Of course, schools should teach Ottoman!

The AKP wants Ottoman to be taught in schools. Fine, so do I. But which Ottoman?

If there is one thing at which the AKP government is an expert, it is suddenly issuing a statement that causes a total shift in the political agenda. That is my personal interpretation of their out-of-the-blue announcement that Ottoman would be taught in schools. The opposition reacted just as expected, immediately protesting the move almost by instinct, with no consideration or weighing up of the issue. In my humble opinion, the only group who are justified in opposing the teaching of Ottoman in schools is the Kurds: “We still haven’t resolved the issue of mother-tongue education, so where on earth did this idea come from?” they ask. And they’re right. The provision of mother tongue education for languages other than Turkish is already well overdue; if the powers that be would stop trying to make political capital out of such critical issues (like lifting the ban on the headscarf, which they delayed for years), they might even convince us that they are human. Aside from this, I believe the idea of teaching Ottoman is perfectly appropriate. However, we should recognize that this issue is not as black and white as many assume.

The first question lies in defining the language that will be taught. Our “learned” prime minister, an expert in weighty yet empty turns of phrase, recently stated that “ancient Turkish” would be taught in schools. Let us consider this for a moment. First of all, Ottoman is not “ancient” Turkish; if any language could be described as such it would be one of the languages spoken in Central Asia, a forefather of Anatolian Turkish. Unless the AKP has done a sudden ideological U-turn to the 1930s, it seems unlikely that this is what they are referring to. Or perhaps they are talking about pre-Ottoman Anatolian Turkish. Aside from the fact that describing that period as “ancient” would not exactly be historically correct, this too is rather unlikely since, as we know, this was part of the ideology of the Kemalist club.

Ottoman, though, is not in fact “old Turkish” but a different language entirely. Just as French came from Greek and Latin but is a different language, Ottoman came from Turkish, was nourished with Arabic and Farsi, and became a different language. Of course this is a topic for a decades-long debate, but personally I really do not understand how someone with even a little Ottoman can describe it as “a form of Turkish”. In the grammar of the Turkish language there are no plurals such as evrak[1] or hayvanat,[2] prepositional phrases are not formed as they are in the terms ehven-i şer[3] or hâfız-ı kütüb,[4] and there is no masculine and feminine gender as we see in hatt-ı şerîf[5] and hilye-i şerîfe.[6] These are not Turkish, they are Ottoman. It is a different language.

Basic education or specialization

Anyway, the AKP wants Ottoman to be taught in schools. Fine, so do I. But which Ottoman? The Ottoman of the fourteenth century? The Ottoman of the nineteenth century? Anyone with a little knowledge on this subject knows that the language we call Ottoman changed over the centuries and the AKP will therefore have to decide which Ottoman will be taught. If, however, they say, “We will teach the Ottoman of a different century every year,” then it is time to call in the men in white coats.

Let’s be realistic; the Ottoman taught in schools will mainly consist of reading and writing along with a good measure of grammar. Reading Ottoman texts will no doubt broaden students’ vocabulary, and it will perhaps also encourage them to use Turkish words such as merkez or takım, which are increasingly, and incomprehensibly, being replaced by their English equivalents, “center” and “set.” These are positive outcomes, but they cannot be the main aim. The primary objective can only be to teach a minimum of common knowledge about the 600-year Ottoman history. Anything beyond this would be specialization, not basic education.

So what does it mean to teach reading and writing? Of course it involves more than simply memorizing the letters of the alphabet; this only takes a couple of days. Ottoman contains the grammatical rules of three languages, and therefore a great deal of grammar will need to be taught. Students will learn, for example, that some Ottoman words of Arabic origin like takriben[7] or rağmen[8]  do not  in fact end with the letter “n”, because they will learn of the existence of the “tanwin” as well as its function. As they learn the rules of word formation in Arabic, not only will reading Ottoman texts become easier, but they will also broaden their vocabulary. For example, once a student knows that the words zâlim (tyrant), zulüm (cruelty), mezâlim (atrocity) and mazlûm (oppressed) are formed from the same Arabic root, he will be able to extract the meaning of one from the other. Moreover, the moment s/he learns that the etymological meaning of this root is “darkness,” a whole new world will open up before him/her.

