Assistant Professor of Armenian Studies in Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies
Texts, Spies and Loyalty: The Politics of Ottoman-Armenian Print Culture
At the historical moment when Western Armenian became a standardized literary language, it confronted the most influential political agent in its development: systematic Ottoman censorship, coinciding with the era of Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s reign (1876 – 1908). While studies on Ottoman censorship are unfortunately scant and incomplete, enough research does exist to observe its impact on Western Armenian literature and Ottoman-Armenian socio-political relations. As author, poet and literary critic Krikor Beledian has observed, Hamidian censorship was foremost among the forces that determined the predominance of the realist short story among the Ottoman-Armenian, and especially the Istanbullu, literati. But its effects went far beyond the formation of generic predilections.
This paper consists of two sections. The first presents some of the chief social, political and cultural consequences of Ottoman censorship on Armenian publishing. And the second attempts to draw a preliminary conclusion about how censorship may have contributed to forging perceptions and conceptions of ethnic and/or national identity among Armenian intellectuals in the late Ottoman Empire. On the basis of archival, autobiographical, literary and literary critical sources, the discussion herein will reveal the rise of the censors as a formative socio-political class of immense clout. In the context of the Armenian periodical press, they were, almost entirely, ethnic Armenians. The source texts indicated above chronicle the perceptions, representations, and reputations associated with these historically shadowy figures. Moreover, they reveal that “Armenianness” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was determined as much, if not more, by ideological, religious and class allegiances as by ethnic affiliation. Hence, it was possible for writer Hagop Oshagan to conceive of a figure he termed “Armenian-Turk,” one, which also referred more broadly to informants. I will propose that thinking the Armenian-Turk through Ottoman censorship reveals a hitherto undisclosed view of late Ottoman ethno-national identification determined by power differentials rather than taxonomic assumptions.