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“Provincial Cosmopolitanism” in Late Ottoman Anatolia: An Armenian Shoemaker's Memoir

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2015

Nora Lessersohn*
Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University


This paper examines the nature of late Ottoman provincial intercommunal interactions and affiliations as they appear in the memoir of Hovhannes Cherishian (1886–1967), a shoemaker from late Ottoman Marash (present-day Kahramanmaraş, in southeastern Turkey). The paper is situated within the larger discourse of “untold histories” that historians have begun to address in revising the deeply ingrained post-Ottoman nationalist historiographies that dominate both academic and popular discourses. Conventional historiographies have represented former late Ottoman subject communities (e.g., Greek, Jewish, Armenian) as insulated and homogenous proto-nation-states. In the revisionist historiography, the late Ottoman Armenian voice, especially the provincial one, has been noticeably absent. Here I utilize Cherishian's memoir to examine the life and thoughts of one late Ottoman Armenian provincial subject. I focus especially on his treatment of intercommunal interactions in Anatolia and present-day Syria between 1897 and 1922. His accounts of these often extended intercommunal interactions, affiliations, and networks are characterized by intercommunal and interpersonal openness, sympathy, intimacy, and pleasure, even as he presents them side-by-side with descriptions of deportation and death at the hands of the late Ottoman state. I develop the idea of what I call “provincial cosmopolitanism” to conceptualize and represent the disposition, affinity, and process of identity formation that enabled Cherishian to create and operate these interpersonal relationships and networks that propelled his life, a historical condition to which we are not currently privy in most historiographical accounts of the late Ottoman period.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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1 Asadur, Zabel, Harse [The bride] (Boston: Hairenik Press, 1938)Google Scholar, 14.

2 For an introduction, see Somel, Selçuk Akşin, Neumann, Christoph K., and Singer, Amy, “Introduction: Re-sounding Silent Voices,” in Singer, Amy, Neumann, Christoph K., and Somel, Selçuk Akşin, eds., Untold Histories of the Middle East: Recovering Voices from the 19th and 20th Centuries (London: Routledge, 2011), 122Google Scholar; Campos, Michelle, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. For a “Jewish voice,” see Rodrigue, Aron and Stein, Sarah Abrevaya, eds., A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Mills, Amy, “The Place of Locality for Identity in the Nation: Minority Narratives of Cosmopolitan Istanbul,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (2008): 383401CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a “Greek voice,” see Doumanis, Nicholas, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and Its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)Google Scholar; and Özil, Ayşe, Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Study of Communal Relations in Anatolia (New York: Routledge, 2013)Google Scholar. An “Arab voice” can be found in Jacobson, Abigail, “Negotiating Ottomanism in Times of War: Jerusalem during World War I through the Eyes of a Local Muslim Resident,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (2008): 6988CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Tamari, Salim, Year of the Locust: A Soldier's Diary and the Erasure of Palestine's Ottoman Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)Google Scholar. For an “Albanian voice,” see Gawrych, George W., “Tolerant Dimensions of Cultural Pluralism in the Ottoman Empire: The Albanian Community, 1800–1912,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15, 4 (1983): 519–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Blumi, Isa, Rethinking the Late Ottoman Empire: A Comparative Social and Political History of Albania and Yemen, 1878–1918 (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2003)Google Scholar, 41.

3 Gawrych, “Tolerant Dimensions,” 519.

4 Özil, Orthodox Christians, xi.

5 Zandi-Sayek, Sibel, Ottoman Izmir: The Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port, 1840–1880 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012)Google Scholar, 7.

6 This persistence is due to many causes that lie outside the scope of this article.

7 Aymes, Marc also says the “idea of the province … refers to a relationship.A Provincial History of the Ottoman Empire: Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2014)Google Scholar, 5.

8 See the works I cited earlier by Blumi, Campos, Doumanis, Gawrych, Jacobson, Mills, Özil, and Rodrigue.

9 As Vahé Tachjian points out, “The first imperative [of these leaders] was … to build a new Armenian identity that was to be characterized by the break with the Ottoman Empire and its main element, the Turks.” Gender, Nationalism, Exclusion: The Reintegration Process of Female Survivors of the Armenian Genocide,” Nations and Nationalism 15, 1 (2009): 6080CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 63.