Then, when our imaginary student learns the difference between the Arabic letters qaf (ق) and kaf (ك), s/he will understand why the “k” of kâtip (scribe) is pronounced differently from that of kāmus (dictionary) and will no longer mispronounce those words. S/he will also learn that the slang term sin-kaf etmek is incorrect, because s/he will know that it should actually be “sin-kef”.[9] When s/he learns the functions of the letter ʿayn (ع) and the diacritic hamza (ء) his pronunciation will improve even further, and he will not butcher the beautiful Turkish language like the youth of today. And so on and so forth.

As such, the foolishness of the objection that “reading archival documents is the work of specialists” is evident. That is not the point! Of course, the reading of archival documents is for specialists, and not only when they are written in the Arabic alphabet, the same is also true for the Latin alphabet. I wonder how many of those who learned the Latin alphabet in our schools can read this incredibly important document:

Magna Carta, British Library, Cotton ManuscriptsThis is one of the few surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, one of the turning points in human history, and a document that cannot easily be read without at least some knowledge of English palaeography. The same is true for Ottoman documents. The aim is not for every Turkish citizen to be able to read archival documents, and representing the issue in such way is a form of demagogy.

And what of the issue, about which our men of state like to pontificate, of “reading gravestones?” While the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris is a protected site recognized as a work of art and a historical monument, Istanbul’s oldest cemeteries, such as Karacaahmed, are being whittled away piece by piece to build roads, old graves are being dug up and resold, and the historical gravestones are cast aside, broken, destroyed. All of this is overseen by precisely those who should be protecting the graveyards (in other words those who consider themselves conservative/devout), and as such it is difficult to take seriously the government’s claims to such an aim. (Have you ever noticed that those who have caused the greatest destruction in Istanbul have always been conservatives? Menderes, Özal, and now Erdoğan...) But still, would it not be nice to be able to read not just gravestones but all the historical inscriptions that can be found in every corner of Turkey, in other words the monumental writings on the country’s historical architecture? Today, when the average citizen passes in front of buildings, fountains, shrines, obelisks, and of course, gravestones left over from Ottoman times, it is as though s/he is wandering around in China or Japan: s/he can see these words but cannot understand them. How many people have noticed this wonderful inscription above the Fesçiler Gate of the Grand Bazaar and stopped to gaze at it in admiration? And how many know who wrote it, what it says and how appropriate it is for its location? [Answer: It is the work of Sami Efendi (1838–1912), one of the greatest calligraphers of recent times. It is a hadith[10] in Arabic that means “Beloved of Allah is he who works to earn his living.” Its position above the gate of a market is particularly fitting.]

The Grand BazaarAnd on the subject of calligraphy, some of those who oppose the teaching of Ottoman ask questions such as, “Which script are you going to teach? Naskh? Thulth? Ruq‘ah?” This may well be the most idiotic of all the objections; it is a bit like asking someone teaching the Latin alphabet if they plan to teach Times New Roman or Helvetica. Above all, leaving aside the cryptographic siyakat script, once you know one of these forms of writing it is very easy to learn another. Secondly, a question such as “thulth or ta‘liq?” has no direct relation to the teaching of the Ottoman language, and only holds any meaning when related to the subject of calligraphy. (How wonderful it would be if that were taught too, but that’s a subject for another time.)

