Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Abdulhamit Arvas


Scholar Profile by Jason Ng


Abdulhamit Arvas is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD in English, with additional specialisation in Women’s and Gender Studies, from Michigan State University. His interests centre on early modern literature and culture, comparative histories of sexuality and race, queer theory, cross-cultural encounters, and Islam in the Renaissance. Arvas is currently working on a book project, tentatively titled Beautiful Boys of the Global Renaissance: Travelling Sexualities in Anglo-Ottoman Encounters, which concerns early modern sexuality and race in a global context. Reading English and Ottoman literatures together, the project explores the abduction and circulation of male adolescents in the transnational Mediterranean space during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. 

Arvas’s publications have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including English Literary Renaissance, Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies, Shakespeare Survey, postmedieval, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, and in edited collections such as The Postcolonial World, The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, England’s Asian Renaissance, Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern, and A Companion to Global Shakespeares. Most recently, with Afrodesia McCannon and Kris Trujillo, Arvas co-edited the tenth anniversary issue of postmedieval, titled Critical Confessions Now.

Adapted from: (accessed 2 December 2021)


Arvas, Abdulhamit. “Leander in the Ottoman Mediterranean: The Homoerotics of Abduction in the Global Renaissance.” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 51, no. 1, 2021, pp. 31-62.

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “Performing and Desiring Gender Variance in the Ottoman Empire.” Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern, edited by Anna Klosowska, Masha Raskolnikov and Greta LaFleur, Cornell University Press, 2021, pp. 160-77.

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “The Ottomans in and of Europe.” England’s Asian Renaissance, edited by Carmen Nocentelli and Su Fang Ng, University of Delaware Press, 2021, pp. forthcoming [31-54 in the uncorrected proofs].

Arvas, Abdulhamit, Afrodesia McCannon, and Kris Trujillo. “Critical Confessions Now.” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 151-170. 

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “Homofobi: ‘Doğululaşmış’ Bir Batı İcadı [Homophobia: A Western Invention ‘Orientalized’].” KaosQ+, vol. 9, 2020, pp. 106-10.

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “Early Modern Eunuchs and the Transing of Gender and Race.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 19, no. 4, 2019, pp. 116-136.

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “Queers in-between: Globalizing Sexualities, Local Resistances.” The Postcolonial World, edited by Jyotsna G. Singh and David D. Kim, Routledge, 2016, pp. 97-116.

Singh, Jyotsna G., and Abdulhamit Arvas. “Global Shakespeares, Affective Histories, Cultural Memories.” Shakespeare Survey, vol. 68, 2015, pp. 183-96.

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “Ecoerotic Imaginations in Early Modernity: An Eco-Queer Reading of Margaret Cavendish.” New International Voices in Ecocriticism, edited by Serpil Oppermann, Lexington Books, 2014, pp. 147-158.

Arvas, Abdulhamit. “From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 1453-1923.” The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, edited by E. L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 145-63.

Contact Information 215-898-7348

Full Interview Transcript

Ng Should I just start by asking you—I think one of the biggest questions that I have in mind, given that I deal with or that I have dealt in the past with both the European response to people from the east and also the opposite—the contrapuntal approach that you mentioned in our email exchange. Given this difference between what Orientalism describes as a dominance relation between east and west, between that time and the period that you are working on and even earlier which I am working on and Geraldine Heng works on, I was curious to ask you how productive or applicable you find that definition of race as dominance and also as totalising dominance in the sense that you control all the possibilities of thinking and of acting, including practices—law, administration, literary production. How do you think about racing and race formation in the period that you work on in relation to that difference in the power dynamic?


Arvas My work specifically goes to race from a queer perspective. I work on sexuality mainly, and I started in my dissertation to work on specifically sexuality and sexual encounters in the literary imagination between England and the Ottoman Empire. But when I studied sexuality, especially looking at the sexual difference, no matter where I go race appears. Human desire and human difference are not that much inseparable. And especially, that led me to trace sexuality and race relations or a genealogy of that relation as it intersects with the history of colonialism and imperial practices, religious difference, as well as gendered erotic hierarchies. 

But then besides exploring a history of race and what race looked like in the period, in a way, I think what Heng’s work makes possible for me is to think of race as an analytic, thinking about human desire together with human difference, both transhistorically and transregionally. Heng is specifically looking at the European context, but I want to look at more the transregional relations and dynamics without really neglecting sociopolitical or cultural specificities, as Michael Gomez does in race, always thinking transregionally and transhistorically. But I’m not sure Heng is really just suggesting race is about dominance, because the definition, even much cited since the book came out, that definition of race that she uses, race as a structural relationship between both the articulation and management of human difference, and not a substantive contact. I think the articulation part really speaks to me to think about race as an analytic when I am looking at human difference.

