Jan 29, 2014

Imagining Ottomans in the Early Cinema

Those of us who have an interest in the Middle East often find ourselves squirming in our seats or choking on our popcorn at the depiction of the region and its people in film productions. Sut Jhaly's 2006 documentary, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, painted a vivid and disturbing picture of the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Middle Easterners in American cinema. Stereotyping of 'Arabs' - there being no distinction between the various ethnic, linguistic and confessional communities of the region - goes way back to the earliest feature productions, notably anything starring Rudolph Valentino

But before the feature film really took hold (i.e. before about 1910), the majority of films were shorts, typically less than five minutes. Very often these were exhibited as entertaining interludes on the bill of a music hall/vaudeville show. They might be slapstick comedies, a dramatic episode in a play, or pictures from a newsworthy event. In some cases these shorts were simply filmed versions of the sort of entertainment one might expect to see on stage, such as jugglers or dancers. 

Some of these early short films are interesting in that they show just how early the stereotyping of Middle Easterners began. I've done some hunting to find a few films that reference 'Turks' specifically, but very often there was little difference in how 'Turks' or Arabs' were portrayed. The three short films I've chosen below give a nice little indication of some of the images of Ottomans shown to Western cinema-goers before 1905. 

By far the most typical character in these early shorts is that of the dancing girl, specifically, the 'belly dancer'. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, an Egyptian dancer, whose name has been recorded as Fatima Djemille (i.e. beautiful Fatima), performed a dance that was to spark a performative and cinematic craze. The Edison film studios first recorded a tribute to Fatima's shakes in Fatima's Coochee-Coochee Dance (1896). This sort of film was then replicated a huge number of times, more than we can probably imagine due to the accidence of survival of early film reels. 

One imitation that has survived is Turkish Dance (1898), which you can watch above. This is another Edison film, performed by Ella Lola, a professional dancer from Boston. Not all of these early films were so sexualised; some, such as Edison's Arabian Gun-Twirler (1899), showed more martial talents, but these were rare. Films featuring belly-dancers were by far the most common, and give us a good idea of the taste for Oriental sexuality among cinema-goers.

L'Odalisque au Tambourin by Léon-François Comerre (1890s/1900s), from Wikimedia Commons

At the same time that these sort of simple vaudeville productions were being made in one set of studios, a cinematic revolution was occurring in another. One of the most prolific and creative film-makers of the 1890s and early 1900 (and owner of fantastic facial hair) was the Frenchman Georges Méliès. From his groundbreaking studio in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, he experimented with a variety of camera tricks, special effects, and colour films (using an army of women to hand-paint individual film cells), producing some of the first horror films such as Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil's Castle, 1896) and sci-fi classics such as Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Among the hundreds of short films created by Méliès, two may be of interest to Tozsuz Evrak readers in their very different depictions of the Ottoman Empire, one focussing more on an image of timeless barbarity, and another on a progressive and successful modern state.

The first gives perhaps a predictable portrayal of the exotic and brutal East, entitled Le Bourreau Turc (The Turkish Executioner, 1904). It was released in Britain as What Befell the Turkish Executioner, and in the United States as The Terrible Turkish Executioner, or It Served Him Right.

In an Istanbul marketplace, after an entrance by some obligatory belly-dancer-type ladies, four turbaned and bearded men stand in their place of execution. The cruel and alcoholic executioner gets up from his meal and drink, and staggers over to them with a giant scimitar. After taunting the condemned, he lops off their heads in one mighty stroke, and plonks their heads in a barrel. This, of course should be the end.

But - and in a Méliès film there is almost always a 'but' - somehow, by magic, the heads have survived and bounce up and down in the barrel to have a look around. As the executioner is distracted by his food and booze, one of the heads leaps out and reattaches itself to its body. The re-embodied man rushes up, and re-capitates the heads of his fellows. After a brief discussion, they grab the executioner, take him over to the execution spot, and shear the wicked man in half with his own sword. For a short while, the executioner's legs scoot around, quite literally like a headless chicken, until he too manages to reunite the separated parts of his body. Realising that the condemned men have by now ran away, the executioner summons the guard, and some soldiers and belly-dancers chase after the four fugitives.

Ottoman executioner, c.1809, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A tale worthy of the Arabian nights, and a typical combination of violence, corruption, and sex that one might expect in an Orientalist imagining of the Ottoman Empire (as well as being pretty advanced in terms of cinematic technique and special effects). Yet perhaps this film is equally a reflection of a more recent understanding of Ottoman violence, being made less than a decade after the massacres of Ottoman Armenians in 1894-6 that provoked outrage in France.

In complete contrast to the first and second films, the third film presents a more modern and heroic image of the Ottoman Empire. Shot a few years earlier and in a completely different sort of style, La Prise de Tournavos (The Capture of Tournavos, 1897), is a reconstruction of the Ottoman victory at the Siege of Tyrnavos in the Ottoman-Greek War of 1897.

