Dr. Nilay Ozok-Gundogan Interview
M-Visiting Assistant Professor, Binghamton University History Department
Major Field: Ottoman History/Late Ottoman Empire
Minor Fields: Latin America/China
Dr. Nilay Ozok-Gundogan has had a long history with the History Department. Beginning with her studies under late renowned Ottomanist Professor Donald Quataert, Dr. Gundogan received her Ph.D. in History from Binghamton University in 2011. Since then, Gundogan worked as an Assistant Professor of History first at Denison University, Ohio, and then at Mardin Artuklu University in Mardin, Turkey.
Though Dr. Gundogan is well versed in Ottoman history from numerous perspectives, her area of specialization is in the mid-nineteenth century. She has been long interested in studying borderland populations within the former empire. "I try to understand how Ottoman states tried to incorporate borderlands and marginalized populations within the larger Ottoman state structure," Dr. Gundogan said. However Dr. Gundogan was not always set on being a professional historian. "I originally studied in Political Science (at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul) and back in Turkey your B.A. really matters. It was a very big change to move from that field to a historical one. For my M.A. (Boğaziçi University, Istanbul) I was more interested in interdisciplinary studies, working with contemporary Turkey. I had always been interested in historical method and methodology, but wasn't specifically interested in being an Ottoman historian. Then I began reading all of these studies on the outer provinces and borderlands of the Ottoman Empire, and I realized there wasn't really any historical study on the Kurdish area using Ottoman archival sources. Growing up within that region in Van, Turkey, Dr. Gundogan was astonished there had not yet been any comprehensive history on nineteenth-century Kurdistan written by Ottoman historians. She began to learn the Ottoman language in order to make contact and gain access to several imperial archival materials.
"I started reading Dr. Quataert's social histories in undergrad. One day he came to our university to give a talk on the significance of 'bottom-up' histories in the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. As an undergrad student it had changed my perception of social phenomenon in general, and I would remember that. My M.A. advisor was one of Dr. Quataert's former students, and he encouraged me to go and work with him [in the BU History Graduate program]. It was hard to find people that were interested in my topic because it was very politically charged...many professors in the United States and Europe were wary of taking on a dissertation involving this particular study, on the Kurds and Armenians. But Dr. Quataert was very interested. He loved the project, and I entered into the program. I am pretty much one of the third-generation students that worked with him. I even entered at the same time with a fellow colleague, working on similar subjects, and both working with Dr. Quataert! It was very satisfying having someone working on the same topic, exchanging questions. As newer students entered into the program, we became this wonderful group exploring these questions from similar yet ultimately different angles. I felt like I was part of something bigger, almost like an emerging school of thought."
Gundogan fondly remembers her time working with Dr. Quataert, but also with Drs. Fa-Ti Fan and Nancy Applebaum on her minor field studies. "It was a sad situation. Dr. Quataert had passed a couple of months before I defended my dissertation, and so Nancy Applebaum chaired my dissertation committee. It's just unfortunate that my advisor, whom I had worked with for six years did not get to see my dissertation. It was a difficult time, but everyone was so supportive. [Dr. Quataert] was a wonderful man. It's no exaggeration to say he was the founder of social history within the Ottoman Empire. He was a pioneer, and was the reason I came to study at Binghamton."
Even with the immense support of both the professors in the department and her colleagues, Dr. Gundogan still found several challenges in working on this particular project due to the contentious politics around the Kurdish people. "The difficulties were always very real for me," Dr. Gundogan said. "The moment a person saw the word 'Kurd' in a request or proposal, they wouldn't want to do anything. There was a lot of ethnic prejudice, but also a lot of technical and logistical problems gaining access to certain materials. I couldn't apply for a lot of scholarships in the United States because I was not a citizen, and I also could not apply to several fellowships in Turkey as they tended towards those studying within the national universities. It was a very 'in-between' situation, and this particular topic made it that much more difficult for me. But in any other circumstance, I would have studied the same thing, regardless of the situation. I just wish conditions were a little better."
With such difficulties, what motivated Dr. Gundogan in continuing to pursue her work? "That is a fantastic question," she said. "Even though my study is rooted in the past, it is still a very recent phenomenon and for me personally as a scholar. I just finished writing a short article for the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies on the importance of archival research for Kurdish historians. There is still such a big bias towards archival access for us, on the Kurdish question, on Kurdish history." To her, and most assuredly to other historians on the topic, those with access to materials "either believe mention of Kurds was not included in documents, or if there was mention of them, the archivists would refuse access."
"I view the archive as a collective, a shared experience," she said. "It's not just a place where state power should be reproduced. There are all aspects of human experience, all types of groups within the Ottoman Empire in these archives." Her article speaks on her arrival into the archival experience, something which Dr. Gundogan says is very common to anthropologists, but lacking in historical analysis and reflection. "There was not a single monograph on a similar aspect of Kurdish history. The history of Kurds is mostly considered as a history of destruction—ethnic violence, rebellions, state oppression, and massacres. It has always been portrayed as one of death. For me, it is very important to talk about their story as one of life, in relation to the history of the Kurdish population."
This was not an easy task. Instead of looking for easily accessible and catalogued documents in Turkish archives, Dr. Gundogan tirelessly poured through entire archival catalogues, looking for overlooked fragments of stories. "Some of the documents had clear distortions of certain issues; you had to be cautious all the time. As I pieced it together, I felt like I was starting to hear the voices of these populations, and wanted to tell their stories. All I knew is I wanted to show that Kurds lived and produced, ate, loved—they existed in other ways than being victims of ethnic violence, militias, or soldiers. I wanted a social 'bottom-up' history of the Kurdish people. It is still such a politically charged issue in world politics today because of the current crisis. In the Middle East, Kurds are still struggling to receive their basic civil rights, and it is important to remember everything about the Kurdish people is still under the shadow of the political conflict. We have to understand that Kurds, just like any other group in history had a multiplicity of experiences."
Dr. Gundogan relayed a particularly enlightening story about finding documents regarding protests over Ottoman taxation in certain Kurdish towns. In contrast with the media and political narratives of a monolithic Kurdish people resisting centralization, there were diverse views and disputes amongst the populous, from tribal chieftains, to Kurdish families with members working within and loyal to the objectives of the Ottoman government. "This is a complicated picture," Gundogan said. "What I saw here was that the Kurdish population were trying to make use of certain institutions of modernity within the Ottoman state as a protection against the power of tribal leaders and the state itself. This dispute in particular raised several questions amongst the Kurdish population regarding the nature of property rights. What started out as a very minor issue ended up changing the entire property structure in this particular area."
Echoing critiques of institutional power structures of past writers like Michel Foucault or Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Dr. Gundogan summed up the particularly frustrating situation: that the Kurds never until now had anything resembling a "state" in the modern era (excepting the short-lived Mahabad Republic in 1946 and the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq at present), and that ultimately, the power of archives rests upon their roots within a state. "If you don't have a state, you don't have an archive. So the dilemma is then 'how do you then curate a collection of these sources within this particular political climate?' There was no literature on the social history of Kurds and Kurdistan; studies that would situate the experiences of the societal groups at the center of historical analysis on which I could rely to point me in a particular direction, to give me direction in the historiography. So I realized as I was reading that I was doing something that had not been done before."
We are happy to announce that Dr. Gundogan's outstanding work has resulted in a tenure-track position at the Florida State University History Department. Dr. Gundogan plans to teach on the Islamic World, Modern Middle East, and the Ottoman Empire starting this August! We wish Dr. Gundogan all the best in her future academic endeavors, and look forward to her future publications!