Columbia University’s Ottoman Student Club 1911-1914

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Khalil Totah, a Columbia student in the 1910s, in Ottoman Uniform . During World War I he would enroll in the US Armed Forces. Later he established schools back in Palestine.

The Ottoman Club at Columbia University 

In 1910 the United States and the Ottoman Empire began an unprecedented era of friendship. The Ottomans had undergone some major changes in the preceding years. A party of reformers calling themselves the Young Turks had swept into power, proclaimed a new constitution and deposed of the autocratic Sultan Abdulhamid II, and instituted a new era of government. Many Americans saw new opportunity to extend ties. Richard Gottheil, the chair of the Semitic Languages department at Columbia, had just spent a year in the Ottoman Empire, primarily in Palestine. By his account only Germany seemed to see the potential in the market there and that the Americans had a large opportunity. Speaking to a group of Columbia students in September of 1910 he noted that the Young Turks were removing barriers to Jewish immigration to Palestine and setting up new irrigation systems. A couple of months later at a round table at Teachers College on the same issue he claimed that the reasons for all these positive signs could be traced to three sources: the new generation of literati, the role of American Colleges, especially Robert College in Istanbul, and the clear influence of women. Though we know in hindsight that the Ottoman Empire would only last another decade, for many at that time there was no end in sight. Many had noted its recent fall in fortunes, with massive loss of territory in the Balkans, but it had been around for 800 years and it seemed to be newly reinvigorated.

Columbia at that time actually had several powerful figures associated with the Ottoman Empire besides Professor Gottheil. Professor A. Hamlin in the School of Architecture had been born there and his father had helped establish Robert College, the American College that would eventually turn into today’s Boğaziçi University. Samuel Dutton was a professor at Teachers College, Columbia’s school of education, and he also was a trustee and treasurer at the American College for Girls in Istanbul also known as Constantinople College. Dutton was working behind the scenes to set up a new program to bring Ottoman Students to Columbia and build the relationship between the two countries. They held a scholarship contest in Istanbul on the subject of “Education and the State” to test students English essay writing skills. Greek, Armenian and Turkish students all placed high on the exam. In February of 1911 five students (three received full scholarships) arrived in New York’s harbor on the Mauretania. The agreement was that 3 students could come each year from the Ottoman Empire for at least the next decade, tuition free. Their home government would pay their living expenses. The Spectator reported that Columbia officials claimed that they hoped “modern civilization” would help break down the walls between east and west and increase understanding. President Butler of Columbia indicated that taking in the Ottoman students was in fact a small “repayment” of the “debt which the West owes the East”.

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Columbia University’s Low Library at 116th Street. Photo from 1897.

We don’t know what these Ottoman students thought as they disembarked on the Hudson River. The Ottoman Consul in New York, Djelal Bey, was waiting for them, along with the the secretary of the University. New York’s ports were bustling places along the Hudson. They would have not been far from Little Syria in lower Manhattan where many of their countrymen and women had settled. Columbia’s Morningside campus at 116th Street was still in rather rural settings at the time. One or two old farmhouses still stood near its buildings on the bluffs above the river. Someone would have been there to show them to their new lodgings and do their best to get them settled in. By November 1911 they had clearly found their feet. It was announced in the student newspaper, the Spectator, “Ottomans Students to Form Society”. The meeting was clearly a success, fifteen Ottoman students turned up. This is strong evidence that there had been Ottoman students before the scholarship students arrived, there by their own or other means. The Columbia Spectator reported that their were “four Turks, two Greeks, three Syrians, one Jew and five Armenians” present and alluded to other Ottoman students at Columbia who they expected to join later.

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Djelal Bey is at right in the suit. His giant size was often noted in writings about him.

