On Knowing Yourself (Great Books of the Islamic World)
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Luke : I wonder about the geographical element. Jerry : The distance is interesting. Because it allowed the English to maintain a fantasy. But that meant that it was tabula rasa with the Ottoman world. Compared to the Italians who had been, of course, very familiar with the Ottoman Empire for centuries, England much less so. So it can go both ways, it can allow the fantasy of the despotic Turk to build and you see it a lot in the drama of the period.
It also means that Elisabeth and her advisers, like Walsingham and Burghley come to the conclusion that they must reach out to the Ottomans, they can do so without many of those fantasies at play. Luke : Your book focuses on Morocco and the Ottoman Empire; I wonder what different ways did the English approach these two different Muslim rulers.
One of the earliest contacts is through the Muscovy Company and the English were reaching Persia by the s. I think they were driven by different imperatives; the relationship with Morocco was clearly a commercial one and goes back to the s. By , the Barbary Company is created. Persia is much further away, that trade is never really sustained. The essential relationship is the Ottoman alliance. That is the great alliance from her perspective because Elisabeth knows the commercial power but she also knows the political and diplomatic ramifications.
I think they are all driven by imperatives and even I concede in the title and subtitle of the book doesn't really do justice to the diversity of these connections. The Islamic World is just a catchall term and still we don't have the language to really describe the complexities of these encounters and exchanges. We are really only in the early stages of researching and enquiring into these kinds of exchanges. Jerry : It would be collaborative work. I cannot and should not do that. Politically, I understand that that is absolutely not acceptable.
This Orient Isle is a book in which I was very clear to say, speaks from the English perspective. It says how the English respond to the Ottoman encounter. It cannot tell the story set in the Ottoman chancery. That is not a skill set that I have.
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But what I hope and aspire to, as the scientists do, you can start to work in teams, with somebody who is familiar with the Moroccan archive, somebody who is familiar with the Turkish archives. To go beyond that we know is politically very difficult to do. When you start to talk about say Persia, you want to work with scholars in Iran, is it possible to work with scholars from Iraq. We depressingly know the answer to how hard it is to ever do that work because many of the archives have simply been destroyed and there is just no encouragement for scholars to do this kind of collaboration East-West crossover work in the humanities.
I would hope for, I long for the possibility to do that kind of work. So that's why I say that we are only at the beginning stages of this. And maybe that's something that The Bosphorus Review could start to develop. Jerry : I did a very interesting conversation for Radio 3, we did a live discussion and it was Elif Safak talking about This Orient Isle. I don't know that many 16th century Ottoman historians, I wish I knew more that could reach out to. Luke : Sure, I hope this goes a little way towards helping.
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My next question was going to bring up the point that you've just been talking about. If I had to criticise this book I would say that it was very much from the English side and I was going to ask you if you knew anything about what people living in the Muslim world thought about the English.
Jerry : I think it's a very pertinent question, I think there are several aspects to it. Is it a question which the Islamic world needs to answer? Is it orientalist of me to say that western scholarship should be doing this as well? There are scholars who are doing this kind of work like Gulru Necipoglu at Harvard, her works on the Topkapi Sarayi and the architect Sinan have been published in English but are grounded in the Ottoman archives.
I would love to be able to develop the ideas by asking what do we know from the Ottoman archives that tell us different information. I would be fascinated and thrilled to hear that. Jerry : I think that is because for a period England essentially becomes a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and I would push that, I would say that what Elisabeth was doing in those letters to Murat, and the way that she was establishing a subservient relationship was that she accepts that she is a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
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I think that after her death, once James I comes to the throne he ends that tradition. I think that what happens from then on in English cultural life is an intellectual interest in the Islamic world. The first chairs of Arabic in Oxford and Cambridge are established and it becomes an area of scholarly study, literally the development of oriental language studies, comparative religion and ethnography. I think this is when Orientalism really starts in the late 17th century, which is in line with what Said argues in Orientalism. I think that's the shift that takes place from the idea of England being a client state of the Islamic world, then as debates moves on, the East India company rises and starts to establish a foothold in East Asia, and at the same time you have the Ottoman withdrawal from its western frontier, from an engagement with Europe at the end of the 17th century as most Ottomanists would acknowledge.
Then you get the tradition of colonising the Islamic world. The English and the French lead the way in that orientalist tradition. One of the great neglected books on the Ottoman histories is the work of Susan Skilliter a great lecturer of Ottoman studies at Cambridge university, who wrote a fantastic book, William Harborne and the trade with Turkey in the s. It includes a fantastic document, which we now ascribe to Harborne. It describes his time in Istanbul and is an account of his time in the and his political, diplomatic and commercial machination that went on.
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Photo by Dirk Bader. Luke : Can you tell me, who you are, and a bit about yourself? Luke : What drew you to that topic initially? Luke : What would be the next step for these kinds of research? Luke : I don't think we have that kind of power yet. Luke : What projects are you working on now? Luke : My last question. What are you reading right now? It is a brilliant book and I got it for myself so that I can read it to kids and brush up my facts. If you want to read a detail book review of this book , you can read here and you can even purchase this book online.
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