Hande Birkalan-Gedik

Johann Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie Frankfurt am Main

CFP: Reimagining Europe: Decolonizing Historical Imaginaries and Disciplinary Narratives in Folklore, Ethnology and Beyond

Historical Approaches in Cultural Analysis Working Group Interim Meeting

Where? Herder Institut für historische Ostmitteleuropaforschung (Marburg, Germany), and online (a hybrid event).

When? 13-14 June 2024


Europe can be approached from various angles: as a geographical, political, and economic historical entity; as an embodiment of cultural diversity rooted in national, regional, and local identities, histories, and languages; and as a subject of yearning or a cultural construct. Contemporary transnational and post colonial viewpoints perceive Europe as a dynamic, complex web of wider transnational interactions and exchanges, highlighting the influences of intertwined and intersecting, yet simultaneously contested and competing historical narratives, memories, and identities. These encounters in the past and present have played a significant role in the historical imagination and contemporary formation of Europe, as they shaped distinct practices, methodologies, and traditions in the disciplinary landscape of folklore studies, European ethnology, and social and cultural anthropology across the continent.

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“Orientalism alla Turca”: Evolutionary Desires, Imperial Nostalgias, and Western Anxieties in Ahmed Midhat’s Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân


On November 15, 1889,[1] Ahmed Midhat (1844–1912), a prolific Ottoman journalist and novelist, announced in his newspaper Tercümân–i Hakîkât (Interpreter of Truth): 

The pleasant travelogue of the compassionate Ahmet Midhat Efendi, his grace, where all his observations, thoughts, and expertise on events from his previous journey to Europe are presented, will be published as of tomorrow! (Tuğluk 2018, 145).[2]

The account of his impressions and ideas on the European cities he visited between August 15 and October 25, 1889, first appeared in a daily series as Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân (A Tour in Europe, hereafter Cevelân).[3] It was published as a book in 1890, read widely in Istanbul and beyond.[4] The Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II (1842–1918), even ordered its distribution to the European and American diplomatic missions (Asiltürk 1995, 576). These two different audiences—one at home and one abroad— invite closer analysis of the textual and ideological features of this remarkable text.

As the official appointee of Abdulhamid II, Ahmed Midhat joined the eighth Congrès international des orientalistes as an Ottoman delegate. He began his trip on a steamer in Istanbul and, disembarking in Marseille, traveled throughout Europe by train. After the Congress in Stockholm-Cristiana (Oslo), Ahmed Midhat spent twelve days at the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris before extending his trip to Geneva, Montreux, Luzern, Konstanz, Vienna, and onto Trieste, where he took a ship back to Istanbul. 

In Cevelân, Ahmed Midhat revealed an “Other” of the Ottomans: Europe. He wrote in particularly vivid terms of his admiration for European machinery. During his travels and at the Exposition Universelle he encountered European material developments he could only have imagined when writing his earlier novels. Interestingly, Ahmed Midhat found another “Other” at the fair—the Muslim Arab, who also became a subject of his gaze.

Ahmed Midhat’s interests in evolutionist and materialist writings framed his own work. Moving beyond the dichotomies of “East and West,” “Self and Other,” and “colonizer and colonized,” he conceived all developments as medeniyet-i umumiyye, the global civilization that belongs to all peoples. He brought to light different sides of development and progress, with particularly revealing viewpoints on technological, social-cultural, and moral issues, managed with unusual savoir-faire. However, at times, his stance—despite his wish to be “objective”— was a partial one, his attention wavering between the material and the spiritual qualities of European development. Like European ethnographers, he was not immune toward ethnocentrism or homogenizing discourses towards complex societies and cultures. 