Over the next two years the Ottoman Student club kept busy. They held dances and “Turkish soirees” that would go late into the night with Turkish coffee and treats to keep stamina up. The local consul Djelal Bey was a frequent guest as were Gottheil, who often spoke about his trip to Palestine, and Dutton, who spoke about education.They made the Ottoman Ambassador, Zia Pasha in Washington DC, their honorary president. They managed to get Zia Pasha to come to Columbia as a special guest of the club in March of 1912. President Butler warmly welcomed  him to the university. Zia Pasha gave his speech in French, which was immediately translated to English. He expressed his approval of sending Ottoman students to the US, as  means a means of reconciliation capable of settling “international differences”. Gottheil also spoke at this meeting and took the opportunity to condemn the recent Italian invasion of Libya, at least nominally an Ottoman province. He named it a “case of the vilest aggression and vandalism of modern times”. In October of 1912 the club managed to arrange a visit by one of the biggest celebrities in the Ottoman world, a Frenchman named Pierre Loti. Loti was an adventurer, who used his time as a naval officer to “go native” and explore a number of places around the world, from the South Seas, to Fez, to Algeria, to Vietnam and Istanbul. He would turn his experiences into fiction and he became a famous – and wealthy – writer. His book Aziyade, about his affair with a harem girl was based on his diary entries from an 1876 trip to Ottoman Salonica and Istanbul. He would return many times over the years and became an ardent Turkophile, speaking up for the bad way that Western Europe treated the Empire. After the First World War he spoke out for the Turkish side in the Turkish War of Independence. In gratitude the Turkish government named a street after Loti on the Golden Horn as well as opening a cafe in his name, supposedly on the spot where he dreamed up his story of Aziyade. It’s still a popular spot today, and its why there are now several wine bars here in New York called Pierre Loti. Loti was already world-famous and so his visit to the Ottoman Club was short, he was in fact on a large press tour of New York City. Fourteen club members and a number of faculty shook hands with him in a receiving line and Loti stayed on to chat with them for five minutes, before hurrying off to the Plaza for his next engagement. The Spectator journalist wryly observed that, “Monsieur Loti refused anything smacking of an interview and had a couple of adroit secretaries along to answer outsiders’ questions in monosyllables.”

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Pierre Loti in tribal dress

The Ottoman students were not the only foreign students at Columbia of course. Many were fond of the Sunday evening suppers held at Earl Hall. Columbia was still an Episcopalian University for the most part, represented by St. Paul’s Church, but Earl Hall was established as the multi-faith gathering center for students at Columbia. During these suppers, as one Ottoman student, Khalil Totah, put it in a letter to the Spectator:

“The ‘educativeness’ of these informal meetings is felt. Every time you turn around you are reminded how precious little you know about this world, after all. To begin with you murder half of the names. A Chinaman is taken for a Jap, a Syrian mistaken for a Hindu, a Virginian called a Yankee, and what not. Next you make your due share of blundering over the social customs, political status and geographical conditions of the conversant’s country. Most everybody succeeds in showing how much he doesn’t know. It is amusing to see a fellow approach you so warily in conversation, he has been humiliated once and is getting wise.”

Khalil was petitioning to keep the food portion as part of these Sunday gatherings: “Why it almost puts our Oriental hospitality to shame, the way the beans, sandwiches, apples and other dainties fly around”. It would be a shame to lose them for “they have a distinct function in the life at Columbia. The “green” foreigner is given a chance to know something of Americans that he cannot get from his lectures. The provincial American is enabled to see a world different from that of the Hippodrome.”

The students would also have been surely exploring New York City during their time at Columbia. Many of them were from rather cosmopolitan upbringings, but if they got home sick they could easily train down to Little Syria. Little Syria was located just south of today’s World Trade Center and it was made up of largely Arab-speaking Ottomans. There were several Arab Christian churches there as well as a mosque on Rector Street set up by the Ottoman Consul in 1910. Those inclined could have relaxed in a cafe with a real cup of Turkish coffee and water pipe and discussed the gossip, news and intrigue from home.

Though they surely didn’t expect at the time, the last meeting of the Ottoman Club was held on March 14th 1914. The spectator reported that it was a “huge success”. There had been Turkish stories, speeches, music, coffee, cigarettes and dancing. The Consul Djelal Bey was there of course as well as a few professors to give speeches. But the party went on long after the speeches and didn’t break up until midnight.

World War I

Summer came in 1914, and the first of the scholarship students to graduate, Emin Bey, sailed home. No one was expecting that the trouble that broke out in the former Ottoman province of Bosnia, then under the occupation of Austria, would lead to a full blown world war. But by August it was clear that things had changed. The remaining four Ottoman scholarship students got a cable in August of 1914 that the Ottoman government was cutting off their stipend. War had been declared. They were ordered to use their August funds to sail home. In a panic they contacted Professor Dutton for his help. They all had least one or two years left to complete the degrees and had no desire to return home at this time. Dutton reached out to Djelal Bey, the Consul, but his funds had been essentially cut off. Ambassador Zia Pasha was able to reinstate their money for a short time, but then he was recalled to Istanbul and the funds dried up again. President Butler was finally brought in and arranged some funds through the Carnegie Endowment. After a time the Ottoman government was able to fully resume the payments to the students.

