A History of Modern State-Making in The Middle East: The Case of Dersim across Empire and Nation-State (1877–1938)
Manuscript at the planning stage.
The manuscript is largely based on my PhD dissertation. It is about the history of modern state making and nation building in the Middle East through the case of Dersim from the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War to the Turkish state’s violent transformation of the region in 1937–38. The first two chapters of the book will explore Dersim’s internal governing mechanism, which some Turkish authorities referred to as the “Dersim System” (Dersim Sistemi). The first chapter will provide a historical background to that system, which was largely based on the Kizilbash/Alevi cosmology. The second chapter will explain how that system functioned as a sociopolitical mechanism in the absence of a bureaucratic administration or often despite it. Later chapters will trace government policies towards Dersim and Dersimis’ reactions to such policies; in multiple chapters, the book will explore the details of official reports, military operations, the history of the Armenians in the region, and homogenization policies across the three political eras mentioned earlier. The last chapter will seek to answer why the Turkish state annihilated a substantial number of Dersim’s inhabitants, human beings and livestock alike, through genocidal operations following a long period of planning and preparation.
“A Stylish Death”: Seyid Riza and the Politics of Remembrance
British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
This article tells the story of a tribal and spiritual leader named Seyid Riza (1863–1937), whom Turkish authorities accused of rebellion and executed in 1937 at the age of seventy-five. The article starts with a recent debate on Seyid Riza and his hometown of Dersim in Turkey, which involves actors as diverse as political leaders, academics, journalists, and a pan-Turkist mafia leader in exile. It then provides a historical framework to the debate and explores Seyid Riza’s multifaceted persona in an effort to understand where he stood as a tribal chief, a local leader, a saint, a hero of resistance, and a bandit in his time, as well as the leader of one of many Kurdish uprisings, a symbol of Alevism, and a traitor to the Turkish nation for later generations. I refute both the official narrative and existing Turkish historiography characterizing Seyid Riza as a ringleader who reigned over unruly Dersim. I argue that the Turkish authorities wanted to crush Seyid Riza through a show of force to convince the inhabitants of Dersim that there was no power above the state. This would, at the same time, intimidate other Kurds and Alevis and signal to the rest of the society that the Turkish state was irresistible.
“A Universe, Many Folds Bigger Than It Appears”: Imagining a Non-State Space “In the Heart of Anatolia” as Terra Incognita (1866–1938)
The Journal of Historical Geography
This article defines Dersim, a mountainous region with rich water sources and forests in Eastern Anatolia, or “a boil (çıban) in the heart of Anatolia/homeland” as several Ottoman and Turkish officials imagined it, as a nonstate space based on a survey of interpretations offered by different actors from various points of views from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These interpretations demonstrate that Dersim was an imagined space as much as a real one, but the ways in which it was imagined differed from our contemporary ideas about a region, province, or even a country with fixed borders and bureaucratically defined entities. They also show that there was a complex interconnectedness between Dersim's topography and demography. I argue that state policies of taming and controlling Dersim’s natural environment were intended to bring about the dismantlement of its Kizilbash inhabitants’ cosmological beliefs embedded in that environment. Considering this a nation-building strategy to homogenize a diverse citizenry, I explain how such a policy left Dersimis weaker against the mechanisms of central state, which were designed to establish state authority in the region and coerce its inhabitants to assimilate to the country’s dominant Sunni Turkish identity.
“Legend of Banditry” across Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey: Koçan (Koçuşağı) Tribe (1890–1938)
Turkish: "Osmanlı'dan Cumhuriyet'e bir “Eşkıyalık Efsanesi”: Koçan (Koçuşağı) Aşireti (1890–1938)," in Gayri Eşkiyaya Çıkar Adımız”: Geç Osmanlı’dan Cumhuriyet’e Eşkıyalık, Şekavet, İsyan edited by Yalçın Çakmak and Ahmet Özcan.
The chapter is about the history of a tribe targeted by central governments during three different political eras and ultimately destroyed through military operations in the 1930s. Ottoman and Turkish authorities often identified the Koçan tribe as a source of banditry, but the tribe also served as a last refuge for the Kizilbash Kurds and Armenians escaping state capture and violence. The chapter traces the tribe’s history from the 1890s to the 1930s, when the Turkish military killed many of its members, displaced and exiled the rest, and finally declared the tribe’s historical home a completely depopulated security zone.