In that sense, when we are looking at the racialisation of the Ottomans in England, or Europeans in the Ottoman Empire, there is a dominance and power dynamic. But you’re right, the Ottoman Empire is a superpower of the period whereas England is not. And as Dan Vitkus earlier suggested, the way England was colonised or under danger of being colonised when interacting with the Mediterranean or the east, but they become the coloniser when they are interacting with the Americas. But the Ottomans or Muslims were not the only ‘Others’ that England racialised or produced a racialised language. We have the Welsh, we have the Irish, that earlier contributed to this race-making in England, that then projected over to the indigenous groups in the Americas as well as even before that on black Africans and blackamoors, or the concept of Moor, the North Africans or Muslims. So in that sense, maybe the power, dominance, being a part of that is important, of course.

But what I am recently thinking is what about when a country or culture feels vulnerable. Then they produce a racialised language more intensively. And when we are looking at the early modern period and post-Reformation, England is pretty much isolated from the Catholic league, and that pushed them to have intense encounters or relations in the Mediterranean, especially with the Ottomans. In that sense, feeling isolated contributes to the intensification of discourses that others, not only Catholics but Ottomans—the Ottoman sultan and the Pope appear as the antichrist, they are the enemy together—to bring their English nationhood together. And building that nationhood, the racialisation becomes intensified. So it’s not only when a country dominates or becomes powerful that the race mechanism works, but sometimes when they are vulnerable, it also happens, when see historically, as a defence mechanism to control. So dominance part is important, but as I said, I am more interested in the co-productions of race in both contexts and how encounters contribute to that.


Ng It’s about the articulation of difference as you say. But one of the major concepts that Heng introduces is hierarchisation of difference; it’s not just difference, but the value judgments attached to difference. And because she uses the Jews as her case study—as she calls it her benchmark case study—that is why I associate race formation with people who are dominant. Because that’s the whole point of hierarchisation: you want to establish yourself as the dominant force, which is able to therefore colonise and create a logic that other people cannot escape from, that kind of discourse. And so that’s my problem, because as we all have noticed, the Ottomans at that period and even before, in the Abbasid cases and in between, were much more—not necessarily advanced as it were, but they had larger populations centres, there was a greater efflorescence of the arts and architecture, and the economy and all those kinds of things. That’s where the nub of the issue is, I think, for me, which is the hierarchisation and the dominance that that implies and how that interacts with the kind of anxieties that you have just described, because people put up barriers and they start imagining things as a kind of wish fulfilment when precisely they have wishes to fulfil and they feel a sense of threat, and this has always been, in various cases, in various places and times in history, there has always been a trigger for more hardened discourses against an outsider or an imagined internal enemy.


Arvas I agree with you. There is definitely dominance, but also I think what I am trying to evoke is that we have to think that dominance or this narrative of dominance also can be a fiction. You don’t have to be powerful or dominant to produce the fiction that you are more powerful, that you are superior. England of the medieval period is not superior to any of the countries we are thinking about in continental Europe and especially the Islamicate world. But the production of race and racism is usually projected on an imagined other, so you don’t have to be a superpower to be a racist. This is the case study, that when they are racialising southeast Indians or Mongols or Ottomans or the Islamicate world, yes this world is more powerful, but the imagination of whiteness as superior, the imagination of Christian identity as superior, the imagination of uncircumcised bodies being superior to circumcised marked bodies, be it Jewish or Muslim, is the fantasy of dominance in that sense. This is why I think you do not necessarily have to be a superpower to be a racist society and this is why I think it is really worth thinking: what is it in a culture that enables such hierarchisation? Because definitely hierarchisation is an element of race and race-making. But what is it? Is it religious culture? Is it some other cultural elements? Is it language? Or some political scientist or economic theorist—or is it the economy? These are all theories, whereas I find myself as a literature student more in the realm of culture, the impact of culture and how culture enables such hierarchisations and imaginations of yourself as superior and dominant.


