Empire, Sound, and Disability: Deaf Culture and Education in the Ottoman Empire

By Nazan Maksudyan*

In her research on deafness, Mara Mills notes a break point at the end of the nineteenth century in the perception and study of deafness. While the earlier philosophical, religious, and scientific discourses fleshed out “a state of dissimilarity” or a “philosophical curiosity,” ‘modern’ sciences – not only medicine (specifically audiometry), but also statistics, demographics, pedagogy, etc., devaluated, and as such pathologized deafness as a “quantifiable deficit from a norm” (Mills 2015). Furthermore, categorization of speech as an essential characteristic of humanity, as something that separates humans from other animals, attained a new meaning in the late nineteenth century, even though its history went back to the Antiquity. Jonathan Sterne observed that sound studies had not sufficiently engaged with the insights of Deaf Culture and disability theory, even though, he stressed, “cultural study of deafness is in many ways complementary to the cultural study of hearing” (Sterne 2003, 347). Recent research reincorporates hearing impairment as an integral part of Sound Studies (Friedner & Helmreich 2012; Mills 2015; Schmidt 2020). Yet, there is a widespread, albeit latent, hostility toward Deafness reflected in the often repeated “equation of voice with agency and silence with its absence” (Sterne 2003).

Figure 1– “Mutus”: ‘tongueless’ (dilsiz) messenger, used for confidential commissions
Source: The Rålamb Costume Book (17th C)
Figure 2– “Mutus precipuus imperatoris”, Imperial mute, waited on the Sultan in Council
Source: The Rålamb Costume Book (17th C)

My research takes its cue from Sterne’s point and aims to contribute to Ottoman auditory history through focusing on the cultural history of deafness, also engaging with the history of medicine, history of education, science and technology studies, and disability studies. While the classical Ottoman state apparatus considered deaf servants (called Mutes), as having a special “ability” to serve the state, nineteenth century educational developments redefined the deaf as having a disability that needed to be addressed with special education. In that respect, while the employment of deaf/mute cadres at the Ottoman court recognized them as having a particular potential to play a certain duty, modern scientific discourses, with their medical, pathological, and pedagogical problematizations, disempowered the deaf as lacking subjects (non-agents) and their “integration” into society was only possible through (speech) therapy. Therefore, deaf/muteness was no longer a “sought-for skill” for a special kind of civil servant, but it was an impediment to be a part of the polity.

(In)Audible Empire: Mutes, Non-Speech, and Sign Language in the Ottoman Court

There was an absolute imposition of silence and non-speech in the Ottoman inner court, and especially in the presence of the Ottoman sultan.[1] As Karsten Lichau notes, the calculated production of silence is “a complex acoustical practice.”[2] Staged silence, in that sense, was a control mechanism, in which the Ottoman state conveyed a sign of absolute authority, and a mark of divinity, which surrounded the sultan’s semi-sacred body.[3] Furthermore, as I discuss elsewhere in detail, the reign of silence in the presence of the sultan was to create an illusion of timelessness of the dynasty.[4] The suppression of human voice and sultan’s muted presence was also connected to claims of eternity. While human voice was alive – also destined to death, stillness implied permanence. The absence of any sound, including the sultan’s himself, was designed to interrupt the temporal order and create a temporal shift from the present to a time immemorial.

Figure 3 – A Mute, A Dwarf
Source: Sir Paul Rycaut, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire… (London:  John Starkey and Henry Brome, 1668), p. 34.
Figure 4 – Pascal Pekmezian (1857-1923)
Source: “The Deaf Of Turkey. Interview with Mr. H. Pekmezian,” The Silent Worker, vol. 8, no. 3 (1895): 12.

A fascinating form of intentional and ceremonial silence in the Ottoman capital is to be found in the practice of sign language.[5] Ottoman palace recruited hundreds of mutes, who were referred in the sources as either “dilsüz/dilsiz” or “bîzebân,” both terms meaning “tongueless or speechless,” without needing to mention deafness (Fig. 1, 2, 3).[6] In other words, people with hearing impairment were categorized in the Ottoman/Turkish language with reference to their “disability” to converse, with their non-speech (Schweigen), and not with their inability to hear. Mutes are known to have served from the time of Mehmed II as attendants in confidential meetings. In the centuries to follow, the palace acquired as many mutes as possible (by even paying considerable sums to slave dealers) and the sign language was taught in a “school” in the palace to be used by all the pages, female sultans and their servants.[7] During public ceremonials, the sultan was visible, but he never assumed the role of the orator (or the narrator) and the spectators were supposed to observe him in silence (and in awe). One contemporary of Süleyman I wrote that on his way to the mosque, the parade passed “in such beautiful order and silence that one would think there is not a soul in the city, although an almost infinite multitude from diverse nations are watching him pass.”[8] As Sultan Abdülmecid was going to Friday prayer in 1852, a restless crowd of people were all of a sudden muted by the appearance of the sultan. “Not an exclamation, not a cry was heard, all the mouths remained mute and all the eyes indifferent.”[9]

