When the Ottoman Empire Scrambled for Africa: An Interview With Mostafa Minawi

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Left: An 1892 Ottoman map of the empire’s sphere of influence in East Africa; Right: Minawi at Palmyra, Syria

It can be a challenge to keep up with Mostafa Minawi. The peripatetic Cornell historian never lets the relative isolation of Ithaca define him, continually popping up for engagements or research stints in places across the globe. That’s not unlike Minawi’s work itself, which spans traditionally separate subdisciplines. Taking his chief specialty, the Ottoman Empire, out of the Middle East area studies prison to which it’s so often confined, he has traced, in detail, many of the long-missed connections between the Sublime Porte – the center of Ottoman governance – and sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, his research has demonstrated how those links played into the Ottoman Empire’s participation in the late nineteenth century “scramble” for territory by European empires on the African continent – an episode in which, Minawi argues, the empire played a much more active role than has previously been assumed.

Minawi’s first book, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz (Stanford University Press, 2016) documents some clear examples of this engagement. Its foil is, explicitly, historians who have seen a weak Ottoman empire take a backseat to European expansion during the fin-de-siècle. But his argument might be best understood through a series of images Minawi displayed during a talk given to Cornell’s Institute for Comparative Modernities this past December. In 1856, when the empire was formally welcomed into the European “family of nations,” its officials stood, individually recognizable, front and center in artwork representing the conclusion of the peace after the Crimean War. By the period of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, famous for its role in the Scramble, the sole Ottoman official visible in depictions of the event is an almost anonymous background figure with his head buried in his hand. In the minds of European observers, the empire, its territory dramatically reduced in military contests with Russia, its treasury encumbered by burdensome debts, was clearly the proverbial “sick man,” destined to play little role in the races for territory that defined the late-nineteenth-century New Imperialism.

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A representation of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference. The Ottoman representative, head in hand, is at rear in the center-left of the image.

Yet the picture, Minawi contends, looked much different from Istanbul – and perhaps even more so from the African territories in which it sought to preserve and extend its influence. Trade routes from Ottoman Libya stretched across the Sahara to Central Africa’s Lake Chad basin, where the empire claimed influence over a number of kingdoms. In order to protect and solidify these bonds in the course of the Scramble, the empire solidified its alliance with the Sufi Sanusi order, which established lodges throughout what the Ottomans claimed as part of their African sphere of influence. The empire was not only a more central participant in the Berlin Conference than European art let on, but proved an expert wielder of the international legal terminology that developed in the course of the Scramble for the establishment of sovereignty over territory – building terms with legally specific connotations, such as the German Hinterland (territory in the interior empires which coastal territories were allowed to claim for themselves) directly into Ottoman Turkish, and appealing to the doctrine of “effective occupation” (essentially establishing a presence on the ground in claimed territories) by extending telegraph lines from the Libyan coast deep into the Ottoman Sahara.

However skillfully demonstrated de jure, however, Ottoman claims in Africa were less respected in fact. European powers concluded secret agreements allotting Ottoman territories to their own dominions regardless of the artfulness of the legal arguments emanating from the Porte, the empire’s efforts to fulfill the requirements for colonial occupation, or Istanbul’s acumen at determining whether Europeans were acting in bad faith. For Minawi, all this is important and yet somewhat beside the point. Redefining the Ottoman Empire as an active participant in the Scramble demonstrates that its potency persisted even as late as the period just before the empire’s dismemberment after the First World War. It also forces us to rethink teleological assumptions about the inevitability of Ottoman downfall that seem to follow so easily from European accounts that missed the empire’s efforts in Africa or failed to take them seriously.

In November, I managed to catch Minawi when he was between trips to New Mexico and Sudan. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity below, ranges from his recent talks to politics in contemporary Turkey to his unusual progression from engineer to consultant to historian to why the Ottoman Empire can only be studied outside a paradigm that seeks to box it into traditional area studies categories, the relationship between history and current events, and his next project, which follows up on his first book to look at how the Ottoman Empire engaged in the process of making claims in another part of the continent: the Horn of Africa.

