Thinking Global in Turkey: An Interview with Trustee Selçuk Esenbel

Prof. Selçuk Esenbel is Emeritus Professor of Japanese and Asian History in the History Department of Bogazici University. She is also a Professor of History at 29 May University in Istanbul.

Looking at academic calls for papers and conference topics in recent years, there can be no doubt that global history is on the rise. However, despite calls to write “global history globally,” it is clear that global history has not risen in all countries simultaneously. Turkey, which has a long history of hosting many different civilizations has much potential for supporting work in global history. Although this potential is not yet reflected in academic studies relating to global history, international events such as the Global History Student Conference-Istanbul held recently in Istanbul Sehir University are an indicator that work in this field is accelerating.

Our most recent guest, Prof. Selçuk Esenbel is one of the trustees of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, and a leading historian in Turkey. Prof. Esenbel has contributed greatly to the development of global history in Turkey, specifically in relation to Japanese and wider Eurasian history. I got the chance to sit down with Esenbel in Istanbul to talk about the state of global history in Turkey today and her recent book, Japan on the Silk Road: Encounters and Perspectives of Politics and Culture in Eurasia (Brill’s Japanese Studies Library, 2017).

-Fatma Aladağ


FATMA ALADAĞ: Where were you born and raised? 

SELÇUK ESENBEL: I was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in Turkey, the U.S and Japan. My father was a diplomat and was stationed in Washington during WWII. I was born there right after the war and lived in the US until I was six years old. I came to Turkey with my parents for the first time in 1952. 

ALADAĞ: When did your interest in becoming a historian develop?

ESENBEL: I decided to become a historian when we were living in Japan. I attended the Japanese International Christian University. I had two interests in mind. One of them was to be a painter. I still paint. But in Japan, I could not be a student in the school of fine arts because it was still not open to foreign students. My second interest was history. Because I could not study painting, I decided to move to history. I majored in East Asian history while I was in Japan and studied the Japanese language. So I have spent all my life debating whether should I return back to painting. But I liked history and certainly, painting and history have a kind of connection to one another. 

ALADAĞ: Which scholars have strongly influenced your approach to studying history?

ESENBEL: When I was very young, I bought a whole set on Ottoman history by İsmail Hakkı Uzunçarşılı and Enver Ziya Karal. It is a classic thirteen-volume narrative of Ottoman history. I read all of it. If we had remained in Turkey, I probably would have become an Ottoman historian. My move to Japanese history was basically because of my experience living in Japan. I became very much interested in Japanese culture after I learned the language. So I decided that I should major in Japanese history because that’s where I was living. I finished my graduate studies at Columbia University in Japanese history. As you can see, geography and temporality play a great role in our life choices.

ALADAĞ: When did your interest in global history start? Was is it academic or more personal?

ESENBEL: It was academic. My Ph.D. dissertation was an in-depth study of a peasant uprising against the Meiji government that took place in 1871. It turned into a book that was published in 1998 by the Association for Asian Studies in the United States. I wasn’t thinking of global history then because that concept didn’t exist. I was thinking in terms of this very micro-study of events: it concerned one uprising of a community of about two thousand peasants in Japan which took place in only three days. But I was thinking of trying to posit my study in somewhat universal terms so I was constantly looking at the history of peasant rebellions elsewhere and the ways in which rebellions factored into the discourse about transformation and emergence of modern societies and politics. I was also thinking in terms of the role that peasants have in society not just through revolts. I finished my book with a comment of pathos—that peasants have to give way to modern societies. In other words, whether we like it or not, modernity—in terms of economic modernity, industrialization, urbanization, technological or educational transformations in any society—has to destroy the traditional peasant world.

When I was at Columbia University, the study of peasant uprisings was not a very popular topic for historians in the US working on Japanese history. The emphasis was very much on peasant production, not peasant society, and on samurai values or the legacy of samurai values as the cultural origins of modern Japanese mentalities. Nobody asked the question, “what happened to the peasants?” because the result, according to 1960s modernization theories, that modernization was very successful in Japan. But, I thought, what about the anguish the farming community experience when they see their way of life and their position in society overturned as a result of these top-down changes? Nobody asked the question of how the farmers feel about this. And maybe the reason I sensed this was an issue was because when I was a child in Turkey, 80% of the population were farmers. My family lived in Istanbul, but we were living in a country which was very traditional and very much followed the way of life of a peasant society.

But my understanding of global history as a concept really came about after the 1990s, when I started doing research about a completely different topic—transnational connections between the late Ottoman and early Republican context and modern Japan, looking at these international connections but also looking at it as a sort of global history of Japan. My primary focus is on how the Japanese approached this geography and this world, tracing it through Japanese documentation. I look at Turkish-Japanese relations, Muslim-Japanese relations, and now Japanese involvement in the Silk Road geography, which is the subject of the book I recently published. This is a way to globalize Japanese history. Of course, historians have already globalized Japanese history by studying Japanese relations with the United States, with China, with Britain. But here the added incentive for using the term global was to look at what you might call the peripheral geographies of the world. We know all about Japanese-British relations and Japanese-American relations. But we know really little about Japan’s connections and activities to the Ottoman world, Central Asia and Eurasia, the Turkish and Muslim worlds. These are all different concepts. This brings about a different image of Japan—a Japan that you don’t see in diplomatic histories of the previous generation. This is how the global as a concept became more relevant to me.