The opening ceremony for the new parliament after the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 also did not challenge the norm. Up until the arrival of the Sultan Abdulhamid II, his cortege was noisy. It was possible to hear “the fanfare of bugles” heralding his approach, while the bands stroked up one after the other the Hamidiye March. However, the “dead silence that greeted him when he did step forward was a surprise to those who had witnessed European acclamations of royalty.”[10] Bureaucratic functions of deaf and mute at the Ottoman state apparatus continued well into the twentieth century, where they still served as secretaries and attendants. The American deaf magazine, Silent Worker, published an article in 1911, stressing that “when the Turkish cabinet meets no employees are permitted to be present save deaf and dumb ones. Each has a skilled deaf and dumb secretary, to whom necessary instructions are conveyed by the manual language…”[11]

‘Modern’ Deaf Education in the Ottoman Empire

Already from the eighteenth century onwards, there were two main trends in Deaf communication and education in Europe. The “oral” approach, or the “the German method” of Samuel Heinicke focused on the production of the material voice, alongside teaching lip-reading and articulation, and developing other devices for synthesizing speech. The “manual” approach, or “the French method” of Charles-Michel de l’Épée relied on sign language, mostly in the form of dactylology (fingerspelling) (Mills 2015). By the 1860s, “speech vs. sign” debate was taking a eugenic and Darwinist turn, such that speech was considered to be a primary feature that distinguished humans from other animals (Mills 2015). Sign language, which was formerly seen as a natural form and an uncorrupted human language, was now categorized as “primitive” (Baynton 1996: 42). One of the most well-known advocates of oral method, Alexander Graham Bell, who was a “teacher of the deaf” and an important figure in sound studies, encouraged “speech therapy” and lip reading over sign language (Mills 2015). In 1880, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf held in Milan, where Bell was amongst the most vocal participants, passed a resolution declaring that the oral method was superior to the manual and banned the use of sign language in schools. The triumph of the oral method led to a new scientific narrative that absolutely privileged speech and hearing to the point of discrimination – what the scholars of deaf culture would call audism (privileging those who hear). The insistence on “speech therapy” reflected the medicalization and pathologization of non-speech – similar to Bell’s understanding of deafness as “a human disability to be overcome, not as a condition of life” (Sterne 2003, 39).

Figure 5 – The students and the teachers of the Deaf School of de Grati and Pekmezian. The students express the prayer ‘long live the sultan’ with sign language.
Source: Nadir Eseler Kütüphanesi II.Abdülhamid Han Fotoğraf Albümleri, NEKYA90834/36
 

As opposed to the above mentioned long tradition of palace education and employment of generations of mute servants and the use of sign language in the Ottoman court, the late nineteenth century global medical and pedagogical discourses clearly devaluated and disenfranchised the Deaf (and mute). This new puritan oralist narrative did not easily find resonance in the Ottoman educational reform programs of the post-1860s period. What can be termed ‘modern deaf education’ was not part of the Tanzimat state’s agenda.  Only a limited number of small institutions were opened after the 1890s in different parts of the Empire with predominantly private initiative, specifically in Istanbul, Salonika, İzmir, and Marsovan (Merzifon). The first three schools that I discuss below were established by non-Muslim Ottoman individuals with hearing impairment. All three were sent to the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds (National Institute for Deaf Children) in Paris as children, since similar opportunities were non-existent in the Empire (if we exclude the palace servants).

Istanbul school was opened with the initiative of Pascal Pekmezian (1857-1923) (Fig. 4), a Catholic Armenian.[12] He was among the first Ottoman citizens to be educated in the Paris Institute in the 1860s. He pursued his higher education at the Institute for the Deaf in Nancy and later became a tutor to the deaf, and was engaged in various schools as a teacher until the Milan Congress of 1880. The oralist method led to the unemployment (and unemployability) of many deaf teachers, as only “hearing teachers” were entrusted with speech therapy. Pekmezian also found his services no longer required and returned to Istanbul in the early 1890s and worked towards the development of the first deaf school together with Ferdinand de Grati, an Austrian merchant. The literature stresses that the initiative to open this school (in 1889) came from de Grati,[13] who was at the time the director of the School of Commerce (Ticaret Mektebi). It is my assumption that Pekmezian was the initiator behind the original idea of opening a deaf school (as he had the know-how) and his connection to Grati was through their shared Catholic faith.

