On “Europe knows nothing about the Orient” by Zeynep Çelik

INSPIRED BY Edward Said Orientalism (1978), Zeynep Çelik Europe knows nothing about the Orient brings together Ottoman voices from the 1870s to the 1930s who rose up against and challenged European Orientalist discourse. The result is an anthology that is compelling in scope and content, and which in turn invites us to delve into other ‘eastern’ contexts in order to ‘further complicate the history of cultural hegemony and help present a world in which ideas have traveled. , have been transformed, engaged in debates and even transformed into battlefields. Çelik’s timely volume also prompts readers to explore the reactions of so-called “Orientals” to their contemporary challenges through the vivid case of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire, at its peak, spanned three continents. It was a European empire as much as an “eastern” kingdom even before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. While much of its territory was located in Europe, the Ottomans also saw themselves as the successors of the Roman Empire. . Ottoman imperial ambitions continually challenged European powers, and the empire’s ever-expanding borders upended these powers on several occasions until the siege of Vienna in 1683, which marked the beginning of the Ottomans’ decline – the time when the ’empire began to become “the sick man of Europe.”

The decline of the empire, however, progressed in tandem with what is often said to be a separate story: the constant rise of Europe as a colonial power since the 15th century, which forced the colonized peoples to define themselves. in opposition to Europe. Posed as the other “uncivilized”, the colonized had to assert their identities in terms borrowed from European discourses, becoming more and more objectified since these discourses treated them as objects to be analyzed, to be explored, and in turn. , to tame. In science, philosophy and art, the colonized other was the object of the European gaze: enchanting and primitive, zealous and despotic, it was a curiosity suspended in time.

While the Ottoman Empire was arguably an exception to European colonization, its territorial and political losses forced it to define itself in the same way as the colonized world. Lagging behind technological advancements, industrial development and economic growth in Europe, the Ottomans were forced to defend what was left of their once vast multicontinental empire. However, their imperial ambitions were never given up but rather were transformed into an understanding of themselves as “benevolent” rulers, unlike the nascent colonial empires in Europe. The texts in Çelik’s volume demonstrate Ottoman resistance to Orientalist objectification while emphasizing the construction of the Ottoman identity in terms of the imperialist will to maintain its status quo.


Çelik’s informative introduction to the volume, “A Critical Discourse from the East (1872-1932),” provides a detailed framework for Ottoman critiques of European Orientalism, which differed from one another chronologically, ideologically, formally and stylistically. Çelik’s introduction weaves a narrative that not only addresses Ottoman imperial ambitions (and, later, Turkish nationalist aspirations), but also highlights the complicated context in which these ambitions became a discourse that sought to construct the empire as equal, if not superior, to Europe. , despite its lack of industrialization and economic development. This narrative also emphasizes the continuity of the anti-orientalist discourse through these two distinct eras of Turkish history.

Çelik brings together texts of different genres, from novels and poems to newspaper articles and scholarly treatises from the late Ottoman intellectuals and the early republican Turkish intellectuals. Primary sources, ranging from the work of well-known writers like Namık Kemal, Ahmet Haşim, Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil and Halide Edip Adıvar, to that of lesser-known figures like journalists Ebüzziya and Ercüment Ekrem, have been translated into English. by Aron Aji and Gregory Key. These various materials, she asserts, “naturally gave way to a classification into five categories: the great battles, art as a measure of civilization, ‘oriental’ women and life at home, the unique case. by Pierre Loti and sarcasm as revenge ”. This thematic organization offers an ideal gateway to understand how Ottoman and Turkish intellectuals received and responded to the orientalist attitudes of European scholars, writers and travelers. As they tried to find ways to remedy European ignorance of Ottoman culture and life, they also sought to remedy their own shortcomings by preserving their cultural archives and expanding research on art and culture. Ottoman architecture. Mocking the incompetence of European Orientalists, these intellectuals struggled to understand the origins of their strange confidence in their fictionalized conceptions of the identity and way of life of “Eastern” peoples.

The first selection of the chapter “Great Battles” also bears the name of the volume: “Europe knows nothing about the Orient” by Namık Kemal, whose ideas were instrumental in the construction of Turkish national identity. Although the article is short, it expresses common themes that can be found in many texts. According to Kemal, there are a number of reasons why Europeans, otherwise so advanced in science and scholarship, failed to perceive “true character like ours, which is so close to them. than […] he might as well touch their eyelashes. First, it is possible that they may not have access to adequate resources on the Ottomans, or that their native informants, the ethnic minorities of the empire who serve as their interpreters, are misleading them. Second, they were seduced by fabulous accounts of the Ottoman Empire, such as the popular fantasies of 19th-century French novelist Pierre Loti (the subject of an entire section in this volume). Third, some scholars, like Ernest Renan, knowingly published misleading ideas about Islam and the Ottoman Empire that became widespread. Finally, the mastery of the languages ​​concerned by European academics – Turkish, Persian and Arabic – is generally, despite their bluster, laughable, which prevents them from understanding their subject.