In what follows, I focus on Ahmed Midhat’s impressions of the Exposition Universelle 1889 in Paris in Cevelân. First, I make sense of Ahmed Midhat’s “evolutionary desires,” the term I use to describe his commitment to the idea, informed by Social Darwinism, that Ottomans should aspire to match Europe’s level of material development. Ahmed Midhat’s evolutionary desires encapsulate—but cannot be reduced to—his keen interest in (and envy of) the material, infrastructural, and industrial developments in Europe as he experienced them firsthand on his journey. He aspired for the Ottomans, too, to build grand avenues and boulevards, majestic bridges, impressive squares, and well-kept public gardens. He also wanted the Ottomans to produce and utilize the latest infrastructural technologies, such as rapid transport tools like locomotives and tramlines as well as electricity and lighthouses. These desires can only be understood in the context of his “imperial nostalgias” and “western anxieties,” imbued with longing for the glorious Ottoman past. Ahmed Midhat deployed this necessarily ethnocentric “imperial nostalgia” as a critical strategy to cope with, if not to overcome, his western anxieties, which he mainly expressed through discontent with European modernity and what he perceived as its weak morals.

Passenger train in front of the Pavilion of Algeria on L’Esplanade des Invalides (Library of Congress)

Cevelân is notable not only for its literary merits but also for its distinctively positioned ethnographic insights into “Europe.” Ahmed Midhat himself defined travel literature as a cornerstone for the advancement of knowledge (Herzog and Motika 2000, 140). Cevelân offers evidence of a cross-cultural production of knowledge and conveys issues of transculturation, border crossing, and self-location, long before they emerged in twentieth and twenty-first century anthropology. Furthermore, Ahmed Midhat’s writing should be evaluated as an important and understudied contribution to the history of Ottoman anthropology and ethnology.

In the 1850s, scholars in Turkey created a complex and dynamic non-Western anthropological tradition, which flourished by way of “traveling theory” (Birkalan-Gedik 2018, 2019). It incorporated theories of evolution, materialism, and development, which carried considerable social and political weight in Ottoman society at the turn of the 19th century (Kerim 1941; Hanioğlu 2005; Göçek 1996). Edward Said understood “traveling theory” as a process through which theory changes as it is transported into new geographical or historical contexts, reframed according to the intentions of its new adopters (Said 1983, 226; 2001). In this sense, travel is not a unidirectional movement but can ramify into polyvalent roots and routes. Delving into multiple ways of traveling—literary and metaphorical—and their implications for the history of anthropology (Rubiés 2000; Clifford 1989), Cevelân sheds light on an underexamined era of Ottoman anthropology, in which the eloquent gaze of an “Orientalist” (Dumont 2010; Findley 1998; Sagaster 1997) traveler illuminates both his own culture and those he observed. 

Ahmed Midhat: Cosmopolitan and Cultural Broker

Ahmed Midhat wore many hats. An impressive intellectual, he authored novels, short stories, and opinion pieces in the Tanzimat Era (1839–1876), when the Ottoman Empire was widely seen to be in decline (İnalcık 1976). He was a cosmopolitan, entrepreneur, and cultural broker who navigated the complexities of the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. 

Multiple ideological mainstreams defined this period; at different points of his life Ahmed Midhat seemed to fit each of them. The Young Ottomans insisted on modernization and keeping the millet system, which was based on the idea of non-territorial autonomy, whereby various religious groups were categorized as culturally autonomous, despite their geographic dispersion (Barkey and Gavrillis 2016); Islamists leaned on the idea of restoring and strengthening the Caliphate; Turkish nationalists relied on Turkish-ness as the dominant identity base (Berkes 1959). Political societies, like the Young Ottomans, believed that new “scientific” developments could coincide with and enrich religious knowledge. They aimed to show Islam as a contemporaneous religion in accord with science and development. While this idea stood in contrast with the view of certain elites who thought of Islam as one of the main causes of the country’s declining fortunes, debates on science and religion continued in following years. Again, introducing science was not a simple shift from “religion” to “science” (Yalçınkaya 2015; Poyraz 2010). Attitudes towards science and scientific development that were sympathetic to religion further smoothed developments in philosophy, anthropology, and medicine, enabling disparate disciplinary spheres to knit together in distinct ways (Shefer-Mossensohn 2015, 3). 

Born in Istanbul to a family of merchants, Ahmed Midhat grew up in dire conditions. A “Jack-of-all-trades” (Findley 1998), as a young man he received the patronage of Midhat Paşa (1822–1884), a western-oriented political leader under whom his transcultural perspectives bloomed. Later, as an entrepreneur, Ahmed Midhat set up his own printing house in Istanbul and maintained strong relations with the Ottoman government, working as the deputy manager of the sanitary commission (Okay 1989).

