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“Civilizing Mission” in the Late Ottoman Discourse: The Case of Gypsies

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AbstractHistorians of the Ottoman Empire have up until now written extensively not only on the polyethnic and multireligious nature of the Ottoman Empire, but also on the specific ethnic and religious groups that made up this plurality. Yet, although the Gypsies were a part of this pluralistic society, they have not received sufficient critical attention from Ottomanists whether in Turkey or abroad. While a few important studies have recently been published on the Ottoman Gypsies, this scholarship, though indeed very useful as a guide to the rich materials available on the subject, are weakened by two competing arguments. The first of these arguments is that the Gypsies of the Ottoman Balkans provide a salient example of a group marginalized through stigmatization, segregation and exclusion, whereas the second maintains that Gypsies were benignly tolerated by the Ottoman state. These analyses however fail to take into account that the legal, social and economic status of the Roma people in the Ottoman Empire seems to have been, at different times and in different places, much more complicated than simple marginalization or toleration. The question in fact needs to be problematized through a consideration of regional, local and temporal differences. My previous readings of the kanunnames and the mühimme registers of the second half of the sixteenth century substantiate this view and demonstrate that the marginality of the Gypsies in the Ottoman Balkans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was neither absolute and unchanging nor inflexible and complete. The interaction of the Gypsies both with the state and with Ottoman society at large was both hostile and symbiotic. Thus, the purpose of this study is to delve further into this topic and analyze how the Ottoman Imperial state dealt with what I call “community in motion” at various levels in the late nineteenth century. Through close reading of a layiha (memorandum) written by Muallim Sa’di Efendi, a college professor in the city of Siroz (Serres) in communication with other archival sources located in Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi in Istanbul, the paper attempts not only to understand the ways and techniques through which the late Ottoman state produced and governed the Empire’s subjects but also to show how Gypsies interacted with and were received by the local population in Serres, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians. My argument is that during the sixteenth century, the imperial state adopts residential and religious mobility of the Gypsies, albeit with certain restrictions. Yet, by the late nineteenth century, one of the most significant concerns of the late Ottoman state was to “reform” (ıslah) the Gypsies. Constants attempts were being made to deconstruct, normalize and eliminate differences of Gypsies, for instance, appointing imams to the Gypsy neighborhoods to “correct” their faith or opening new schools to “save” them from ignorance and poverty that lived in.

Affiliations: 1: McGill UniversityMontreal


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