10 As Meltem Toksöz notes, “Whatever history we have on Ottoman Armenians is … veiled if not locked into violence, completely silencing other scholarship on a whole host of issues.” Ironically, Toksöz's critique is found in an analysis of violence against the Ottoman Armenians; Multiplicity or Polarity: A Discursive Analysis of Post-1908 Violence in an Ottoman Region,” in Singer, Amy, Neumann, Christoph K., and Somel, Selçuk Akşin, eds., Untold Histories of the Middle East: Recovering Voices from the 19th and 20th Centuries (London: Routledge, 2011), 214–33Google Scholar. Janet Klein's instructive essay on Kurdish-Armenian relations is also written as a means of examining “other aspects” and “broader facets” of the “violence that became widespread in Ottoman Anatolia at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries”; Conflict and Collaboration: Rethinking Kurdish-Armenian Relations in the Hamidian Period, 1876–1909,” in Tezcan, Baki and Barbir, Karl K., eds., Identity and Identity Formation in the Ottoman World: A Volume of Essays in Honor of Norman Itzkowitz (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), 153–66Google Scholar, at 153. For an example of the oral testimony of Armenian genocide survivors on pre-genocide intercommunal relationships, see Miller, Donald E. and Miller, Lorna Touryan, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 6061.Google Scholar

11 Dadoyan, Seta B., The Armenians in the Medieval Islamic World: Paradigms of Interaction, Seventh to Fourteenth Centuries, Volume One: The Arab Period in Arminyah, Seventh to Eleventh Centuries (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011)Google Scholar, xxiv and 1.

12 For his concise summary of the problems of Armenian Studies and Ottoman history, which raises some of the questions I am addressing here, see the complete text of Sebouh Aslanian's spoken remarks, “Beyond the Lachrymose Conception of Armenian History,” given at the Department of History, University of California at Los Angeles, 26 April 2013: (accessed 10 May 2013).

13 Kebranian, Nanor, “Introduction,” to Oshagan, Hagop, Remnants: The Way of the Womb, Book I, Goshgarian, G. M., trans. (London: Gomidas Institute, 2013)Google Scholar, ix. She is quoting Kafadar, Cemal, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)Google Scholar, 20.

14 Hovhannes Cherishian, “Testimony” [Vgayakir], unpublished manuscript in my possession. Cherishian's title, Vgayakir, conveys the idea of a written witness or certificate. According to his son, Stephen Cherishian, his father spoke his memoirs in Western Armenian onto audiocassette, and then transcribed them with the intention of having the text published. Stephen Cherishian commissioned an English translation by the Reverend Arten Ashjian in 2002. Hovhannes' handwritten transcript and the typescript of Reverend Ashjian's translation came into my possession in 2011. The present study is the first step of a larger project of mine to edit, publish, retranslate, and annotate the entire memoir.

15 See Kévorkian, Raymond H., “La Cilicie: Un Territoire à la Géographie Humaine Complexe,” in Kévorkian, Raymond, Minassian, Mihran, Nordiguian, Lévon, Paboudjian, Michel, and Tachjian, Vahé, eds., Les Arméniens de Cilicie: Habitat, Mémoire et Identité (Beirut: Saint Joseph University Press, 2012), 3351, at 43–44.Google Scholar

16 Varty Keshishian, Sandjak of Marash—Commerce: (accessed 14 May 2013).

17 For more on these events and their effect on the Armenian population of Marash, see Kerr, Stanley E., The Lions of Marash: Personal Experiences with American Near East Relief, 1919–1922 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973).Google Scholar

18 One wonders if his decision to write his memoirs was in any way affected by the unprecedented scale and vocality of the 1965 commemorations marking the fiftieth year since the 1915 genocide.

19 Cherishian, “Testimony,” 1.

20 Ibid., 3.

21 Amy Mills describes similar narratives told by Jewish immigrants in Tel Aviv who lived in Istanbul during the 1940s and 1950s. In these, “The theme of belonging and fondness for a cosmopolitan past resonates even as Tel Avivans describe social difference or persecution.” “Place of Locality,” 391.

22 For a succinct discussion of this phenomenon in the context of Iranian-Armenian memoirs of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, see Berberian, Houri, “History, Memory and Iranian-Armenian Memoirs of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 17, 3 (2008): 261–92, at 263–64.Google Scholar

23 Cherishian's representation of America expresses his inherent comfort with complex narratives: despite acknowledging it as his “second homeland (hayrenik),” he “felt sorry and worried about the future of our American-born children,” and said that America remained to him a “merciless (amansız) land.” “Testimony,” 215, 222, and 226.