Most had expected the war to end after just a few months, but it dragged on. By the time the Ottoman students graduated it had become impossibly difficult to travel home and most got stuck in the United States. Though the United States did not enter the war until later, it was clear early on that Germany represented the biggest potential enemy, and this by extension included Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman students felt increasingly isolated. Several wrote letters in support of their government to the New York Times. Djevad Eyoub wrote in December of 1915 celebrating the defeat of the Allies at Gallipoli. He linked symbolically to a battle led 631 years before by Ertegul, the father of Osman, founder of the Ottoman Dynasty. Eyoub acknowledged the Empire had fallen into a nadir lately, especially with its defeats in the Balkans. But Gallipoli was history repeating itself and spelled a new beginning for the Ottomans. He wrote that “this will mark the beginning of a new ascending curve in Turkish history, which will mean not only rise in power but also in Kultur. It will represent not a civilization as ordinarily conceived, which for an idealist is aimless and blind, but something different: This junction of the East and West will be the exponent of a newer form of attitude toward progress which will combine the complacency and spirituality of the East with the material advancement of the West.” That same week in December of 1915 Ahmed Shukri, another Columbia Student, wrote his own letter to the Times declaiming British propaganda about the Muslim world, that he argued was trying to divide the Ottomans from their allies.

The war’s scales swayed in the balance for a few years and finally the United States entered on the side of the Allies. In war full of new sorts of atrocities, especially disturbing reports were coming out of the Armenian provinces. Professor Dutton was at the forefront of the relief efforts. Along with trying to preserve the American colleges in Istanbul, he worked through the auspices of the Red Cross to get aid to the Armenians reportedly facing starvation and worse. Dutton’s group, the “American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief” was part of a major effort to get funds into the areas where the reports were being issued from.

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Professor Dutton is at the center of this photo. To the left of the photo is the Ambassador Henry Morgenthau to the Ottoman Empire. Photo from 1916.

The remaining Columbia students from the Ottoman Club finished their degrees, but it was impossible in the middle of the war to return home. Several of them perceived Professor Dutton’s Armenian relief efforts with resentment. They didn’t know what to believe at that point. Consul Djelal Bey, the frequent guest of honor at the Ottoman Club soirees, for his part called Dutton’s committee’s report a “fabrication” and claimed that the Armenians had only themselves to blame for their “anti-Turkish” actions in the war. Dutton invited the Columbia Ottoman students over to dinner to give them a better idea of the full scale of atrocities being committed. He explained that if had been a Turkish minority undergoing such massacres, he would have done what he could to rescue them. He told them that he was counting on them to promote the ideals of the equality of all races when they returned to the Ottoman Empire and to establish a “regime of justice”. The students apparently responded with conviction, but the war wasn’t over. Ahmed Shruki was under intense surveillance from the secret service, suspecting him to be a spy. He was working in a magazine office but had come down with tuberculousis. He reached out to Dutton again to plead his innocence and to ask for funds. Dutton helped him out and Shruki eventually got better and was able to return east after the war.

Dutton was heartened to see his first Ottoman PhD student, Emin Bey, later known as Ahmet Emin Yalman, begin an influential life in the newspaper industry in Istanbul. He would go onto found the major nationalist newspaper in the Turkish Republic Vatan and write extensively about Turkey. Other Ottoman students like Shruki found themselves under new rulers when they returned to the Levant and eventually in new countries as well as the old Empire was carved up. No one called themselves “Ottoman” any longer. Their dissertations on “Mohammedan Finance” and “Mohammedan Marital Law” were filed away in the library stacks.  Djelal Bey fell out of favor and was later part of a murder-suicide in Budapest. Dutton died in 1919. Eyoub married a Brooklyn woman and moved to Park Slope and took a job with a Wall Street firm as an expert on mining. He was still there in the 1950s.

Throughout the 20th century Turkish students continued to come to Columbia. The most famous is probably Talat Halman, who became the Turkish Republic’s first Minister of Culture in 1971. At Columbia University today students still come from all over the former Ottoman Empire. There are healthy Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and Armenian language programs and every spring American students go on exchange to Bogazaci University.

This article benefited greatly from the wonderfully digitized archives of the Columbia Spectator.

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