The Ottoman history podcast is one of the finest of its genera, publishing interviews with the leading academics studying the Ottoman Empire. It has bee one of my favorite podcasts for along time now so i was very excited to have the opportunity to submit some questions to the podcasts editor Chirs Gratein. You can find The Ottoman History Podcast here.
Luke: Can you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be interested in the Ottoman Empire?
Chris: My study of the Ottoman Empire stemmed from a general interest in the history of the Middle East that began around the time of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq when I was an undergraduate student. I felt that the view of the Middle East that we were getting from the media was skewed and misrepresented the variety of experiences and sentiments of people who live in the region. After spending a few years working on a Masters in Arab Studies at Georgetown and learning Arabic and Turkish language, Ottoman history became the perfect vehicle to continue my own studies while working towards becoming a professor who can have a beneficial impact on contemporary discourses regarding the Middle East. As a tri-continental empire that lasted for many centuries and contained many different geographies and communities, the Ottoman Empire provides the perfect space for exploration. Studying the Ottoman Empire required me to study language or conduct research in a number of countries: Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Armenia, not to mention France and the UK. It has been a great experience.
Luke: What area of Ottoman history interests you most?
Chris: I like to read broadly, but most of my research has focused on the themes of migration and ecology. I’m writing a book about the environmental history of the Çukurova region between the 1850s and 1950s. I have written a number of articles about malaria in the late Ottoman Empire. I hope that ten years from now my answer to this question will be entirely different.
Luke: What is The Ottoman History Podcast?
Chris: Ottoman History Podcast is an internet radio program focused on the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire, modern Middle East, and Islamicate world. Since 2011, we’ve featured the work of over 300 contributors, mostly scholars and students of history and other academic disciplines. At any given time, we have more than a dozen team members equipped to record in different locations throughout the world. All of our interviews happen in person. And the project is completely independent and non-commercial. Over the years we’ve built quite a community that includes not only podcasters but also a few other web projects loosely-centered on the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East.
Luke: What are the advantages of the podcast format?
Chris: I began the podcast with another Georgetown University graduate student, Emrah Safa Gürkan, as a creative outlet that would offer a change of pace from usual activities of the Ph.D. program. I think what kept us doing it for so long and what has drawn so many others to project is that the podcast proved to be a fun and meaningful activity. It’s fun because talking to people about their research is often more interesting than merely reading their research. I’ve learned so much by talking to scholars whose research I might not have the chance to read otherwise, or even if I do read it, I might not get the right takeaway. In addition, the audience we reach—5,000 to 10,000 plays and downloads per episode—while certainly modest by internet standards, makes the project feel worthwhile. Even if I write a brilliant academic article, it will probably never reach a readership anywhere near that. The podcast is our link to the world outside the academy.
Luke: A lot of history podcasts opt for a narrative history of their chosen topic? Why did the Ottoman History Podcast choose to go a different route? Do you have any plans to adopt a more narrative history of the Ottoman Empire?
Chris: Although other formats have their charms, we usually work with the interview format. Our contributors like the opportunity to talk about their work and reflect on the process in ways that don’t always make it into the text. I think there is a tension between what many people expect from a history podcast and what professional historians think of as history. You’ll find a lot of podcasts that are essentially a linear narrative of a particular nation, empire, or dynasty. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but most historians don’t work in that way. Few of us sit down with the goal of writing an all-encompassing narrative of a particular time or place. Rather, we set out with a series of questions or historiographical problems, and our research and writing revolve around those questions. Historiography is ultimately a conversation, and that’s one reason why I think conversation makes a natural format for discussing history.
Luke: One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ottoman Empire was its poly-linguistic, poly-cultural nature. What challenges does reflecting that in a podcast format present?
Chris: The sheer vastness of the Ottoman Empire and its polyglot population certainly pose challenges to constructing a coherent, monolithic narrative of its history. That is where having so many different contributors, each with their own expertise, becomes invaluable. If I wanted to talk about the Ottoman Empire in every time and place, I would probably do a very uneven job. I’d butcher the pronunciation of names in languages I don’t know, and I’d miss a lot of the nuances. The political implications of particular interpretations of past events would be lost on me with regard to countries I know little about in the present. So each guest we have on completes a little piece of a puzzle, and while we’ve mainly recorded in English and Turkish, we try to feature voices from a lot of different personal and academic backgrounds in order to make the picture as complete as possible.
Luke: For somebody new to the podcast who would you recommend listening too?
Chris: I would recommend starting with an episode called Ottoman New York, in which Sam Dolbee and Bruce Burnside walk around New York and discuss surprising connections between the city and the Ottoman Empire/Islamic world. (http://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2017/06/ottoman-new-york.html)
The other recent episode I would recommend is an interview with the scholar Leslie Peirce, who has just released a book for popular audiences on the history of Roxelana or Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Hürrem is a very popular figure in Ottoman history (readers might know her from the Magnificent Century series), but Peirce tells the story of how Hürrem Sultan was also a very powerful figure in Ottoman history, and in doing so, opens up so many questions that would provide further ground for exploration in the history of the Ottoman Empire.
Luke: Are there any books you can recommend for a non-historian looking to get into Ottoman history?
Chris: If you want to get an overview of the political history of the Ottoman Empire, I recommend Osman’s Dream by Caroline Finkel.
Luke: Part of what I like about the Ottoman History Podcast is it demystifies the Ottoman Empire. I believe that, outside of academia, there are a lot of misconceptions about the Ottomans. What would you say is the gravest misconception about the Ottoman Empire and how can it be corrected?
