Ottoman Literary Modernity in Triangulation: Imperial Mimesis and Textual Transactions in Ahmed Midhat’s Hasan Mellah

By Mehtap Ozdemir
Submitted to Session P4990 (Knowledge Exchange and Production across Borders, 2017 Annual Meeting
Mediterranean Countries; Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper reconfigures the formation of literary modernity in the Tanzimat Period as a network of multilateral textual transactions between the Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and French languages. As such, the paper puts itself in dialogue with two scholarly arguments on the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and its literature. First, the current study engages with the contentious position of the Ottoman Empire within post/colonial studies by refocusing the analytical lens not on the questions of whether it was an empire or had colonies, but on the dynamics of imperial mimesis it employed at the time. Linked to the question of Ottoman imperialism is the dominant narrative of the impact of the West and its plaguing disciplinary corollary, the so-called “influence studies.” As a corrective to the Eurocentric framing of the Tanzimat literature as mimicry of the Western novel, this study situates the emergence of novelistic writing within a triangulated economy of textual transactions between Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and French. By highlighting and reinterpreting the points of contact between these cultural fields, this project proposes to reconsider the presence of Arabic literature and language both as a channel of mediation and as an element of rivalry in the Ottoman engagement with “the West.”

To that end, the paper focuses on Ahmed Midhat’s Hasan Mellah (Hasan the Sailor, 1874), which is acknowledged by Midhat to be a nazire (emulation) of Alexandre Dumas’s Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1846), a novel with a polyglot protagonist who reconstructs his post-prison life through a sustained identification with “Sinbad the Sailor” along with plentiful references to the Middle East. Underlining the appeal of narrative familiarity imparted by the intertextual composition of Alexander Dumas’s Monte-Cristo, it offers a close reading of Ahmet Midhat’s Hasan Mellah through the lenses of “mimesis” as interimperial rivalry and “nazire” as a mimetic form of translational practice. Lying at the core of my reading is an idea of multilingual literary economy that explores the role of literary transaction in bringing the Ottoman Empire and its literature into discursive and political equivalence with its various interlocutors. The paper suggests that the heightened Ottoman engagement with “the West” in the nineteenth century evoked memories of an earlier interaction between “the West” and “the East,” as reflected in literary-historical re-enactment of the previous interaction.