An Interview with Duke’s new Turkish lecturing fellow, Didem Havlioglu


Didem Havlioglu
Didem Havlioglu

Didem Havlioglu, a new Turkish Lecturing Fellow in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, did her MA and PhD at the University of Washington, Seattle in Near and Middle East Studies. Her research focuses on Ottoman and Modern Turkish language and literature — in particular, gender and women in literature.

She’s been teaching Modern and Ottoman Turkish language for 15 years, and comes to Duke as a Turkish lecturing fellow, after having taught at Istanbul Sehir University (a new private school in Istanbul) for the past five years. During her tenure at Sehir, she helped start the Turkish language and literature department and the Turkish for International students program.

QUESTION: Which courses are you teaching this semester and next semester?

HAVLIOGLU: I am teaching Elementary and Intermediate Turkish this year at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. My students are interested in Turkish because they want to study Middle East history and culture. They usually go to a study abroad program at Bogazici University in Istanbul or through the Duke in Istanbul program. Upon their return, they take second or third year Turkish. They are all very good students who like thinking outside of the box. For this reason, the classes are fast paced and very enjoyable for all of us.

QUESTION: Do you think interest from students is picking up for learning Turkish?

HAVLIOGLU: I am very happy to find that more students are interested in Turkish language and culture every day. The study abroad and Duke in Istanbul programs are the initiators of this growing interest. After living in Turkey briefly, the students come back to Duke with a good understanding of what they want to do next. For instance, they want to continue exploring, if not expand their initial immersion in Turkish language and culture.

QUESTION: Why should students learn Turkish?

HAVLIOGLU: I have always found it odd when I hear people talking about teaching language, teaching culture, and teaching literature as three distinct areas. For me, language is culture, and literary and other texts are tools that offer insights into the target community’s minds and souls. Carefully chosen texts draw the learners in and awaken them to perspectives that they never knew they had, not only of the other, but also of themselves and their own culture. Likewise, language learning consists not only of learning linguistic structures but also of understanding how meaning, mentality, and worldview vary in different communities that use similar words.

Therefore, I believe, learning Turkish, just like any other language and culture can be instrumental in students’ ability to become world citizens where there are more differences than similarities. We live in a time now where the question is, “How will the world be different because I lived in it?” and I believe my students are the people who will change the way we think about borders that make people apart.

QUESTION: Will you be teaching any Ottoman literature or Islamic literature courses while at Duke?

HAVLIOGLU:  After establishing a strong language program, we would like to expand our program with Ottoman Turkish and more content courses. Then, I would like to teach Turkish literary and visual texts which allow not only students of Turkish to apply their knowledge of language and culture, but also students from other fields who would like to learn more about one of the oldest Middle Eastern cultures.

I enjoy teaching Islamic literature and reading texts originally in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. A comparative perspective is refreshing after a close reading of the texts and I think it is necessary to expand our knowledge. I incorporate gender, sexuality and women’s writing, because my research is in those fields.

QUESTION: Who are your favorite Ottoman women writers or poets? Are their writings only in Turkish or translated?

HAVLIOGLU: My favorite Ottoman woman writer is Mihri Hatun and I am clearly biased! I have been working on her writing for years now, and am in the  final stages of my book titled, “Mihri Hatun: A Woman, A Poet, A Beloved in early-modern Ottoman Literature.” Mihri Hatun is the first Ottoman woman poet whose work was collected into a divan. (a poetry collection) She lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Amasya, a northern province of Ottoman Empire. She is this fascinating woman who gets into poetic competitions with her male colleagues and gets many awards from the Sultan. Some of her poems appear in English in Turkish Literature anthologies such as “Ottoman Lyric Poetry” by Walter Andrews and Mahmet Kalpaklı or “An Anthology of Turkish Literature” by Kemal Silay.

QUESTION: I see that you gave a presentation on Sufi women’s writing this year. Any recommendations of who to read? Available in English translation?

HAVLIOGLU: I became interested in Sufi women of the 20th century as I found out about the friendship between Annemarie Schimmel and Samiha Ayverdi, a woman Sheikh of a sufi path of the Rifai Order in Turkey. I worked with Ayverdi’s great granddaughter Samiha Uluant to bring Schimmel-Ayverdi’s correspondence to light. The book — titled “İşte Böyle Cemile’ciğim: Samiha Ayverdi ve Annemarie Schimmel’in Mektupları” (It’s Just Like That My Dear Cemile: The Correspondence between Samiha Ayverdi and Annemarie Schimmel) — will come out in Turkish soon. Unfortunately, there is very little Ottoman or Turkish women’s writing in English. This is the reason I work on them and try to translate their works.

QUESTION: You gave a keynote speech in 2012 called “Do Muslims laugh? Humor in Islamic Aesthetics and its Function in Ottoman Poetry.”  Can you elaborate on the themes of that address?

HAVLIOGLU: Yes, the talk is published now, under the title of “The Magic of a Joke: Humor and Gender in Islamicate Ottoman Aesthetics,” in the volume entitled, “Laughter, Humor, and the (Un)Making of Gender: Historical and Cultural Perspectives.” (Eds. Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist, Palgrave & MacMillan, 2015).

I find humor one of the most interesting aesthetic tools of cultural expression. It is not only one of the major areas in foreign language teaching but is also an important part of my research. Humor can be instrumental in women’s writing, particularly in the Turkish context, to challenge gender norms. There is a centuries old tradition of humor in Islamic cultures which is surprising not only today but also in the past. For instance, one of the 19th century travelers to the Ottoman lands, Theophile Gautier writes about his experiences in “Constantinople” as he watches a Karagöz play (puppet theatre) that he sees on the street during the time of Ramadan. He says he is appalled to see children, including girls, falling out laughing at something that he explains is vulgar and grotesque. What was so unacceptable for Victorian morals, I believe, was the puppeteers jokes about gender, class and ethnicity. Apparently, humor is pervasive in Islamic cultures but sarcasm and belittling are frowned upon. We are talking about a very different sense of humor here.

QUESTION: Of all the classes you’ve taught before you came to Duke, which was your favorite?

HAVLIOGLU: Teaching Turkish is my favorite because I believe learning languages is the foundational step for any research initiative. For instance, people in Turkey used to answer the question, “Where are you from?” as “I’m Turkish.” But over the last 10-15 years, some of them chose to say “I am from Turkey but I am Kurdish/Arab/Circassian/Jew.” This simple change in language is a gateway to the modern political history of Turkey.

QUESTION: Are you interested in contemporary Turkish politics?  Have you written on contemporary Turkish politics?

HAVLIOGLU: I don’t think it is possible not to be interested in politics. But other than making my own informed choices, I do not write specifically about politics. Having said that, everything we do is political. Our language, occupation, lunch box; even our garbage bins show our ideas about how this world should be.


 ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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