What is the Other Republic?

Image Caption: “Do You Want to Take a Trip Around the World?” from Resimli Perşembe, November 29, 1928.

As the about page suggests, this space is going to consist mostly of the side-alleys I’ve been taking on the way to writing a dissertation about opponents of Kemalism in Turkey’s single party period (1919-1950). Along the way to collecting the material I’ve been using in my dissertation, there’s a lot of disconnected, but fascinating pieces of culture, history, politics that I’m guessing will ultimately wind up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Yet I collected these things for a reason, and that’s because they’re often interesting to think with, if only briefly. So a blog it is.

Before I dive in to posting odd photos, stray archival documents, and translations of poetry (there will be a fair amount of this, I’m sure), it is probably worth taking a post to describe what I mean by the title of this blog: The Other Republic.

The title of my dissertation is “The Republic of Others” and I will spare you the convoluted reason I’m going by that name (in short: I’m a sucker for Said), but The Other Republic is meant as a catch-all term for what was going on in Turkey in this period that was outside the bounds of the Kemalist modernization project. In general terms, we like to understand that Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as a benevolent sort of dictator whose singleminded commitment to modernization dragged Turkey by the ear out of a “traditional” mode of society and culture and into a “modern” (meaning western) one. This of course is a gross oversimplification, but it sets up a dichotomy  that has been used to explain Turkish history in the Kemalist period and after by historians since the 1950s, if not earlier. Even today, Turkey seemingly can’t avoid being described as some sort of liminal zone between an idealized “East” and an “West”. Part of the project I’m embarking on here is to try and smash that cliche.

The reason for this is one of the problems at the heart of my dissertation, though it’s a much bigger than one dissertation can digest efficiently, and that is that when you start examining the history of this period closely, you begin to see that even though the Kemalists themselves employ these broad terms “East” and “West” when they talk about modernity and civilization, the places, people and things they have in mind are actually quite particular. So even though the “West” might have begun, geographically at least, just past the far banks of the Danube as it did in Ottoman times, when Kemalists employed the term they clearly meant the urban centers in France and Germany where many of them had been educated or resided a few decades earlier before Abdülhamid II was deposed in the 1908/9 Young Turk Revolution. This time and place is important because when you look closely, even the radical modernization of Mustafa Kemal was itself just a step behind the times. Mustafa Kemal’s western culture devoured opera when the rest of Europe and America were digging into jazz, frock coats and top hats were the uniform of modernity to Kemalists, but as demonstrated in shows like Downton Abbey, they were symbols of a stodgy, outdated aristocracy elsewhere, even in purely intellectual terms, Kemalists idealized positivist continental thinkers like Auguste Comte and Ludwig Büchner but by the twenties the cutting edge had far surpassed them for the likes of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud.

But just because these are the ideas and cultures the Kemalists put on a pedestal, doesn’t mean the more contemporary, and even more radical, ones weren’t finding their way into Turkey and making a significant impact on daily life for many thousands, if not millions of Turkish citizens. Jazz clubs were prevalent in Istanbul by the mid-20s, it was even a haven for a few African-Americans who found it a friendly respite from the Jim Crow south (just as James Baldwin or Eartha Kitt would a few decades later). With a greater emphasis on unveiling and the denigration of the fez, fashion took off in myriad directions in the mid-20s, drawing influences from all over the globe. Film and poetry became venues for radical new methods of expression, bringing abstract modernism, futurism, socialist realism and their attendant political movements to Turkey. This is the stuff of The Other Republic – the people who were committed to different visions of society than the political elite.

Finally, it’s important to remember that this “stuff” was definitely held at arms length by the Kemalists. The young Turkish Republic did not exactly have a lock-tight protection of free expression, and the government could at times be ruthless in prosecuting artists, intellectuals, journalists, novelists, and other cultural figures for disseminating propaganda. Many viewed the young men and women at jazz clubs as immoral, or signs of “superwesternization” and the quickening pace of life truly disturbed many across the country. The space between the Republic and The Other Republic was indeed a battleground, and remained so throughout the single party era.

These are the guiding ideas and principles of this blog, but hopefully they aren’t so heavy as to distract from the innate curiosity of many of the items I’ll post and discuss here. Thanks for dropping by, feel free to chime in through the comments if you feel inclined.

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