24 Ginzburg, Carlo, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)Google Scholar, xvii.

25 Ibid., xix.

26 Rodrigue and Stein, Jewish Voice, xxxviii.

27 See, for example, Barkey, Karen, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 110; Rodrigue, Aron (interview with Nancy Reynolds), “Difference and Tolerance in the Ottoman Empire,” Stanford Electronic Humanities Review 5 (1996): 19Google Scholar, at 2.

28 “Testimony,” 40.

29 Ibid., 54.

30 Ibid., 52.

31 Ibid., 56.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., 58.

35 Ibid., 163.

36 On the Ottoman barbershop as a site of socializing, see Sajdi, Dana, The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 The idiom of family and brotherhood is found in oral testimonies of other Armenian genocide survivors; see Miller and Miller, Survivors, 186. It is also a feature of the oral testimony that Nicholas Doumanis describes from Romioi speaking about their relations with Ottoman Muslims during the late Ottoman era, in Before the Nation. Amy Mills, likewise, includes multiple testimonies of “siblinghood” among former neighbors in Istanbul in “Place of Locality.” In her study of intercommunal relations in late Ottoman Palestine, Michelle Campos argues, “Rather than looking at these economic relationships … as transactions limited in time … I instead view these economic ties as important evidence of strong ongoing social networks” (Ottoman Brothers, 182), and suggests that the social relations underlying the idiom of love and/or brotherhood predate the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and its language of universalism. For more on the non-Muslim response to the Young Turk Revolution, see, for example, Campos, Ottoman Brothers; and Bedross Der Matossian, “Ethnic Politics in Post-Revolutionary Ottoman Empire: Armenians, Arabs, and Jews during the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1909),” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2008.

38 “Testimony,” 167.

39 Ibid., 146.

40 Ibid., 28–29.

41 Ibid., 33.

42 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 11.

43 Valensi, Lucette, “Inter-Communal Relations and Changes in Religious Affiliation in the Middle East (Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries),” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39 (1997): 251–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 256.

44 See, for example, Miller, Susan Gilson and Bertagnin, Mauro, eds., The Architecture and Memory of the Minority Quarter in the Muslim Mediterranean City (Cambridge: Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2010)Google Scholar. Najwa Al-Qattan also notes with respect to Ottoman Damascus, “It is evident that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of Damascus did not lead lives of social isolation.… Legal accommodation and residential coexistence were everyday realities”; Litigants and Neighbors: The Communal Topography of Ottoman Damascus,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (2002): 511–33Google Scholar, at 523.

45 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 11.

46 “Testimony,” 23.

47 See Tachjian, “Gender, Nationalism, Exclusion,” 63–64, for more on the post-genocide, Turkish-speaking Armenian community and the nationalist crusade for Armenians to have their “own national language” and abandon all links with the “Turkish world.” See also Sagaster, Börte, “The Role of Turcophone Armenians as Literary Innovators and Mediators of Culture in the Early Days of Modern Turkish Literature,” in Balta, Evangelia and Ölmez, Mehmet, eds., Between Religion and Language: Turkish-Speaking Christians, Jews and Greek-Speaking Muslims and Catholics in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul: Eren, 2011), 101–10.Google Scholar

48 “Testimony,” 206.

49 Ibid., 34–36.

50 As Aron Rodrigue puts it: “Language was not invested with identity in the same way that the modern nation-state invests it.… The ability to speak a certain language did not in any shape or form alter their identity”; “Difference and Tolerance,” 6–7. Also, Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis: “In view of the role that language has played in determining national identity in the West, its relative lack of importance in the Ottoman context is significant…. Spoken language was a means of communicating among peoples, not a means of distinguishing among them. In the nineteenth century language started to acquire the second role, but in the Ottoman Empire it never assumed the same importance it was to gain in Europe. Religion was more important than language in determining identity.” Introduction,” in Braude, B. and Lewis, B., eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: Volume I—The Central Lands (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1982), 2628.Google Scholar

51 “Testimony,” 40.

52 As Börte Sagaster observes: “…Ottoman society was divided by, among other things, religion, language, and script”; “The Role of Turcophone Armenians,” 101–2.

53 “Testimony,” 30.

54 That is to say, from the time of the Muslim conquest.

55 “Testimony,” 4.

56 Clogg, Ronald, Anatolica: Studies in the Greek East in the 18th and 19th Centuries (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996), 256–59Google Scholar. In other descriptions of the Armenian prophecy in his memoir, Cherishian also evokes “the yellow race.”

