Forgetting the Ottoman past has done the Arabs no good

As a historian of the Ottoman Empire, I believe it is criminal to keep millions of people disconnected from their own recent past.

A photo of Haqqi al-Azm and other prominent Arab politicans
Haqqi al-Azm (in the centre, dressed in white) was a prominent Ottoman bureaucrat before serving as Syria's prime minister in the 1930s [Creative Commons/Wikipedia]

Imperialism is a difficult subject to tackle in the Arab world. The word conjures up associations with the days of French and British colonialism and the present-day settler colony of Israel. Yet the more indigenous and long-lasting form of imperial rule, Ottoman imperialism, is often left out of contemporary historical debates.

Some of the states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire have chosen to sum up Ottoman rule in local curricula as simply Ottoman or Turkish “occupation”, while others repeat well-rehearsed tropes of “Ottoman atrocities” that continue to have popular purchase on a local level.

In places like Syria and Lebanon, probably the best-known Ottoman official is military commander Ahmed Cemal (Jamal) Pasha, infamously nicknamed “al-Saffah” (the Butcher). His wartime governorship of the provinces of Syria and Beirut was marked by political violence and executions of Arab-Ottoman politicians and intellectuals and remains in public memory as the symbol of Ottoman rule.

But as historian Salim Tamari has pointed out, it is wrong to reduce “four centuries of relative peace and dynamic activity [during] the Ottoman era” to “four miserable years of tyranny symbolized by the military dictatorship of Ahmad Cemal Pasha in Syria”.

Indeed, Ottoman imperial history in the Arab world cannot be boiled down to a “Turkish occupation” or a “foreign yoke”. We cannot grapple with this 400-year history from 1516 to 1917 without coming to terms with the fact that it was a homegrown form of imperial rule.

A substantial number of the members of the imperial ruling class were in fact Arab Ottomans, who hailed from the Arabic-speaking-majority parts of the empire, like the Malhamés of Beirut and al-Azms of Damascus.

They, and many others, were active members of the Ottoman imperial project, who designed, planned, implemented, and supported imperial Ottoman rule in the region and across the empire.

Al-Azms held some of the highest positions in the empire’s Levantine provinces, including the governorship of Syria, for several generations. The Istanbul branch of the family, known as Azmzades, also held key positions in the palace, the various ministries and commissions, and later in the Ottoman parliament during the reign of Abdülhamid II and the second Ottoman constitutional period. The Malhamés were acting as commercial and political power brokers in cities like Istanbul, Beirut, Sofia and Paris.

Many Arab Ottomans fought until the very end to introduce a more inclusive notion of citizenship and representative political participation into the empire. This was particularly true for the generation who grew up after the sweeping centralisation reforms in the first half of the 19th century, part of the so-called Tanzimat period of modernisation.

Some of them held positions that ranged from diplomats negotiating on behalf of the sultan with imperial counterparts in Europe, Russia, and Africa to advisers who planned and executed major imperial projects, such as the implementation of public health measures in Istanbul and the construction of a railway linking the Hijaz region in the Arabian Peninsula with Syria and the capital.

They imagined an Ottoman citizenship that, at its idealistic best, embraced all ethnic and officially recognised religious groups and that envisioned a form of belonging that, at the risk of sounding anachronistic, can be described as a multicultural notion of imperial belonging. It was an aspirational vision that was never realised, as ethno-nationalism began to influence Ottomans’ self-perception.

Many Arab Ottomans continued to fight for it to the bitter end – until their world imploded with the demise of the empire during World War I.

The horrors of war in the Middle East and the colonial occupation that followed were traumatic events that found peoples of the region scrambling to construct Western-sponsored nation-states.

