If the pages of the Yehuda Leon Behar notebook could talk, they would have an amazing story to tell.
Behar was a Jewish soldier who fought for the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). He later immigrated from Istanbul to Seattle and directed the city’s Ladino theater group. Prior to leaving Turkey, he penned a series of poems about war, Jewish identity, and national belonging.
Now, a hundred years after Behar’s military stint, his Seattle descendants have generously made his notebook available for digitization and study through the UW Sephardic Studies Program’s Digital Library and Museum. And, thanks to support from the Mickey Sreebny Memorial Scholarship at the Stroum Center, Behar’s poetic voice has found an ideal interpreter in PhD student Oscar Aguirre-Mandujano.
A native of Mexico City, Aguirre-Mandujano grew up speaking Spanish and Hebrew. For his masters and doctoral work in Ottoman Studies, he gained fluency in an astounding number of languages: classical Ottoman, Arabic, Persian, and Karamanlidika (Turkish written in Greek script), as well as modern English, Turkish, Persian, and Italian. He has been a standout student in the UW’s Interdisciplinary Program in Near and Middle Eastern Studies since his arrival in 2011; he has also been integrally involved with the Turkish and Ottoman Studies Program, which is based in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization (NELC) and ranks among the top such programs in the country.
Aguirre-Mandujano’s PhD research focuses on a far-off time and place: the Ottoman court culture of the 15th century. His dissertation, “Poetry and Politics in the Early Modern Ottoman World: The Court of Bayezid II (r.1481-1512),” probes how Ottoman poetry discussed and transformed political ideas. He looks particularly at literary texts produced by the palace elite, “trying to see how the production of poetry and literary prose was a political act in the Ottoman world.” This project builds on his MA work, wherein Aguirre-Mandujano focused on border narratives and the intense interaction between various religious groups in the Ottoman Empire.