Christopher Szabla


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From an 1885 map of Africa, showing Ottoman Libya at top and the Lake Chad basin kingdoms of Wadai, Kanem-Bornu, and Bagirmi, over which the empire claimed influence, at bottom.

CHRISTOPHER SZABLA: Maybe we can start with you telling me where you’ve been lately – and where you’re going?

MOSTAFA MINAWI: Well the latest thing I did was quite unexpected: I gave a lecture about the current situation in Turkey, in Albuquerque, at something called the Albuquerque International Association. They found me, I think, from op-eds I wrote last year. It was very well attended, about two hundred people, but not an audience that I usually address – mostly retired federal workers. It was kind of a TED-talk-ish type of thing, and I was very nervous about it, but it was a great experience. I enjoyed it.

SZABLA: And your next adventure?

MINAWI: Well, that actually has to do with what I’m working on next. Once I’m done with this semester I will be going to Khartoum, where I will be doing some research in the archives on my next project, and will then spend six months in Turkey, writing.

SZABLA: So speaking of Turkey and the current situation there – do you have an assessment?

MINAWI: Politically it’s bad, and getting worse. But there’s also a kind of calmness about it now. The dangerous thing is that people are getting used to it. You know how it is: self-censorship is becoming the norm, which is very, very concerning.

SZABLA: People have come to worry about many of the same political issues here [in the United States] – or maybe they did a little more in February than they did now, and have similarly gotten used to things a little more. Do you think the parallel is in any way valid?

MINAWI: It’s absolutely stunning. Most of my talk in Albuquerque was about the parallels. It was almost like a warning story. Here, we keep saying that our institutions should protect us from one person’s ideas about how the country should be run. Democratic institutions [in Turkey] were really solid, and everything that went with them – the separation between the administration and the judiciary and all of that. That doesn’t change immediately but, unfortunately, changes – everything can change – quicker than you think. And Turkey is a great example of that.

SZABLA: Let’s address the background that led you here. Before you became a historian, you were an engineer. What led you to move from one career to the other?

MINAWI: In many ways, it’s very connected [to Turkish politics]. I never thought about this until recently, because initially the story was that I just got bored of what I was doing. [When I did my masters,] at the University of Toronto, I started taking courses that I couldn’t as an undergrad, when I had been a double major in engineering and business. So I decided to take courses which had nothing to do with what I was doing – and one of the courses I took was on Ottoman history, not for any specific reason other than I was just taking anything that sounded fun.

That triggered a lot of curiosity in me, because when I had been in my last year as a civil engineering student I had done an exchange program in Turkey. And when I chose Turkey back in 1996, I didn’t choose it thinking anything other than that I knew nothing about it. Turkey sounded the most exotic out of the places we had to choose from –  the other options were those like Scotland and Sweden. And it was my first time traveling. Anyway, it was the worst experience of my life. I had to run away, quite literally, from the engineering site, which was in southeast Turkey, in Osmaniye – a base for a hardcore right wing nationalist, even racist, party, which I didn’t know at the time. For the first time I had to come to terms with the fact that there are people who I know nothing about who hate me because I happen to be Arab. And it was so visceral and real – it was shocking. Terrifying, actually, because we were in an isolated area – a camp in the middle of nowhere. And I had to hide the fact that I was Arab until I couldn’t anymore – it was miserable, and I ran away because they wouldn’t let me just go. I had to hitchhike. It was very dramatic.

But it left me with a lot of questions that I didn’t think were related to me directly but were related to the Turkish nation-state, and how it’s possible for a collective of people to hate because they were trying to prove they were something – at the time, it was about hating Arabs so they could prove they were Western. That only came up again when I was taking the Ottoman history course, and it just opened up a Pandora’s box of questions – not just about Turkey, but about how I fit into this. The reason I was shocked was because I didn’t understand the relationship before – between Turkey and the rest of the region. The late nineteenth century explains a lot about how people in Turkey perceived me…but it also opened up a lot of questions about myself and my family’s history and this moment in time in the late nineteenth century when things could have gone in so many different directions. (Things have changed a lot, of course, and I have fallen in love with Turkey and Turkish.)