Scholars name Ahmed Midhat as the “first social Darwinist” among the Ottoman literati (Doğan 2012 [2006], 133–176). Ottoman social scientists also widely debated materialism, a framework which allowed the elite to discuss the origins and diffusion of humans, outside the confines of religious thought (Öktem 2012, Poyraz 2010). None of these developments were free of turbulence, as the secular elite had to navigate these ideas under the Muslim Sultan. 

Some scholars have argued that Ahmed Midhat was exiled for his close relationship with materialist and positivist thinkers (Mardin 2000 [1962]). But though his journals and newspapers circulated the German materialism of Ludwig Büchner (Hanioğlu 2005; Kalaycıoğulları 2016, Mardin 2000 [1962], 66), he publicly defended Islam, a point that complicates his intellectual position. His stated stances in Cevelân reveal “the conformity of Ahmed Midhat’s ideas with the cultural politics of the Hamidian regime” (Çekiç 2009, 4). In this travelogue, the author locates himself as a border-crosser, relying on his social and political relations such as with the Sultan Abdulhamid II, the benefactor who appointed him to attend the congress in Sweden and provided the funds for his European travel in Europe.

Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân between Literature, Travel, and Anthropology

While Ahmed Midhat’s writings have been studied by scholars of Turkish literature and history, anthropologists have neglected them.[5] Cevelân offers critical perspectives for the study of the history of anthropology in Turkey, and for the global history of anthropology. Notably, his route from the Ottoman Empire to Europe and back subverts the conventionally recognized directions of “colonial travel” (Clifford 1989), challenges the immobility of the “Other,” and brings an important twist to the study of travel literature, especially within the frameworks of alterity and hybridity. 

Before anthropology became an academic discipline, travelers, missionaries, merchants, and bureaucrats supplied ethnographic knowledge to diverse audiences. As James Clifford argues, such documents helped constitute cultural anthropology (1997, 64). Other scholars discuss the factual errors of earlier European travelogues saturated with Christian piety and cultural prejudices. Eriksen and Nielsen situate what they call “proto-anthropology” between “travel writing” and “social philosophy”; it is when these two discursive modes are fused, “when data and theory are brought together, that anthropology appears” (Eriksen and Nielsen 2013, 6–10).

Furthermore, Clifford asserts that the “geography of distance and difference alters in postcolonial/neocolonial situations, as power relations of research are reconfigured, as innovative technologies of transport and communications are deployed, and as ‘natives’ are recognized for their specific worldly experiences and histories of dwelling and traveling” (Clifford 1996, 7). His words may guide our approach to the contexts of colonialism in the Ottoman Empire and particularly to an “Orientalism alla turca” a term that illustrates the changing roles of what was earlier thought to be the “immobile” Other. Orientalism alla turca defines the complexity of Ottoman attitudes toward their multiple others. Pointing to a recent historiographic turn, Özgür Türesay notes that since the end of the 1990s, several historians offered terms such as “Ottoman orientalism,” or “Ottoman civilizing mission” whereby Ottoman’s relations to Europe and to the Arab populations were discussed in new frameworks. In a broader sense, an “Ottoman colonialism” emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century in which the Ottoman elite conceived the boundaries of the empire as a part of colonial setting. Adopting a civilizing mission towards the Arab periphery, Ottomans displayed a metropolitan identity by which they sought to educate the Arab populations (Türesay 2013: 128-129). Ahmed Midhat’s positionality in Cevelân provides important insights in this context.

Travel was a well-known practice in the Ottoman Empire for centuries, both toward Europe and to the Arab provinces. The circulation of diplomatic envoys in the eighteenth-century was influential in introducing new scientific and technological knowledge and practices. The sefâretnâme, a sub-genre of travel writing, recounted journeys and experiences of ambassadors in a foreign land (Georgeon 1995); these private, political documents, addressed to the Sultans and their high administration, were not allowed to circulate beyond the Ottoman palace (Göçek 1990, 80). The fact that the Ottoman Empire was both an object and an origin for ethnographic narratives complicates standard notions of “imperial travel writing,” by presenting a non-Western but still imperial perspective.

