‘westernization,’ was initially a term of modernization theory, which was particularly en vogue after World War II, but continues to haunt both academic and popular discourse until today. In this belief, the West is considered to be a success formula which can and should be copied elsewhere. The process is believed to be quantifiable, and tradition is considered backward, while reform is automatically good. What I try to do in my book is to more closely read what Europeanization meant to pre-World War I Eastern Mediterranean locals, which was far from standard textbook lessons about how to someone else’s tune, but rather a window onto the wider world, from which they hoped to find solutions to their own predicaments and desires which they could adapt, but not at the price of selling out their identity completely. As Nora Lafi put it, modernity in the nineteenth century was still seen as an ongoing project to which everyone was invited to write the script, rather than a tool box with an instruction manual. That is why nineteenth century ‘Europeanization’ developed such an appeal.

As I mentioned before, the image of port cities as outright European, ‘little Paris(es),’ ‘stars of the Mediterranean,’ etc. is problematic. When closer readings of port city society set in during the 1990s, in order to counter the damnation these cities had previously received by world system historians, some authors opted for the other extreme, labeling them ‘models of conviviality.’ A more recent generation of historians working on the same port cities has criticized this vein of writing, and I concur. It is not that seaside residents created some kind of utopian order, such as the Paris Commune. Rather than a cosmopolitan order, in which all port city residents believed and which was a binding code of conduct, I find it more appropriate to conceive of the port cities as a very particular space. According to Faruk Tabak, interimperial rivalry over the Ottoman sphere created considerable room to maneuver for local agents, and port city residents used these freedoms, which were much greater than in the vast swaths of the Earth under outright colonial rule. Some contemporaries reveled in this maneuvering space, while others found it a burden and wished for a more clear-cut, national or imperial order.

Concerning your suggestion to compare the Eastern Mediterranean port city societies with those of other maritime cities, I hope I will manage to do that someday, at least via secondary literature. However, already comparing Salonica, Constantinople, and Smyrna as well as casting an occasional glance at Beirut and Alexandria only goes to teach us that they all were “same, but different”. While the parallels and interconnected topics are too evident to ignore, the differences in ethnic makeup, local political and economic circumstances and finally the effects of the various wars in the region together make it impossible to compare trajectories. Widening the study to, let us say, Odessa, Trieste, Naples, Marseille, Barcelona, Tangiers, and Oran will only continue the process of discovering similarities while at the same time having to admit to a number of very different local circumstances. Therefore, I believe the best we can achieve is a highly nuanced entangled history of port cities.

5- The section on the ‘European Dream’ in your book deals with the historical background of the various competing European powers striving to bring modernisation to the declining power that was the Ottoman Empire also in ways of vying to augment their own nation’s influence and trade and seeking to prolong the Ottoman government survival as the system brought these powers many gains. You state this is different to the colonial concept of ‘white man’s burden’ of a civilising mission and there is an altruistic element with a vision of the Eastern Mediterranean populations being amongst the winners of this 19th century processes of change. Can we put into that mix of evolving thought the planting of the seeds of freedoms and statehood of nations, and thus ironically this then brings to an end that ‘common win’ and brings about the later ruptures of the Ottoman provinces?

‘Altruistic’ is perhaps not the most fitting word. Eric Hobsbawm in his classic Nations and Nationalism since 1780 is quite right in stating that nineteenth century adherents of national emancipation never envisaged for all ethnic groups everywhere on the planet to achieve the right to statehood. In the nineteenth century mind-frame, it is quite clear that some peoples are meant to rule themselves and others to be ruled, that is, colonized. As Great Power rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean prohibited any one empire from simply occupying and dissecting the Ottoman Empire – even though Russia in 1877 had demonstrated how easily this could be done – European observers were content to twiddle their thumbs and wait to see whether Ottoman reformers managed to rejuvenate the central state, whether the Greek bourgeoisie would successfully bring forward a nation-building project appealing beyond the narrow confines of the Greek Kingdom, whether Armenian or Bulgarian militants could ever seriously threaten the Ottoman public order, or whether finally the Great Powers would be fed up with observing and move in to partition the empire amongst themselves, as they finally tried but ultimately failed in the aftermath of World War I.

But as I try to emphasize in the book, this latent promise that perhaps the Ottoman lands could escape Great Power intervention if some of the local actors performed successfully, even though it was less a coherent policy, but rather the result of Great Power rivalry, created a cultural vacuum and the residents of the port cities made ample use of it. By demonstrating that they could successfully adapt to the modern world, by looking for solutions for local demands and desires, by trying to prove that they were not victims of semicolonial domination, but active participants in the modern, changing world, Eastern Mediterranean urban residents made the most out of an ambivalent situation, not because any outside power had their best interest in mind, but because they saw a window of opportunity and acted upon it.

