Aslihan Agaoglu
Last updated: 30 March, 2013

Turkish history beyond facts and figures

A student of the transition from Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey, Aslihan Agaoglu chose to study novels from that period instead of numbers, documents and history books. This has taught her a few valuable lessons about history.

When I was in high school I did not enjoy my history class. Our teacher, a tall, bulky man in his mid-forties, with a thick moustache and a metallic voice, narrated historic events as a long list of names and dates. He made me believe that history was something to be memorised as opposed to something to be understood and analysed. It is obvious that he didn’t do a very good job because today, I can’t even for the life of me, remember his name.

Sadly for me, college was no different and it wasn’t until I sat down to write my PhD proposal that I realised just how narrow my perspective on history was. This led me to realise that I had to do some soul-searching and ask questions such as: Why can’t we change the way we study history and show young people that it is so much more than numbers and names? Are we really that attached to the status quo and suspicious of change?

I decided that I would tackle a subject that has been studied for decades by many accomplished historians and academics: the transition period from Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey. But instead of dealing with numbers and figures and talking about historical events through documents or history books, I took a different approach and began to read novels written during that period; novels that portrayed the everyday lives of ordinary people. This allowed me to focus on people as the subject of that period of rapid and drastic change, instead of the change itself. Instead of researching what has changed and how, through the characters of those novels, I was able to get inside the head of various people who lived through those changes and see the effects it had on their sense of self, national identity and everyday lives.

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During a period of reforms in the late 1800s known as the Tanzimat movement in the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan of the time, Abdulhamit II, decided to end the reforms that were leading the country towards a democratic regime to preserve the monarchy. He wanted to bring Islamic laws back and sent those who resisted this change to exile, or even worse, had them killed. Abdulhamit II enjoyed a thirty-year period on the throne, where he led the already weakened country to destruction, until finally, a group of well-educated bureaucrats called the Young Turks rebelled against the monarchy and demanded that the reforms and the constitution were brought back. They dethroned the Sultan and the parliament was once again united to represent the public after a thirty-year break. But by then, it was already too late.

Today, we live in a world where information is fast and easy to access. Anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and a personal phone can learn the data I have just provided in less than sixty seconds. Yet what we might miss, and what is crucial in order to be able to turn that information into knowledge, is the story behind the data. Behind all the numbers and figures, there’s a story that not only explains what happened, but also sheds a light on how and why it happened. In order to truly understand history and how it affects us today, we need to see more than just the ‘bigger picture,’ like many of us are obsessed with in today’s world.  We need to understand the little pictures as well, meaning looking at the people as individuals and how they were affected as well as looking at facts and figures.

A good example of a historian who sheds light on the story behind the data is Halide Edip. One of the very first female novelists of Turkey, she participated in the revolutionary movement of the Young Turks, and was a corporal who fought in the fronts alongside Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the Turkish National War; she was an activist, a tenacious political figure, and the pioneer of feminist movement in Turkey. And lucky for those of us who wish to study history beyond numbers and figures she was also an exceptional historian.

Oscar Wilde remarks that “Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it,” and if we look at history books, with a few exceptions every now and then, we can see where he was coming from. I believe, on the subject of Ottoman-Turkish history, Halide Edib was one of those exceptions. She was the first woman writer to write the story of Turkish War of Independence. What made her an exception, however, was the fact that she did not just do this through her novels, but she also wrote memoires and history books, which provides us with a 360-degree view of what happened. We are able to understand the aims and goals of the Young Turks, witness the obstacles they had to overcome and the sacrifices they had to make in order to reach those goals. We get to see who they were as individuals. We understand how the actions of Abdulhamit II affected the future of the Empire and its citizens.

Through Edip’s history books we come to understand the bigger-picture of the national struggle for independence, yet through her novels and memoires we get to see how this period influenced the individuals. We learn the facts and then we learn the stories, therefore, we understand the history instead of only memorising it.

History helps us understand human nature while providing the only extensive material that will help us move forward. It enables us to get a better sense of who we are, helps us construct our identity and move forward. However, a mere half-knowledge of history, without fully understanding the whys and hows, will only lead us to repeat history over and over again. Knowing the facts may be important, but to avoid this vicious cycle, we need a different approach towards how we look at history. We must remember that understanding history provides something that we cannot live without: an identity.

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