Nation-building took place as a narrow ethno-religious understanding of nationhood came to dominate the region, sidelining multicultural identities that had been the norm for centuries. Former Ottoman officials had to reinvent themselves as Arab, Syrian, or Lebanese, etc national leaders in the face of French and British colonialism. A prominent example is Haqqi al-Azm, who, among other positions within the Ottoman empire, held the inspector general post at the Ottoman Ministry of Awqaf; in the 1930s, he served as Syria’s prime minister.

These visions of an ethno-national future necessitated the “forgetting” of the recent Ottoman past. Narratives of imagined primordial nations left no room for the stories of our great-grandparents and their parents, generations of people that lived part of their lives in a different geopolitical reality, and who would never be given the space to acknowledge the loss of the only reality they understood.

These are stories of common people like Bader Doghan (Doğan) and Abd al-Ghani Uthman (Osman) – my great-grandparents who were born and raised in Beirut but lived an iterant life as artisans between Beirut, Damascus, and Jaffa until the rise of national boundaries put an end to their world experiences.

These are also stories of better-known families like some of al-Khalidis and al-Abids, notable Arab-Ottoman political families who called Istanbul home, but maintained households and familial connections in Aleppo, Jerusalem, and Damascus. Their stories and the stories of their communities that existed for centuries within an imperial imaginary and a wider regional cosmology were often summed up in a reductionist and dismissive official narrative.

Their recent history was replaced by a short summary that painted “the Turk” as a foreign Other, the Arab Revolt as a war of liberation, and Western colonial occupation as an inevitable conclusion to the disintegration of “the sick man of Europe”.

This erasure of history is highly problematic, if not dangerous.

As a historian of the Ottoman Empire with Palestinian and Lebanese roots, I truly believe it is no less than a crime to keep millions of people disconnected from their own recent past, from the stories of their ancestors, villages, town, and cities in the name of protecting an unstable conglomeration of nation-state formations. The people of the region have been uprooted from their historical reality and left vulnerable to the false narratives of politicians and nationalist historians.

We need to reclaim Ottoman history as a local history of the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking-majority lands because if we do not claim and unpack the recent past, it would be impossible to truly understand the problems that we are facing today, in all their temporal and regional dimensions.

The call for local students of history to research, write, and analyse the recent Ottoman reality is in no way a nostalgic call to return to some imagined days of a glorious or harmonious imperial past. In fact, it is the complete opposite.

It is a call to uncover and come to terms with the good, the bad, and, indeed, the very ugly imperial past that people in the Arabic-speaking-majority parts of the Middle East were also the makers of. The long and storied histories of the people of cities that flourished during the Ottoman period, like Tripoli, Aleppo, and Basra, have yet to be (re)written.

It is also important to understand why, more than 100 years since the end of the empire, the erasure of the deeply rooted and intimate connections between the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Europe continues, and who benefits from this erasure. We must ask ourselves why is it that researchers from Arabic-speaking-majority countries frequent French and English imperial archives, but do not spend the time or the resources to learn Ottoman-Turkish in order to take advantage of four centuries worth of records readily available at the Ottoman imperial archives in Istanbul or local archives in former provincial capitals?

Have we bought into the nationalist understanding of history in which Ottoman-Turkish and the Ottoman past belong solely to Turkish national historiography? Are we still the victim of a century’s worth of short-sighted political interests that ebb and flow as regional tensions between Arab countries and Turkey rise and fall?

Millions of records in Ottoman-Turkish await students from across the Arabic-speaking-majority world to take the plunge into serious research that uses the full range of sources, both on the local and imperial levels.

Finally, the number of local historians and students with Ottoman history-related disciplinary and linguistic training, in cities such as Doha, Cairo, and Beirut, which have a concentration of excellent institutions of higher education, is alarmingly low; some universities do not even have such cadres.

It is high time that the institutions of higher learning in the region begin to claim Ottoman history as local history and to support scholars and students who want to uncover and analyse this neglected past.

For if we do not invest in investigating and writing our own history, then we give up our narratives to various interests and agendas that do not put our people at the centre of their stories.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.