SZABLA: You also worked for awhile before taking the plunge into history.

MINAWI: Yes, it was many years later that I took the Ottoman history course. So I came back [from Turkey] and worked until 2003 as a business consultant at a bank. I was your typical consultant, on planes with my laptop bag doing spreadsheets – a lot of spreadsheets, which really came to help me. I programmed a lot. So my civil engineering training came back to help me – even when I was in the archives.

SZABLA: I noticed in your book that you wrote a program to help you sift through your archival documents.

MINAWI: I didn’t know how else to organize everything I was finding. There was a lot that was not related to anything I had found before, and I didn’t want to dismiss anything because of that. But if you build a program which lets you tag your 8,000 pieces of paper in different ways, you can organize them with a click of a button using different criteria until a story comes up.

SZABLA: It’s something I’m seeing more and more historians doing, like in Michael Goebel’s book about anticolonial nationalism in interwar Paris. He had so many documents and basically OCRed them all and managed to find connections that no one else may have found before, because it would have required digging through 50,000 pieces of paper – for example, documents showing the Paris police tracing people from a specific village in Madagascar, and documents showing how that village was dealt with by colonial authorities for its residents’ activities in Paris.

MINAWI: Exactly. It’s exciting. My interest was in mind-expanding theories of space and in global history. But even though I love interpretive history, when I get into the archives, there’s something so viscerally exciting about playing detective, and finding that it’s not just about finding smaller stories through the archives about different people, but how these stories lead you to major findings, such as about Ottoman colonialism or Ottoman participation in colonialism, that otherwise you would not have thought about if you were just stuck reinterpreting something through theoretical framings.

SZABLA: Do you think that the background you had previously, beyond the technical specifics that allowed you to pursue your archival work, but the actual subject matter – you write a lot about the role of technology, of telegraph lines, specifically [in Ottoman colonialism] – got you invested in these aspects of your project?

MINAWI: I think it got me invested because it didn’t scare me. It interested me. So I loved getting into the technical details. Even though I am not an electrical engineer, it was all understandable. So I read about the technical mismatches between Ottoman systems and European systems, from cables to voltages and so on, and instead of making me want to move away from it, it made me want to dig even deeper. A lot of it has been eliminated from my articles, because I think people would be bored, but it did attract me and triggered a part of me that I don’t get to exercise as much, without which I wouldn’t have gone into telegraphs. I still get excited by technical details now, which in my next book come up a lot.

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Submarine telegraph lines connecting the different continents over which the empire spread. Image from the Ottoman archives, Istanbul.

SZABLA: What’s the technology that you’re looking at now?

MINAWI: It’s about the train from Djibouti to what was going to be [Ethiopia’s then-new capital city of] Addis Ababa, and how the different technical aspects of proposals for this train actually impacted how the different colonial powers were able to negotiate with [Ethiopian Emperor] Menelik II for favors or to gain his support in achieving colonial domination in one area of the Somali coast versus another.

SZABLA: Your earlier book centers on the figure of Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade, or Sadik Pasha, an Ottoman official dispatched to Libya during the period of high imperialism. He’s also a figure you tease at the end of the book as potentially significant for what is now your next project, since he was important for Ottoman efforts to engage Ethiopia. Is he still central to what you’re working on?

MINAWI: Yes and no. This figure and where he went with his work has served me a lot and is still serving me in this project. Most of the research about him and where he went, though, I already had. What I needed to do for this project was to research what he was actually working on, which took me in a completely different direction – not just the things that he was involved in, but how they expanded into this colonial project in the Horn of Africa. So Sadik Pasha was the entryway [into this project] for me – him going there, why was he there – but everything else goes beyond him.

