Joseph Boone

“Creating a Queer Archive in the Public Eye: The Case of Resad Ekram Kocu’s ‘Ansiklopedesi Istanbul’”

As Orphan Pamuk reports, throughout the nineteen fifties, sixties, and early seventies, the serially released volumes of Kocu’s encyclopedia were a staple in middle-class households, and they were particularly popular with adolescent boys, given their numerous entries on the strange and the marvelous, the adventures of enterprising youths migrating to the city to make their fortune, the colorful presentation, in all its bloody intrigue, of the history of the Sultans, and the plethora of curious facts and eccentric tales filed under innocuous headings. 

What interests me about this never-completed, eleven-volume Herculean endeavor (Kocu never moved past the letter “G”) is the degree to which the encyclopedia’s taxonomic façade allowed Kocu, a discrete homosexual keenly aware of the modernizing forces that were increasingly writing the Ottoman empire’s homoerotic heritage out of official history and public memory, to make his encyclopedia an archive of this disappearing past—even as the encyclopedia “passed” as family-friendly fare. Hence, wedged between serious entries on government officials and neighborhood mosques, the volumes overflow with stories of street youths and their older admirers, roustabouts who become prostitutes, cross-dressing performers, (male) strip-tease artists, body-builders, and nude models. Such racy stories are generously interspersed with equally racy extracts, quoted verbatim, taken from the rich heritage of Ottoman love-poetry and literary texts such as “Book of Bathboys” (an eighteenth century text advising prospective clients which bathboys offered what sexual services, for what fees) and “Book of Beautiful Boys” (also eighteenth-century, detailing the erotic glories of youths across the globe).  

Even more interesting, and the subject of my presentation, is the interface between these entries and the line drawings that copiously illustrate the volume, adding a visual trace to Kocu’s covertly homoerotic enterprise, all taking place in the public eye. Drawn with an appealing “innocent” style that is evocative of Boy’s Life in mid-century America, these illustrations when set in context with each other reveal a surprising visual archive of homoerotic desire: from the numerous illustrations of impossibly beautiful bath attendants, to a fisherman nominated the “beauty” of the Bosphorus, to working youth whose tattered clothing strategically displays their bodies, these visual elements add a covertly homoerotic element that the taxonomic structure of the encyclopedia disguises. Thus, my talk will attempt to shed light on another formation of the queer archive, one perhaps made uniquely possible by Istanbul’s own position as crossing-point of East and West.