ALADAĞ: What kinds of courses do you teach on global history?

ESENBEL: I’ve been teaching historiography from a global perspective since 1982, before global history was invented. I was responsible for establishing the course on historiography at Boğaziçi University 1982, which was probably one of the first courses on historiography in Turkey at that time. From the beginning, I looked at it from a global perspective. Because if you look at my syllabuses even back in the 1980s, I included in one syllabus historiography in the ancient period. We discussed Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius and then moved on to Sima Qian, the Chinese historian who was a contemporary of Polybius. So I would look at Chinese historiography, East Mediterranean and Greco-Roman historiography simultaneously. Then, for the Middle Ages, I would start with early historiography in the post-Roman world in Europe. Simultaneously, I would look at Al-Tabari, Al-Masudi and the mastermind of historical theory, Ibn Khaldun. In other words, for me, Muslim historiography and Medieval European historiography were contemporary to each other. I taught them together in the same course. I think the methodology itself was global history, although we didn’t use the term. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a similar approach in the introduction to the book by Sebastian Conrad and Dominic Sachsenmaier on global history. Today, I teach historiography both at Boğaziçi and 29 Mayıs University.

ALADAĞ: How did you and the other editors choose the title of your edited collection, “Türkiye’de Çin’i Düşünmek” (“Thinking of China in Turkey”)? What does it mean to think of China in Turkey?  

ESENBEL: That was a collection of essays published by Boğaziçi University Press in 2013. It’s the first comprehensive study of China from the perspective of Turkish scholars. We were trying to think of a title and we found “Türkiye’de Çin’i Düşünmek” (“Thinking of China in Turkey”) fantastic because thinking of China in Turkey is different from thinking of China in France or Germany. There are many issues which are the same, that are global. But there are many questions which are specifically embedded in this geography. Looking at China from Istanbul looks different than looking at China from Washington, DC, or Tokyo, or London.

Japan on the Silk Road: Encounters and Perspectives of Politics and Culture in Eurasia, Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2017

ALADAĞ: What about your recent book, Japan on the Silk Road: Encounters and Perspectives of Politics and Culture in Eurasia?

ESENBEL: Similarly, my second book began with a geographic choice: it looks at Japan’s historical connections to Central Asia, Eurasia, and the Middle East, but we chose not to call it that. We preferred the term “the Silk Road.” The term captures both the Silk Road as a geography—the transnational connections between the East Mediterranean, the Middle East, and East Asia and Southeast Asia—and as a setting for cultural mobility, transportation, communication, and human connection. The Silk Road became a very important arena in the nineteenth and twentieth century for politics, for economics, for culture. It was also a site for great power rivalries. That continues today—you can see that in China’s “one belt, one road” project.

In the book, we consider the history of Japan’s involvement in regions along this route of travel. So we look at Japan’s interconnections with Central Asia, its linkages with the Ottoman world and the East Mediterranean, its connections with India and inner Asia. In other words, we’re not looking at country-specific geographies, we’re looking at a route connecting both the landlocked Silk Road and the maritime Silk Road in the south. Looking at the Japanese in this geography is different from looking at the Japanese in Europe.

ALADAĞ: What is the position of global history in Turkish academia?

ESENBEL: I think it’s going to become more important through translations. İş Bankası Publication, for instance, got the right of translation for Osterhammel’s book The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, which is very important. The translation of these global history books will have an impact. Translation is the name of the game. It is what makes a concept widespread.

The French Annales school historians of the twentieth century were known by Turkish historians in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, before even the Americans. Why? Because Turkish historians like Ömer Lütfi Barkan, Halil İnalcık and Fuat Köprülü were all Francophone. They were products of a strong tradition of French education in Turkey so they could read Marc Bloch or Le Febvre or Braudel in the original. They also cooperated with them, especially Ömer Lütfi Barkan who founded economic history at Istanbul University and whose work Braudel cited. By the 1970s English had become a more popular academic language than French. And so then the Annales school and social history more generally became popular again in Turkey through the translation of Annales school publications into English.

ALADAĞ: What are your plans for the near future and what have you been working on recently?

ESENBEL: My new manuscript which I’m hoping to publish in 2018 is a translation of the memoir of a Japanese merchant who lived in Istanbul from 1892 until possibly the outbreak of World War I, or at least 1905 or 1906. He lived for a very long time in Istanbul and worked for the company that pioneered Ottoman-Japanese commercial relations. The merchant’s name was Yamada Torajirō and he knew Istanbul Turkish and observed the city for many years. He had his own perspective that developed out this experience. He wrote a very popular book called A Pictorial Look at Turkey, which provides a nineteenth-century Japanese perspective on the Ottoman Empire, and Istanbul in particular.

I wanted to translate his book because it portrays a rather novel Japanese perspective on the Ottoman world. We know the European perspective. There were many European travel books and diaries of Europeans who lived in Istanbul and wrote about it. But we have never had a manuscript which talks about how somebody from Japan thought about this world. It has been very challenging because It’s old Japanese. But I have enjoyed it tremendously because it has taught me a lot about translating from nineteenth-century language into Turkish. Also, I’ve encountered the vocabulary that Yamada invented to describe Istanbul. You must remember there was no previous publication for him to rely on. There was nothing he could read in Japanese to talk about the world of Istanbul. He had to invent a vocabulary. So that’s going to come out in 2018.

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