In this light, Ahmed Midhat’s travel accounts stand as “partial truths” written by an observer who was partially an ethnographer (Birkalan 2000) engaged in something akin to fieldwork, and who also acted as a “go-between” (Borm 2000) mediating imaginaries of both Orient and Occident. If “travels and contacts are crucial sites for an unfinished modernity,” as Clifford (1997, 2) writes, we might make sense of Ahmed Midhat’s récit detailing his contacts with Europe as itself an unfinished project—an “in-between” text which yields new insights into perhaps another way of “imperial writing” and its boundaries.

Under the light of Orientalism alla turca, as way to challenge the existing narrative on colonialism and anthropology, I suggest that Ahmed Midhat’s writings were very much attuned to a cosmopolitan style. Locating himself in the text as participant and observer, he emphasized the sensual, the personal, and the autobiographical with a dynamic textual brilliance. He described his own movements vividly, speaking to the senses of the reader in a decidedly poetic way. As in later realist anthropologies, the primary subject of the Cevelân is the essence of “being there.”

Ahmed Midhat’s presence continually intruded into the frame, showing that not only had he been there, but (as classical ethnographies would also claim) that his text could take the reader “there” as well. Strikingly, however, for Ahmed Midhat time was urgent: he ran to keep his schedule, unlike ethnographers who may have had better control of their time. While realist ethnographies of the twentieth century tried to hide time and historicity in an “ethnographic present,” Ahmed Midhat continually and carefully noted dates, counting the number of weeks or months precisely since his departure from İzmir. 

Long before anthropologists spoke of “blurred genres,” Ahmed Midhat’s handsomely embellished travel accounts crossed lines of genre to report on how Europeans lived, ate, and shopped in the times of emergent modernity. But if the Western gaze looked for vanishing “primitives,” or exotic dancers as the “Other” (Young 2008), Ahmed Midhat sought vanishing “European morals” and Muslim women, which simultaneously constituted his complex subjects. He presented his impressions both of everyday life and of the extravagant displays of Paris’s World’s Fair to an audience in Istanbul— the cosmopolis, the world city and seat of the Sultanate. These identifications shed distinctive light on “travel as a cosmopolitan praxis” (Clifford 1997), positioning Ahmed Midhat as a cosmopolitan, modernist author whose observations of Europe serve as a cautionary tale. 

Ahmed Midhat had written about Europe even before his first trip in his 1876 novel Paris’te Bir Türk (A Turk in Paris). In Cevelân he noted, “I traveled the European cities mentally; I almost saw them” (147). He had a well-formulated view of which countries constituted “Europe.” For instance, he noted that Russia did not concern him, as he believed that they were behind European civilization (397). An exception of another sort was Sweden: the Swedes made a remarkable impression because, according to him, they supported material developments without giving up their moral values (155). 

Ahmed Midhat’s journey allowed him to claim a powerfully authoritative voice in Cevelân and to present a “totalizing discourse” on Europe. This authority was also visible, though pointing in a different direction, when, during an audience with the King of Sweden, he put himself in the role of defender of the political stance and situation of the Ottoman Empire (138). Ahmed Midhat deployed the category of “self”—a totalized view of the Ottoman empire— in order to manage relations with the “other”— a totalized view of Europe. Such self-conscious juxtapositions, in my view, represent a very post-modernist “sense-making” of anthropological categories. By selectively applying an objectifying gaze on both Europe and the Ottoman empire, he effectively challenged conventional oppositional categories of “East” and “West” or “Self” and “Other.”

In Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt introduced the notion of “transculturation” as a remedy to interpretations of travel accounts that assumed a unidirectional relationship between voyagers and the so-called colonial periphery and presented the latter as irredeemably passive. Transculturations are the processes through which travelers revise presupposed ideas about the cultures of “others” as well as one’s own. Pratt situates these processes in “the contact zone”—“social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths” (1996, 34; 2008 [1992], 6). But the travel account Ahmed Midhat wrote, as the emissary of an imperial power, raises interesting complications. Should we consider the Ottomans, as well as European powers, as colonizers? If so, what happens when two colonial powers meet in the “contact zone,” and within the borders of Europe? Or should we look for more embellished analytical perspectives to make sense of Cevelân?

