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Alumni Spotlight: Ozgen Felek

Ozgen Felek

Ozgen Felek, Ph.D., Near Eastern Studies

Born in a small village in western Turkey, Dr. Ozgen Felek knew from the age of six that she wanted to be an author. Her journey to achieving this dream began in the city of Denizli, Turkey, where she completed her primary and secondary education. When she graduated from high school, wearing a headscarf was not possible in universities, so she decided not to apply for college until the headscarf ban was abolished. Six months after her high school graduation, she married and moved with her husband to Elazig, a small city in eastern Turkey, where he began his medical residency.

In 1990, the headscarf ban was abolished at colleges; however, Ozgen was about to give birth to her eldest daughter, so she waited until her daughter turned three years old before she began school. “I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom in the first three years of college,” she recalled. “Yet, following the postmodern coup of 1997, the headscarf was once again banned. I graduated from college with honors, and started my master’s and later Ph.D. in the same school with a wig on top of my headscarf. It was really embarrassing!”

At this time, Ozgen was reading the Turkish translation of The Unreadable Shores of Love: Turkish Modernity and Mystic Romance by Victoria Rowe Holbrook. Largely because of this book, she decided to come to Ohio State University, in 2000, so that she could meet and study with Professor Holbrook. “Since I spoke no English, I first started learning the language in ESL courses offered by a local church in Columbus. I had to take the TOEFL exam five times to be able to apply for an M.A. at OSU. And eventually I passed it!” While working on her master’s degree, Ozgen was strongly influenced by Professor Holbrook, so much so that, several years later, in collaboration with Professor Walter Andrews of the University of Washington-Seattle, Ozgen wrote her a festschrift—a collection of writings published in honor of a scholar. Titled Victoria Holbrook’a Armagan (2006), the volume includes essays on Turkish and Ottoman literature. “The festschrift,” Ozgen said, “is to show my deep gratitude to Professor Holbrook for her patience, kindness, and endless support.”

After completing her master’s degree at Ohio State in 2003, Ozgen returned with her family to Turkey for one year, when she completed her coursework and took the preliminary exams for her Turkish Ph.D. that she pursued under the guidance of Sabahattin Kucuk, a well- known expert on Ottoman poetry. In the same year, she also applied to the University of Michigan to work with Professor Gottfried Hagen in Near Eastern Studies. “I was highly interested in Ottoman hagiographical narratives,” she explained, “and when I read his works, I wanted to be his student.”

Ozgen began her Ph.D. at U-M in 2004. “The first two years were very hard for me,” she remembered. “My daughters were still young (14 and 6). While I was still struggling to improve my English, I was taking courses, teaching as a Graduate Student Assistant, and also working on my Turkish dissertation. It was quite a challenge.” Fortunately, in her third year of the Ph.D. program, the University of Michigan recognized her academic abilities by granting her a prestigious Barbour Scholarship (2006). “The Barbour Scholarship made life much easier for my family and me. I was relieved from teaching responsibilities, and I had all my time to complete my coursework, prepare for my U-M prelims, and write my Turkish dissertation. Without the Barbour Scholarship, I don’t think I would ever have been able to complete my Turkish dissertation and defend it in the summer of 2007.”

In her dissertation research at the University of Michigan, Ozgen focused on Ottoman dream culture and Ottoman dream interpretations. “During my research I came across an amazing collection of Sultan Murad III’s 1858 dream letters that he sent to his Sufi master. While reading through these letters, I realized that what I had in hand was a treasure not only for Ottoman, but also for world history and literature. In reading this collection of letters in its historical context, what I saw was how a sultan used his dreams to fashion himself. I decided to focus my dissertation on dream-telling and his letters as a narrative device for self-fashioning. It was an interdisciplinary work which encompassed cultural, religious, and psychological approaches. It dealt with questions of image and identity, historiography and epistolary culture in Islam, dreams in Islamic and Sufi traditions, and Messianic movements in Islamic history.” Ozgen completed her dissertation, Re-creating image and identity: Dreams and visions as a means of Murād III's self-fashioning, in 2010.

Her interest in Islamic dreams led her to the idea of preparing an academic volume on the topic. In 2012, she published a collection of essays, Dreams and Visions in Islamic Societies (SUNY Press) which she co-edited with Professor Alexander Knysh of U-M. The book features essays by several experts, including one by Ozgen herself. “It is a collection on the existing literature on dreams and visions in Islamic societies,” she explained. “The volume focuses specifically on the social, historical, and mystical dimensions of dreams and dream interpretations in Islamic tradition.”

In addition to her essay in this book, Ozgen disseminated her research by writing more articles and chapters; however, she realized that she wanted to publish Sultan Murad’s dream letters for a larger audience. As a two-year Mellon Fellow at Stanford University, she prepared a text edition of Sultan Murad’s dream letters and published them in 2014 under the title The Book of Dreams: The Dream Letters of Sultan Murad III Introduction-Analysis-Diplomatic Edition. “This book includes the transliterated text along with an introduction. It historicizes the mystical content and analyzes the philological aspects of these dream accounts.” Meanwhile, Ozgen began translating these letters into English, along with Professor Walter Andrews. They published the first 100 letters digitally under the title, “The Sultan’s Dreams Project,” as part of the Newbook Digital Texts Project (http://depts.washington.edu/ndtwp/sultansdreams/), and a book publication is in progress. She recalls, “I have done so much work with Professor Andrews. All these years, he has been a wonderful mentor. Even though we were physically distanced from each other, he has been with me in every step of my journey in American academia.”