The school had started with a limited number of pupils and based on the photo taken in 1893, there were only 22 students and 5 teachers in the school. Abdulhamid II, whose political reign largely relied on the slogan/prayer ‘long live the sultan’, replicated the same praise through silent (though visual) media with the intermediary of the students of the deaf school in a propaganda photo from 1893. (Fig. 5) In the photo, it is clear that the students were using the Turkish Mute Alphabet (“Türkçe Dilsiz Alfabesi”) (Fig. 6) which was based on fingerspelling, apparently taught to them by Pascal Pekmezian. Despite interesting and copious visual and written documentation on this school in the Ottoman archives, it would not be wrong to suggest that the school was actually run as “a class for the deaf” attached to different secondary or primary schools for decades – being forced to move to a different school building almost every two years. Although official historiographies give the closing date as 1926, this school was no longer listed in the State Yearbooks after 1912.

Figure 6 – “Türkçe Dilsiz Alfabesi” (Turkish Mute Alphabet).
Source: Ali Haydar, “Sağır ve Dilsizler”, Muallimler Mecmuası 3/29 (1925): 1252.
 

The school in Salonika, opened by Jacques Faraggi[14] in 1909, and the one in İzmir, probably opened in the late 1910s by Albert Carmona (a former student of Faraggi) were even more short-lived and smaller than the Istanbul example. The founders and directors of the first three Ottoman institutions in Istanbul, Salonika, and İzmir – Pekmezian, Faraggi, and Carmona – all received their education mostly in the manual method at the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris. Even though there is sufficient evidence that Pekmezian and Faraggi were lip reading and could utter a few words, their teaching relied on the manual method (fingerspelling), representing a continuity with the Ottoman palace tradition of sign language.

The only school that relied on the “oral method” in the Ottoman lands seems to be the Martha A. King Memorial School for the Deaf in Marsovan. According to the official foundation narrative, a Greek woman from Marsovan asked the President of the Anatolia College, Charles C. Tracy in 1907 for help educating her deaf and mute son, Theodoros. Realizing the need in the country to provide education to “the disabled”, Tracy had sent one of the teachers, Miss Galene Philadelpheus, a Protestant Greek, to the Clark School for the Deaf, Northampton, Massachusetts, to receive specialized training. The school, relying entirely on the oral method, was opened with three (Greek) students, Theodoros, Pavlos and Sophia, in 1910 as a department of the Girls’ School. The main intention of the School was “to teach each pupil the language of his home”.[15] Following the Greek class, an Armenian department was also opened in September 1911.[16] The teacher of the Armenian department was Arshalouys der Kaloustian, as seen in a famous photograph from the archives of the college (Fig.).[17] In the mirror, the children could see from their mouths whether their pronunciation of the letter L could be considered correct or not. In 1914, the school had 17 students, 14 of whom were Armenians and three Turks.

Figure 7 – “Learning to make the sound of the letter L” from Arshalouys der Kaloustian at the King School for the Deaf, Marsovan
Source: Armen T. Marsoobian, Reimagining a Lost Armenian Home: The Dildilian Photography Collection (I. B. Tauris, 2017), 103.

In its fifth-year report for 1914-1915, the institution reported that they had so far 24 children under instruction; the current enrollment was at 18.[18] The relatively prosperous situation, then turned into discontinuity and partial ruin during the First World War and the Armenian Genocide. The teachers of the school were forcefully deported, and both Philadelpheus and der Kaloustian were among those who never returned.[19] When American missionaries were expelled from Asia Minor at the end of the war, Anatolia College campus was occupied by the Ottoman military. Deaf children were assigned to work in the missionary hospital, taking care of sick and wounded soldiers. In the early 1920s, King School for the Deaf was reinitiated in Salonika, when the entire Anatolia College campus was resettled in Greece.

All in all, all these small-scale institutions – in Istanbul, Salonika, Smyrna, and Marsovan – were initiated around the turn of the century with private initiative and did not become institutionalized or centralized. Furthermore, all these institutions were discontinued during or after WW1 and their history still remain scattered.

