The Interviewees

Interview with Maria Bruckmann (M.Phil. Modern Middle Eastern Studies, Oxford University), April 2018

1- The working title of your current PhD project is “Women’s Work and Property: From Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic: A Case Study based on the Files of Female Customers and Employees at the Banque Impériale Ottomane (1863-1933)”, which you conduct at Hamburg University. Prior to your PhD project, your graduate studies at Oxford University concentrated on Turkish, gender studies and subaltern history in the Middle East. Particularly the part of your research that concentrates on Levantines is clearly a niche area of history research in a historically Muslim milieu. Which historians’ work have you drawn upon and been inspired by in this pursuit?

The academic literature on Levantines is indeed still very sparse. I can wholeheartedly recommend the excellent study by Oliver Jens Schmitt “The Levantines”, which to my knowledge, has been published in German and French. More generally, there are some great Ottoman historians whose works I am building on with my own research, particularly Zafer Toprak, Edhem Eldem, Suraiya Faroqhi and Daniel Quataert. Last but not least, the excellent work of my supervisor Dr. Yavuz Köse informs and inspires my work. Maybe most importantly, being a researcher from Western Europe, I believe that Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” are key readings to reflect on one’s own identity and approach in studying Turkish history.

2- You have conducted extensive searches in the archives of the Ottoman Bank archives held by SALT Research in Istanbul. Does the information there include information on where the customer and staff lived, where they were born and such? Which other information sources have you been able to access in Turkey and elsewhere in helping to build a picture of women’s work and property details in the Ottoman Empire?

The SALT Research, Ottoman Bank archives hold a breath of material and I am extremely lucky that I have been granted access. I am still delving through the incredible amounts of material, uncovering new elements every day. The Ottoman bank’s female staff files dating from the early 20th century are the most systematic source of my data set, and they do indeed contain information on birth places, occupation of fathers, children, previous employees, nationalities, education and such. The bank did not keep birth or marriage certificates, these sorts of documents would have to be found elsewhere, but they are also less relevant for me, as dates and places of birth as well as marriage are registered in the bank files. The female customer files, on the other hand, are much less systematic: the most complete set are around 5,000 customer cards and they have the signature, current address and occupation of the customer. These cards help me understand whether a woman would be able to access her personal account without interference of a male agent or guardian. Lastly, I work with inheritance files of deceased customers, which provide information on the bank portfolio of the deceased women at the time of her death and thus allow me to draw conclusions about women’s personal possessions. At the current stage of my research, I am concentrated primarily on the vast archive of SALT Research. At the same time, I am trying to acquire further information about the women in my data set by contacting descendants. Luckily for me, there are quite a number of family researchers, especially in the field of Levantine history, who help me in my pursuit and allow me to gain more personal insights into these women’s lives. Another interesting place to look for women’s work is the Annuaire oriental du commerce, de l’industrie, de l’administration et de la magistrature which recorded a great part of Pera’s business from around 1890 to the 1910s, and of course, you would also find women in there. More generally, publications from this time period are very interesting to gain some context regarding female employment, and you can look at Ottoman Turkish as well as French or other non-Ottoman language press. I think a lot still can be done in this field.

3- Dealing with the various female staff and customers of the Ottoman bank in the late Ottoman period clearly the concept of ‘Levantines’ both in terms of ethnic designation and the socio-political-economic environment is inescapable. Do you think this term can be over used without the designation being carefully explained from the start, and thus be a lazy way of grouping people whose ‘Ottoman’ credentials could be very shallow. Or does ‘Ottoman identity’ even come into the equation in this very French speaking and minority dominated environment centred in Galata / Pera?

