Trains, Ottomans and Modernizers

May 31, 2008 at 2:13 pm Leave a comment

It has been Ottoman week. Tuesday afternoon Murat Özyüksel (who writes on the Hijaz Railway) climbed the 90+ stairs to the students’ flat–they have a DVD player. The first installment of his TRT series on trains is essentially a visual essay on the transformative effect of railroads on world economies and cultures during the 19th century. Yekta did simultaneous translation from Turkish (thanks, Yekta!). The continuous pauses were a bit disconcerting. The students seemed to appreciate more the ensuing conversation on the terrace, where Murat responded to their questions about the effects of the train on the politics and economies of Turkey (and the UK, the US, Germany…) He argued that Great Power competition over the Ottoman Empire before WWI was exacerbated by Germany’s efforts to build a railway to Bagdad.

The students have been fascinated by Atatürk’s role since we arrived, and by the continuing power he has in today’s Turkey, decades after his death. Murat’s discussion of contemporary Turkish politics and his insistence on the importance of the democratic rule of law were quite powerful. I have the sense these students will welcome all discussions about Turkey’s contemporary politics.

I had asked them to read two articles about efforts to “modernize” Istanbul toward the end of the 19th century. Both articles argued that Istanbul could not be remade to look like Paris, despite the desires of late Ottoman sultans, European architects, and Ottoman modernizers. It was great to have an artist in the group, who could explain what the author meant by single and multiple perspective. On the other hand, it showed me again the challenges of teaching through discussion. I have been insulted since childhood when people ask questions to which they already have a desired answer. That means discussion must really be open-ended. The advantage was clear yesterday.  In addition to talking about the implications and inadequacy of Bouvard’s plan (in an article written by Zeynep Celik), the students pointed out that French planner considered the Ottoman capital so unimportant that he didn’t even come to look at Istanbul before drawing his plan.  They connected this with various other ways in which Europeans had slighted the Ottoman empire, and speculated on the continuing unequal power relationship as it was manifested today with the EU (and elsewhere).  It was an argument I hadn’t really seen in the article. The students had gone well beyond where I would have taken them. There does seem to be some consensus that Istanbul shouldn’t be like Paris–though having more walkable streets would be desirable.

We got to hear more of their stories at dinner here last night–William cooked his weekly non-Turkish student meal (Tex-Mex this week). I’m looking forward to traveling with them–this crowd is funny, good-natured–and very smart!

Entry filed under: Teaching, Uncategorized.

Topkapi Turkish/Art

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