Conclusion

The constant and conscious silence (non-speech) of the (deaf-)mute servants was considered as an important gift by the Ottoman political establishment as it ensured the perpetuation of sultan’s divine authority. The sign language developed within the Ottoman court for the use of deaf and non-deaf servants (as well as the royalty) was a fascinating communication method that impressed both the Ottoman subjects and European visitors. Interestingly, Ottoman Deaf education, which was slowly taking shape in the decades following the Milan Conference of 1880, was actually in a limbo. On the one hand, the well-established palace traditions of sign-language and lip-reading might easily be adapted into classroom techniques. The manual method of early educators, Pekmezian, Faraggi, and Carmona also suggested a subtle continuity from the palace school to ‘modern schooling’. However, global scientific and medical narratives on the subject had a consensus on the “incontestable superiority of articulation over signs” and the necessity of “sounding the deaf”. The oral method treated Deafness as a “linguistic disability”, such that the main objective of such training was to make sure that the Deaf can pass as hearing people through their speech. This line of thinking was also becoming hegemonic in the Ottoman context, as the discourse on Deafness solely rested on “making the mutes speak” (dilsizlerin söyletilmesi).[20] In this terminology, the constellation between sound, hearing, silence, and body worked against the agency of the Deaf, as voice came to represent humanity. Declared as “degenerates” by racial thinkers, around the Deaf were killed, sterilized, had forced abortions, and were victims of experimentation in Nazi Germany. The medical and pedagogical obsession to “sound the mutes” has continued well into the late twentieth century on a global scale. Only in the 1970s, thanks to William Stokoe’s scholarly work on sign language and ‘Total Communication Movement’ of Roy Holcomb, signing was rehabilitated as a useful means of education.

* This research is undertaken as part of the ERC project (overwritten UKRI), “OTTOMAN AURALITIES and the Eastern Mediterranean: Sound, Media and Power, 1789-1922” (PI Dr. Peter McMurray), a cooperation of the University of Cambridge and Centre Marc Bloch. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) (EP/X032833/1).


Footnotes

[1] For the place of silence within sound studies, see Ana María Ochoa Gautier, “Silence,” in Keywords in Sound, eds. by David Novak, Matt Sakakeeny (London 2015), 183–192; Karsten Lichau, “Stille,” in Handbuch Sound, ed. by Daniel Morat, Hansjakob Ziemer (Stuttgart 2018), 217–222.

[2] Karsten Lichau, “Soundproof Silences? Towards a Sound History of Silence,” International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 7/1 (2019): 840-867.

[3] Gülru Necipoğlu, Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: the Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991); Nina Ergin, “ ‘Praiseworthy in that great multitude was the silence’: Sound/Silence in the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul,” Resounding Images: Medieval Intersections of Art, Music, and Sound, ed. by Susan Boynton, Diane J. Reilly (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2015), 109-133.

[4] Nazan Maksudyan, “Ottoman Temporal and Aural Sovereignty: Staged Silences and Soundscapes of Modernizing Ottoman Cities,” Journal of Musicology (in review).

[5] Mike Miles, “Signing in the Seraglio: Mutes, Dwarfs and Jestures at the Ottoman Court 1500-1700,” Disability & Society 15.1 (2000): 115-134.

[6] Sara Scalenghe, “The Deaf in Ottoman Syria, 16th – 18th Centuries,” The Arab Studies Journal 12/13 (2/1) (2004/2005), 10-25; Ayşe Ezgi Dikici, “Imperfect Bodies, Perfect Companions? Dwarfs and Mutes at the Ottoman Court in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” (MA thesis, Sabanci University, 2006); Sara Scalenghe, “Deafness and Muteness,” in Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 21-51; Sezai Balcı, Osmanlı Devleti’nde Engelliler ve Engelli Eğitimi: Sağır Dilsiz ve Körler Mektebi (İstanbul: Libra, 2013) .

[7] Michel Baudier, Histoire généralle du serrail et de la cour du Grand Seigneur empereur des Turcs (C. La Rivière, 1652); Sir Paul Rycaut, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire… (London:  John Starkey and Henry Brome, 1668), online: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo;idno=A58003.0001.001, p. 34; Tavernier d’Aubonne, Nouvelle relation de l’intérieur du Sérail (1675); Jean de Thévenot, Théophile Denis, Voyages De Mr. De Thevenot Tant en Europe qu’en Asie & en Afrique (Paris, 1689), online: http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/thevenot1689bd1; “Les Muets du Sérail,” in: Études variées concernant les sourds-muets (Paris: Imprimerie de la Revue française de l’enseignement des sourds-muets, 1888);

[8] F. Andre Thevet, Cosmographie de Levant (Lyons: J. de Tournes et G. Gazeau, 1556), accessible online: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1043257p, p. 60-61, cited in Gülru Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, “The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: An Interpretation,” Muqarnas 3 (1985): 92–117, here 98.

[9] M. Louis Bunel, Jérusalem, la côte de Syrie et Constantinople en 1853 (Paris: Sagnier et Bray, 1854), 387.