I am still interested in him because of his personal life story, which I still really want to tell, especially because I was contacted by people who thought they were his descendants in Istanbul, about a year ago, and I went and interviewed them, and they had pictures and archives – they got excited, I got excited – and then I found out that they mixed this Sadik Pasha with a different Sadik Pasha. They had built this huge mythology about their family, including the fact that they might have Ethiopian blood, because they were not able to read the epitaph on his grave. So they would go and visit this grave because somebody told them this – to this old Ottoman graveyard by one of the mosques outside of Istanbul, convinced it was him – and they took me to it, and I read the epitaph, and it wasn’t him. It was a horrible mourning for them – this collapse – and I felt responsible, but also felt like there was a story there connected to these families about reinvention of the past. Lately, only since the AKP – the current government – is it okay [in Turkey] to dig into the past beyond the beginning of the current republic, and take pride in it. [Turkey] went, intentionally, through sixty years disconnecting itself from the Ottoman past, that built this confusion – the story of two Sadiks, living at the same time, having the same rank, with completely different stories, melded together in this imagination or this myth of what this family is.

SZABLA: So how did you come across Sadik Pasha – and this project – at first?

MINAWI: I came across him when my MA advisor, Jens Hanssen, at the University of Toronto, picked up an Arabic translation of the Ethiopian trip while in Beirut on a research stint and he gave it to me because he said I might find it interesting. And it was at a time when I was reclaiming my ability to read Arabic. I rejected it for a long time, and then I started reading it and I thought, oh my god, there’s so much interesting stuff in it – at the time, [my interest] wasn’t about what the Ottoman state was doing, but more about this Ottoman guy’s observation of the locals and his self-conscious reflection on himself as an Ottoman gentleman who was being attacked by these Victorian notions of what modernity is – [and] he’s doing this [himself] by attacking others, essentially, the Ethiopian locals that he comes across.

This was the publishable part of his trip, serialized in the newspaper at this time – it was exciting [to Ottomans] because these people [Ethiopians] were seen as so exotic. He was talking to a specific audience in Istanbul about the trip that he took and the people he ran into. The background of this mission is where I’m at now. I’m interested in what the Ottomans were doing in Africa, where he was on a mission to, given all the interaction that was happening between Ethiopia and the Ottoman Empire and between the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and Italy.

SZABLA: All this Ottoman engagement with sub-Saharan Africa begs questions about the transregional nature of your research – the ways in which Ottoman history has been subsumed by area studies, and how you’ve taken it beyond that. To what extent do you think Ottoman history has to be an inherently global or at least transregional subdiscipline? You quote Sultan Abdülhamid II as saying, in your book, “if there were ever a region of the world that didn’t resemble another one, it’s ours; it’s the Ottoman state.” And this seemed so revelatory of the extent to which this is not an empire that fits into a typical, preexisting regional category, which so many try to make it do.

MINAWI: I really strongly believe in this; I passionately believe in this – for example, you cannot teach Egyptian nationalism without teaching about the Greek rebellion – because they’re so intimately tied. You cannot separate them; you don’t just lose part of the story, but you distort the story. The Ottoman Empire was inherently a global empire – particularly at the end of the nineteenth century, when they, of course, were not thinking they were a Middle Eastern empire or a Balkan empire, but an empire – which means expand and rule where they could expand and rule, or disappear – meaning going into where my work is, expanding south. [Some scholars] didn’t think of them as expanding, so that in the nineteenth century we can safely think of them as Middle Eastern, limited to Anatolia, the Levant, and the Hijaz – but no, they didn’t think of themselves as limited to this. And a lot of their strategies, activities, and money went toward not regaining the lost Balkans, but joining other empires in expanding to where it is assumed to be easier – in this case, different parts of Africa.

SZABLA: And one thing that’s interesting about the way Ottoman history can tend to get framed as “Middle Eastern” is the flipside of this – that other area studies subdisciplines might have thought less about Ottoman influence. So what about Africa – have you encountered pushback or African nationalist mythologies or other conventions of African history that have blocked historians’ ability to look at the Ottoman influence in the past?

MINAWI: That’s really interesting. When I was writing my first book, I really expected to get a lot more pushback from Africanists, because I felt like I was treading into new territory – I don’t work on African history, most of my training is in the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Middle East. So challenging the nationalist historiographies in Africa particularly was the place about which I was getting nervous. What I found was the opposite – the most passionate people about the book are Africanists. The pushback came from a small minority of Middle Eastern historians. And I don’t know what it is – I don’t know if it’s a matter of discomfort about transcending what they always thought the Ottoman Empire was about. So what I’ve been trying to do is ignore the area studies definition of the Middle East and pretend it’s not there when I’m doing my research because the moment you do that, and follow the connections as they are – from an imperial perspective, and not a post-World War II perspective, but from a nineteenth-century perspective – it becomes much easier.