Chris: There is a famous New Yorker cartoon (famous among Ottomanists anyway!) in which a woman is rebuffing a man outside her apartment door after a date saying, “I’d love to ask you in, but I need some time to digest everything you told me about the Ottoman Empire.” It’s a great joke and the crux of the humor is that the Ottoman Empire sounds like a comically boring, obscure thing to be mansplained about over dinner or drinks. I won’t dispute the fact that an elaborate interrogation of the decline paradigm in Ottoman historiography is questionable first date material. But by furnishing accessible, engaging interviews with scholars who work on the Ottoman Empire, I hope we show that the Ottoman Empire is neither boring nor obscure. The history of the Ottoman Empire is completely relevant for understanding the world today. The empire existed until the end of the First World War, and it shaped many aspects of society in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire was fundamental to the making of the Middle East today and many of the political dynamics that can be found.
Luke: Are the same misconceptions present in Turkey or the broader Middle East or do they have different ones?
Chris: Thankfully, people are much more interested in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey than they are in the US, and I think interest in the Ottoman past is also alive in other countries of the post-Ottoman world in the Balkans and Middle East. About half of our overall traffic comes from Turkey, even though most of the program is conducted in English. Catering to those audiences does present special challenges. Because Ottoman history is also national history in Turkey, there is often a disconnect between the scholars on our program and popular audiences, who are well-acquainted with the Ottoman past but not necessarily on the terms that we discuss it.
Luke: In Turkey today we see a resurgence of “Neo-Ottoman” ideas and Ottoman revisionism in public and political life. Has the Ottoman History Podcast received any criticism from those quarters?
Chris: While the overall picture of the empire we present is vivid, it is rarely rosy. Our guests could scarcely be accused of romanticizing Ottoman history. So for those who are invested in an idealized image of the Ottoman past, some of the content on our program may provoke a reaction. On the whole, we try to bring nuance so that no matter what your background or assumptions coming into the program, by the end of the episode you’ll leave with a more complex picture of the history in question.
Luke: To what extent can studying the Ottomans help us to understand the modern Middle East and its problems?
Chris: If you look at the history of the past century or so, I think it’s fair to say that one of the biggest problems the Middle East has is that everyone else in the world sees it as a problem and claims they have the solutions to the problem. It’s not that there aren’t problems or that nobody should care about them, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that these solutions often prove to be counterproductive or outright disingenuous. Studying the Ottomans or the history of the region more broadly will bring the benefit of expanding one’s mind to stop thinking of the Middle East merely in terms of problems or conflicts. Good history does justice to the humanity of past people, and a more complete view of the societies of the former Ottoman Empire as people, not just problems, fosters the same empathy with regard people in the present.
Luke: What’s next for the Ottoman History Podcast?
Chris: Listeners can look forward to a lot more variety in the future. Over the past year, a number of OHP team members have trained to do audio editing and web publishing tasks that previously only I was doing. At a pace of one episode per week, those activities took a lot of time. Our editorial team members, Nir Shafir, Susanna Ferguson, and Shireen Hamza, are now proficient in all aspects of the production and a lot of our other contributors are also recording and editing their own stuff. Now that everyone is more independent, we have more room to experiment.
We’re currently developing some episodes that employ storytelling with an investigative narrative arc. I’ve got a side project under production called Deporting Ottoman Americans that adopts such a format. I’m working with a historian of US immigration history, Emily Pope-Obeda, and a number of other colleagues on developing material for the series. It’s going to tell the stories of a number of people born in the Ottoman Empire who were deported or ordered to be deported from the United States during the 1930s. Since the Ottoman Empire didn’t exist anymore, these deportations made for a messy process and a lot of interesting stories! I hope those stories will speak to our present-day context in powerful ways.
One of our managing editors, Shireen Hamza, also has a more synthetic format working for a project called Ventricles that she’s developing at Harvard University. The Ventricles series tackles big questions in history like “time” or “love” and then weaves together a number of conversations with scholars to offer a narrative of how these questions are being studied.
Another thing that listeners have wanted for a long time is more general over-arching discussion of the broad strokes of Ottoman history. Our goal is to develop more material of this variety, as Ottoman History Podcast is proving very popular in university classrooms. This spring, I am working with a University of Virginia colleague Joshua White to develop his popular lecture course “From Nomads to Sultans” into a finite podcast series about the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
Luke: What other history podcasts do you recommend?
Chris: “History of Philosophy without any gaps” is an admirable project. There are a lot of semi-amateur podcasts like ours run by serious scholars who are doing a great job. Two programs that I follow are Modern Art Notes Podcast and Sean’s Russia Blog. I also recommend the interviews of Carla Nappi on the New Books Network. But what developing Ottoman History Podcast has forced me to begrudgingly accept is just how great some of the work being done by professional radio journalists really is. We should not assume that anyone with a microphone can make a podcast (which is certainly what I thought when we started out!) or that brilliant ideas will simply speak for themselves. Production matters. I really admire certain stuff that plays on NPR, especially 1A with Joshua Johnson. I am learning a lot from listening to how radio professionals do their work and am always thinking about how to make our content more engaging and professional while still preserving the special nuance that comes with scholarly inquiry.
Luke: What are you reading now?
Chris: Unfortunately, most of the reading I do during the semester would fall under the category of labor, so it’s hard for me to count that. I spent the entire winter break on an Ursula Le Guin kick. I recommend The Dispossessed.