‘Losing Istanbul’: Personal histories illustrate an empire’s end

In the late 19th century photographs, the two men look proud and capable, Sadik al-Mu’ayyad Azmzade wearing a military uniform of the Ottoman Empire and Shafiq al-Mu’ayyad Azmzade in evening dress. Both sport handlebar mustaches. They also look somewhat alike; Shafiq, although a few years younger, is Sadik’s uncle.

At the time of the photos, these two members of a notable Arab-Ottoman family are on the ascent in 1890s Istanbul – and are at the center of “Losing Istanbul: Arab-Ottoman Imperialists at the End of Empire,” by Mostafa Minawi, associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences and the director of Critical Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies.

They are settling their families in the chic Teşvikiye neighborhood and working their way up through the imperial ranks – Shafiq in the palace and then in the parliament and Sadik as a diplomat to Russia, Africa and beyond – unaware that the centuries-old empire they depend upon will, within their lifetimes, fall.

In “Losing Istanbul,” Minawi follows the personal and professional lives of the men and their families through the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. Putting biographical details in conversation with global events, the book gives the reader a street-level understanding of what it was like to live through the final decades of the ailing Ottoman Empire – especially for members of the Arab-Ottoman community of Istanbul.

“This book shows the experience of the end of empire,” Minawi said. “The glamour and ugliness of imperialism can be told through the intimate day-to-day of this particular family in a way that hopefully will give an emotional resonance to the reader rather than just tell what happened.”

For about 15 years, Minawi compiled information about Sadik and Shafiq Azmzade on the side while writing one scholarly project, “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa,” and researching another. But after he survived the August 2020 Port of Beirut explosion without a scratch despite being two blocks away, he decided to turn this “daunting” collection of notes into a book.

“Living through that crystalized the idea that we think about major events not as what happened but as how we experience them,” Minawi said.

As if to illustrate the connection between personal experience and global events, Minawi wrote “Losing Istanbul” on a laptop damaged by the explosion in Beirut.

A traumatic transition

In the last decades of the 19th century, an unprecedented number of people from the Arabic-speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire – including today’s Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan – were close to the center of power, Minawi said. Sadik offers an example of someone from this group working for Istanbul but outside of the capital, traveling internationally on official business. Sadik also wrote beyond official documents, including a travelogue.

“His writing betrays his own sense of having to think about where he fits at different times,” Minawi said, “giving me an insight into how his social space was changing around him because he travels.”

Shafiq is a prototype of an Ottoman official who goes through political changes and reinvents himself several times as a way of surviving, Minawi said. He also reflects emerging ethno-racial formations and their political implications.

“Shafiq is little known in the Turkish historiography but well-known in the Arab historiography – as a proto-Arab nationalist who dies for the cause,” Minawi said. “His hanging as a traitor [in 1916] makes him a hero to those who want to highlight Arab nationalism.”

Shafiq’s wife, Nimet, appears on the cover of the book, and, notably in the last chapter. Her death in childbirth and the death of their newborn soon after become the subject of political arguments between Arab and Turkish parliamentary representatives.

“Those ugly details brought up in the parliament to accuse Shafiq of murder of his wife are very much representative of this moment in time, where there was potential after the revolution for the birth of a multicultural empire with equality amongst its citizens. But like his son, it turns out to be a still birth,” Minawi said.

Minawi invites readers to reconsider the history of the Ottoman Empire as the shared heritage of the people of all successor states and not as an exclusive prehistory of modern Turkey alone.

“On the micro level, I’m asking readers to consider the experience of going through such a traumatic transition,” Minawi said. “We don’t talk about this trauma: Once the empire ended, all the [newly formed] nation states wanted to cut the population’s imagination off from what happened before. I want readers to think about what this trauma did to the collective psyche of people in the Middle East.”

On a larger scale, Minawi wants to show how ethnicity and race start to matter in a new way during the last 20 years of the Ottoman empire, a time when ethno-racial categories were operating in the rest of the imperial world, including in British, French and Italian empires.

“Race comes from racism, not the other way around,” Minawi said. “The process of racializing people creates notions of racial difference. I hope this book will allow an entryway for us to talk about it in the Ottoman case, and to talk about it in the heart of the empire, Istanbul.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		Book cover: Losing Istanbul