What I’m trying to do with my second book, in which I’m also going into sub-Saharan Africa, is not to try and find sources that are necessarily talking about the local reaction to these things because that would involve a set of languages I do not have, particularly in Somalia – but to incorporate the archives of the nation-states that inherited this legacy of imperialism. That’s why I’m going to Sudan, and why I’ve tried to go to Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. It’s an effort at ignoring what others might think about how Middle Eastern my research is.

SZABLA: What do you think you’ll find in these archives that you can’t find anywhere else?

MINAWI: There are a lot of sources from the Sudanese archives – some connected to the Mahdi state that existed in late-nineteenth-century Sudan. The Mahdi state, even as it was crumbling, was deeply connected to how the Ottomans were viewing their role in the region, particularly in southern Sudan, and [the Red Sea ports of] Suakin and Massawa – [perspectives] that do not appear in the British colonial archives. So what I’m hoping is to get a sense of the impact of the legacy of the Mahdi state on the discussions happening between big empires, the Ottomans, British, French, the Italians – and, at the center of it all, the Ethiopians.

SZABLA: At Cornell you founded the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative (OTSI), which centers Ottoman history and not the Middle East as a way of thinking about the world in general. How, specifically, does it fit into the vision of making Ottoman history less dependent on regional and area studies?

MINAWI: That’s the reason I really wanted to start OTSI, and didn’t want it to be a Middle Eastern thing. I really wanted it to be its own – I describe it as focused on the Ottoman world and its successor states, widely defined. So what I try to do is bring in different people who work either on the Ottoman Empire while it existed or the wide-ranging ramifications of Ottoman existence in the Middle East or outside of it. And I could only do this in a context where it’s understood that it’s necessary to step outside of just the Middle Eastern or Balkan regions. It can also fit into wider investigations of imperial history if other imperial historiographies accept the Ottoman Empire as a real empire – but that rarely happens.

SZABLA: There have been some – maybe now slightly rejected – ideas about the post-Ottoman lands as a unity before, thinking about where conflict has emerged, especially where the US has been involved in conflict over the last twenty years, from the Balkans to the Middle East, which people have put together to assert that the post-Ottoman world is a sort of “fertile crescent of conflict.” How can historians complicate or nuance that understanding?

MINAWI: That idea is teleological, really. The way we deal with it is this: I really believe in detailed, on the ground research, and promoting it. Because if you get into the nitty gritty of the research you will find that a lot of these claims that seem to be almost viscerally logical, because they’re easy – like oh yes, this place fell apart because they used to be part of one empire, and because of the Ottoman millet system, and all of that, you just want to go “oh yes, that makes sense” – fall apart completely. So if we’re going to, for instance, blame Iraq on the fact that it was part of the Ottoman Empire, because it was divided in weird ways, we’re ignoring a hundred years of different factors, and, more importantly, the last 20 to 25 years of factors that trigger most of what we see today. We cannot pretend that things are as simple as A happened in 1911 and thus B in 2011 – particularly in places where conflict is happening right now because it impacts people’s lives on a life and death level.

But there is something about telling the story of today through the history of the Ottoman Empire that gives weight to talking heads’ arguments – as if they’re looking at things from an indigenous perspective by looking at things from a hundred years ago. That is very distortive – with horrible consequences, in this case, consequences for American foreign policy. That’s why I believe that real history that actually gets into the nitty gritty to find ideas that are not there just to prove policy is so important. It really has, in some cases, impact – if well promoted. That’s why I’m a strong believer in writing op-eds as a historian.

