DEFINING THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE THROUGH ITS LITERATURE
When Sooyong Kim studied Turkish literature and culture as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, the Near East rarely received much attention within academic circles or from the popular press. While events in the Balkans and, more recently, in Iraq have changed all that, Kim encourages his students to look beyond the region's political turmoil and consider what is less popularly known about its rich literary and cultural tradition.
An expert on Ottoman poetry, Kim is Bryn Mawr's Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Islamic Cultures and/or Society, affiliated with the College's ad hoc Middle Eastern Studies group and Comparative Literature Program. This semester he is teaching a course in English on Islamic literary tradition, examining various major literary figures and genres from the Middle East, particularly poetry.
"Since 9/11, interest in the area that was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire is being driven by politics," says Kim. "I tell my students that there's more to that part of the world than just what's occurring there now."
Kim's own interest in the people and culture of the former Ottoman empire developed as the result of his enrollment in a summer language program sponsored by the American Research Institute at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. There, he studied advanced Turkish and several contemporary Turkish authors. When he returned to the University of Chicago the following fall, he chose to write about Orhan Pamuk for his undergraduate thesis.
Highly popular in Turkey, Pamuk is an award-winning novelist whose postmodern works have been translated into more than 40 languages. The author also received a great deal of notoriety for criticizing his country's treatment of the Kurds and the genocide of Ottoman Armenians in 1915. When he received his bachelor's degree in 1993, Kim's thesis was one of only a few scholarly articles written in English about Pamuk.
Kim continued his studies in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, including Arabic and Persian, at the University of Chicago, and he returned to Istanbul for two years to pursue research into earlier periods of Turkish literature.
Titled "Mind the Shop: Zati and the Making of Ottoman Poetry in the First Half of the 16th Century," Kim's Ph.D. dissertation focused on one of the best-known, most prolific Ottoman poets of the 16th century, and the literary trends and political and social changes that took place during his lifetime. According to Kim, poetry was one of the most important vehicles for cultural expression in the Ottoman empire.
"Poetry was all-pervasive in Ottoman society," says Kim. "Reciting verses at social gatherings was expected as a way to show off one's erudition and to potentially engage other people."
Besides revising his dissertation for publication, Kim is examining the Ottoman impact on Arabic literary production, as well as Ottoman literature on physiognomy — the belief that an individual's outward appearance reveals much about his or her inner character.
He is particularly interested in the rise of a new social group within Ottoman society, which through its education and linguisitic proficiency dominated the literary scene and eventually the civil bureaucracy in the empire during the 16th century.
As obscure as Middle Eastern literary traditions may be to even many scholars, Kim believes it is important for faculty to make such studies accessible and interesting to their students.
"There are great cultures that we don't read much about," says Kim, "but they clearly are important if we're to better understand our own cultural and historical legacy."
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