Mostafa Minawi, Losing Istanbul: Arab-Ottoman Imperialists and the End of Empire (Stanford University Press, 2023).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write the book? 

Mostafa Minawi (MM): I have been fascinated by the experience of people who have lived through times of major global transitions for a long time. What did it feel like? How did people who were deeply invested in maintaining the status quo, for better or for worse, deal with the existential threat they faced? What possible futures arose due to these transitions, and what became impossible? How did people who do not fit neatly into modern-day identarian categories reinvent themselves or suffer the consequences? To do that I needed to zoom into the day-to-day life of people who experienced and reflected on the quickly changing circumstances around them, but I was not sure why it would be of interest to the average historian. The Azmzades of Istanbul, Arab-Ottomans who were deeply invested in the imperial system yet found themselves slowly on the wrong end of homogenization process that culminates with the emergence of various ethnonational states, were the perfect case study. However, it took a major event of my own—living through the Beirut port explosion—to understand how narrating the experience of major events was a valid pursuit in its own right, and how experiential history was much more connected to how an average person views and remembers their life, than the sometimes overly abstracted and theorized narratives of political and social histories. “What did it feel like” and “how can I relate to it” became the drivers behind writing this book, all after fifteen years of research that I was never sure would ever lead to published work.

Additionally, now was the right time to tell this story. I have also considered Istanbul as my second home for over fifteen years now, and I have become familiar with popular discourse about “Arabs” as “Others” in the former imperial capital. This became more acute in the past few years with the influx of refugees and political asylees from across the Arab world. I wanted to write a book which highlights the recent common history and the involvement of Arab-Ottomans in making the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul included, and what it is—all aspects of it, the good, bad, and ugly. It is high time that the people of the region reconcile with the entirety of their history, beyond the typical nationalistic narratives. The only way to do that is to uncover the stories of our ancestors, which transcend present-day ethnic and national constructs and also allow the people of Southwest Asia to deal with the trauma of the violent end of the empire and emergence of political borders. For those who lived through this transition, after centuries of imperial rule, the change must have been quick and, despite all indications we see in hindsight, very sudden. Losing Istanbul, as the political and symbolic center of their layered identifications happened in a flurry of violence and competing interests, and the trauma of that loss was never dealt with, particularly for the people living in the Arabic-speaking majority provinces who had to contend with famine, colonial occupation, and various forms of post-colonial nationalisms which privileged the history of ethno-religious identities over a much more complex multi-ethnic, mutli-lingual, multi-confessional reality that most lived with.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

MM: The text deals with the often complex and at times seemingly contradictory trajectories of a few men and women living through the final few decades of the Age of Empire. To makes sense of this I had to rely to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of “habitus” and (fractured) social spaces to get a handle on the complexities of human lives thrown together through the virtue of being part of an influential family at the center of the Ottoman metropole. In part by using these concepts, I examined the process (over time and space) of racialization and ethno-racial differentiation; the place of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” in being “Ottoman” or signified as “Arab”; the emergence of an “Arab vs. Turk” cultural war for the soul of what it meant to be an Ottoman citizen in the twentieth century; the production of imperial rule and how it was deployed at home and abroad in the late-nineteenth century; global imperial identifications of the ruling elites (from Paris, to St Petersburg, to Istanbul); and microhistory as way of getting at social and cultural histories which are often left in our collective blind spot when focusing on political history with an almost complete reliance on state archives. I did not invent any of these concepts from thin air; they come from years of reading and engaging with historians from inside and outside of the field of Middle Eastern studies, such as Hasan Kayalı, Christine Philliou, Cemil Aydın, Engin Akarlı, Eve Troutt-Powell, Michael Provence, Carlo Ginsburg, Natali Zemon Davis, Homi Bhaba, and Frantz Fanon, to name a few of many.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

MM: Some of the historical actors the readers encounter in Losing Istanbul might be familiar to those who read my previous book, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa (2016). Writing The Ottoman Scramble for Africa, and the time I have reflected on it since, made it clear to me that one must understand Ottoman imperialism as well as imperial rule, with similarities and differences from other forms of imperial rule (British, French, Russian, etc.), deploying different forms of inclusion and exclusion in different places at different times. Being clear about that allowed me to be clear eyed when exploring the particularities of Ottoman imperialism in all its complexities and specificities, without dismissing knowledge of how imperialism worked in better studied areas of the world, like South Asia and the Americas. Colonial and post-colonial studies and critical race theory, to name a few, allow us to approach understudied history of the Ottoman period in places like the Arabic-speaking and Kurdish-speaking majority provinces of the empire, for example, with a conceptual framework. I am not suggesting that those theories apply wholesale, but that they might allow trained scholars a starting point. Thus, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa and the subsequent understanding of the complexity of Ottoman imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa and the Hijaz deeply influenced my approach to the study of lives of imperialists living in the metropole, which Losing Istanbul focuses on.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MM: As many people as possible! One of my goals when I wrote the book was accessibility and, hopefully, fluidity that would allow someone interested in learning about life lived, in a seemingly distant time and place, to relate to the trials and tribulations of surviving or succumbing to a period of intense pressure and transition.