I believe that it is essential for us as researchers to use the terms Ottoman, Levantine or European with great caution. Actually, I am hoping that my research will contribute to a discussion about the subject of definitions. It seems to me that a large majority of the academic literature on 19th century Ottoman history usually takes into consideration no more than one ethno-religious group in a single publication. Instead, the term “Ottoman”, if used without further specification, is used to describe the Ottoman Muslim community without discussing the existence of other ethno-religious groups co-habiting the same historical context, many of which held Ottoman citizenship. On the other hand, articles on other communities such as the Greek, Armenian or Jewish Ottomans will be explicitly designated as such. With some important exceptions, literature on the Levantines is completely lacking. Most publications use national categories without problematizing them or questioning whether they reflect the self-identification of the subjects they describe, an approach which suggests that the contemporary literature is still permeated by nationalist historiography that applies contemporary modes of thinking onto the past. There are of course also practical problems that play a significant role in the nationalist approaches on Ottoman history: few scholars today, myself included, have the linguistic skill set required to approach sources in the broad range of languages spoken within Ottoman territories ranging from Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Greek and Armenian to French, Italian or Jewish. Apart from these practical matters, diving into to complexities of 19th century Ottoman social structures poses scholars with the immense theoretical challenge of defining social categories of a pre-nation state entity. People within 19th century Ottoman territories lived in a complex web of legal, religious, political and linguistic identities. In terms of my research, the bank files indicate inter-ethnic collaboration in form of financial, business and legal transactions between non-Muslim and Muslim customers, both women and men. This suggests that any analysis that considers only one group omits a substantial part of the historical evidence, and falsifies the complex legal and economic entanglements between the various ethno-religious communities of the Ottoman Empire. I am hoping to work with the idea of “cultural osmosis”, whereby I mean that different groups lived both in diverging parallel social structures, as well as in the same socio-historical place and context. Surely, cultural particularities of the different groups will have played a role in the interactions between individuals of different groups, at least in public spaces such as the Ottoman Bank. Of course, I should add that my analysis focusses on the urban society of the Ottoman Empire.

4- Do you think women working in a bank in the Ottoman times would have been seen as very progressive and perhaps ‘feminist’ in modern parlance, so they represented people who were more strong-willed and requiring foreign language skills represented the intellectual end of the various communities represented?

So far, my research suggests that the women working for the Ottoman Bank would not have been seen as exceptional within the social circles in which they interacted. Instead, I believe that they formed part of an urban middle class which placed great significance on women’s education, particularly in a historical context in which women came to be markers of “civilizational progress”. The ability to speak various languages may be interpreted almost as a necessity in the multicultural urban setting of the late Ottoman Empire. Daughters of Catholic, Orthodox or Jewish merchants, bankers and lawyers often had family networks that were multi-lingual as well as multi-national and included Greek, Italian, French, etc. Interestingly, many of the women had previous work experience in the “battalions of European power”: the consulates, military missions, schools and postal services. I guess you could say that this reflects how the Levantine community in particular blossomed during Western European political and economic dominance in the 19th century. Of course, for a majority of the female staff, working at the Ottoman Bank can be said to have been a matter of economic necessity. A majority of the women were single or widowed and thus without a husband to provide financial security: Most of them left work shortly prior to their marriage. There are also cases of Ottoman Muslim women whose fathers, working in the Ottoman bureaucracy, suffered from the financial difficulties of the government caused by the war. As in many other European countries, I think that the First World War in particular played a significant role in putting women to work. Interestingly, there were also quite a number of Russian noblewomen who had fled the Russian revolution and took up work at the Ottoman Bank to survive.

5- A high number of female staff seem to be of ‘expatriate’ stock, from France, Hungary, Palestine etc. showing considerable mobility during a time when most people, particularly women, travelled short distances. Do you think most of these women came to Istanbul following their husbands / fathers etc. business links / postings or do you think there were those who went for this ‘work experience’ as a ‘stepping stone’?

Actually, a majority of the female staff were born within the Ottoman Empire, even if they held French, Italian or other nationalities, and many of them had been living there for generations. This makes the question of how to identify an “Ottoman” even more pressing. A different example is the women of Russian origin, who of course, fled the Russian Empire as a consequence of the revolution. I think that most of the files suggest that women, at least the female staff, travelled mainly for reasons of necessity and very frequently as a result of nationalist policies and war. Many of the women with Western European passports left Turkey after the establishment of the Turkish Republic. There are Greek women who had to leave as part of the Turkish-Greek population exchanges, and staff in Smyrna (Izmir) who fled the city during the war never to return. When it comes to our modern-day understanding of an international career as a “stepping stone”, I do not think that this would have been a major concern for women at the time. A different case emerges when one looks at the female customers of the Ottoman Bank. Here, it seems to have been common for upper-class women to travel, though usually accompanied by guardians. Women of all ethno-religious groups in the Ottoman Empire with sufficient means, accompanied by family members and maids, travelled to Europe for educational purposes or to buy the latest European fashion. Lastly, there is a part of female customers who were the wives of European diplomats, or who worked as nuns and female missionaries, who of course travelled for the sake of their work or that of their husband.

6- Were you able to access any of the personal papers of the Ottoman Bank female staff to get an inkling of their motivations, social circles and community relations? Do you think the various ethnicities represented in the bank were in this close proximity of each other for the first time, and then retreated to their ‘enclaves’ post work, or do you think there would have been deeper contacts and ‘mixed marriages’?