In this imagining of the action, the Greek defenders shoot at the advancing Ottoman troops over the ramparts, but faced with a full assault retreat back into a fortified building and slam the door shut. The Ottoman soldiers (wearing fezzes and all) attempt to break the door down with their rifles, but an officer pushes them back as a charge is laid. They all take cover, the charge sets off, and the door shatters. The brave Ottoman officer directs his men forward to clear the building, but - I told you, there's always a 'but' - is cruelly shot down at the moment of victory. In this portrayal of the Ottomans, their troops are brave, intelligent, and disciplined - in other words, perfectly modern Europeans. The audience are even encouraged to have sympathy for them, with the unexpected and tragic death of their commander right at the end of the film.

Hücum (The Attack) by Fausto Zonaro (1897), from Wikimedia Commons

Undoubtedly, the story and vision of The Capture of Tournavos would have sat far better with real-life Ottomans than the fantasy of The Turkish Executioner. But, of course, it is equally doubtless that cinema-goers in the music halls of Paris, London, and New York, as with audiences today, would much have preferred some belly-dancers and head-chopping to images of an Ottoman victory. Indeed, as this film of British Pathé from the First Balkan War shows, in the years that followed there would be more than enough images of real soldiers and combat from the East projected in cinemas.

Jan 28, 2014

Amazing Ankara

by Nicholas Danforth
published on 28 January 2014

Amazing Ankara: Full map here courtesy of Kerim Bayer

Ankara was once described to me as the Washington to Istanbul's New York, except if Washington was in Iowa and Iowa was in the middle of the desert. As someone who likes living in Washington this seems harsh, but then again the Potomac is really better than a salt lake. Anyways, among other things that are cool about this map is the striking visual contrast between the new part of Ankara, centered around the parliament building, and the old part centered around the castle.

Jan 23, 2014

A History of Police Reform in Turkey | Leila Piran

142.     Human Rights in Turkey

As part of its EU accession candidacy, a number of reforms related to "democratization" have been applied to Turkey's legal and administrative apparatuses. One such reform regarded the conduct and practices of police and law enforcement. In this episode, Leila Piran discusses her research on the impacts of this process involving interviews with law enforcement officials, activists, and academics in Turkey tied to the issue of police and reform presented in her new book entitled Institutional Change in Turkey: The Impact of European Union Reforms on Human Rights and Policing.

Leila Piran holds a PhD in World Politics from Catholic University and currently teaches at American University (see Linkdin)
Nicholas Danforth is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University studying the history of modern Turkey (see academia.edu)


Avci, Gamze. “Turkey’s EU Politics: What Justifies Reforms?” In Enlargement in Perspective, edited by Helene Sjursen. Oslo: ARENA, 2005.
Aydin, Ahmet. Police Organization and Legitimacy: Case Studies of England, Wales and Turkey. Avebury: Aldershot, 1997.
Bayley, David. “The Police and Political Development in Europe.” In The Formation of National States in Western Europe, edited by Charles Tilly. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
———. Patterns of Policing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985.
———. Democratizing the Police Abroad: What to Do and How to Do It. Issues in International Crime. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2001.
Caglar, Ali. “Recruitment, Occupational Consciousness and Professionalism in the Turkish Police.” PhD diss., University of Surrey, 1994.
———. “Policing Problems in Turkey: Processes, Issues and the Future.” In Police Corruption: Paradigms, Models, and Concepts-Challenges for Developing Countries, edited by Stanley Einstein and Menacher Amir. Huntsville: OICJ, 2003.
Call, Charles., ed. Constructing Justice and Security after War. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007.
Cizre, Umit, ed. Almanac Turkey 2005: Security Sector and Democratic Oversight. Istanbul: TESEV Publications, 2006.
Cook, Steven A. Ruling but Not Governing: The Military and Political Developments in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Davidson, Roderic H. Reform in the Ottoman Empire, 18561876. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Dayioglu, Mehmet. “Police Officers’ Attitude toward Use of Force in the Turkish National Police.” PhD diss., City University of New York, 2007.
Ergut, Ferdan. “State and Social Control in the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Republican Turkey, 1839–1939.” PhD diss., New School for Social Research, New York, 2000.
Piran, Leila. Institutional Change in Turkey: The Impact of EU Reforms on Human Rights and Policing. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2013.

Jan 19, 2014

When Istanbul Was Green

When Istanbul Was Green

published 19 January 2014

Arsen Mumcuyan's Nursery in Üsküdar, 1906

Today, many observe that Istanbul is increasingly devoid of green spaces. Fields, gardens, forests, and parks have given way to concrete housing developments, highways, and shopping centers as the city sprawls in all directions. With the prospective destruction of the historical Yediküle gardens, the rapid cutting of Istanbul's northern forests, and the now-infamous proposed and abandoned demolition of Gezi Park, public concern over maintaining what is left of Istanbul's natural and man-made vegetation alike has escalated.

The late Ottoman period was an era of similar urban expansion in Istanbul. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Istanbul was a rapidly growing metropolis of roughly one million inhabitants. On the edges of the city in neighborhoods such as Pera and Üsküdar, an influx of people and wealth brought radical changes to the urban landscape. Yet, this urban explosion came with a green tint. During the last decades of the Ottoman period, a growing interest in agriculture among an emerging Ottoman middle class brought new types of gardens and orchards to the empire's capital.