Ottoman intellectuals like Ahmet Mithat are astonished that Europeans “who conduct serious research” have not studied the East in the same scientific way. For Kemal, the problem is that Orientalist scholars “approach Islam as a pleasant pastime as they do with the belief systems of certain savage tribes.” The solution to this problem, according to most of the texts gathered in the volume, is either for Europeans to really master the languages ​​of the peoples they study, or for the Ottomans who know European languages ​​to enlighten their interlocutors. For other scholars, such as Şevket Süreyya, Celal Esad and Ismayıl Hakkı, further research and scientific production on Ottoman and Turkish history and art would not only right the wrongs perpetuated by European scholars, but would also allow a non-Eurocentric approach to history. of the Ottoman Empire.

But such erudition also sometimes reproduced colonialist hierarchies by extolling Ottoman and Turkish civilization over that of Arabs, Persians and Africans, as is the case with the hierarchy of the arts of Celal Esad, which places Ottoman architecture at the center of that of the Arabs, Persians and Africans. above Persian and Arab architecture. According to Namık Kemal, once more research was carried out and made available to Europeans, the world would see “the heroic eminence of the Ottomans and the beauty of their manners”, that is, the benevolence of the state. Ottoman as a unique empire allowing its subjects to practice their own religion and speak their own language while promising protection against aggression based on race, religion or ethnicity. What is called Ottoman exceptionalism is essentially an imperialist discourse, which also figures prominently in discussions of the position of women and the status of domestic slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Extracts from Fatma Aliye’s 1896 book Women of Islam, for example, include the author’s assertion that women in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed a higher social status than European women, as well as her justification for the domestic slavery of Circassian women.

Another point of contention for Ottoman intellectuals is the insistence of Orientalist scholars that Orientals cannot learn new ideas or even understand their own culture. “Because we are Muslims, it seems, we have a tight iron ring around our heads,” exclaims Namık Kemal, “and this ring keeps our intellect closed to all forms of knowledge, all forms. learning, all forms of new ideas – and we still don’t know it! Writing in 1919, Ömer Seyfettin pokes fun at this attitude by telling the story of a French traveler who, eager to know the life behind the closed doors of Ottoman houses, finally spent a night with the narrator’s nanny. While exploring the house at night, he came across a room that served as a closet and laundry room, and yet the French traveler insisted that he was ‘this is a secret sanctuary: “[E]even your coffers have something mysterious, something incomprehensible, a sacred air, ”he asserts, telling the mocking narrator,“ you are blind to it. […] Obviously you can’t see.

For the Orientalist, in other words, the Orient is, or must be, a sacred and mysterious land populated by a people who have no idea of ​​their own history, no way of knowing their own life, despite live it. As Ahmet Haşim puts it in “The Hospice for the Storks”, “the awe of Orientalist scholars at our works of art” shows a breathtaking underestimation of indigenous intelligence – for the Orientalist, ” it is amazing that we have done something beautiful ”. Grégoire Baille, owner of a “stork hospice” in Bursa, responds to this sentiment in the most condescending and romantic way by saying that the technology that led to the opening of the Panama Canal is less worthy of its enthusiasm that an oriental made by hand. artifact. While normalizing and trivializing European technological progress, this response also reduces Eastern subjects to a primitive position – as if not an inch of progress had been made since the ancient Babylonians, as if the East itself was a ancient living and breathing artifact.


The texts chosen with perspicacity and effectively translated in this volume bear witness to the emergence and the entrenchment of European Orientalism from the point of view of its subjects. Çelik’s book invites readers to reflect on the entanglement of the Orient with Orientalist discourse – for example, in the definitions of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic of themselves as outstanding governing bodies. who at times constantly needed to be confirmed by their European peers while lining up at other times. themselves with the colonized populations fighting against European imperialism. Europe knows nothing about the Orient is an invitation to finally start investigating Orientalism on the other side, from the point of view of “Orientals”, with all the complexities and contradictions that come with it.


A. Ozge Kocak Hemmat is an independent researcher and university administrator from Chicago. She is the author of The Turkish novel and the quest for rationality.

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