Nazan Maksudyan, Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nazan Maksudyan (NM): Though its scope has been enlarged, historical writing is still notorious for its disregard and ignorance of a wide range of social groups. Even today, children are almost invisible in historical writing, just as women, working classes, blacks, or ethnic minorities were disregarded earlier. Children`s history—their presence, experiences, and testimonies—is not considered to have historical significance, so children are left out of the narrative. Their viewpoint as actors shaping important processes, as partakers of significant events, and as witnesses of historic moments is simply overlooked. Historical and cultural studies tend to discount childhood as a significant site of analysis because children are primarily seen as passive receptors. They are rarely recognized as cultural presences. Since childhood is legally and biologically understood as a period of dependency, it is usually easy to dismiss children as historical actors. The very belief in children`s specialness—their vulnerability, innocence, and ignorance—also marks childhood as historically irrelevant. Children are often presented as inchoate and not yet fully human so that the figure of the child demarcates the boundaries of personhood, a limiting case for agency, voice, or enfranchisement.
This book, focusing on orphans and destitute children in the late Ottoman Empire, strives to go beyond the “rigid boundaries of importance” for Ottoman history and regard children as “significant”—as part of the history. The research behind attempts to see and listen to these habitually ignored and essentially invisible and voiceless actors is based on the conviction that introducing a new angle of observation, that of children, into unexplored or even previously explored fields of study can expose and enlighten hidden or unseen parts of the phenomena. Voices of children in general—and, for purposes of this book, voices of orphan and destitute children in particular—can be treated as newly discovered sources or belated testimonies for writing a nuanced and alternative history of the late Ottoman era.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NM: The book is divided into four different categories of threatening (and also promising) children. Each chapter brings a different group of destitute children to the forefront as the protagonist and discerns their subjectivity in the picture. Each chapter delineates distinct inner dynamics and differing actors. Whether portrayed as victims or perpetrators, children became the main targets of both modernization and reform agendas.
The first chapter dwells upon the foundlings, specifically the issue of child abandonment and provisions for them, while also addressing national identity, citizenship, and demographic politics.
The leading role of the second chapter belongs to beslemes, foster daughters, taken into households in the form of domestic servants. In this part of the book, different facets of urbanization, child labor, and youth sexuality are elaborated from the perspectives of gender and class.
Moving out of the private setting of late Ottoman households, the third chapter provides a novel and nuanced understanding of the Ottoman reform era. It focuses on an account of the emergence and expansion of a large network of vocational orphanages for orphans, street children, vagrants, beggars, and children of the poor and/or refugee parents in urban centers of the Empire throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and how children became both targets and actors of a politics of urbanity.
The final chapter deals with Armenian orphans of the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896 and how they became a matter of international dispute between different religious denominations and self-interested philanthropy. Discussion in this part centers on conversion, international rivalry, and Ottoman attempts to prevent foreign intervention.
The history of childhood brings the historian into contact with many different disciplines, theoretical backgrounds, approaches, sources, and methods. Each chapter of this book is in close dialogue with other major fields. The first chapter, for that matter, communicates with demographic studies, state welfare policies, and heightened concern toward health issues, such as hygiene, as well as infant and child mortality. The second part could be read as a chapter of Ottoman feminist history, family/household studies, domestic labor, or sexuality. The third chapter communicates with perspectives of labor studies, economic history, the reverberation of Ottoman reform in the provinces, the institutionalization of modern forms of order, security, and surveillance, or the centralization of educational policies. The last chapter constitutes a significant part of nineteenth-century diplomatic history, with its emphasis on the extent of the missionary presence in the Empire, the discontent of the Sublime Pore, and the construction of modern ethno-religious identities and/or states.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
NM: My previous research (meaning my MA) was on the impact of racist scientific discourses, and especially physical anthropology, on early Republican Turkish nationalism. Though I have moved to an utterly different time period and subject matter during my PhD research, the prominence of nascent nationalism(s) cannot be ignored in my new research.
Newly emerging tools of governmentality were crucial for regulating the population and citizenry in a different way. Late Ottoman modernization and centralization projects elicited the disciplinary implications of a modern state apparatus, which made use of microtechnologies of power in everyday social life. Forsaken members of the population, including poor and needy children, all of a sudden became important. Destitute children and orphans had incremental value, as questions of citizenship and national identity construction redefined the “control” over children as a modernist project. They were now objects of social control and discipline.
Moreover, a communally segregated, multiethnic, multireligious society was becoming a centrally administered polity. The attempts to "modernize" established regulations concerning population control with new administrative designs of governmentality challenged the customary autonomy of non-Muslim authorities. The central state could now penetrate into communal affairs and have a presence in its workings. Non-Muslim religious authorities felt threatened, for they were losing their right to self-governance.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NM: Though traditionally disregarded and ignored, the history of children cannot be separated from political, social, economic, and cultural processes that were conceived as essentially pertaining to the lives of adults. This book is written with the conviction that historically relevant developments and discourses of the nineteenth century, such as urbanization, welfare policies, the growth of urban workshops/factories, along with domestic labor, imagined statehood, and nationhood, can be reconceptualized, rewritten, and better comprehended if children are rescued from oblivion.