6- The last section of your book deals with the disintegration of this era that came with the rise of anti-European discourse mixed with rising nationalistic sentiments feeding each other. You refer to the ‘angry young men and women’ and by this do you mean nationalists who see these admixing of cultures, ideas and ways of life as ‘degenerate’ and undermining morality and traditions?

By mentioning ‘angry young men and women,’ I am referring to Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and related articles. Mishra draws a line from today’s seemingly irrational, nihilist political movements to the nineteenth century. This was the age when materialism and with it British-style capitalism as well as the belief in progress spread around the globe. Resistance to it, Mishra claims, might have happened in the name of religion and the established order, but in fact, was particularly modern itself, as there were no safe havens to escape the ubiquitous influence of materialism. Nonetheless, materialism and the promise of progress caused great expectations around the world, but only rarely managed to fully satisfy them. Here, Mishra draws our attention to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s main character of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov embodies the ‘angry young man’ who believes he did not get his fair share of the material world. In order to remedy this, he is willing to commit unspeakable crimes and justify them within the utilitarian logic which materialism has taught him. I find this a helpful approach to understand some of the key actors of nationalism in the Ottoman sphere, such as Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb nationalist assassin, Enver Pasha, the Minister of War who marched hundreds of thousands of his countrymen to their death for the obscure aim of creating a Panturanian Empire, but also characters such as Halide Edip who agitated against the Occidentocentric culture in the port cities.

7- You are currently working on the evolution of developmental discourse in Bulgaria and Turkey on the debate of traffic infrastructure. This clearly deals with a much more recent history, but do you also see tensions here regarding the vision of the path to progress via modern infrastructure which can cause its own damage, perhaps tempered by debates on whether efficient transport infrastructure in itself always stimulates trade? The counter-arguments are perhaps on a more encompassing vision for development from states that are financially somewhat stressed and maybe not always best qualified to create the ground-work for future prosperity? Can you see parallels in debates perhaps from distant ports of the Levant where local autonomy tendencies for freedom to trade are juxtaposed with a desire for the least hinderance of governance from the capital?

Ever since the declaration of Tanzimat, of reforms or reorderings in the Ottoman Empire in 1839, political actors in Southeast Europe have admitted that they no longer offer state-of-the-art infrastructure, that this fact hinders the development of the economy and thus the citizens’ prosperity and that other European (or later American or Soviet) countries stood out as models of how to provide better traffic interconnections. Politicians then routinely claim that they will be the ones who bridge the gap by developing sufficient roads, railways, highways, airports, or metros and finally bring prosperity to the wider population. What was often overseen is that building infrastructure is one of the prerequisites for increasing prosperity, but that it must be accompanied by a number of other conditions, the maintenance and operation of the infrastructure, tariffs, regulations, economic policies, and many other factors. Not only in Southeast European political discourse, building a single bridge, road, railway line, or airport is equated with having achieved prosperity. When Mustafa Kemal in 1937 stated that “Railways are a holy torch that illuminates a country with the light of civilization and prosperity,” this was already, one might argue, a fetishization of infrastructure rather than an outright development policy. However, the current president of Turkey has developed the fetishization much further. In defense of building roads where they were clearly not wanted, he claimed, “For a road, one sacrifices everything. Roads are civilization.” It is the relationship between such construction projects and their role in politics from 1839 to the present which I am currently researching about.

Beyond that, the construction of infrastructure always potentially affects us on many levels. Traffic can smell, be loud, cause us to lose or make more money, and therefore there is always a particular anxiety about such projects. Interestingly, when in the 1870s the Smyrna quays were constructed, a huge endeavor, at the time possibly without parallel in the Ottoman Empire, it was not so much commerce that pushed for it. Companies feared higher tariffs, port workers believed they would be made redundant, while it was the state hoping to better regulate imports and exports as well as the city’s public which aspired to an aesthetic recreational space that actually pushed for the project to happen. The decision to construct the Smyrna quays decisively shaped the city’s Belle Epoque skyline.

source: Ahmet Piriştina Municipal Archives, Izmir

Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean: Urban Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire - Malte Fuhrmann, Cambridge University Press, 2020. For a 20% discount, order through the Cambridge UP website and enter the code PCEM2020 at the checkout (offer expires 31 August 2021).

Interview conducted by Craig Encer