Jonathan Conlin talks to Cihan Tekay about her research into the electrification of Istanbul between 1890 and 1923.

Cihan is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the City University of New York.

Early one morning in 1898 Sultan Abdul Hamid II awoke from a nightmare screaming “I don’t want it!” “It” was electrification. Though written in the 1930s, Refik Halit Karay’s fictional account of the sultan’s terror of the “scorpion” of electricity was grounded in fact. Within a few decades, however, Istanbul grew to accept the new technology, a process which shaped how its citizens viewed themselves and the German, French and other foreign companies whose wires criss-crossed the city. Jonathan Conlin spoke with CUNY graduate student Cihan Tekay, who has made this story the focus of her doctoral thesis.

JC: As Abdul Hamid’s nightmare shows, the “grid” could inspire fears of surveillance and control, but also dreams of autonomy. Your research began by looking at electrification in the early Republican period, but has since turned to the final decades of the Empire. Do you see 1923 as a turning point?

CT: Yes and no.  In my archival research I’ve observed some new government policies on how Turkey engaged with foreign companies. One of these concerns the ethnic identity of the staff: they require the hiring of Turkish workers at all levels of the operation. This might sound reasonable in the case of a developing country trying to gain its economic independence, yet the implications also affect local non-Muslim staff. Another big change comes in the 1930s when the Great Depression makes it possible for the Turkish state to nationalize the utility companies. That said, there is also a lot of continuity, as we know from historical scholarship that has covered this ground many times over. 

What I might be contributing to this as an anthropologist is by plugging into contemporary debates surrounding the relationship between politics and economy, in the spirit of Michael Meeker (also an anthropologist). Others have tackled other parts of the world, like Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Sidney Mintz, connecting the history of global capitalism to its interactions with specific societies and their existing socioeconomic systems. In the process of thinking through the relationship between European companies and Turkey’s electrification I ended up zooming out quite a bit to be able to zoom back in again, and here I am, peering into bank archives, something I wouldn’t have believed if you told me I’d be doing this when I started the PhD.

“Here I am, peering into bank archives, something I wouldn’t have believed if you told me I’d be doing this . . . “

JC: The reliance of the late Empire on the likes of IOB  has led some scholars to speak of “fiscal imperialism”. Others (including me!) have argued that competition among western powers for Ottoman concessions allowed the Empire more agency than that model assumes. What sort of a picture do you see?

CT: This is one of the questions at the heart of my thesis which I have yet to resolve, but I believe I’m getting closer. What’s interesting about the Ottoman Empire in this case, and I’ve been told that China might be a similar case, is that the economic component of imperialism is clearly there while the political entity is intact – in other words, it’s not colonized. And in other cases, like those discussed in Mostafa Minawi’s book on Africa, the empire is still trying to compete as an empire, with the other empires, in the colonial territories.

Before I dove head straight into the bank archives, I had read Lenin’s account of imperialism and finance, and just last week I got done helping an economist colleague, Lygia Sabbag Fares, teach Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital. Her account of the imperial expansion process in Turkey and Egypt makes sense to me right now with some caveats – most of which come from data she did not have access to, both from Ottoman archives and from the internal chatter of the European capitalists. 

Silahtarağa Power Station

JC: Much history of electrification has focused on the struggle between companies to set standards on voltages and other technical questions: Alain Beltran’s work on EDF, for example, explains why, even today, you can find old distribution boxes from rival firms serving Paris crowding the staircases of Parisian apartment buildings. Who resolved such squabbles in Istanbul?

CT: First of all, thanks to Alain Beltran for writing to some of the French archives to help me get access, even though we still have never met in person. It feels good to be supported as a young researcher who is an outsider to Europe in more than one way.

I actually don’t know how to answer to who or what decided such questions in the case of Istanbul. As for rival firms: this relates to the previous question about imperialism, and by extension, to what one thinks the nature of the capitalist market economy is, so it interests me deeply. In short, the banks had a huge role in coordinating rival firms. This was especially true of Deutsche Bank, though I’m reluctant to refer to Deutsche Bank as only a “bank”, as it was purposefully set up as an investment bank carrying out foreign transactions of this kind.

JC: It was those wonderful Deutsche Bank Orientbüro files which first inspired me to get in touch. They even give us to a sense of how “consumers” felt about electrification. I found one document describing what happened in Beirut in March 1913 when the Belgian electricity company, tired of not being paid by the municipality, simply switched off the lights and trams: a crowd formed outside their offices and shot up the place up! Have you been able to trace “consumer” responses to electrification in Istanbul?

“What kind of things should belong to the commons?”

CT: I have a good story from the pre-1922 period about stealing electricity from a police garage near the Topkapı palace, which I shared in a symposium Emrah Yildiz recently organized at Northwestern on “kaçak” (things illegal and informal). I have also seen petitions in military archives addressed to the Allied forces during the Occupation, asking them to turn the gas, electricity, etc. back on, and judging by the signatures I found on one of these (from Moda), these drew support from Ottomans of various classes and ethno-religious identities.

I’m in the process of gathering more sources, from popular magazines as well as archives. I’m interested in making a link here between the privileges in the Empire and rights in the Republic, in the context of technology and public utilities, which I think will resonate with the current debates on energy consumption, climate change, what kind of things should belong to the commons.

I’ll leave it there for now and just say “to be continued”.

Image Credit (SintralIstanbul): Charles Kremenak

Further reading:

Michael Meeker, A Nation of Empire: The Ottoman Legacy of Turkish Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Mostafa Minawi, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).

Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (New York: Beacon, 1995).

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