Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Februar 2006

6.1. Modalitäten von Kulturkontakt
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gertrude Durusoy (Ege Universität, Izmir/Turkei)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Experience of the Early Turkish Immigrants in the USA: Memory, Conflict and Cooperation

Sedat Işçi (Ege University, Izmir)


In my presentation, as the title suggests, I shall deal with some sites or contexts in which memory is produced and I shall mainly foreground two works that are related to the early Turkish immigrants in America, namely Frank Ahmet's The Ottoman Turk’s Immigrant Experience and Doctor Fuad Umay's Turks in America.

I want to start by a reference to mythology, the inspiration of which comes both from Vera Schwarcz, from her book on Chinese and Jewish cultural memory, and from my literature orientation.

In ancient times culture was transmitted through poetry and storytelling, and Nine Muses, or the nine goddesses of inspiration were thought to have inspired the sciences, arts and humanities, from history to astronomy or from dance, to poetry. And interestingly, the mother of the Muses was considered to be MNEMOSYNE, which literally meant memory. Needless to say, scholars, poets, philosophers and musicians relied heavily upon the faculty of memoria as a source of inspiration. Hence, in antiquity Memory was seen as a sacred, cosmic power through which we recollect the primary realities of human nature. This is why the ancient Greeks referred to truth as "aletheia", which literally meant not forgetting.

And Clio, the muse of history demanded attention to memory’s call. Therefore no ancient Greek historian arranged facts unless recollection guided the mind. This insight into the generative powers of memory has been lost over time leaving its place to reason and rationality for reasons known.

And yet, as is also known in recent years an interdisciplinary field concerned with the social, cultural and political processes that produce a sense of the past has gained popularity.

A considerable number of volumes anthologize important essays that implicitly or explicitly are inspired by Assmans, Jan and Aleida Assmann, or Maurice Halbwachs or Pierre Nora. An inquiry into this development would be the topic of an interesting but different paper or presentation. What I only wish to spotlight is the current popular and scholarly interest in life stories, autobiographies, genealogy and life histories, oral histories, community histories, historical re-enactments, monuments, memorials, or heritage museums. What these sites of memory reveal are now considered as important as actual historical documents, perhaps more important due to their function in affecting, shaping or transforming the lives of people.

Dan Ben-Amos in his afterword in the collection of articles on cultural memory explains this process by his definition of cultural memory, as "a secondary agent of transformation". He says memory is a powerful tool that "turns a territory of earth into a motherland or homeland, or a mountaintop into a location of revelation". For Ben-Amos "memory also transforms" common "objects into symbols, infusing them with meanings they did not have on their own, before memory possessed them"(298).

This impact is perhaps nowhere as clear as in the psyche of an immigrant, which is best reflected in the autobiographical narratives or memoirs, the reservoir of memory. As is known, the Turks, who immigrated to America did not leave behind memoirs or autobiographies like other national or ethnic communities, partly because most of the early Turkish immigrants could not even write their own names. There is however an invaluable work by Frank Ahmet, the first of its kind, which has rekindled our memories regarding the early Turkish immigration to America. Frank Ahmet’s book entitled Turks in America: The Ottoman Turk’s Immigrant Experience, published in 1986, roughly hundred years after the immigration of his father, is not an autobiography or memoir in terms of its genre, however it aims to dust off an old picture mostly forgotten.

The value of the book lies not only in Frank Ahmet’s venture in seeking his heritage which he takes pride, but also in providing a valuable pathway for those who want to explore the ways in which cultural memory pertaining to the early Turkish immigrants and their descendants could be constructed and articulated. As he himself puts it in his preface, the book is a collection of reflections of Turks of Ottoman heritage and their children and grandchildren, and it includes many oral accounts of the cultural, economic, and personal activities of Turkish immigrants" (xiv).

More importantly, Frank Ahmet is convinced that "any positive information of Turks, particularly their lives in American society, could provide a modest counterweight to some of historically negative perceptions" (xi).