Exposition Universelle 1889, Paris, and Cevelân

Ahmed Midhat’s writings were part of a longer trajectory of participation by Ottoman intelligentsia in World’s Fairs. For the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, Sultan Abdülaziz, wishing to “partake in the cultural life of Europe” (Çelik 1992, 96; Gök 2003), had installed a mosque, a residence, a bath, and a fountain at the Ottoman Pavilion, at the invitation of Emperor Napoléon III. At the 1889 World’s Fair, the Ottoman presence was limited to one Tobacco Pavilion, placed among the “other” eastern cultures, as Ahmed Midhat notes (570–71). 

Turkish Tobacco Pavilion with Folies Parisiennes on left (Library of Congress)

World’s Fairs were systems of representation on a grand scale and effective mechanisms of cultural production. Çelik and Kinney note that “among their novel technologies was the creation of ersatz habitats; these scenarios of a reductive presentation of different cultures generated easily apprehended, symbolic imagery” (1990, 35). Exposition Universelle 1889 relied heavily on archaeological and anthropological displays (Greenhalgh 1988, 36) as well as cultural façades, entertainment concessions, and other vivid national and corporate displays to impress visitors. 

Above all, technological displays appealed to Ahmet Midhat. Mechanical industry, which was displayed at the Champ de Mars next to the Eiffel Tower, immediately caught his eye, and he visited the machinery multiple times; he was so impressed with technological developments that he once left the visiting hall as the last visitor (650–661). Within this arena, he traveled on a passenger train and used the elevator of the Eiffel Tower, exclaiming, “it is this kind of machinery that makes life so easy!”

Visiting the Gallery of Machines, inventions for small industries such as sewing and weaving fascinated him: “The Singer sewing machines produce superior quality of work very fast”; “The silk looms can contribute to the national economy.” He also made comparisons: “Ottomans, too, had set up silk looms in Bursa, Athens, and Thessaloniki,” but he found them inferior to what he saw at the fair (654–659). His entrepreneurial spirit appears in his remark that development is not only about quality but also about mass production. 

Interior of Gallery of Machines, showing machinery (Library of Congress)

Material developments, such as large avenues and boulevards, great bridges, impressive squares, and well-kept public gardens attracted Ahmed Midhat to modernity. Locomotives, train tracks, rapid transportation, and tramlines, along with electricity and lighthouses, formed a great part of his “evolutionary desires”—a yearning for progress, informed by his intellectual investments in social Darwinism. Yet, both curious and cautious, he refused to accept everything Europe offered. In Cevelân Ahmed Midhat illuminated, or textually created, a society in which technological developments conflicted with traditional morality. Thus, his accounts are a vehicle to explore important technological advancements but also to express his wistful yearning for the past glories of the Ottoman Empire through criticism of the morals and values of “nineteenth-century European society.”

Eiffel Tower, Electricity… and Other Imperial Nostalgias?

Cevelân reported on Paris’s unforgettable fin-de-siècle extravaganza. He raved about electric lighting, along with large and small machinery. He offered compelling accounts of steel construction for the Eiffel Tower, which he saw as an outstanding symbol of technological improvement, appearing even more beautiful at night as red electric bulbs adorned it (537). 

In fact, Ahmed Midhat was impressed by all kinds of light. This was already the case in Stockholm, a city that truly captivated him and which he called the most beautifully lit-up city in Europe. Thanks to its lighting systems, he said, “nights turn into days;” thousands of lanterns and candles in addition to electric bulbs illuminated the Drottningholm Palace (170–173). At a vacation palace, away from the center of the city, he saw electricity produced by a mobile steam machine. He perceived all of this within the framework of “medeniyet-i umumiyye”–global civilization, a pool of shared, advanced technologies, not necessarily limited to Europe, but the property of the world. At this thought, his text begins comparing his observations in Europe to what he had seen in the Ottoman Empire: he recalled seeing lights as great as those in Europe in Istanbul and Kordonboyu–İzmir, though without the same quality and extent. His desires quickly followed his comparisons: he next expressed the wish that “we should also have places that light up, like in Paris” (47). At this moment, his admiration for progress, his “evolutionary desire,” shifted to “imperial nostalgia,” the wish to restore his homeland to a lost greatness. 

