Unspoken memories, unwritten histories: Eastern Mediterranean pluralism in oral history and memory studies

Murat Sahir Devres's picture
January 28, 2021
Subject Fields: 
Cultural History / Studies, Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies, Middle East History / Studies, Oral History, Urban History / Studies



Unspoken memories, unwritten histories:

Eastern Mediterranean pluralism in oral history and memory studies

A series of workshops devoted to theories and practices in academia and civil society in Turkey and beyond


Less than a hundred years ago, most Eastern Mediterranean cities were marked by a high degree of ethnic, linguistic and religious pluralism. Whereas the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of states based on modern concepts of nationhood heralded its end, some of the most important cities of the empire retained their cosmopolitan nature well until the Second World War and its aftermath. Oral histories and communicative memories of ethnoreligious groups that constituted vital parts of these cities are still living, often wound up with unhealed and suppressed traumas of displacement, ethnic cleansing and genocide. At the same time, simplified and nostalgic visions of a pluralist past are sometimes held up as role models for present-day Eastern Mediterranean societies without questioning its implications and meaning, or without regard for the challenges that they entail. Local academics and civil society organizations alike play vital roles in researching, highlighting and supporting pluralism and pluralist heritage, sometimes in defiance of nationalist historiographies and policies, sometimes supported by states and institutions that embrace pluralism.


The following series of online panels, arranged by the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul (SRII), operates at a cross-section of academic research and civil society activism. It aims to bring together young scholars of history, minorities and human rights with representatives of academia and civil society in a number of Eastern Mediterranean cities outside of Turkey. The panels will discuss what cultural pluralism meant in the past and what it means today, survey how different Eastern Mediterranean countries have struggled to either sustain or suppress cultural pluralism and pluralist heritage, and debate what academics can learn from civil society organizations and human rights discourses when they deal with the questions it brings up. The series will begin with cases of cultural loss that lie further back in the past and conclude with cases that have a bearing on the present and future. Focusing on the vision and memory of pluralism in times of globalization and homogenization the panels will use these case studies as points of departure for a wider exploration of what cultural pluralism means and why it matters, both in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.


The initial workshop that will launch the series, is entitled How can we talk about cultural pluralism in the Eastern Mediterranean? will take place via Zoom on January 28, 2021. The Workshop aims to create an interdisciplinary space for discussion among theoretically informed researchers and civil society actors working on memory studies and oral history in Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean at large. We welcome young scholars and motivated graduate students in the humanities who aim to further their studies in this domain as well as workers in civil society who wish to attain a higher perspective in the state of memory studies and oral history in the region. The content of this first workshop will focus on central methodological questions in the field, such as:


– Modern and Post-modern approaches to cultural pluralism: is there a common basis of understanding?

– How have Eastern Mediterranean countries dealt with cultural pluralism in the past? How do they deal with it – and the loss of it – today?

– How should academics in the Eastern Mediterranean area approach cultural pluralism and the loss of cultural pluralism?


Speakers of the first panel, January 28 at 13:00 (UTC+3):


Asena Günal, director of Anadolu Kültür

Bülent Bilmez, professor at Bilgi University

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Hafıza Merkezi


Following this initial virtual workshop bimensal meetings are planned that will concentrate on multicultural cities of the Eastern Mediterranean beyond Turkey, such as Thessaloniki, Alexandria and Jerusalem. The goal being to offer a critical overview of the state of memory studies and oral history in the region through panel presentations by academic and civil society professionals, followed by an informal participatory Q&A between veterans in the field and young participants interested in specializing in these domains. New CFAs will be issued for each upcoming event.


Contact Info: 

Eligible for participation are advanced students with a background in Turkish, Eastern Mediterranean or Ottoman culture and history, cultural and minority studies, or political, social and Human Rights studies. They should send their CV, together with a letter of interest outlining their interest in the topic and the ways in which it connects with their own research, no later than December 31, 2020, to sriiapplication@gmail.com. Participants will be notified by January 11, 2021.