Naturally, I also want fellow historians and students of the history of the region to read and engage with it. In fact, I address them directly in many places in the book. I want the field to open up, be more welcoming to those working on the frontiers of what we know, and to dig deeper, push against the boundaries of accessible archives and anti-colonial themes that have benefited us in the past, but now seem to stimy creativity and conversation. I want Ottoman history to be a truly global field of inquiry, where gatekeeping has no place, and scholars who have the language skills from across the former lands of the empire to take ownership of it. Ottoman history is Arab history, Ottoman history is Balkan history, Ottoman history is Kurdish history, Ottoman history is African history, too.

I also want those interested in microhistory and the history of racialization in the Global South to read and engage with the book. It is but an invitation to engage. More than anything, I want it translated to Arabic, Turkish, and French first, and then Chinese, Spanish, and so on, as soon as possible, so new conversations will open up with colleagues and students in parts of the world where the language of knowledge production is not English. That is why my first book talk was in Istanbul and Ankara and I am planning discussions in Khartoum, Beirut, Tunis, Sharjah, and Doha. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MM: Over the past five years, I conducted extensive multi-sited research on Ottoman-Ethiopian relations and the competition for sovereignty over the African coast of the Red Sea, including northern Somalia. I will go back to this research, but with a fresh outlook that takes the personal and individual histories seriously, and, perhaps most importantly, cannot ignore race and difference making in understanding Ottoman interaction with local political powers in the Horn of Africa and how that interaction was reflected and performed in the metropole. I am also working with several scholars around the world to develop spaces for research and conversation about race and how it operated beyond the “West.”


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 8-14)

Losing Istanbul operates on three levels. The first is the voyeuristic level of a curious spectator observing the colorful lives of this generation of Arab-Ottoman imperialists unfold on the pages of the book. A deep dive into the details of the lives of Sadik and Shafiq shows how significant events were experienced on the individual level and, conversely, suggests an alternative understanding that takes an individual’s disposition as a driving force behind some of the state’s policies. One level deeper brings the reader to the complex topics of ethnicity, race, and the anxiety of life under a creeping Western political and cultural hegemony and in an increasingly ethnoracialized Ottoman center. Yet one level deeper uncovers the operation of microhistory to get at a “total history” in the tradition of the Annales school.

One way to approach Losing Istanbul is as a story of two handsome, well-educated, well-traveled Arab-Ottoman men who spent the bulk of their careers working for the palace and living a privileged life with their families in Istanbul, from the mid-1880s to the mid-1910s. It affords readers a “fly on the wall” perspective on the inner workings of the Ottoman state through the personal lives of Arab-Ottoman statesmen. Shafiq and Sadik hailed from a powerful provincial family that was a feature of regional politics in Damascus and Aleppo and one that has been extensively studied but only as a provincial or Syrian phenomenon. This book turns the spotlight on Istanbul’s Arab-Ottoman community through the social spaces of the Azmzades—their careers and the intimacies of their quotidian life set against the dramatic background of Istanbul’s glamorous high society; the political intrigue of the palace; and the near-constant existential anxiety that came with living at the center of a vanishing imperial world order. Marriages and births; palace receptions and circumcision ceremonies; corsets and medal-adorned uniforms; travel and (mis)adventure—all are part of the story. The ugly side of imperialism also features prominently, including classism, corruption, slavery, the rise of racism, ethnoracial discrimination, and ethnic cleansing.

The goal is to give the reader a street-level understanding of the experience of the final four decades of an ailing empire through the eyes of a small community of Arab-Ottomans in Istanbul that identified with the idea of an Ottoman Empire until the end. I use experience throughout in both its passive and active senses. The word tajruba (Tr. tecrübe) is better suited for what I mean because it encompasses both passive and active meanings. One meaning refers to something that a person goes through passively, in the process impacting one’s senses, disposition, and character. The other refers to experimentation, in which one partakes in “tests,” constructs, and ponders one’s condition, often acting as the subject, object, and in some cases narrator of perceived reality.

Another layer of analysis is meant for students of Ottoman history interested in themes such as imperial identification(s), ethnoracialization, and racism in the late Ottoman Empire. First, however, a note on the term “Arab-Ottoman imperialist” and why it is fundamental to the arguments I present. I use imperialist to refer to Arab-Ottomans who built their careers, social connections, and sense of self around the Hamidian-era palace and who pegged their survival to the success of Ottoman imperialism. They stood in contrast to others from Arabic-speaking majority provinces who opposed Hamidian rule or were not as invested in Ottoman imperialism, who lived too far away from the political currents of the time to care, and who gradually became invested in alternative futures, with Arab separatist nationalism being an extreme version of these futures.