Ahmed Midhat noted that using steel and lace construction, France had quickly erected the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of its empire, the highest building in the world at the time. When he saw it for the first time, he disliked it aesthetically. He called it “grotesque,” and compared its height with the height of minarets in Istanbul’s Yeni Cami, the New Mosque (95). However, the Eiffel Tower would function for him as a site of transculturation. On his second visit, he changed his mind and praised its architecture (560–562). 

To understand Ahmed Midhat’s fascination with the settings of the fair and particularly his “imperial nostalgias,” the work of On Barak (2013) on transportation and communication in twentieth-century Egypt offers important perspectives. Barak argues that people may perceive and experience “universal” technologies, such as electricity, steamers, railways, telegraphs, tramways, and telephones, differently in various social-cultural contexts. While in the West they symbolized standardization and punctuality, in Egypt they contributed to the production of unique “counter tempos” that pushed back against “dehumanizing European standards of efficiency, linearity, and punctuality” (Barak 2013, 5). Following Barak’s line of thought, it is clear the juncture of Ahmed Midhat’s evolutionary desires and imperial nostalgias was as a site of creative tension.

Ahmed Midhat leveraged his opinions of the Eiffel Tower and other technologies to reflect upon and promote Ottoman values. He balanced his newfound admiration for the tower with pages-long praise for the great achievements of the “East,” thus evoking his imperial nostalgia. He culled historical examples ranging from Mehmed the Conqueror to Avicenna along with other political leaders and scientists who contributed to the ideals of “progress.” The Ottomans “performed” science at the great medreses and libraries. They maintained terakkiyât-ı maneviye (spiritual development), which he opposed to mere fazilet-i maddiye (material virtue). In this way, they were able to conquer the Mediterranean and sail to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it would be a great mistake to represent the Ottomans (as many in the West had done) as a people primarily fond of pleasure. Yet, Ahmed Midhat wrote, there was a new trend among the West: now Westerners were researching the real traditions of the East, valuing reality over fantasy. He offered the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists in Stockholm as evidence (185–187). In this way, his imperial nostalgia served as the basis for corrections to the misrepresentations made by “ignorant” Europeans. 

Street of Cairo: Ahmed’s Western Anxieties

As a visible representative of a foreign land, Ahmed Midhat—who chose to wear a fez—was pronounced in his Ottoman attire. He was among those Muslim visitors who, according to Çelik (1992), “became a part of the display, often as the major attraction” (15, emphasis mine): Visitors from the Muslim world, such as Tunisia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire, were part of the amusement for European fairgoers. However, these visitors were not only “populations on display.” As von Plato has demonstrated in her work on exhibition cultures and mass audiences in nineteenth-century France, the French’s perceptions of foreigners also influenced their self-perception (2001). Likewise, Ahmed Midhat’s remarks on “Muslim women dancing” show the ways the Fair influenced his notions of himself, within the broader contours of his embedded otherness and as a man talking about women. Or, put differently, Ahmed Midhat’s own “degrees of Otherness”—in Francesca Vanke’s words (2008, 198)—were illustrated in the ways he described other “others” on display: Muslims, namely Arabs from the Ottoman provinces—fell under the purview of the Ottoman “Other,” or under orientalism alla turca. This was because of the imperial power connections between the mainland Ottoman Empire and their exoticized Arab provinces like Egypt.

His account of the Exposition Universelle’s celebrated “Street of Cairo” regarding politics of gender, sexuality and public space was highly critical:

The Street of Egypt (Cairo) in the Exposition Universelle (Sergi-i Umumî) is a place that has provoked many objections to the morals of the French society. It has been considered the most beloved site by spectators—not because of its industrial products, donkeys, or donkey riders, or for the elegant architecture of the Egyptian-style buildings, but because of the spectacle of these singers and dancers and their belly dancing. Although by and large these performers had Muslim names, it is clear they are not Muslims. They are mostly Tunisian and Egyptian Jews; and some are Coptic Orthodox Christians from Egypt. The many arousing obscene postures and movements of their bodies cannot be taken as something everybody likes and approves [in Muslim nations]. Moreover, it is known that to watch such dances in Tunisia and Egypt requires going to obscure places, and such entertainment is considered debauchery (535). 