Currently, she is working on two projects. The first, a monograph on Sultan Murad III, is what she calls “a biography of a bibliophile sultan.” For this book, Ozgen examines his writings, specifically his dream letters, and also his poetry collection. The other project explores the construction of manhood and masculinity in early modern Islamic and Ottoman literature. In this book, Ozgen examines a wide variety of genres to see how different genres perceived and shaped the concept of manhood and masculinity in the Ottoman elite culture.

In addition to her research, Ozgen is an accomplished artist of Islamic illumination and miniature painting. In 1989, she took an Islamic illumination and miniature painting course at Firat University taught by Susan Cataloluk, a preeminent miniature artist in Turkey. “When I saw her paintings I fell in love with this art form. I studied under her guidance until she left our city. And later, upon her departure, I was asked to continue to teach it at the same university.” The inspiration for Ozgen’s art largely comes from Islamic literature. “My academic works require a close reading of illustrations and illustrated texts as well as un-illustrated ones. While working on a text, I visualize a scene and then prepare its sketches. Once I am confident that I have drawn the final version of the design in my head, I start in the traditional style with very fine brushes, crushed gold leaves, and gouache paints. I closely examine the early-modern illustrated manuscripts in order to stay loyal to the dress code, architecture, and artistic style of the time as much as possible. For example, I painted a depiction of one of Sultan Murad’s dreams as it was described.”  

Ozgen taught Islamic illumination and miniature painting classes at the University of Michigan and Stanford University, which she greatly enjoyed. “My art class attracted both undergraduate and graduate students from many different disciplines, including engineering and political science. My students’ artwork was exhibited at Stanford in 2012. I even helped two of my talented students to manage their way to Istanbul to learn this art in more detail under the guidance of Sibel Zirek, who was one of my students at Firat University and is now an accomplished artist.”

Art is an integral component of Ozgen’s teaching. In 2002, she taught her first class in the United States: Ottoman Turkish for beginners at Ohio State University. Since then, she has taught a wide range of content-based courses on Islamic history, culture, literature, art, and gender as well as language courses at Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University. Currently, she teaches modern and Ottoman Turkish at Yale University. “My favorite teaching experiences are when I have been able to integrate language, culture, religion, and art into the classroom. I’ve found that in these settings, students move beyond their interest in learning merely for a grade, and get involved in genuine discussions of intercultural life. I am passionate about teaching interdisciplinary classes. Students not only read about culture, but can take this information and picture it in a way that they can represent the experience in art.”

Ozgen uses modern performing arts in order to introduce the major literary works of Islamic literature. In 2005, working with Professor Walter Andrews and University of Michigan theatre students, Ozgen prepared an Ottoman poetry night titled “Ottoman Poetry in the Age of Beloveds,” featuring a lecture, theatrical performances, music, and dance. The success of the poetry night furthered her interest in developing another performance project. In 2007, in collaboration with U-M Dance students, she staged a modern dance rendition of Beauty and Love, (Hüsn ü ‛Aşk), one of the most acknowledged masterpieces of Islamic mystical poetry and the last great mystical romance of the Ottoman tradition. One of her paintings depicts a scene from Beauty and Love.

In addition to her interdisciplinary teaching, artwork, and research, Ozgen has a strong interest in creative writing. “I learned how to read and write in first grade, and in second grade I started working on a ‘novel’ about a child who was isolated by his friends because he was very poor. Later on, I tried writing other novels in fifth, sixth, and seventh grades. And then I switched to writing short stories and poems. I kept writing and sending my writings to literary journals in Turkey until we moved to the United States in 2000. And of course, in the States, I became so busy with learning English, doing a master’s, a Ph.D., and teaching with two small children that I had no time to continue my stories and poems.”

After finishing her doctoral degrees, Ozgen returned to creative writing as a fun and relaxing break from academic writing. “I have been writing film scripts and short stories. I’m also currently working on a trilogy in Turkish. It is a story of a man, Genghis, who teaches at a prestigious college in the United States. He seems to have a happy life with his family. However, despite his charming and scholarly exterior, he has a tormented inner life that begins to manifest itself at his place of work. In the Western world, much scholarly and unscholarly work has been written about Muslim women, but not much has been written by Muslim women. This novel is to show how I, as a Muslim woman, perceive American academic culture and Western men. In this sense, I believe it will be a unique piece of work.”

Ozgen has an impressive list of accomplishments, including two doctoral degrees, several books, many artistic productions, and years of teaching. Yet, when she thinks about success, she does not mention any of these achievements. “I believe my real success,” she reflected, “is to have been able to raise two daughters with beautiful hearts despite moving from one state to another while juggling endless papers, deadlines, and exams in our sixteen years in the States. My older daughter Sevde is now a third-year medical student, and Bilge is starting college this coming fall with a pre-med track.”

She acknowledges that support along the way was instrumental in her success: “I have been very lucky to have had wonderful advisors. They have been more than mere teachers to me. If I have been able to succeed with two kids, it is also because I had the most supportive mentors.”

Photos from Ozgen’s art classes and the exhibition of her students’ artwork are available here, here and here.