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The Sappho of
the Ottomans

October 15, 1498
It's a cold autumn day in Amasya, and Mihri Hatun is enjoying herself as she partakes in one of the multiple intellectual court gatherings taking place in the city. These gatherings, known as majālis, have become important cultural nodes, bringing intellectuals together to share, create, tell stories, discuss politics and read books. Contrary to what one might think, these majālis do not take place only in fastuous palaces and saloons — they are also held in the city’s coffeehouses, which are multiplying and even beginning to form a network across the city.
Mihri finds herself in the middle of a heated conversation with fellow poets and artists. This is a rare occasion to put forward her ideas, as one of the few women who has been granted access to the early-modern Ottoman intellectual milieu.  

— It is not gender but intelligence that determines the poet’s potential!, she says.

Some of her companions are astonished to hear such a statement.

As we can read in Didem Havlioglu’s lecture Mihri Hatun: A Women, A Poet, A Beloved, 'Mihri’s existence as a woman poet in the overwhelmingly male literary world of the early-modern Ottoman times is a remarkable feat, as she not only claims a space as a woman, but also claims respect as a Muslim.' Indeed, if a woman did not come from a well-off family, who could pay for a private tutor, she would have little chance of obtaining an education: training opportunities for women in public institutions were scarce, if not null. Artists living at the margins of society, and particularly poets, thus had to search for alternatives, away from the constraints of the madrassa, or religious schools. In that search, the mystical path through terikat affiliation, that is being engaged with a particular tekke, became a way for women to engage on the meshk and so to work with a master and learn poetry, painting or calligraphy. Terikat affiliation and meshk pedagogical methods were also carried out in the context of the extensive zāwiya networks, in which emphasis was placed not only on mystical but also on creative training. Innate talent was in fact seen with suspicion, as it was believed that masters came into their knowledge through an elaborate process of learning, experimenting and testing traditional tools and methods. In the fields of writing, rhetoric and aesthetics, scholars and artists in the Islamic world produced multitudes of fine and valuable manuscripts, while poetry, music and the art of the miniature flourished. It is in this context that the zawaya and tekke became essential loci of artistic and intellectual activity.
Mihri’s success as a woman poet in 15th - century Ottoman artistic circles can be understood in terms of the institutional milieu of Islamic literary aesthetics. Gendered voices such as hers were allowed in certain pedagogical and religious institutions, such as the zawaya and the tekke. Being well-versed in literary and religious texts, Mihri knew how to legitimately stretch the limits of the aesthetic and intellectual traditions beyond a strictly religious framework.

Although she benefited significantly from these alternative pedagogical and residential centres, Mihri nonetheless knew that she needed to travel if she wanted to be part of the creative networks of the court system and find patrons to sustain her practice. The need to network and perform is what made travelling  from majāli to majāli essential. Indeed, mobility is what allowed scholars and artists to connect with influential artists and patrons and thus to create a network of financial or educational support. Traveling was not easy for everybody, however. It was in fact considered a dangerous activity, as transportation was limited for both men and women, and infrastructure was scarce. Furthermore, women faced a double threat. Much like in Europe, public space was essentially male-dominated. Consequently, women who traveled needed to be protected. If a woman circulated freely, she was considered loose, or out of place, and thus available. As private spaces in which gender and class restrictions could be bent or even obliterated, the majāli provided safe spaces for women to share their ideas and connect with other intellectuals.
After a long journey, Mihri is now temporarily settled in the cultural capital of the Ottoman empire: the Sublime Porte, Istanbul. We leave her sitting in a corner of her master’s coffee-house, a place well known by fortune tellers and poets. She is resting and having coffee — an absolute novelty, recently imported from Cairo — after a heated discussion on the originality of the ḥanīn ilā al-waṭan genre (or 'longing for the homeland'), which became highly fashionable in the  16th - century istanbulite cultural milieu.

Mihri can be heard murmuring:

Her thoughts — which were radical in her time — resonate half a millenium later in the words of Palestinian-Lebanese-British artist Mona Hatoum, when she says:

'I think better when I am on the move… Nomadic existence suits me fine, because I do not expect myself to identify completely with one place. They are all provisional bases from which to operate.'



At the turn of the 16th century, the majālis or literary salons constituted important spaces for social and intellectual exchange across much of the Islamic world. Derived from the Arabic root j-l-s, and widely used in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, majāli literally means 'a place where one sits.' Similarly, the word 'residence' derives from the Latin root sidere, or 'to sit:' a resident is 'one who remains seated.'

While usually formed around a core group of people living in the same city, literary salons became an integral part of elite travel. Indeed, as Helen Pfeifer has argued, 'as arenas for discussion among scholars on the move, literary salons facilitated the circulation of books and ideas and the establishment of a shared intellectual tradition. As occasions where stories were told and history was made, they supported the formation of a common past.' Over the course of their travels across Ottoman lands, men of letters, mystics and artists joined the majālis that were organised by leading local scholars, becoming, and in some cases, residential spaces that structured the practice of journeying.