How can we make sense of this passage, especially if we consider that “in 1889 the number of spectators who came to watch the Egyptian belly dancers averaged two thousand per day” (Çelik and Kinsley 1992, 39)? In this passage, Ahmed Midhat spoke to two totalizing arguments. By denying a Muslim origin to the female dancers, he pushed back against Orientalist representations of Muslim lands as sensual and permissive. At the same time, alleging that the dancers were Jewish or Christian, he presented yet another essentialist view about Western women. According to him, Muslim women would never wear such costumes and dance in this way—while Christian and Jewish women evidently lack such scruples! For Ahmed Midhat, this staging encapsulated the violence of Western representations of the Orient. Yet, we do not know if he was aware of the Parisian dance practices in bars and clubs at the time, which might have contributed to his totalizing arguments about “European women.” 

Crowd on “a street in Cairo” in front of the Pavilions of Morocco (Library of Congress)

Fair organizers claimed their presentation of the Street of Cairo was rooted in archaeological exactitude and “authenticity.” However, in Ahmed Midhat’s view it was not the street’s shops and musicians, artisans, or donkey drivers that drew spectators to the pavilion, but the female dancers. For Ahmed Midhat, the Street of Cairo was, in Pratt’s terms, a contact zone, a transcultural site. But rather than helping him overcome his prejudices about Europe and the Orient, it reinforced them. In the end, he exchanged what he saw as a stereotype with a different stereotype, about the Orient and the West, about women, about morals, and, certainly, about himself.

Although Ahmed Midhat could not help but speak, directly and indirectly, about the Ottoman “self” in his text, he barely mentioned the Ottoman Tobacco Pavilion. Rather, he found alterity—his “others”—in the Street of Cairo exhibit. His criticism of the seemingly misrepresented Orient and Muslim women was in line with his conviction of the moral corruption of European modernity. “Admittedly,” he wrote, “in Europe, if a man falls down in the street and dies, not one of the thousands of men who run to watch feel obligated to give him a sip of water” (386). In other parts of his travelogue, he lectured on declining religious values: “Europeans, as they became enlightened and materially developed, mentally declined and ceased to talk about religion” (771). He had already undercut his claims to the moral high ground, however, by earlier sharing with his readers that he once became so drunk that he even got entirely lost himself (675)! 

Despite such humanizing admissions, his expressions of moral indignation are added to ethnocentric effusions of cultural exceptionalism and Ottoman pride: “My mind ventured around the morality and the mores of the Ottomans. Oh, Ottomans, My dear! Every aspect of the empire has been adorned with Highness. Can one imagine another nation with such grace as the Ottomans, in the entire world?” (111). 

By wearing his fez, he emphasized his Ottoman identity and outlook. When an engineer asked him “Monsieur, are you Jewish?” he reported to reply: “No, Effendi, I am not. I am an Ottoman, and among the best, as I am Turkish and Muslim. I write in the Ottoman script, which is written with the Arabic script, which is recognized as having derived from Hebrew.” Rather than making a concluding remark, he opened a new discussion, where, with these words, he presented his identity, his sense of belonging in essentialist terms, at a period when terms such as “Ottoman” versus “Turk” had become important in Ottoman elites’ discussions of westernization and modernization. 


Certainly, Ahmed Midhat was not the only Ottoman to report on Europe; many others in the same period admired Europe and so-called European developments. My aim has been to show that in Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân, Ahmed Midhat enjoys a liminal position, oscillating between admiration and rejection. Faced with European spectacle he feels at times desire and nostalgia, and, at times, jealousy and anxiety. I have illustrated these points by identifying his evolutionary desires, imperial nostalgias, and western anxieties, all of which are presented (for consumption by Istanbul’s intellectuals—and possibly for European and American diplomats) within materialist and social Darwinist frames. 

While Cevelân can serve as a source for considering the social implications of evolutionist thought, Ahmed Midhat brought a twist. Fashioning himself as a curious observer committed to development, he became an enthusiastic scientist when describing Europe, calling on Ottoman political and intellectual leaders to emulate European support of science. At the same time, he cautioned them not to leave behind their traditional values. His affinity for both Western development and critique of its moral decline clearly shows his caution regarding the existing Ottoman political order. Returning from exile, he became even closer to Abdulhamid II’s view of combining western development with a firm perpetuation of Islamic values, which he presented as “spirituality” or “religion” in more general terms.

