The Question of Writing Premodern Biographies of the Middle East

  • Virginia Aksan


When I was first asked to reflect upon the relationship of the writing of history VV and biography in the context of the pre-nineteenth century Middle East, I hesitated, unprepared to plunge back into the contemplation of ambiguous and un-documentable existences that pursuit of the individual in the distant past entails. I recalled my perplexity at feeling akin to Ottoman bureaucrat Ahmed Resmi (d. 1783), the subject of An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace: “struggling with the profession, exploring the other, and warring at all times with the mis- or under-representations of Ottoman history in western annals.”1 Trying to convey a distant chronology, alien religion, gender, and culture in the story of an influential reformer of the eighteenth century proved daunting and left me with a permanent sense of the unfinished. I have since come to realize that my journey into the ill-charted lands of Ottoman biographies was as much an emblematic journey into the complexities of writing history in the late twentieth century as well as an exploration of my own itinerary I therefore decided to embrace the opportunity offered by the editor of this volume to try my hand at describing the process of reconstructing the lives of the long-dead from an Ottoman historian’s point of view.


Eighteenth Century Middle East Middle Eastern Historical Moment American Historical Review 
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  1. 1.
    Aksan, “Acknowledgments,” An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace: Ahmed Resmi Efendi 1700–1783 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), n. p. “Ottoman” of course refers to the Ottoman Empire, which covered essentially the same territory we presently call the Middle East and the Balkans.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Barnes, “Always True to France,” a review of the work of Richard Cobb, New York Review of Book, August 12, 1999, p. 30.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Jeremy D. Popkin, “Historians on the Autobiographical Frontier,” American Historical Review 104 (1999): 725–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 17.
    Daniel A. Segal, “‘Western Civ’ and the Staging of History,” AHR 105 (2000): 789.Google Scholar
  5. 21.
    Selim Deringil’s new book addresses the problems with late Ottoman legitimacy: The Well-Protected Domains: ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876–1909 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998).Google Scholar
  6. 23.
    See especially Cemal Kafadar’s “Self and Others: Diary of a Dervish in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul and First-Person Narratives in Ottoman Literature,” Studia Islamica 69 (1989): 121–50, in which he lists numerous autobiographical manuscripts.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Osman of Temesvar, Kendi Kalemiyle Temesvarli Osman Aga, ed. (Harun Tolasa: Konya, 1986), p. 44.Google Scholar
  8. 28.
    See especially Madeline Zilfi’s edited conference proceedings: Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 1997).Google Scholar
  9. 29.
    Robert Dankoff, The Intimate Life of an Ottoman Statesman: Melek Ahmed Pasha (1588–1662) as Portrayed in Evliya Çelebis Book of Travels (Seyahat-Name) (Albany: SUNY, 1991)Google Scholar
  10. Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (London: Gran ta, 1992)Google Scholar
  11. Amin Maalouf, Leo the African (London: Abacus, 1994)Google Scholar
  12. Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle (London: Vintage, 1998).Google Scholar

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© Mary Ann Fay 2001

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  • Virginia Aksan

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