Deeply relevant to the mobility of knowledge(s) between the Same and the Other, as well as to the debate on inclusion and exclusion within intellectual and epistemic traditions, the case of the majālis is important for our study. According to Helen Pfeifer, 'The 1516 Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk Empire propelled enormous social and intellectual exchange across the Eastern Mediterranean. Although connections between Anatolia and the Arab lands had existed prior to the conquest, the integration of the two regions into a single empire prompted a sharp acceleration of contact between their learned populations. Informal scholarly gatherings were central to this process. Welcoming scholars on the move, majālis aided the creation of pan-Ottoman scholarly networks; as venues for discussion and debate, they facilitated the circulation of ideas and books.' Interestingly enough, in terms of knowledge and scholarly sophistication, the newly conquered Arab territories were initially perceived to be culturally dominant. The Other was seen indeed as superior to the Same. Although Ottoman elites had become powerful patrons of arts and letters, Ottoman scholarship was still fledgling as compared with the venerable intellectual tradition of Mamluk Cairo and Damascus. In fact, Arabs were deeply skeptical of the intellectual merits of their Ottoman conquerors and, though there was an ever-growing Ottoman tradition of scholarship and belles lettres, Arab intellectuals showed little interest in Ottman scholars’ lives and works. In that context, the politics of visiting and hosting through the majālis, or scholarly gatherings, became essential. As Helen Pfeifer has stated, 'Literary salons thus reveal a very dynamic process of Ottoman canon formation and the creation of a distinctly Ottoman imperial culture in the literary, artistic, and scholarly domains. Whereas the former had once gone to Cairo for patronage and protection, they now attended the majālis in Istanbul, demonstrating their worthiness for office through their knowledge and etiquette.' In this context, the majlis became structuring spaces, accommodating the bearers of the multiple travelling narratives articulated through knowledge and the journey in the early Ottoman Empire.  

Travelling Narratives
(Rabat, Cairo, Tripoli, Nouakchott, Algiers)

Le Cube (Morocco), Townhouse Gallery (Egypt), مؤسسةورقللفنون- WaraQ Art Foundation (Libya), l’Espace culturel Diadie Tabara Camara (Mauritania) and Les Ateliers Sauvages (Algeria)

In a logic that resonates with the majālis, the project Travelling Narratives articulated a network of artistic residential spaces in which several artists, curators and researchers met to share ideas and tell stories through creative practices. Between September 2018 and June 2019, Travelling Narratives evolved as a regional program of research and artistic creation aiming to cross and connect micro-stories from North Africa. The project collectively imagined new social and cultural utopias based on alternative narratives. By collaboratively examining forgotten stories, the group of travelling curators and artists sought to value the differences that unite peoples across the region and lead to encounters.

Through a series of art residencies, exhibitions, screenings, gatherings, workshops and conferences, the program investigated social and cultural issues emerging from the alternative stories of Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Morocco. Thus, Travelling Narratives was conceived as a platform to experiment with methods of research and artistic production that embraced constellation as a form.

جامعات بيني

Penny universities

Together with the majālis, coffeehouses flourished in early 16th- century Cairo. Henry Castela, an European traveler visiting the city in 1600, noted the presence of many crowded taverns where people drank hot black water at all hours of the day. Coffee was a drink he had obviously never seen before. The history of coffee goes as far back as 9th- century Ethiopia and Yemen. However, it wasn't until the start of the 16th century that consumption of coffee as a drink began in Egypt. The practice was brought to Egypt by Sufi pilgrims, who drank coffee to stay awake at night for the dhikr. In spite of the ulama’s resistance to the use of this intoxicating beverage, very soon it spread from Egypt to Syria and then to Anatolia, reaching Istanbul by the mid - 1500s.

As Salah Zaimeche argues in The Coffee Route from Yemen to London in the 10th-17th Centuries (2010): 'By bringing together the diverse elements of society — government officials, tradesmen and artisans, the pious and the profane — out of their own closed circles and into the common ground of the coffeehouse, coffee mediated the development of a social design to which everyone could contribute his own knowledge and experience. In that respect, the habit that coffee created in the Islamic world may be said to have laid the foundations of a new civil model that was based on socialisation'.

Coffeehouses and coffee culture soon became an integral part of Istanbul's social life. People came there throughout the day to read books, play chess and backgammon and discuss poetry and literature. Indeed coffee-houses were dubbed 'penny universities' describing the social view of these premises as centres of knowledge, a sign that they were frequented by students, scholars, artists and people of talent. The penny referred to the price of a cup of coffee. New sociabilities emerged in tandem with the coffeehouse, as they connected a network of travelers and their narratives. Eloquent examples of such travelers can be found in the figures of the meddah and the hakawātī.

The meddah, or storyteller, was a traveling artist, whose routes generally linked a network of cities. Upon their arrival in a new city, the meddah generally headed straight to the coffeehouse, trusting that they would find a place to perform and to be hosted. The meddah often also appears under the name hakawātī. The word hakawātī is a derivative of the Lebanese hekaya, meaning story. As such, the term hakawātī designates performers who earn their living by fascinating and captivating an audience with their tales. Back in early medieval Islamic times, each village had its own hakawātī. However, the truly great storytellers left their homes and traveled around the region recounting their tales. Far from being a bygone tradition, the hakawātī are nowadays experiencing a revival. In Beirut, Dima Matta, a university lecturer, writer and performer, restarted the trend of storytelling gatherings in 2014 with her cliffhanger storytelling events. Matta’s stories typically blend her father’s tales of the Lebanese Civil War and her own memories of the time, in which Beirut’s power cuts are a recurrent motif. She has stated that she sees the new storytelling events not only as a prolongation of the Middle Eastern hakawātī folklore, but also as a way of documenting personal histories that would otherwise go untold.

For a multitude of reasons and through diverse strategies, zawayas, majālis and coffeehouses became important nodes of connection and intellectual activity from the 15th century onwards. Indeed, they became the places from where scholars, traders, diplomats and artists could articulate the links between knowledge and mobility within the expanding Ottoman Empire. They made it possible for individuals and collectives alike to reclaim time and space, often serving as temporary residencies. In contrast to the institutionalised form of the zawaya, the majālis and coffeehouses responded to the need for intimate time and space. They were informal structures where scholars and artists could network and gather, share and create, away from dogmatic control.