Ng Yes, which actually opens up very interesting questions about how people who are perceived to be erased, themselves may partake in race-making and race formation. And that goes some way to establish some kind of recovery, but a kind of pyrrhic victory, a kind of tainted recovery, because we are not saying that race formation is a good thing in this case because of the value-laden judgments that lead on from hierarchisation, and which is where I think opens up all sorts of different interesting possibilities that you actually don’t seem to—in your work—want to take the bait. I think in one of your essays you talk about not wanting to recentre the focus on… you don’t want to go into Ottoman-centrism. That’s not the point of your work, because essentially you’re just replacing one centrism with another centrism. And if you apply this racialisation and race-making framework and say that not only were English capable of race formation and discrimination but so are the Ottomans. In my mind that would have been an interesting thing to explore as well, to see what’s common about racial formation in different aspects from different vantage points, and that might be something I might explore in my work. But in your work I found something that’s really interesting, and the interesting thing I found in your work was about the emphasis on connection and exchange and a mutually constitutive relationship rather than a mutually oppositional relationship, which definitely existed, but you want to focus more on the mutually constitutive side. I would just like to ask how that fits in or doesn’t fit in with the race as domination and hierarchisation dynamic that we’ve just been talking about.


Arvas I would say my stress on connections and similarities mainly stems from my reaction to modern racialisation that created and separated east from west and specifically created oriental languages and occidental languages and literatures. I suggest that nation-state- or single-nation-, single-language-based approach to literature, especially the separation of Islamicate literature from say Christian or European literature, is an Orientalist taxonomy. While Orientalist literati and scholars for example saw connections between medieval, Christian or European literary imagination and the Islamicate world, their suggestion was that Europe has the spirit of the Renaissance—suddenly they moved towards reason and secularism—whereas Islamicate literature remained in the medieval, they were imprisoned in this backward condition. And I am talking about nineteenth-century Orientalists like Gibb who pushed Ottoman studies into this medieval world, and western literatures are enlightened. And the nineteenth century is when we have the idea that western literature and imagination is incompatible with these oriental ones because the oriental ones are backward and there are no connections in the Renaissance between the cultures.

I started by challenging this, by bringing in Ottoman, because at the end of the day I am not an Ottomanist, I am a scholar of English early modernity. What I do, I look at that literature by other Ottomanists to challenge this strict separation and looking at literature from a nation-state-based single-language perspective, which early modern literature, which is a literature of appropriations and translations and intertextuality and everything, actually resisted. But it became such a norm in English studies. When I studied—Turks and Ottomans only appeared as the other and serving to have English identities established, English nationality established. And I was like what if we just look at English literature from Istanbul? What would happen? And this was a challenge actually to this racialisation of literary studies and compartmentalisation of scholarship that still goes on in contemporary studies, the way we study. It’s totally fine to read English sources with French, with Italian, but it’s not okay reading English sources with Arabic and Ottoman. You have to justify why you are doing it because they are different languages, and I am just like what is that stress on difference? Otherwise, if we focus on some of the parallels and similarities, we will see a world that has more exchanges not only in goods but in ideas, in people and in practices and in discursive formations. And of course I am building on Sahar Amer’s work on medieval French lesbianism in relation to Arabic sources on lesbianism, or Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı’s studies of Ottoman sexuality in relation to Italian and English sexualities. What they did—what I call the contrapuntal approach, just putting these literatures together and seeing the borrowings and the tropes—is really fundamental, or was fundamental, to the way I came to focus on connections and similarities.

But how my work departs from them is I am also very careful not to be celebratory of that kind of globalism by focusing only on the exchange of nice things. But I want to stress the exchange of not so much fun things. What about the exchange of, or circulation of, or parallels in sexual discourses for example has anything to do with the exchange in discourses about race, about slavery, about colonial practices? What [unclear] the darker side of this Renaissance is important that I want to bring. And you are right, I am very careful in my work, in a way not to idealise the Ottoman Empire and practices the way many scholars are doing, by setting them apart from the race-making or colonialism in Europe and the Islamic world in a way I really appreciate because the care comes from not to really serve the Islamophobic discourses. But at the same time, as historians or literary historians, we also have to make sure sometimes creating a nostalgic, idealised Islamicate past or Ottoman past can serve to bad politics and nationalism or cultural nativism in these spaces as well. 