And then there are those who ask, “Who is going to teach it, when we can't even find decent English teachers?” And they’re right. But this is not an unsolvable problem. If our honoured President and his inflated ego would give up projects like the construction of a 600-million-dollar palace and instead spend that money on reviving Turkey’s bankrupt education system, we would be able to teach not only English but also Ottoman and even Chinese. Furthermore, we must remember that it is not the President alone who is to blame for this lavish waste, the fault also lies with the members of the AKP who pander to his every whim. But we’re getting off topic…

Building the future

Ottoman may not be the same language as Turkish, but as long as the belief (or rather ideological myth) that there is an insurmountable wall between Ottoman and modern Turkish persists, certain people will continue to consider the transcription of Ottoman texts as scholarship, and will continue to receive undergraduate degrees, MAs and doctorates in return for what is, to all intents and purposes, mere drudgery. In fact, transcription is, at the very most, merely the first stage of scholarship; the real skill lies in what comes next. Surely the time has come to recognize this.

It is not possible to build an impassable barrier between the past and present of any society. Some may try –they may even believe they have succeeded– but common sense tells us that, in the long run, cracks will appear in that barrier. (Consider for a moment why the church is so powerful in former iron curtain countries.) The past of the country in which we live is Ottoman. While it is true that Ottoman was the language of elite and not the “language of the people,” it was not merely the language of the elite. Ottoman was also the language of tradesmen’s record books and palace edicts, of the amulets attached to babies’ cribs and diwan poetry, and of the inscriptions on the fountains found in every neighbourhood. As long as the people of today’s Turkey are unable to read any text written before 1928 (unless it has been specially transcribed into Latin script), they will remain but half-men and women. And they will not be able to build their future on stable ground, because it is impossible to build the future without coming to terms with the past.

Subverting the hegemony of the Ottoman “expert” class

But all this aside, there is another very important reason for the opposition to support the teaching of Ottoman in schools. Ottoman history is currently being used by a government that is ignorant of that history as a tool of domination over a public that is equally ignorant of that history. (Recall how the Romantics in Germany used history and how the Nazis took advantage of that!) When prime ministers and presidents tell us, “The Ottoman era was like this; the Ottoman era wasn’t like that”, their aim is not to serve historiography but to have a say in how the people of today should live, how they should think, and how they should behave. And while doing so they are inventing a mythology that has no connection with reality. Those with no knowledge of the Ottoman language swallow this mythology without question because they do not have the facts to argue the contrary.

As long as Ottoman remains the monopoly of an “elite” group, as was the case for Latin in the Middle Ages, this situation will continue. (It was not for reasons of nationalism that Martin Luther wanted the Bible to be read in German, but because he wanted to subvert the hegemony of the clergy.) Is it not now the time to subvert the hegemony of the Ottoman “expert” class in Turkey? Surely if we knew the Ottomans not in the way these “experts” want us to know them but as they really were, it would not be to our own detriment but to the detriment of those trying to manipulate us. If we are to believe the government, the Ottomans were as pure as driven snow, but surely being able to read books published by the Ottomans such as the one pictured below would only serve to demolish the legends and taboos about Turkey’s past.

BahnameIf the public were able to understand such works, would it still be possible for our honourable leaders to crow on about how “Our Ottomans were not like this?” Rather than idolizing the Ottomans, would it not be better to truly know and understand them, even empathize with them?

We cannot rewind history

Finally, let’s take a look at the objections of the “concerned modernists.” Does teaching Ottoman mean a “revival of reaction?” Is it one of the “shadowy contrivances” established by the AKP to bring Shari‘a back to Turkey? And so on and so forth... Here is the short answer: Of course I have no idea what is going through the mind of the AKP, but even if this is their plan it is but a fool’s errand. When children in Italy or France study Latin, or when children in Greece learn ancient Greek, it does not transport the country back to the Middle Ages or ancient times. Just because the British are able to understand Shakespeare, or even Chaucer, it does not mean that a theocracy has been founded in their country. When these are not an issue for the Europe that the modernists so love to take as their example, why should it become an issue here?