This article by an Ottoman agriculturalist named Midhat from 1906 features the work of one of Istanbul's rising gardeners, Arsen Mumcuyan Efendi. His fine nursery (fidanlık) in the Monastery's Garden (Vank'ın Bağı, adjacent to Surp Garabed Armenian Church) in Üsküdar attracted the attention of the authors of the "Illustrated Agriculture Gazette (Resimli Ziraat Gazetesi)", who paid a visit to Mumcuyan during the winter to appraise his efforts. The visit produced Midhat's glowing review published in an issue of the periodical that offered an informed perspective on the latest in Ottoman gardening.

Midhat opened his article with a statement about the recent proliferation of gardens and orchards in the Ottoman Empire and the rising interest in flowers and fruit tress. Of course, there was nothing new about planting trees; it was the manner of these gardens that was so novel. Many landowners had begun planting seeds or grafting trees of the choicest types imported from Europe and the United States. In addition to being rather expensive, this practice required expertise and attention to detail. Unfortunately, Midhat lamented, not all were adhering to a high standard of order, since many of the trees and saplings in the markets of the Istanbul region were either incorrectly labeled or not labeled at all.

In contrast to these examples of carelessness, it was precisely the order of Mumcuyan's nursery that earned him approval. His trees were meticulously numbered, inventoried, and cataloged in print (here's a link to what appears to be a copy of the catalog). Midhat called the nursery a "little treasure trove" for those seeking labeled specimens of trees from plums, pears, peaches, and persimmons to apples, apricots, and cherries. Moreover, Mumcuyan's plants were raised in the natural earth and not in pots, Midhat added, as potted plants never turn out to be as strong. Whether expounding the virtues of grafting or emphasizing the importance of identifying soil types, Midhat's review of Mumcuyan's nursery reflected an ordered and scientific understanding of nature consciously constructed in reference to gardening practices in France and other European countries.

Today, all that remains of many of Ottoman Istanbul's green spaces are toponyms referring to long since disappeared gardens, fields, or orchards. Indeed, the neighborhood of Bağlarbaşı (literally Head of the Gardens) in Üsküdar, where Mumcuyan's nursery was once located, provides a ready example. Perhaps it seems only inevitable that such spaces would be claimed by residential areas as population and real estate prices in Istanbul climb. Yet, in some sense, gardens like Mumcuyan's were no more "natural" than a shopping center or apartment complex. They were certainly a different type of urban space but nonetheless constructed by an Ottoman elite culture that valued gardening and horticulture. If Istanbul is decidedly lacking such spaces today, it is not because they have been swallowed up by the organic sprawl of buildings so much as it is that people have chosen to plant concrete where plants once grew.

Source: Resimli Ziraat Gazetesi, Vol. 1 / No. 42 (12 Kanunusani 1331) pg. 470-473

Jan 18, 2014

Race, Slavery, and Islamic Law in the Early Modern Atlantic

This episode is part of our series on Islamic law

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Notions of racial difference played an important role in the Atlantic slave trade and have left a long legacy well after the slave trade was abolished during the nineteenth century. Yet centuries earlier, an Islamic scholar from Timbuktu had formulated an argument against the enslavement of individuals based on race or skin color. In this episode, Chris Gratien discusses the life and writings of Ahmad Baba in Timbuktu and Marrakesh as a captive scholar of Sultan Ahmad al-Mansour. (cross-listed with tajine)

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Chris Gratien is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University studying the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. (see academia.edu)
Graham Cornwell is a doctoral student at Georgetown University studying the history of taste and imperialism in North Africa.

Episode No. 141
Release date: 18 January 2014
Location: Georgetown University
Editing and production by Chris Gratien


A page of Mi`raj al-Su`ud (Source: LOC)
Gratien, Chris. "Race, Slavery, and Islamic Law in the Early Modern Atlantic." The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (May 2013).

Baba, Ahmad ibn Ahmad, John O. Hunwick, and Fatima Harrak. Mi`raj al-Su`ud : Ajwibat Ahmad Baba Hawla Al-Istirqaq. [al-Rabat]: al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyah, Jami`at Muhammad al-Khamis, Ma`had al-Dirasat al-Afriqiyah bi-al-Rabat, 2000.

Hunwick, John O. "A New Source for the Biography of Ahmad Baba Al-Tinbukti (1556-1627)." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 27, no. 3 (1964).

Lovejoy, Paul. "The Context of Enslavement in West Africa." In Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives : Blacks in Colonial Latin America, edited by Jane Landers and Barry Robinson, 9-38. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Mouline, Nabil. Le Califat Imaginaire D'ahmad Al-Mansur: Pouvoir Et Diplomatie Au Maroc Au Xvie Siècle. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2009.
Zouber, Mahmoud A. Ahmad Baba De Tombouctou (1556-1627) : Sa Vie Et Son Oeuvre. Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1977.