An Appreciation of Halide Edip Adıvar

It came and went and few seemed to notice: January 9, 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Halide Edip Adıvar, the famous Turkish novelist, feminist and parliamentarian. She founded Turkey’s first English literature department, as well as its first PEN club.

This forgetfulness was a good example of our cultural amnesia, which is nowhere more apparent than in Turkey’s approach to its writers. When the calendar year marks the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth, the world knows. When it marks the semi-centennial of the death of a female Turkish writer, there is silence. Why is that?

Adıvar was no Kafka. Nor was she a figure like John Kennedy Toole whose work was discovered years after his death. She was a public intellectual, perhaps the most public intellectual the country had ever seen. She had always been involved in politics and rubbed shoulders with those in the upper echelons of power. She attempted to be the voice of the oppressed nations of the east. She flew too close to one kind of power in order to undermine another.

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Celal Yalınız, a Turkish philosopher better known as “the bearded Celal”, described Turkey’s intellectuals as “folks running toward west onboard a ship heading east and calling it westernization.” On the face of it, Adıvar’s life fit his description. Among authors who had lived in Istanbul in the last decades of the empire, she was among the most westernized.

But appearances are misleading. Adıvar was also a great appreciator of her own culture and a passionate defender of eastern world. She spoke Turkish, French, English and Arabic; she knew Hamlet by heart but that didn’t stop her from reciting Quran and loving ezan, the Muslim call to prayer. She fasted during Ramadan, loved speaking in public, and chain-smoked until her death.

Born in 1884 into an influential family in Istanbul, Adıvar had a privileged childhood. Like many intellectuals who later adopted revolutionary ideas, she had close connections to the Sublime Porte, the center of the Ottoman state bureaucracy. Her father worked as an accountant for Sultan Abdülhamid in a state department called the Imperial Pocket (Ceyb-i Hümayun). He sent her daughter to an American college in the city’s Üsküdar neighborhood for her education and raised her like a British child. Adıvar’s hair was cut short; she had to drink a glass of milk every evening; her reading diet consisted of English books. Her wardrobe was filled with European style clothes.

When Abdülhamid issued a decree that prohibited bureaucrats from sending their children to Istanbul’s foreign-language institutions, Halide was forced to leave the girls school. Abdülhamid feared (rightly, it turned out) that the kind of liberal ideas taught at foreign schools would undermine his authority and implant seeds of dissent for the destruction of his empire.

After a period of homeschooling Adıvar went to an American girls college in Arnavutköy. At home, she spent time with her maid who had come to Istanbul from India; together they read works of George Eliot. With ideas about women’s independence in her mind, she decided to become a novelist and a defender of women’s rights.

Adıvar’s first newspaper article was published in a publication called Tanin in 1908, the year in which the revolutionary Young Turks began their nationalist uprising against Abdülhamid. Adıvar’s friends among the revolutionaries saw her as a useful ally. It would be her job to tell the world press about the objectives and the political agenda of Young Turks.

But Adıvar had little appetite to be the cheerleader of a political movement headed by men. Neither did she have much sympathy for the destruction of tradition and culture; indeed, it was the foreign powers’ threat to destroy them that got her into politics in the first place. Perhaps the anti-imperialism in her was stronger than the revolutionary. She named the condescending attitude of invading powers as “the insufferable assumption of superiority by the West”.

When Adıvar wrote articles for the British magazine The Nation, her approach was liberal; she was searching for a composite feminist identity that would allow Ottoman women to keep their cultural values while giving them their political rights.

But the growth of her popularity among Istanbul’s intellectuals worried members of the old guard. In 1909 she received a death threat, which politely warned her that she would be killed if she insisted on writing revolutionary pieces.

Meanwhile her Turkish translation of Julius Caesar was staged in Istanbul; with her essays becoming popular among Turkish youth, Adıvar quickly turned into a household name. She also made a name as a novelist. Her novel Raik’in Annesi (“Raik’s Mother”) was about polygamy, which was a subject close to her heart. Adıvar’s first husband, Salih Zeki, slept with numerous women during their marriage, and despite her protests, refused to change his habits.

Adıvar’s relationship with revolutionaries was far from simple. When Hasan Fehmi, a writer who was opposed to the ideas of revolutionaries, was assassinated on Galata Bridge in Istanbul, Adıvar was appalled the political violence (Fehmi is acknowledged as the first martyred journalist in Turkey). Following his assassination, defenders of the regime staged protests and journalists who supported the revolutionary movement feared imprisonment. Eventually Adıvar had to flee the country. Clad in a burka she boarded a ship, and after a five-day-long journey in a stuffed cabin, reached Alexandria.