In other words, with his survey of Turkish immigration experience he wishes to challenge the negative image of the Turk represented in popular culture or in literature as primitive, bearded men with long robes and fearful appearances. He thus feels the need to emphasize how the Turkish immigrants recount the problems and the hardship they have encountered in a different culture with humor and understanding, and as such he portrays an image quite different from the negative stereotype of "the terrible Turk".

Related to this, Frank Ahmet also furnishes the reader with cultural characteristics of the Turkish workers, their strong work ethic, for example, their extraordinary pride or generosity as well as their impatience at a slightest humiliation or insult and their prompt reactions ending usually in street fights. This point deserves some attention for Frank Ahmet explains the historical and cultural circumstances that provoked different ethnic groups into conflict.

Respect, for instance, was important for the Turkish immigrants and a careless word, particularly directed towards family or national origin would fill the streets with fighting men. On the other hand, as Frank Ahmet puts it, "Old world animosities were part of the luggage that these immigrants carried with them over the Atlantic" (30). Indeed, the ancestors of many of the immigrants had lived under Ottoman Turkish rule for several hundred years, and the Turks were looked upon as ancient conquerors.

What further complicated the dispute among immigrants was the First World War conditions, both before and after the war. On the one hand, the rumors of war in Europe began to affect the Turkish immigrants, and especially when Greece was expected to be one side of the conflict and Turkey on the other side the problems regarding both sides deepened. On the other hand, when the United States entered war in 1917 anti immigration sentiments and nativist hostilities reached the peak point. Hence, the Turkish immigrants were in position of coping with resentments from several sides, which sharpened their fiery character.

Yet, Frank Ahmet describes this complicated position with a humorous tone. He says, "whenever there was a cry that a Turk was under attack the Turks from all their houses would pour into the street, usually armed with a large piece of wood or a handy heavy object, prepared for battle" (31).

The same humorous flavor is evident in his recollection of a Peabody Chief of Police. When Frank Ahmet was in his teens he was introduced to this Chief of Police, an Irish man, who shared with him his experiences with the Turkish immigrants. This person told him the stories of the fights the Turks had been engaged during the period just after the outbreak of World War I, and Frank Ahmet remembers his laughter, with a gleam in his Irish eyes, when he confided that they were able to build a new police station, and equip it, with the money they collected from the judgment penalties leveled against the Turks for brawling.

This account may look tragicomic but the observation of this Irish Chief of Police justifies Frank Ahmet’s portrayal of the Turkish character, for he also told him that during these fights if the police stayed calm, and did not shout to try to manhandle them they would come with them almost without a fuss but if they tried to use force then they had their hands full. So it took the police officers a while to understand that respect was of crucial importance in Turkish culture (31).

Thus, Frank Ahmet’s recollections and explanations regarding the push factor behind these fights during such turbulent times serve to transform the negative perception of the Turk in popular and public memory substituting it with a more humane image. He gives other examples for a discovery of the appealing dimension of the Anatolian character.

He remembers, for instance, how his father’s friends surprised him when he was leaving home for military service. With the outbreak of World War II, like so many young American, Frank Ahmet joined the army, and was called for training and active duty. He remembers that he did not want any public tearful farewells at the station. So he said goodbye to his mother, sister and brother at home but could not see his father and thought that he could not face up to a goodbye. On the platform of the station, however, he saw his father with thirty-seven Turkish friends. They were there to see him off to military service in the traditional Anatolian manner. Each embraced him offering some money and fruit. He thus boarded the train with two large shopping bags of food and a fistful of money. Years later, when he reflected on this event he came to appreciate it more than he did at that hour because these men had taken time off from their work, which meant they had lost some hours of pay. Equally important was the fact that these men were manifestly patriotic and felt the same need for service to one’s country in a foreign land as they had at home in Turkey. For this reason they gave him the same courteous consideration they would have if this event had happened in Anatolia (53 54).

