Historian Isıl Acehan hunts ghosts, Turkish ghosts

OPINION: TODD FINE*

For the last decade and a half, wandering cemeteries and exploring dusty archives in the North Shore of Massachusetts, this young scholar from Ankara has dedicated her life to rediscovering the early, century-old Anatolian Ottoman migration to the United States.

Her research contributes to more than just historical knowledge about migration; it also helps Americans appreciate the spirit and culture of Turkey, illuminating a lost Turkish contribution to America.

In the United States, popular stories about immigration assist ethnic groups in fostering acceptance and belonging. For many years, Irish and Italians were considered alien and disloyal by the Anglo-Protestant majority. Yet, due to persistent struggles and creative demonstrations of loyalty and belonging that deployed symbols and storytelling, these ethnic groups successfully made Irish-American and Italian-American heritage core markers of American identity.

Today, ethnic traditions such as St. Patrick’s Day and Christopher Columbus Day, as well as historic immigrant neighborhoods such as Manhattan’s Little Italy and South Boston, have become American symbols themselves. Catholicism has lost almost all of its stigma in American culture. Moreover, the present-day states of Italy and Ireland have deep bonds to the United States, and these relationships are rooted in the emotional ties of the migration experience.

At a moment when immigration is a volatile political issue and once again religious difference is linked to perceptions of disloyalty, narrating the stories of past immigrants may assist in the needed effort to overcome distrust and ignorance.

Yet, at present, Turks have not even begun to tell their full American story. In popular understanding, Turkish immigration — if recognized at all — is assumed to be fairly recent and largely restricted to New York City and New Jersey. The stories told, while powerful and timely, do not tap into the classic American immigration narrative with its iconic imagery of travel by ship and arrival at Ellis Island in New York.

While a handful of people are aware that there was a Turkish wave of migration from the 1890s to 1920s, for a long time, most scholars assumed that this phenomenon was small and insignificant. Despite a hazy awareness that some Muslim, ethnically Turkish migrants from the Ottoman empire had worked in leather tanneries in Massachusetts, most scholars believed these immigrants were almost entirely male, were strictly focused on temporary contract work, and had a high rate of return.

As a result, history books rarely mention the Turkish migration in the context of the general, large-scale immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, and scholars assumed that Turkish migrants had little lasting impact on the American fabric. In addition, the sheer breadth of the Anatolian Ottoman immigration, involving ethnic Kurds, Turks, and Armenians (all labelled as “Turks” by the U.S. government), had never been truly appreciated.

Now, however, Dr. Acehan’s research points to a wealth of new stories to be told.
Through hard-sought interviews with older families and through creative and difficult archival research, she has discovered a complex migratory phenomenon that involves active and wide-ranging participation in American society by tens of thousands.

Her research delivers stories that would bolster the present-day efforts of Turks and Kurds to communicate their heritage and their contributions to the United States.

She describes how many Turkish immigrants married American women or other non-Turkish immigrants, and how they built families and successful businesses. While working hard in the tanneries, they strove to do more than simple manual labor. She also depicts how many Turks travelled to other cities beyond Massachusetts, in particular to Michigan. They did largely assimilate eventually, but their cultural values were transmitted through their family lives and their social contributions.

Her research often focuses on how Turkish migrants sought to build community and establish civic and fraternal institutions that supported fellow workers in need. Together they built a series of active Turkish Red Crescent Societies that referenced American symbols of goodwill and freedom and that supported charity campaigns in both the United States and in Turkey. A good number also served in the American military during World War I, making difficult choices that affirmed a loyalty to the United States.

Dr. Acehan’s work also demonstrates how Turkish and Kurdish immigrants were proudly Muslim — both Sunni and Alevi. They practiced their religion openly for the most part, and they relied on Muslim values of service and charity in their civic work. The cemeteries in Peabody, Massachusetts are dotted with century-old graves that depict the Islamic star and crescent.

Building on the research of other scholars including Kemal Karpat, Barbara Bilge, Sebnem Koser Akcapar, and John J. Grabowski, Dr. Acehan desires to flesh out her stories further, using the images and tales she has collected to reach broader American and Turkish audiences through film and online media. This effort should be supported, as such stories will help communicate how Turks and Kurds have contributed to the United States for over a century.

While there is currently a great deal of anxiety about Muslim identity in America and about the future of the alliance between Turkey and the United States, we should begin dealing with our problems from anchors of strength — the shared achievements and sacrifices of the past that we can all admire and hope to emulate.

The United States is a proud and great country of economic initiative and of religious diversity, and Turkey is a proud and great country of dynamic progress and religious commitment.

The stories of the early Turkish immigration can connect our two countries, showing how Turks have contributed to America and how the religious commitments of both peoples resonate together, and are not inherently in conflict.

In addition, the overall experience of the Ottoman immigration to the United States — with ethnic Turks, Armenians, Syrians, and Kurds frequently living and working together — can offer great inspiration at times of stress and division.

The ghosts of the past that Işıl Acehan has hunted down should now be reincarnated as bridges to the future.

*Todd Fine is a PhD student of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He holds a BA in government from Harvard University (2004) and an MA in international relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (2007).