SZABLA: Speaking of detail and subtlety in history, I wonder about the extent to which we can or should draw distinctions between the ways that the Ottoman Empire involved itself in Africa compared with other empires. The temptation is to say, for example, that the Ottoman use of the Sanusi was a type of less formal empire, and I keep thinking of how we could slot the Ottoman use of them into a metahistorical narrative of how European empires operated. Could we see the Sanusi as akin to filibusters or trading companies that begin the process of engaging local states and taking over territories? In your book, you say we have to look at Ottoman imperialism sui generis. But at the same time you’re trying to make a case that the Ottoman Empire is in Africa competing with European empires in similar ways. Do you see it as a tension?

MINAWI: I see it as a healthy tension. I get nervous when I read historical narratives that feel simple and fit together perfectly, without having to do a lot of digging. The Ottoman Empire was playing on a global stage, and whether they liked it or not they had to play within a set of rules, because these were the rules that people with money, who were stronger, built – while doing so as Ottomans, with their own unique relationships in specific localities. That doesn’t make them different in a way that you can’t include them, it just makes them different in the way British and French imperialisms were different from one another, or in the way German and Japanese imperialisms were. Even talking about British and French imperialisms as one thing has been debunked, because they used different methods in different places in different times, and the Ottomans should be afforded the same luxury of investigating how and when and where they did so in their particularity without having to say whether they’re part of a larger system or not. They were part of a larger system [regardless]. A good entryway [to this] I’ve been exploring is diplomatic negotiations related to international law. Because the Ottoman Empire was participating in it – to varying levels of success, but it’s more important that it was participating. So it wasn’t entirely [operating] outside the logic of how [all powers] were trying to justify colonialism at this moment in time.

SZABLA: And it was an even more enthusiastic participant than some of the initiators of that system.

MINAWI: Oh, absolutely, because they had no other way to exert their presence on the global colonial stage.

SZABLA: One of the most interesting themes in the book is the Ottoman use of language. You can seem a little defensive about it – you argue that the Ottomans weren’t just playing language games – but it actually really demonstrates the point that the Ottomans were so invested in the international legal system that they would incorporate new words into Turkish in order to conform to it. One of the most interesting examples is the way they move from describing territories in Libya as “provinces” to describing them as “colonies,” in the sense that they were akin to colonies in European overseas empires. And what’s interesting about this is that, on the one hand, they were trying to evolve from an older model of what an empire looks like, but, on the other, that so much of this could be achieved through a linguistic shift seems to maybe demonstrate that they never really functionally shifted from that model.

MINAWI: My defensiveness comes out of people who are challenging me for that reason – a good reason. You can get both from the linguistic turn. Libya was a province – so they have invested, historically, in that region for a long time, and it was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, but adjacent areas were not, and they were not defined as new provinces but as new colonies. They believed in each system working next to each other, and which depended on who they needed to influence and where. So they had to define the hinterland of Libya as a colony because they never claimed it in any other way as part of the Ottoman Empire ever, and they had to claim it now under new rules that are being set by others. The pivot [from province to colony] was actually adding to the repertoire, not shifting.

SZABLA: We’ve talked quite a bit about how the Ottoman Empire fits into this tableau of European empires in Africa, but one comparison that kept coming up in my mind as I was reading through this was another empire that was arguably built on a kind of defensive basis against or competitive basis with European imperialism – Japan. You mention it a couple times in your book, but I was wondering if you could expand on how you’ve thought about this.

MINAWI: Japan figures a lot in the imagination of policymakers of the Ottoman Empire – particularly when they are talking about the legitimacy of sticking to their tradition, whatever that means, while exerting new, modern forms of rule. And they always refer to Japan as the great example – they’re modern, but they never gave up their traditions; why should we? So there’s an alternative model to having to mimic Western nations in all forms in order to be considered modern. It’s a moment in history in which people were trying to figure out how to justify their sovereignty in modern terms, without losing who they are.  There’s really interesting work being done by people who read both Japanese and Ottoman documents, because Japan would send missions to the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman Empire would send missions to Japan. A historian at Guelph University – Renée Worringer – has made the first big contribution to this in English, but there are a lot more people who have written about it, particularly in Turkish.