The recollections of other descendants of the early Turkish immigrants, that Frank Ahmet relates reflect the same code of honor and pride. Rosamond LeBlanc, for example, the daughter of Baker Abraham, who was one of the earliest Turks in America, remembers how the Turks did not want anyone in the community to owe money to a non-Turk. She says, "they would either pay the money or get after the man to pay his bills".

Rosamond LeBlanc relates stories regarding not only the pride but also the generosity of these people. For her, "when people say they would give the shirt off their back, it was true of the Turks" (49). In this context, she recalls "John Mehmet who would go to Florida each winter and work as a cook. He would send a box of oranges to each of the Turkish families". This memory evokes in her mind once again the typical hot-tempered nature of her ancestors. She says, "but if you crossed them, did something to cause them shame or embarrassment, then they wouldn’t rest until they had their revenge" (49).

These recollections play a special role in uncovering the character of the Turkish immigrants in a background wherein their attitudes were determined. The recovery of memory in this context furnishes a mirror with which one would grasp quite a different image. For example, in another of his accounts Frank Ahmet recalls uncle Mehmet who was a wonderful storyteller and among the stories he told were ancient Greek classics. Frank Ahmet realized this fact when he was introduced to classics in high school. He says he knew the stories, for he had learned them at the knee of a large tough Anatolian storyteller. This memory functions to improve the popular perception surrounding the image of the Turk at that time as an uncultivated person, and lays bare the rich soil of Anatolian culture as well as its diversity where Greeks, Turks, Armenians lived in cultural contact enriching each other.

Likewise, Madeline Zilfi, Maryland University Associate Professor, while recounting the memories of her family, his father being another of the early Turkish immigrants, tells Frank Ahmet how in the East of Boston they lived in close contact with the Armenians, who were also from Elazig area, and gives a significant detail when she remarks: "today some might find such friendships astonishing but my father spoke of this Armenian family with affection, they were his friends"(51).

This remark is noteworthy for it reminds us that memory may heal historical wounds and more importantly can become the creative invention of the past in service of both the present and the imagined future.

In this context an equally meaningful recollection regarding the culture of the immigrants from Anatolia and the Middle east comes from Madeline Zilfi again when she deploringly recalls that "the labeling of Middle-Easterns all took place in a political vacuum where people knew so little about themselves, much less about anybody else" (51 52).

Hence, in a minimum of space Madeline Zilfi exhibits the significance of knowing oneself as a vehicle to understand others and one’s place in the world. This is why stories buried and stored in the memory of individuals are needed. In this respect, Frank Ahmet’s book supplies a crucial preliminary step for following the traces of many names and their stories for a recovery of the characteristic aspects of early Turkish immigrant culture, which ultimately contributed to the diversity and enrichment of American culture, but which received very limited attention in the mainstream of society both in Turkey and the U.S. partly because it was not documented and distributed.

It should be noted, however, that there is another book on the early Turkish immigrant experience published in Turkey much earlier in 1925. This invaluable document was penned by Doctor Fuad Umay under the title Turks in America and What I Saw There, but this book too went unnoticed for a long time because it was written in the old script and was only recently transliterated into Latin alphabet, which is now being edited by Sedat Isci.

Doctor Fuad Umay was commissioned by the Turkish Grand National Assembly to investigate the activities of the Turkish associations and NGOs in America in 1923 and the book is an outcome of his observations and impressions. Like Frank Ahmet’s work, Doctor Fuad’s venture has a crucial role in the transmission of memory and in furnishing us with clues for an awareness of early Turkish immigrant culture. His work also bears witness to the high moral values of the workers who contributed in a variety of ways not only to America but also to Turkey by providing appealing events with mythologizing effect.

In order to demonstrate this effect I would like to give an example from Fuad's description of the emotional atmosphere charged with passion and excitement in the fund raising meetings held by New York Turkish Progress Society (New York Türk Teavün Cemiyeti) or Worchester Muslim Society (Worchester Islamiyye Cemiyeti), which he relates in detail. The meetings were organized to raise money to be transferred to Orphan Aid Society in Turkey, particularly for the benefit of the orphans of Turkish Greek War.