The other choice of terminology is the hyphenated Arab-Ottoman signifier, which risks coming across as an anachronistic borrowing from the hyphened identifiers of countries that tout their multicultural heritage. Having lived in Canada, I see terms like Arab-Canadian or French-Canadian as culturally acceptable ways to acknowledge difference without causing offense. Canada’s “multiculturalism” policies were initially proposed as a way to address the grievances of Canadians of French origin who had always felt that their cultural identity was under threat. Then they were extended to include an increasingly diverse immigrant population. The country’s “multiculturalism” remains controversial for many reasons, including the message it sends about the need for some Canadians to explicitly identify their ethnic or national origins. In contrast, the majority—White Canadians of Anglo/Irish origin—do not need an additional marker to signify their national belonging. In order to avoid replicating a similar logic in the Ottoman case, where an “Ottoman” is often, erroneously, assumed to mean “Turk” while the rest of the ethnic groups need to be more finely ethnically or religiously identified, I follow the same naming convention for Turkish-Ottomans as I do for others like Armenian-, Greek-, or Kurdish-Ottomans, whenever it is relevant to the discussion.

I also insist on the use of the hyphenated signifier to reflect the way public discourse acknowledged and emphasized the different ‘anaser/anasır (sing. Ar./Tr.: ‘unsur/unsur). Unsur literally meant “element,” but in the context in which it was mostly used in the early twentieth century, it better corresponded to the English use of ethnies or ethnic groups that made up the Ottoman peoples. I argue that outside of the official state discourse the discussion was less about the various religious sects and increasingly about the various ethnic groups. By 1908 the use of al-‘unsur al-‘arabi, which means the Arab ethnic group, was a common way of referring to Ottomans who identified themselves or were identified as having an Arab origin. Turks were similarly referred to as an unsur. Both one’s ethnic group—Arab, Greek, Kurdish, Albanian—and its belonging to a wider Ottoman fatherland—Ottoman—were important signifiers at this juncture in imperial history, particularly in the context of the life of statesmen living in Istanbul. To make both elements visible and indivisible, I use Arab-Ottoman throughout the book. To avoid the perils that the modern use of the hyphen presents in Canada, I use this method to signify all ethnic groups, including Turkish-Ottomans.

Unsur is not to be confused with millet, which was inherited from the early days of the Ottoman state, initially referring to state-recognized non-Muslim populations of the empire: the Greek Orthodox (Rum), the Armenians, and the Jews. The meaning of millet changed over time, and in the late nineteenth century the state used millet to refer to any legally recognized “nationality of people.”

[…] In addition to religious difference and the nineteenth-century notion of millet, I argue that unsur was a necessary addition to the vocabulary of public discourse, which acknowledged the rise of an ethnoracial identification beyond the Ottoman state–recognized millet or an evolving sectarian system. Unsur reflected a new social reality that acknowledged the ethnoracial identification of peoples and a global trend of racialization and ethnonationalism. Istanbul was not immune to this late imperial mentality, where a person’s unsur, or ethnicity, became rigid categories and had real implications for urban Ottoman society. It is telling that in Arabic ‘unsuriyya, from ‘unsur, developed to also mean racism in the twentieth century.

[…] I argue that the exclusive focus on political organization and the rise of nationalism has left us blind to the rise of ethnoracial differentiation in Ottoman society well before the rise of populist nationalism. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Ottoman society’s self-perception was undergoing a transformation. Arab or Turk, for example, were not innocuous signifiers but critical ethnoracial markers deployed in the Ottoman metropole with positive and negative connotations. They were also embraced by some and avoided by others in the small circle of Arab-Ottoman statesmen well before the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, the 1911 loss of Libya to Italian colonialism, the 1912 Balkan losses, or World War I. Arab-Ottoman and Turkish-Ottoman acknowledge and amplify this reality.

[…] Ethnoracial differentiation, which was a feature of late imperialism around the globe, and which some historians have pointed to along the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire, manifested itself in the Ottoman metropole as well…In this book […] I do not shy away from noting where ethnoracial identification, which is often associated with frontier regions or colonial possessions, was reflected in the society of the Ottoman metropole as well.

The third layer of Losing Istanbul addresses historians interested in the theoretical underpinnings of an experiential history of a group of people outside of the tradition of historical biographies. I use sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and social space because they provide a rich and malleable framework for understanding the lifeworld of a group of individuals who adapted to a changing world, across empires, cities, and cultures […].

[…] It bears repeating that this book is not a biography of two men. It is a glimpse into the changing lifeworld of men and women who shared overlapping social spaces, systems of disposition, and a patchwork of fractured habitus […].

[…] In particular, I attempt to understand their habitus, changing positionality, and the emergence of notions of difference that have, with a few notable exceptions, eluded scholars of the Ottoman Empire. Leaning on the work of thinkers from a variety of fields, I investigate Sadik’s identification or purposeful (dis)engagement with “Ottoman-ness,” “Europeanness,” “Arab-ness,” and “Whiteness” from his writings during his travels in Africa and Europe and while accompanying Russian and German royalty in the Levant […].