Book Talk: ‘Europe Knows Nothing About the Orient’

Victoria Huet
June 17, 2021
europe knows nothing about the orient

The origins of Professor Zeynep Çelik’s book, Europe Knows Nothing about the Orient, go back 40 years to the days when heated debates on Edward Said’s Orientalism rocked university campuses. Among them was the University of California in Berkeley, where Professor Celik was a graduate student, and where, like everybody else around her, Çelik fell under the spell of the book and became immersed in the debates it generated. Among them, one particularly resonated with her; the absence of voices from the East. In her book, Professor Celik corrects the narrative of this absence of voices, compiling the criticism of late Ottoman/early Turkish intellectuals on Orientalism. 

In Europe Knows Nothing About the Orient, Professor Çelik fills a historiographical void by providing a critique of Western Orientalism from an Ottoman/Turkish perspective, showing how the West sees the Oriental ‘other’. Professor Rashid Khalidi, in conversation with the author during the ‘Book Talk’ hosted by Columbia Global Centers Istanbul, notes the enormous lengths it must have taken to translate the variety of texts by Ottoman and Turkish authors Çelik included in the book. They range from 1872 - 1932. These decades, littered with many wars spanning from the war with Russia from 1877 to 1878 to the War of Independence from 1919 to 1922, each ended with significant losses of land for the Ottoman Empire. This not only triggered major political changes, but also many ideological ones. Professor Çelik names a few to demonstrate the breadth of belief, explaining that positions at the time were oscillating between “Ottomanism, Turkism, Turianism, Islamism, Nationalism, Secularism, Modernism, Statism, Liberalism and their myriad interpretations with significant overlaps between them.” The book not only gives the reader her analysis of intellectual late Ottoman/ early Turkish discourse but immerses the reader in the writings, explaining  how the Orient was perceived or misperceived by the Western other. In this Book Talk, the author explains that she sees herself “as being produced by the discourse that I’m including in this book.” 

As an immense work of scholarship, Professor Çelik hopes the literature of Europe Knows Nothing about the Orient will be continued by others, further developed and explored: “I offer this book as open-ended. I know for sure that I did not cover everything, I did not include all the texts written in Turkish on this, but I also included other texts from writers in the Middle East, in North Africa, and my hope is that this open-ended book will be continued with proposals, with other texts from other geographies and other languages.” 

In this fascinating webinar, Professor Çelik is in discussion with Professor Khalidi, considering the book, with conversation ranging from issues she encountered with the translation of the texts to the variety of illustrations included, to the gendered discussion of Ottoman society.