She then moved to London and lived at the heart of the city, in a house near Marylebone Street. She visited the houses of parliament, watched Shakespeare productions and was delighted to meet Bertrand Russell in person. She grew an interest in the suffragette movement. Although she didn’t endorse their radical methods, she embraced their fight for women’s rights.

Adıvar’s return to Istanbul was followed by an event that changed her life. Her husband, now the headmaster of Galata Palace Imperial School (today known as Galatasaray Lisesi, it still stands on Istiklal Street in Istanbul) had slept in his office with numerous women, as Adıvar discovered one day. Her novel, Handan, was about the wife of an adulterous man: many read it as a work of autobiography masquerading as fiction.

After divorcing her husband Adıvar became a more independent figure. She set up “Teali-i Nisvan Camiyeti” (The Organization to Improve Women’s Status) in 1913. It was the first feminist organization in the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to their efforts, the parliament accepted rights of women in marriages in 1917. Adıvar then published a new novel, Yeni Turan, a passionate defense of Turkish nationalism. With her newfound purpose, she met new people, among them Adnan Adıvar, a doctor and an influential intellectual. He was her teacher but later their relationship turned into an affair; they got married in 1917 and the marriage continued until their deaths.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War was followed by a period of armistice. During this time Adıvar became one of the leading spokespersons of Ottoman people. On YouTube you can watch footage of the most famous of these public rallies, which took place in May 1919. In The Turkish Ordeal, her memoirs that she first published in England, she describes the experience of talking in front of two hundred thousand people, using the third person singular while referring to herself:

Flutelike voices from the minarets chanted, and hundreds of low bass voices, the voices of a myriad of ulemas and religious orders, took up the refrain from below – that refrain which is the hallelujah of the Moslem Turks: “Allah Ekber, Allah Ekber, La Ilaheh Illa Allah, Vallahu Ekber, Allah Ekber, Ve Lillahil Hamd.” As Halide was listening to this exquisite chant, she was repeating to herself something like this:

“Islam, which means peace and the brotherhood of men, is eternal. Not the Islam entangled by superstition and narrowness, but the Islam which came as a great spiritual message. I must hold up its supreme meaning today. Turkey, my wronged and martyred nation, is also lasting: she does not only share the sins and the faults and virtues of other peoples, she also has her own spiritual and moral force which no material agency can destroy. I must also interpret what is best and most in her, that which will connect her with what is best in the universal brotherhood of men.”

Her speech against the invasion of British made no distinctions between different ethnicities of Ottoman people. The common goal was to get rid of the British whose invasion of the city lasted for five years, from 1918 to 1923.

During this period Adıvar had a close relationship with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and acted as his interpreter for foreign press. She also helped found Anadolu Ajansı, the country’s first national news agency, which reflected the perspective of new Turkey to people in Anatolia. Aware of the role Adıvar played among revolutionaries the British authorities condemned her to death on May 11, 1920, using their influence on the government. The idea was execute Adıvar alongside her husband and Mustafa Kemal. Once again she had to go into hiding.

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In 1920 Adıvar fell out with the top brass of the revolutionary movement when she disagreed with them about political principles, like women’s rights. After the foundation of the republic, women did not immediately have the vote; in the first years they were “represented” by their husbands. That women would be left in the background of political life was unacceptable for Adıvar who fought in the war of independence as a corporal, doing as much as men did.

During the first elections of the republic, some citizens wrote Adıvar’s name on ballots and voted for her, although she was not a candidate, let alone eligible to vote herself. This was ample proof of Adıvar’s popularity and prestige among her people. She believed in the importance of establishing a proper opposition party, thanks to which the country would turn into a parliamentarian democracy, instead of a one-party state. However, this new party, named Terakkiperver Cumhuriyet Fırkası (The Progressive Republican Party), was labeled traitorous and was closed in 1925, in Turkey’s chaotic political atmosphere. Adıvar suffered from health problems and was again forced to flee the country alongside her husband.

Adıvars’ stay abroad took much longer than in previous instances. Theylived in England for four years, and spent another nine years in France. Their house in England overlooked Chiltern and offered them the joys of rural life. The world was curious about the revolution in Turkey; newspapers and universities approached her and she led an active intellectual life. The Manchester Guardian and The New York Times ran lengthy interviews with her. She read books about the life of the Prophet Mohammad and expressed her desire to write a book about him in English.