[10] Harry Griswold Dwight, Constantinople Old and New (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1915), 421-22.

[11] “A Step Farther,” The Silent Worker, vol. 23, no. 2 (1910), 30.

[12] “TURKEY: Reported by Prof. F. G. DE GRATI, Director of the School for the Deaf, Pera, Rue Sourouri 21, Constantinople,” Volta Bureau, International Reports Of Schools For The Deaf, Circular No. 5 (Gibson Brothers: Washington City, 1898), 27; “The Deaf Of Turkey. Interview with Mr. H. Pekmezian,” The Silent Worker, vol. 8, no. 3 (1895): 12; W. R. Roe, Peeps into the Deaf World (Derby: Bemrose, 1917), 237-239.

[13] Ali Haydar, “Sağır ve Dilsizler”, Muallimler Mecmuası 3/29 (1925): 1237-1260; Osman Nuri Ergin, “Dilsiz ve Körler Mektebi, 1305 (1889)”, Türk Maarif Tarihi, vol. 4 (İstanbul: Eser Matbaası, 1977), 1165-1172; Nuran Yıldırım: “İstanbul’da Sağır-Dilsiz ve Âmâların Eğitimi”, İstanbul Armağanı. Gündelik Hayatın Renkleri. ed. by M. Armağan, (İstanbul, 1997), 305-330.

[14] An Ottoman Jew, born in 1882 in Salonika; educated in the Paris school revealed by a record from 1886. “Devoirs d’élèves (non corrigés)] ‘Compte-rendu de la journée,” Revue internationale de l’Enseignement des Sourds-Muets (deuxiéme année) No. 1 (Avril 1886), pp. 343-345; Jacques Faraggi, “School for the Deaf in Salonica. The Teacher of the Deaf , vol. 19 (1921), 54.

[15] “A School for the Deaf,” The Friend of Armenia, No. 46, Summer 1911, P. 123

[16] Ibid.

[17] Armen T. Marsoobian, Reimagining a Lost Armenian Home: The Dildilian Photography Collection (I. B. Tauris, 2017), 103.

[18] “The Anatolian: Bulletin fort he Year 1914-15, Marsovan, Turkey, 31 March 1915,” p. 38, http://www.dlir.org/archive/archive/files/03ddbf33f5e2adc83c37c4a26ba506fb.pdf

[19] In Holbrook’s Newark City Directory from 1916, Philadelpheus was listed as a “Teacher the Deaf  bds 174 Lincoln av” ( p. 1119).

[20] Dr. B.A., “Musahabe-i Tıbbiyye / Dilsizlerin Söyletilmesi,” İrtika, no. 149, 25 Kanunusani 1317 (07.02.1902), p. 288; “Dilsizleri Söyleten Hayırkar Adam,” Servet-i Fünun, vol. 43, no. 1099, 14 Haziran 1328 (27.06.1912), 84-85; “Dilsizlerin Kulaklarını Açmışlar,“ Resimli Hafta, No. 19, 8 Kanûnusâni (Ocak) 1926.


References

Mills, Mara. 2015. Deafness. In Keywords in Sound (pp. 45-54) eds. by David Novak, Matt Sakakeeny. Duke University Press.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Duke University Press.

Friedner, Michele, and Stefan Helmreich. 2012. “Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies.” Senses and Society 7(1): 72–86.

Schmidt, Marion Andrea. 2020. Eradicating deafness?: Genetics, pathology, and diversity in twentieth-century America. Manchester University Press.

Baynton, Douglas C. 1996. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


About the author

Nazan Maksudyan is a visiting professor at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut at Freie Universität Berlin and a Senior Researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch in the UKRI-funded research project, “Ottoman Auralities and the Eastern Mediterranean: Sound, Media and Power, 1789-1914”. She was a »Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe« (EUME) Fellow in 2009 – 2010 and an Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (Berlin) in 2010 – 2011 and in 2016 and 2018. From 2013 to 2016, she worked as a professor of history in Istanbul and received her habilitation degree in 2015. Her research mainly focuses on the social and cultural history of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, with special interest in children and youth, gender, sexuality, exile, sound, and the history of sciences. Among her publications are Ottoman Children & Youth During World War I (2019), Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire (2014), Women and the City, Women in the City (ed., 2014), Urban Neighborhood Formations (ed. with Hilal Alkan, 2020).


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Citation: Nazan Maksudyan, Empire, Sound, and Disability: Deaf Culture and Education in the Ottoman Empire, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.12.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49793




Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 21. Dezember). Empire, Sound, and Disability: Deaf Culture and Education in the Ottoman Empire. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 17. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vfa9

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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