As I said above, I am very interested in accessing personal papers. I am in contacted with a variety of descendants, but one of the problems is that the information they have about their grandmothers or great-grandmothers can range from personal stories or sparse memories to copies of wedding certificates or passports. From an academic point of view, it is difficult to find a coherent methodological structure whereby they can be incorporated into my study. Nevertheless, I find these personal contacts particularly revealing and have been extremely lucky to come across a few rich sources. One example is the family archive of the Melhamé Pasha family, which holds letters over many decades from all family members, including the women, of which some were customers at the Ottoman Bank. These letters allow for very intimate insights into women’s lives dating back to the early 20th century when the Melhamé family was living in Constantinople. I am hoping that I will come across further documents of this kind by contacts to other descendants. With respect to community relations and ethnicities, I currently assume that the Ottoman Bank would not have been the only space of close proximity and contact between the different communities, but much more research is necessary on this issue.

7- Clearly with the coming of the Turkish republic the official language of the bank turned to Turkish overnight and many Levantines and foreign born staff at the bank had to leave. Do you think there was also Government pressure to also change the regulations and style of working to match the newly created Turkish state, so the pressure to leave would have also been political for the higher echelons?

It is well-known that the newly-created Turkish government insisted on a quota with regards to Turkish staff working at the Ottoman Bank as evidenced by the 1924 agreement by which the bank had to increase its Turkish staff to at least 30%. For the lack of qualified Turkish staff, the bank invested in sending Turks abroad for training in banking, but this applied primarily to the male employees. At the same time, Turkish language skills became an obvious necessity, which means that the bank voluntarily let go some of its female staff that were not fluent in Turkish and the files document some of these cases. Lastly, as could be expected, many women left Turkey with their husbands or other family members after the establishment of the Turkish Republic without the direct intervention of the bank.

8- What do the various women deposit holders show of the distribution of wealth between the various communities of the late Ottoman period of Istanbul and do you get a sense that some of the money these women had was completely free of male control? Were some of these women also substantial business owners / real estate holders whose portfolio they built up themselves? What were these female owned businesses?

I have not yet evaluated the data and am thus unable to make any definite remarks. However, here there appears to be some significant differences: female customers with foreign nationality, which includes many Levantine as well as European women, seem to have had stocks and bonds earlier and in greater numbers than their Muslim contemporaries. At the same time, their freedom to manage their property was arguably more limited. It does not seem to have been uncommon for them to require the signature of a male family member (usually their husband or their father) to touch their own accounts. Some cases survive where such stipulations are mentioned on the woman’s customer card – a card held at the bank which identified the owner of an account and contained the signature by which the account could be accessed, for lack of modern-day credit cards. In line with research on European women’s economic activity, it seems that much greater financial freedom existed for widows. Muslim female customers in great numbers held a sort of saving deposit (Caisse de Famille) from which they would get a small yearly interest but could also withdraw money to their liking. I have not yet come across any evidence that suggests that they would have been limited in their access to these accounts by male guardians. This correlates with previous studies on the subject, which suggest that Muslim women had well-established property rights, receiving a mahr (dower) and their shares of an inheritance, and had well-recognized rights to property and to defend themselves at court as required by Islamic law. In comparison, in Britain (and British laws applied to female customers with British nationality living in the Ottoman Empire), all of a woman’s possessions were regarded as that of her husband until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Similar restrictions, either in law or by custom, to female property existed throughout Europe. In terms of female enterprises and working women so far, there seems to be more evidence for non-Muslim working women, at least in the late 19th century. Around one in ten deceased women with non-Ottoman nationality had a profession that was regarded significant enough to be cited in her inheritance file. Among these women were female merchants (the owner of a trading company, the owner of a fashion boutique and the owner of a spinning mill) as well as female teachers, nuns, a female medical doctor and a midwife. There is, however, the problem of the extent to which women regarded their work as official and it would have been registered in their file. A lot of women’s labour in history has gone unrecorded, particularly when it was conducted within the household, within family businesses or on family land.

9- There were various period where dangerous investments in and outside Turkey ruined some people. Do you also get a picture of some women investors also being ruined and can you then trace what became of them?