These meeting, as Fuad puts it, generated an opportunity for the immigrants to confirm their virtue, responsibility and self sacrifice as well as their loyalty, devotion, affection and commitment to their homeland. These people working in tanneries, shoe factories, wire mills and automobile plants under very difficult conditions with wages pitifully low donated all their savings, still competing with each other to contribute more. Some of them, says Doctor Fuad Umay, unsatisfied with emptying their pockets, went out of the meeting hall, borrowed money and rushed back to hand that over too. Doctor Fuad verifies his accounts by a record of the names and the amount of money they donated. For example, Hafiz Mehmet Efendi gave 1000 USD and Yasin Efendi of Elazig who was working in a wire mill donated 1300 USD. During New York meeting 6000USD was raised in two hours and the sum reached to 17.500 USD in Worchester meeting.

More striking, according to Doctor Fuad, was the excitement that swept the hall in these meetings, those who donated the most generous amount were treated as heroes, and with tears and laughter they took a journey in the meeting hall on the shoulders of their friends.

Like Frank Ahmet, Doctor Fuad Umay brightens our memories with lively accounts and vivid images for a re visioning of the past, which is essential for individual as well as communal integrity and productivity. This is why valuable works like these should be re-published with revised editions perhaps, and should be circulated and disseminated, which is one of the aims of the project we are currently conducting.

As I tried to indicate before, memory is needed not simply to understand the past, it is also a powerful tool to relate one’s past to the present and to the future. For this reason, this project aims to give voice to more personal experience stories which fade away everyday. Personal experience stories whether presented in the first person as a form of reminiscence or recited as part of communally shared anecdote play fundamental role in memory building enterprises. Such stories also introduce seeds of critical perspective toward the past, which explains why autobiographies or memoirs have a greater impact on building memory and identity. For this reason, libraries contain shelf upon shelf a vast number of autobiographies or memoirs or books recording in detail the arrival and settling down of a wide variety of ethnic groups of immigrants, with the exception, unfortunately, of the Turks. By conducting interviews with the descendants of early Turkish immigrants both in America and Turkey we hope to bring together the threads of a cultural heritage in service of both the present and the future.

Obviously, however, personal stories are not the only means whereby memory charged with such a purpose is produced. There are other sites, photograph exhibits, memorials or heritage museums, for example, help not only preserve and commemorate the past but they also invoke shared memory usually with a positive force. The photographs of objects in such displays do not acquire aesthetic value as they would in an art museum but they recreate the mundane past with therapeutic and cathartic effect on the community.

I would like to conclude by what Vera Schwarcz reminds us; she says:

"Memory is the raw material that allows us to make time concrete, a bridge we cast backwards to connect with those who went before us. Their lives demand attention not because they were extraordinary but because we must encounter them on intimate terms before our present and future can assume more humane proportions" (6)

© Sedat Işçi (Ege University, Izmir)


Dan Ben-Amos and Lilliane Weissberg, eds., Cultural Memory and Construction of Identity, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Mary Antin, The Promised Land, New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Frank Ahmet, Turks in America: The Ottoman Turk’s Immigrant Experience, New York: Columbia International, 1986.

Vera Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Time Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory, New haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, New York: Harper and Raw, 1980 (French original La Memoire Collective, Paris, 1950.

Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996-80. (French original Le lieux de memoire, Gallimard, 1984)

Doktor Fuad Mehmed, Amerika’da Türkler ve Gördüklerim, İstanbul: Vatan Matbaası : 1341 (This document was published in the old script in 1925)

6.1. Modalitäten von Kulturkontakt

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For quotation purposes:
Sedat Işçi (Ege University, Izmir): The Experience of the Early Turkish Immigrants in the USA: Memory, Conflict and Cooperation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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