Building Blocks of the Nation(s): Male Bodies in Early-Twentieth-Century Istanbul

By Murat C. Yildiz
Submitted to Session P4938 (Gendering the Body in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the last decade, scholars of the Middle East have offered significant insights into the interconnections between the body and gender in urban centers of the Middle East. One notable contribution of this literature is the national body. The spread of new technologies, medical knowledge, different forms of statecraft, and the colonial encounter, according to this literature, resulted in the discursive construction of a new gendered national body in different nation-states across the region. This paper seeks to build on this scholarship by exploring the production of multiple national male bodies in the Ottoman Empire. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ottomans from a plethora of ethno-religious backgrounds conceptualized the male body as the building blocks of “their” community/nation. In order for a community/nation to be robust and modern, it needed to be made up of fit, agile and healthy male bodies. Physical exercise and team sports, according to modernists, technocrats, educators, journalists, and athletes, served as the most effective means through which they could develop such a body. This paper investigates the ways in which Ottomans established interconnections between exercise, the male body, and nation in Istanbul’s expanding public sphere. Specifically, it analyzes the institutional and discursive trajectory of sports and the gendered body in voluntary athletic associations, schools, stadiums, and physical culture publications. Drawing on a diverse array of primary sources in Ottoman Turkish, Armenian, Armeno-Turkish, French, English, German, and Greek, the paper seeks to explore the following questions: Why did the gendered body play such a prominent role in discussions about the nation among Ottoman Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike? What were the similar and different ways in which Ottomans discussed the ideal male body? What was the relationship between these gendered national bodies and the empire? By treating young men and the male body as the building blocks of the nation, how did Ottomans contribute to a gendered rendering of citizenship, which largely excluded women? The paper is part of a broader book manuscript project, which examines the interconnections between the body, gender, sports, urban space, and national and imperial identity in late Ottoman Istanbul.