I hope to convince Ottoman and Middle Eastern historians—but also the public in general—that children matter, that children are important. This is crucial for two reasons. First, if we are convinced (as social scientists) that children are significant historical actors and subjects, then I hope we (as present day adults) would treat children with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Second, if children are taken seriously, then our work (as historians of children and youth) would not so easily be infantilized as child`s play.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NM: My new research project focuses on the social and cultural history of children and youth during the First World War in the Ottoman domains. Thanks to the opportunity of consulting the rich and relatively unexploited German archives, together with the “Ministry of Education” folders of the Ottoman Archives, I have directed my attention towards a project of child displacement between the Ottoman Empire and German Kaiserreich during the First World War and written a few articles on that issue. I also have parallel research on how Ottoman children from different communal identities embodied and reproduced internal political crisis and rivalries as agents and targets of nationalist politics during the war years.
J: How do you see an emphasis specifically on orphans and destitute children as potentially changing our understanding of the late Ottoman Empire?
NM: Standard interpretations of the Ottoman reform era do not include less obvious actors, such as women, peasants, or children, as part of the historical account. The focus is on the state and statesmen—in other words, on adult men—while the rest of the society is simply discounted on the assumption that they are extra-political, namely insignificant, invisible non-actors. Contrary to the neglect of present-day historians, nineteenth-century adult opinion became well aware of the significance of children and reassessed their role within adult-male politics. This was especially due to the new meanings and identities children acquired in their relations with provincial and municipal authorities, foreign missionaries, religious and civil leaders of communities, and the state. As child philanthropy and child saving was embraced by large sections of the society, destitute children became a part of the political, economic, and social agenda, both in material and discursive terms. They were no longer outside the historical scene. On the contrary, children gained channels for being visible and loud. They assumed significant roles, which left traces in the records.
More than a hundred years later, it is possible to perceive how their part was crucial in enforcing, challenging, or rewriting history. This book suggests an alternative vista of Ottoman modernization from within the viewpoint of orphans. Different aspects of Ottoman modernization, such as industrialization, urbanization, economic development, welfare policies, educational centralization, and strengthening of nationalist ideologies, are analyzed through children`s lead.
J: Why was late Ottoman society so obsessed with children in need?
NM: Different interested parties, the state, non-Muslim communities, missionaries, and the bourgeois public saw orphaned and destitute children through different lenses. The motivation and discourse, on the one hand, was based on the desire to save unfortunate children from the dangers to which they were prey. These dangers included losing or being alienated from one`s ethno-religious identity, being sold into slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation, juvenile criminality, prostitution, health problems, death, conversion, and apostasy. And it was not only children who were at risk. These unwanted phenomena would create new classes of children who would pose themselves as threats to the public in the future. The collection or “kidnapping” of abandoned children; the forced or inveigled emigration of little girls to urban centers or abroad; vagrant, idle, and begging children; juvenile crime in the cities; and missionaries` ambitions over massacred orphans were all dangers that several interested parties fought against, either with defensive or offensive strategies. The image of orphans and destitute children was that they were, first, endangered by the modernizing world they were being raised in; and, second, that they themselves were new dangers engendered by that world.
Excerpts from Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire
I just called them the “main characters,” but actually abandoned children are the subaltern of the subaltern. Not only are they poor, destitute, or without a lineage but they are also babies, who are generally nonverbal creatures. “Not having a voice” cannot be better depicted than in their early life experiences. The narrative of the modernizing state, and the calculus of mothers deciding to abandon their children or of wet nurses trying to support their own families, could partially be constructed. In order to recover it only fragments of foundlings’ silenced voices, focusing on their experiences from a doorstep to the police station, from a church to Darülaceze, was the method I followed. Their cries, their dead bodies, but also their rescue stories were more than enough to write a nuanced version of Ottoman modernization.
Beslemes were dependents who were both sexually suspect and exploited. Even so, they were free agents who fought back through the courts and other state mechanisms as well as through more micro ways. The court cases are a powerful reflection of beslemes’ vulnerability as well as their level of access to the public sphere. Reconstructing their stories requires not only listening to voices of oppression, exploitation, and discrimination but also acknowledging agency, resistance, and empowerment.
The orphanages and orphans had a new meaning within the changing and developing urban context. Local populations embraced the ıslahhanes as a valuable part of urban life. The awareness of the benefits of a reformed urban infrastructure was growing quickly among the population, and this contributed to the increased interest in ıslahhanes. They definitely meant something novel for the reformed city administrations, for new projects of city planning, for new actors such as businessmen and merchants, and for inhabitants of the cities who passed by these new institutions. These institutions also brought significant urban landmarks into the lives of the cities: the printing press, brass bands, and the edifice of the orphanage itself.
So Armenian orphans were loaded onto a ship to Istanbul and had to suffer a long sea voyage on a crowded deck with limited food and water. These aspects never became a concern for the missionaries, who were supposedly acting as saviors of the children. When the Sublime Porte intervened, they rarely referred to painful road trips or to the sadness of taking children so far away from their families and homelands. Usually orphans were permanently separated from their families. The distance from home was remarkable, and visits were unlikely. For instance, Diruhi Jernazian had been sent in 1898 to the German missionary orphanage in Izmir, as a six-year-old, leaving her brothers and sisters in Maraş. When she died of tuberculosis in 1906, the director of the orphanage sent back only a small photograph of her. The state’s discourse emphasized the harms of missionary operations. The fight was not centered on the actual needs of the orphans but over their futures.
[Excerpted from Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire [p. 50, 69, 109, 129], by Nazan Maksudyan, by permission of the author. Copyright 2014 by Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]