And anyway, there is nothing so absurd as being afraid of a language. Will learning a new language nullify all the “gains of the Republic?” It’s simply not possible. Years earlier, during a discussion on a different subject entirely, my friend Mete Tunçay wrote something that I will try to reconstruct here as best I can: “States do not collapse for such reasons; they collapse because of their belief that they will collapse for such reasons.” I’m not sure if the AKP government itself truly believes in its “new Ottomanism” nonsense, but our Kemalists believe in it, and it is this that is truly incomprehensible! History has no “rewind” button; even if we wanted to, we could not wind the tape back. The period of empires is well in the past. Moreover, the last thing the AKP –a party joined at the hip to neo-liberal capitalism– would do is miss out on the generous opportunity that history has given them to fill their pockets. So rest assured, dear modernists, that while all of your freedoms can be, and indeed are being, taken from you, the revival of reaction is not down to the teaching of Ottoman.

I am not saying that we should not be afraid of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we should. But not because he isn’t Kemalist enough; on the contrary, because he is too Kemalist. Erdoğan’s only model of a statesman is Mustafa Kemal (okay, and perhaps Abdülhamid II to some extent!). Everything the AKP does is therefore in imitation of what Mustafa Kemal did, only turned on its head. But wouldn’t you know, turning something on its head changes nothing of its essence. Is the act of turning all state schools into religious İmam Hatip schools not an application of the principle of the Tevhid-i Tedrisat[11] of which Atatürk was so fond? Is attempting to change the country from its very roots not something that Mustafa Kemal tried (and, as we see now, failed) to do ninety years ago? Is there any real qualitative difference between the directives “Ottoman will no longer be taught” and “From now on Ottoman will be taught?”

There is an oft-quoted line from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852): “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In this particularly fertile country of ours, however, Atatürk appeared not just twice but three times: First as Mustafa Kemal himself, then as Kenan Evren (a joke in circulation during the 1980 coup period went like this: Disappointed at receiving a clean bill of health from his doctor, Evren said, “Are you absolutely certain Doctor? Is there no sign of a bit of cirrhosis?”[12]), and now Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is farcical certainly, but it doesn’t make me laugh.

We have to be able to distinguish true from false. Teaching the foundations of Ottoman in schools is an apt and long overdue move that will reconcile Turkey with its past and lead us to a brighter future. And if you want my advice, let me finish by saying this: if other policies laid out by the AKP government are objectionable (which undoubtedly they are) we should challenge those. But let’s choose our battles wisely.

[1] Evrak is the Arabic broken plural of varak (waraq); the regular Turkish plural would have been varaklar. The word is still used to mean papers, documents.
[2] Hayvanat is the Arabic feminine plural of hayvan (hayawan); the regular Turkish plural would have been hayvanlar. The word is still used, for example, in the construct hayvanat bahçesi (garden of animals, i.e. zoo).
[3] “The lesser (ahwan) evil (sharr)”, i.e. the lesser of two evils.
[4] “Protector (hafith) of books (kutub)”, i.e. librarian.
[5] “Noble (sharif) writing (khatt)”, i.e. imperial edict. Khatt is masculine, and therefore so is sharif.
[6] “Noble (sharifah) appearance (hilyah)”, i.e. word-portrait of the Prophet Muhammad. Hilyah is feminine, and therefore so is sharifah.
[7] “Approximately”, spelled تقريباً, i.e. ending with the letter alif topped with a double-line diacritic named tanwin.
[8] “Despite”, also ending as described in the above footnote.
[9] The street slang for “penis” is sik, written (in Ottoman) with the letters sin and kaf. The slang expression sin-kaf etmek thus means “to fuck”. However, kaf in Turkish corresponds to the Arabic letter qaf, while the Arabic letter kaf is pronounced kef in Turkish. Thus, the expression should correctly be pronounced sin-kef etmek.
[10] A hadith is an account of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad. These accounts are second only to the Qur’an in religious authority.
[11] Law on the Unification of Education (1924).
[12] Atatürk, Kenan Evren’s idol and model, died in 1938 of cirrhosis.
Illustration: Yeşim Paktin