In my essay on black eunuchs or the essay on the abduction of the boys, I evoke the historical practices and materiality as probable contributions or probable elements shaping, say, the appearance of eunuchs on the English stage or the appearance of abducted boys in English literature. They may be informed. But overall my approach is not actually tracing the similarities and direct borrowings. I think this is just a project that awaits for the future. What I do, I just read Ottoman and English texts together, contrapuntally: Ottoman Empire as the largest empire, one of the most super powerful in the period, an Islamicate empire; English as an emerging empire. What happens when I just read the sources together and what do I see when I focus on the figure of the othered exotic boy in both literatures? This is my contrapuntal method to see the way sexuality and race and slavery and religious difference are operating together in both contexts, without focusing on direct borrowings or influences or such stuff.


Ng I think that’s quite interesting that you say that, because actually I understood from your essays that you were tracing some kinds of influences and the hinge on which the influences travel is the travel narrative, the travelogue. Because you map out certain practices that existed in the Ottoman Empire, which were observed, so slavery or eunuchism, and you map those practices onto what European travellers—actually mainly English travellers have seen. And then they wrote about it, they fantasised about it, they embellish it and that gets absorbed, or becomes part of the English literary imaginary. Am I saying that right?


Arvas Definitely, definitely.


Ng In my mind actually that kind of influence is one of the biggest conceptual leaps, because at every stage, there is no, whatever we can call ‘evidence’—I mean I’ve been repeatedly challenged on this in class about the historical positivism that demands evidence, and what is evidence, what constitutes evidence, can we talk about critical fabulation, can we talk about other means, other epistemological bases for making claims—but could you explain a little bit more about this hinge, this pivot on which the exchanges that you see between the eastern and the western Mediterranean operated?


Arvas Well, I hope you use the word ‘leap’ in a positive sense! The conceptual leap by tracing the similarities. You’re right, in that essay—you are talking about the Hero and Leander essay—I talk about how travel narratives are constantly writing about these abducted boys, and how abducted boys are a part of the discourse about the Mediterranean in English writing, and how Marlowe himself in Tamburlaine plays for example contributes by representing these abducted boys. In that context, can we really read the abduction of the beautiful boy Leander in the Mediterranean in this historical context, rather than just simply as a trope coming from Greco-Roman examples? And this is the historical practice that I am suggesting is influential is making poetic imaginary. Or in my essay on black eunuchs, I am talking about how the enslavement and gendering of black African boys, and then the transformation of them into a new category of eunuch, and English sources writing about eunuchs to a degree that eunuchs become equivalent to blackness, contribute to the representation of eunuchs on the English stage, because both abducted boy and the eunuch start to increasingly appear on the English stage after the 1580s. This is exactly when England comes to the Mediterranean context. This is when we get travel narratives.

But in terms of evidence, it is an interesting question, what is your evidence about the direct borrowing, what did they directly borrow. While these two pieces present this historical context as evidence, what I meant in my larger book project—this is not my main orientation—but at the end of the day, Ottoman and English writers probably did not read one another. I doubt Ottomans just read English or English people read Turkish. But we have to remember, English bodies materially entered into the Ottoman lands where they interacted with the Ottomans. They drank at their taverns and coffeehouses, they observed their lives and customs, or they heard their stories and poems and they saw their performances or festivals, most likely they experienced Ottoman bodies intimately. As a result, I think not only Ottoman goods, in that sense, but Ottoman voices, stories, ideas infiltrated into England and shaped English imaginaries via travelogues, poems and plays on the public stage. In many of these travel narratives, you even find instances where there are quotations from the Turkish language, to show them how the Turkish language reads, how the Turkish language sounds.

All this infiltration, I think, makes it possible for me to think: in spite of differences and putative otherness between the two cultures, they demonstrate striking parallels as well, and show how discourses as well as persons are circulating when we think Mediterranean as a contact zone that enables this. And I do this not only to show this connection but also, in a way, to provincialise Eurocentric sexual history, because at the end of the day, I am looking at the way—what do we see in England when we look at early modern sexualities from a standpoint located in the Ottoman Empire? And this is my point, but specific works on borrowings and influences the way Sahar Amer does, the tropes, I think this is another study that I hope someone will take up in the future, and maybe I will take up in the future.


Ng I think I’ll skip across quite a few questions because we’re reaching the end of the twenty minutes, or we’ve already reached it, but anyway I just wanted to ask you since you mentioned quite a lot on different scholars working on the Ottoman lands, Ottomanists specifically: who are the interlocutors you find most generative for your work and who are the interlocutors you wish to speak to the most? And I think that’s a question that I—it’s a question that people from non-European-language departments always face. The relevance of their work to the broader academy understood in the Euro-American sense and where the influences come from and what it’s in aid of.