I am still working on disentangling the complexities of the international financial markets in the late 19th and early 20th century and their impact on the customers of the Ottoman Bank. There seems to be surprisingly little research so far on investment behaviour and the impact of financial developments on Ottoman investors in late Ottoman society. I have the hunch that it would be interesting to reflect on the investors of joint-stock companies operating in the Ottoman Empire, as many of them lived within the Ottoman Empire rather than being foreigners in the common meaning of the term. These companies are usually seen in the academic literature as European investments and thus foreign enterprises that profited from the weakness of Turkish industrialization and the Ottoman state debt, but when you look at the investor base, maybe you would find that many who owned shares were well-established Levantines, Ottoman Greeks and Turks who thus may be seen to have had a stake in the economy of the country in which they lived permanently. Currently, I am focussing in particular on the period of the First World War and its aftermath, which of course had significant impacts on the finances of almost all of the bank’s customers. Many women lost their possessions when they became branded as enemy subjects, despite the Ottoman Bank’s attempts to shield their customers from government interference during the war. The Ottoman Bank had branches in e.g. London, and the British government (as all countries at war), attempted to seize Ottoman or German possessions. Company stock shares became invaluable as companies were destroyed by the war or nationalized in the decades afterwards. Some files provide glimpses into the complexities of these developments which were tricky both for the bank and its customers, with debtors disappearing during the war, or governments seizing assets. Some women were engaged in decades-long legal battles with governments and banking institutions in hope of retrieving their assets. The sources suggest general trends but it is very difficult to trace individual stories, because many of the files provide only partial information on bank transactions.

10- Were you able to contact any descendants of former employees of deposit holders at the Ottoman Bank and what additional information of their circumstances were you able to ascertain? Have you been able to cross-check some of the names of these women in other archives such as church registers to get an idea of their earlier or later lives / family networks?

As I said earlier, I have indeed been lucky to receive information from descendants willing to share their family histories with me. These sources are invaluable especially if I want to trace in more depth how the turbulent years of the early 20th century affected these women’s lives and their social and economic rights. I have not yet looked at other registers, by either the church or the European consulates, but may do so to further dig into particular cases. Unfortunately, this is also a matter of time management, as the sources of the Ottoman Bank alone by far exceed what a single researcher can manage in the duration of a PhD project.

11- How far up the system were women able to rise in the Ottoman bank? Were there also female employees in provincial branches?

While the majority of women worked in the Bank’s branches in Constantinople, there are also many cases of women throughout the Ottoman Empire reaching into the Arab lands as well as the Balkans. In terms of hierarchy, the women mainly worked in the lower echelons, particularly as secretaries and within the translation services.

12- What other respectable employment opportunities were open to well educated women in Istanbul at the time do you think? Would the Ottoman Bank be the natural first ‘port of call’ for aspiring single women seeking employment? Do you have any sense if some of these women were retained by the bank post their marriages?

As stated before, women who mastered European languages such as French, Italian, German or British would have found work opportunities in the consulates, military missions, hospitals, schools and postal services, which would have been regarded as equally well-esteemed. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Bank was definitely an important employer in Constantinople as well as in the provinces. Noticeably, many women already had other family members working for the bank, so in this regard the bank would have been seen as a natural choice. In terms of married working women, evidence so far does indeed suggest that women commonly left work after marriage – but there are of course noticeable exceptions.

13- Can you ‘follow the money’ in any of the large deposits, such as future ventures in later times in or out of Turkey?

My focus of research concentrates on the period until 1933, when the Ottoman Bank ceased to exist in its previous institutional form. Going beyond this would exceed the scope of my thesis. Moreover, the files of more recent decades – to my knowledge – are not open to research – for obvious reasons of privacy.

14- If you could interview the women employees or depositors today, as in a time machine, what would be the questions you would like ask them?

Searching the voices of women in history can feel like an insurmountable task, especially as many have not left personal records such as memoirs or diaries, and most official documents by governments and other public institutions were written by men. The questions I would most like to ask them pertain to their own perception: how was it really like to work and manage possessions in the late Ottoman Empire? Am I even asking the right questions that would have been considered relevant by the women I study? While the hard data provides some clues to these women’s lives, we will never be able to fully understand their stories. All I can do is hope to provide some glimpses.

Interview conducted by Craig Encer

Françoise Renaud, 1924 (her first year of employment), SALT Research. Françoise Renaud worked at the bank until 1936, when she married Andrea Maresia, who was also a Levantine employee of the bank.

Marie Melhamé Ottoman Imperial Bank customer card, SALT Research. Marie Melhamé was the daughter of the Maronite Ottoman Pasha Selim Melhamé, who was Ottoman minister of Agriculture and Mines and fled the Ottoman Empire prior to the Young Turk Revolution and the daughter of the French Levantine Aimée Crespin. Like her siblings, she married European aristocracy, in her case, a German aristocrat.

Note by deposit department that the deposit of Mary Baker can only be accessed by her husband’s approval, November 1908, SALT Research.