SZABLA: What about in a comparative sense – have you gleaned anything about the ways in which the processes in which the Ottoman Empire is engaged in Africa – in Libya or even later on in Ethiopia – are similar in a certain way to what Japan was trying to do, in terms of claim-making, in Korea or China, etc.?

MINAWI: The difference between the Ottoman Empire and Japan is that Japan succeeded in claiming territory. So we can look at how they actually effected rule – what kind of claims they made to justify their existence there. The Ottomans never succeeded – they made arguments for why they should be there, but we never see them actually establishing rule, whether in the Horn of Africa or in Central Africa. And a lot of their arguments for why they deserve to be part of the expansionist trend – and the pushback by Europeans against them – usually also [reference] Japan, and Siam: the collective of those that kind of fit in [as expanding states] but do not fit in enough [to be considered fully legitimate by Europeans].

SZABLA: Like Ethiopia, also.

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An Ethiopian depiction of the defeat of Italian colonial forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.

MINAWI: Oh, yeah. But Ethiopia had a lot more power than the Ottoman Empire in its geography, because Menelik II was able to exert military power decisively against the Italians, as we all know, in the Battle of Adwa. But more importantly, consistently kept the British, French, and Italians on their toes in a way the Ottomans could not claim to have. So they [Ethiopia] had more to negotiate with and were able to play outside the rules a little bit.

SZABLA: Plus Ethiopia engaged in expansion during this period of its own – which could now be seen as a form of state-building, but which could also be seen as its own micro-imperial process.

MINAWI: Oh, not even micro – it’s definitely an imperial process. That’s why I try to refer to it in writing, always, as the Ethiopian Empire. They were negotiating with the British, etc., about everywhere from what is now South Sudan to Somalia, and, in the archives I’m looking at now, they convinced their counterparts they had to be negotiated with as if they had the first right of rule in those areas – as an empire, which is fascinating. Funnily enough, you find similar arguments now when you talk about China and Turkey coming into the Horn of Africa and competing to get permission from Ethiopia as the local great power to engage with – in terms both of international loans and land negotiations that would make Mogadishu a viable military base for Turkey, for example.

SZABLA: This is interesting because you write so forcefully in your book about avoiding teleology – that we don’t need to think about how the Ottoman engagement in imperialism in Africa succeeded or did not succeed or relates to the present, that we can think instead about how this relates to the period we’re talking about. But what about its afterlife?

MINAWI: The afterlife is very important. When I say you do not need to think about the present when you are deep down in the trenches in the archives, that doesn’t mean that once you’re done, you shouldn’t find a connection between the past and the present. You shouldn’t when you’re in the middle of research so you will not taint it. Being able to then make connections that are meaningful is not only nice but is necessary, because many times it’s a correction of what nation states are claiming falsely, it complicates that. Now it’s Turkey in Africa, and their claim to their Ottoman past there.

SZABLA: So they are using this history.

MINAWI: Very much. But they are only talking about the surface level of the connections between the Ottomans and Africa. And their connection does not mean that the claims they are making are justified. I start my research proposals by talking about modern Turkey being in Somalia. One British reporter wrote that you now land in Mogadishu and you see more red and white flags than Somali flags; you think you’re in a Turkish colony. That you cannot ignore, this is part of what triggers our excitement about things – current events. Then you do hardcore empirical research so that you can talk about what’s going on intelligently, and not follow, for example, how the modern Turkish state connects itself to Somalia.

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Turkey’s large new embassy in Mogadishu, opened in 2016. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Postscript: This January, tensions increased dramatically in the Red Sea region as expanding Turkish influence – in the form of Sudan granting Ankara a lease on the former Ottoman entrepôt of Suakin – led Egypt to mobilize troops to the Saudi-Eritrean border out of fears Suakin would become the site of a Turkish military base, just as a large such base began construction in Somalia. “Turkey’s greed on the African continent seems to have no limits,” a Saudi newspaper editorialized, while the UAE – expanding its own military presence in the region – supported Cairo. Sudan and Ethiopia, meanwhile, responded with their own mobilizations against Egypt. The history of Ottoman engagement in the area – and its reverberations – appears more relevant by the day.

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