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Adıvar is the first Turkish author to publish a novel in English. The Clown and His Daughter was published in 1935 in London. The book’s back cover describes it as “a nostalgic and loving look at the declining years of the Ottoman empire under the Red Sultan, Abdulhamid II, as seen through the adventures of Tevfik, the Clown of the title, who plays the female role, the Zenne, in the traditional Turkish theatre art form, the orta oyunu, related to commedia dell’arte, as well as doing shadow puppets, or Karagöz.”

In one of her plays Adıvar brings together Shakespeare and Nasreddin Hodja, the satirical Sufi who lived during the thirteenth century in Anatolia, so it is not surprising to see the combination of commedia dell’arte and the traditional Turkish theatre in her work. Adıvar’s other books, The Turkish Ordeal and House With Wisteria, both written in lucid English,document the public and private lives of her nation. The following passage, from The Turkish Ordeal, shows Adıvar’s sense of humor. She describes her escape from British spies in Istanbul alongside her husband.

We took our tickets and I entered the boat—fifteen minutes before it was due to start. I sat on the deck and was anxious about Dr. Adnan. He was standing under a lamp post and reading the evening paper, while a few Turkish police walked up and down; farther on, in a small group, two men with black calpaks [Turkish agents of the English] and three English police stood together. It all looked very unread somehow. I was repeating to myself all the time, “I do hope he won’t cough.” No one else in the world coughs like Dr. Adnan; it is the longest, queerest cough I ever heard. But life is dear and freedom precious; for the first and last time in his life he did succeed in controlling it. After the unusual whistling and bustling the boat started.

What set Adıvar apart from her contemporaries was the ease with which she lived in very different cultures. She spent many days in the British Museum’s library; when Columbia University’s Barnard College invited her to be a visiting professor she was more than happy to accept. In 1934 she travelled to India, where she was popular among followers of Gandhi.

In March 1939 Adıvar finally returned to Istanbul and started living in Soğanağa, near Istanbul University. There were rumors in the press about her ambitions of becoming a parliamentarian. The new president of the country, İsmet İnönü met Adıvar and her husband in Dolmabahçe Palace. This was interpreted by the press as an act of forgiveness by the state. In 1942, the Republican People’s Party organized a literature prize and Adıvar’s Clown and His Daughter won the top prize.

In 1940 Adıvar became the first head of the English philology department in Istanbul University. The subject of her first lecture was Shakespeare. Although she expressed her dislike for both fascism and communism, she took young revolutionaries of the time under her protective wings. She especially endorsed Nazım Hikmet Ran, who was sentenced to more than 28 years prison time in 1938 because of his leftist beliefs. Adıvar called Hikmet a genius and said he was the greatest poet of his generation.

After the establishment of Democrat Party, the introduction of free elections and democracy, Adıvar became a parliamentarian but she disliked the harsh political atmosphere of the parliament. A throwaway comment about how she had made a mistake by “falling” among fellow parliamentarians helped put an end to her political life.

In 1955 Adıvar lost her husband; in her last years she rarely left her house. She died on January 10, 1964. Her funeral was held in Beyazıt Camii, not so far from Sultanahmet where she gave her big speech in 1919. There was no state ceremony.

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It is quite ironic that it was not critics or journalists but a space institution who gave Adıvar back her reputation (although a great biography by the writer İpek Çalışlar was widely read in Turkey when it was published in 2010). NASA gave Adıvar’s name to a crater on the planet Venus. The following is from the Wikipedia entry for “Adivar”:

Adivar is an impact crater on Venus, named in honor of writer Halide Edip Adıvar. The crater is located just north of the western Aphrodite highland (9 degrees north latitude, 76 degrees east longitude). Surrounding the crater rim is ejected material that appears bright in the radar image due to the presence of rough fractured rock. A much broader area has also been affected by the impact, particularly to the west of the crater. Radar-bright materials, including a jet-like streak just west of the crater, extend for over 500 kilometers (310 mi) across the surrounding plains. A darker streak, in a horseshoe or paraboloidal shape, surrounds the bright area.

In other words, Adıvar is up there among bright stars and planets where we must seem quite small to her eyes. Her neighboring craters on Venus include Mona Lisa, Alcott and Dickinson.

Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books blogSalon, and Guernica Magazine, among others.L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently working on his third novel. He blogs at and tweets@kayagenc.

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