As an authoritative writer aiming to instruct his readers on “Europe,” he participated in and observed European society and everyday practices. Rather than completely admiring or rejecting the “Europe” formulated by previous travelers, he brought a cosmopolitan experience, and, at the same time, never abandoned his essentialist attachment to “Eastern” spiritual qualities. Orhan Okay summarizes Ahmed Midhat’s vision thus: “Ottomans can reach the level of European material development, but Europe cannot reclaim the morality that it had lost”; his ideal society combines East and West, joining high technological development with high morality (Okay 1975, 772, 52–53). In other words, he both approached and distanced himself from Europe. According to Carter Findley, Ahmed Midhat shows how “an Ottoman thinker could creatively engage with Europe and yet resist its cultural power, a power that–if omnipresent—was not omnipotent” (1998, 49). 

Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân, then, was a text fulfilling three missions at once. First was an academic, internationalist mission: at the Orientalist Congresses he defended the Orient and criticized Westerners for their lack of knowledge about Eastern civilizations. His second, popular mission was to translate Europe for his readers and educate them on its technological and industrial developments; here, at times, he presented Europe as a cautionary tale, often falling into moralism. Put blandly, he argued that material progress and moral decay had gone hand in hand in contemporary Europe and warned his fellow Ottomans against making the same mistake. Lastly, with the intention to distribute his book to foreign diplomats in the United States and England, he also taught that the Ottomans did not belong to the “backward” Orient. He presented Ottomans to a wider international audience as competitors in global civilization, and as a uniquely glorious empire in its own right. 


This article is part of a project funded by DFG (Deutsche Forschung Gemeinschaft/German Research Foundation), Traveling Theories: Die Geschichte der Anthropologie in der Türkei (18501950) which critically examines the history of anthropology in Turkey over a century. The author thanks Taylor Moore, Rosanna Dent, and John Tresch for their valuable comments and edits on the text. 

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[1] The Ottoman Empire with the Tanzimat Period, ca. 1839, and the Republic of Turkey, until 1926, used the Rumi (Roman) calendar, based on the Julian calendar. The date in Roman calendar in the original is 3 Teşrîn-i Sānî 1305. My title borrows the term from Herzog and Motika who aimed to locate Ottoman Empire within postcolonial studies and offered a new way of thinking about the Ottomans relationship with the Western world as well as with its Arab colonies. In short, Orientalism alla turca conveys the emergent imperialist attitude of the Ottomans along European lines. See: Herzog and Motika 2000. Additonally, Özgür Türesay notes (2013) that since the end of the 1990s, several historians, including Selim Deringil, Ussama Makdisi, and Thomas Kühn, have offered terms such as “Ottoman orientalism,” or “Ottoman civilizing mission” to discuss Ottoman’s relations to Europe and Arab populations. An “Ottoman colonialism” emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Ottoman elite adopted the ways of thinking of their enemies, the great imperialist nations, and began to conceive of their boundaries as part of a colonial settings.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own. 

[3] “A Tour in Europe” is one possible translation for the title Avrupa’da Bir CevelânCevelân, often used as a compound verb as “cevelân et-” means strolling, or promenading. “Seyâhat” is more common for traveling and “seyahatnâme” is the name for travelogue. Ahmed Midhat’s “travel” implies passing joyful time but also investing mental and physical labor, especially when one considers that he was 45 years old when he took the journey.

[4] Ahmed Midhat published the travelogue in Ottoman script, the alphabet used in the written records of the Ottoman Empire from ca. 1300 and in Turkey from 1919 until the official adoption of the Roman alphabet in 1928. The present work on Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân uses the edition in Roman alphabet with translator’s notes (Pala 2015) and consults the original in Arabic script when needed.

[5] See for example: Ursinus 1987; Boer 2002; Esen 2014; Gonzales 2012. Okay’s treatment of Ahmed Midhat’s mentality towards Europe (1975) remains as a notable source.