Arvas I wouldn’t say either-or, I would say both of them are—both Ottoman studies and English studies are my interlocutors. But of course I have been trained in an English department. All my education, training and scholarship has been mainly located in English studies. But I was lucky enough to have mastery in both English and Turkish, and spent some years to learn Ottoman and engage with Ottoman studies scholars. To a degree, I think what I do is bridging the two fields, to put Ottoman studies in conversation with English studies. And you know both fields have different disciplinary practices and methodologies, and sometimes in scholarship we love compartmentalising, and we love overspecifying and looking at the differences. But I think I am bridging them to bring two rooms together to see what happens when we converse with one another. There are stuff Ottomanists can learn from English scholars and English scholars can definitely learn from Ottomanists, because when we have these graduate programmes where academia is shrinking because of the financial burden, it’s a luxury to learn multiple languages and pay attention to truly doing interdisciplinary or cross-cultural work, speaking multiple languages. But one way to do it is coming together and thinking together and doing more collaborative work, in a sense, to bring them. So as I said, I am lucky enough to train myself like an Ottomanist and be in constant conversation with Ottoman studies scholars and think about English studies with these sources, and hopefully they are both going to be following my work.

Who I want to wish to speak—I start speaking to queer scholars and scholars of cross-cultural encounters, and then race scholars, especially pre-modern critical race studies scholars, and post-colonial studies and gender and sexuality studies. So these are mainly my primary audience, because in grad school I was advised: pick one, this is your primary audience, otherwise you will never be able to finish your dissertation. Then you start engaging with other audiences, and it’s not easy to keep a balance of having multiple subfields as your primary audience at the same time, so I am just hoping I am doing a job that my work will speak to multiple subfields at the same time as well as, since I value history and historical studies so much—I am hoping contemporary queer studies as well as contemporary critical race studies in the US, that I am engaging with the idea of critical race studies in the US, and benefiting from black studies perspective a lot, that my work can speak to this as interlocutors as well.


Ng I noticed that actually you don’t mention the term adab in your work, but it’s a very adab perspective in that anything, almost anything that is written in a certain register is considered adab, i.e. literature or literary writing. The point you make about history, about travelogues, about different kinds of writing that we might not have associated—if we were to study English or European literature in the classical sense, in the traditional syllabus—wouldn’t have associated with literature at all, you are bringing in all these other kinds of archival or let’s say non-fictional or not fictionally intended or half-fictionally intended material in conversation with the fictional to establish a kind of broader cultural discourse between different parts of the Mediterranean.


Arvas You are definitely right, and since new historicism in English studies and in early modern English studies, approaching literary and non-literary texts together became kind of a norm, or many people are doing it, we are totally fine despite the fact that mimetic texts, representations have their own uniqueness, genre or generic impacts, and you have to pay attention to that as a literary scholar. But at the same time, being trained in queer studies and early modern queer studies and history of sexuality taught us that sometimes literature can represent something historical the way that historical documents may not be able to. You may not find sexual imaginaries in court documents, in other historical texts, but the literature can help us to think about what was possible to imagine in the period, and the way literature and history speak to each other in terms of representing or presenting the sexuality in the period. I take this queer training, I think, to my reading of any kind of literature, in the sense that essentially I am interested in cultural formations and discursive formation and discourses rather than the specifics of a specific genre etc. This is not the work I am doing; I am more into-the-big-picture kind of guy, and in the big picture, discourses stem not only from non-literary texts or in history, but it stems from imaginaries, it stems from literature. And this is the beauty of studying the literature; they speak to the real life and they go beyond that sometimes, and offer alternatives. So by blending them together, and sometimes my use of historical and literary texts really seems blurry and I am very aware of the moments it does, but I am not really trying to solve that problem and offer a clear picture because I am not sure whether it is history that shapes literature or literature that shapes history, and it’s not an easy question to answer. And I just leave that moment as blurry as it is, because the past at the end of the day is so messy, and whatever we are making a claim about presenting a clear picture is, can be deceptive at the end of the day. So as scholars, our job is to approach it as objectively as possible, and as clear as possible, and work as much evidence as we want, but sometimes there are moments where, as you can tell from my Ganymede piece, whether it is the myth of Ganymede that impacts historical practices or historical practices impact the rise of Ganymede. I don’t have an easy answer and I accept that, and this is the moment where you have the teleological cause and effect relation just collapse, and I’m totally fine with that, and this is the moment when the historical and literary become so blended in a way that I’m totally fine with this messy blurriness.

Scroll to Top