57 Doumanis, Before the Nation, 24.

58 Ibid., 33–34.

59 “Testimony,” 193.

60 Kalusdian, Krikor, Marash gam Kermanig yev Heros Zeytun [Marash or Kermanig and heroic Zeytun], 2d ed. (New York: Union of Marash Armenians, 1988), 7476Google Scholar. These “memory-tomes,” or memorial books, of which the Marash volume is one, are local histories compiled by Armenian communities in diaspora, mostly after the genocide. Cherishian was a contributor to the Marash hushamadyan, first compiled in New York City in 1934, and he occasionally cross-references it in his memoir. I am grateful to Christian Millian for his help in translating these pages.

61 Ginzburg, Cheese and the Worms, 1992.

62 Other memoirs and oral histories express retrospective anger toward the European powers. See, for example, Hartunian, Abraham H., Neither to Laugh nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, Hartunian, Vartan, trans. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 189–91Google Scholar; and Miller and Miller, Survivors, 175–76.

63 As Gerard J. Libaridian writes regarding the self-image of the Armenians during the last century of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians did not have a uniform view of themselves. The content and characteristics of being Armenian varied according to class, geographic location, and level of education.Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004)Google Scholar, 73.

64 “Testimony,” 24–25.

65 Ibid., 40.

66 Tamari, Year of the Locust, 69.

67 See Zürcher, Erik J., “The Ottoman Conscription System in Theory and Practice, 1844–1918,” in Zürcher, E. J., ed., Arming the State: Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia, 1775–1925 (London: I. B. Tauris & Co., 1999), 7994Google Scholar, at 86 and 89. See also Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 152: “Due to the political and economic ramifications of universal conscription, the first non-Muslim recruits did not head out to the field until 1910.” This corresponds with the dates Cherishian gives.

68 Ibid., 151.

69 Yotnakhparian, Levon, Crows of the Desert: The Memoirs of Levon Yotnakhparian, Parian, Leon and Jinbashian, Iskban, eds. (Tujunga: Parian Photographic Design, 2012), 1920.Google Scholar

70 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 154.

71 Zürcher, “Ottoman Conscription System,” 89, 93.

72 Ibid., 90. Cherishian also discusses the phenomenon of Turkish evasion of military service.

73 The hymn is in Turkish.

74 “Testimony,” 28–31. This slogan is in Turkish: Kahr olsun istibdād!

75 See ibid., 192.

76 Ibid., 198. For more on the Cilician Self-Government act, see Genjian, Antranig, Sotsial-Demockrat Hnchagian Gusagtsutiune yev Giligian Inknavarutian Akte (Giligian Husher Badmutian Hamar), 1919–1921 [The Social Democratic Hnchakian Party and the Cilician Self-Government Act (Cilician Memoirs for History)] (Beirut: Ararat Publishing, 1958).Google Scholar

77 Zandi-Sayek, Ottoman Izmir, 3.

78 Jacob, Margaret C., Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 1.

79 “Testimony,” 145.

80 Ibid., 143.

81 Krikor Kalusdian, Marash or Kermanig, 724–25. For the translation, see: (accessed 7 June 2013).

82 For an overview of this literature, see Will Hanley, “Grieving Cosmopolitanism in Middle East Studies,” History Compass 6, 5 (2008): 1346–67; and Lafi, Nora, “Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism and Its Contemporary Revivals: A Critical Approach,” New Geographies 5 (2013): 325–35.Google Scholar

83 Hanley, “Grieving Cosmopolitanism,” 1358.

84 Ibid., 1346.

85 Salzmann, Ariel, “Islampolis, Cosmopolis: Ottoman Urbanity between Myth, Memory, and Postmodernity,” in MacLean, Derryl N. and Ahmed, Sikeena Karmali, eds., Cosmopolitanisms in Muslim Contexts: Perspectives from the Past (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 6891.Google Scholar

86 Hanley, “Grieving Cosmopolitanism,” 1360.

87 Bayat, Asef, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 187.

88 Mayaram, Shail, ed., The Other Global City (New York: Routledge, 2009)Google Scholar, xiii.

89 Testimony, 146, 155.

90 Örs, İlay, “Coffeehouses, Cosmopolitanism, and Pluralizing Modernities in Istanbul,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies 12, 1 (2002): 119–45Google Scholar, at 124.