The struggle for Turkey: a revolutionary female journalist

Sertels 1930s

In Midnight at the Pera Palace Charles King introduces some progressive figures in Republican Turkey such as Halide Edip and Nâzım Hikmet. Now I’ve been reading about Sabiha Sertel (1895–1968), whose autobiography

  • The struggle for modern Turkey: justice, activism, and a revolutionary female journalist (1968; English translation 2019), tells of her eventful life before she went into exile in 1950 (see website).

Written in exile in Soviet Azerbaijan, with inevitable self-censorship, it’s ably translated by David Selim Sayers and Evrim Emir-Sayers, and edited by Sabiha’s granddaughter Tia O’Brien and great-niece Nur Deris Ottoman, with helpful annotations.

Sabiha Nazmi was born in Salonica to a Dönme family, a community of Jewish origin that had long converted to Islam. In 1913, following the loss of the city to the Greek army, she moved with her family to Constantinople, “a city lost amidst the ruins of a shattered empire”.

In 1915 she married outside her Dönme ancestry to Zekeriya Sertel. While identifying with the new nationalist, secularist agenda, they would soon take issue with the new regime. As they founded the magazine Büyük Mecmua, their house became a meeting place for progressive thinkers.

Even in her Salonica childhood, Sabiha had gleaned clues that inclined her towards feminism. By now, as she wrote,

The war had also changed the lives of women. The country’s economic collapse had drawn them into public life, despite all resistance by supporters of sharia law. Women were beginning to act in ways that went against traditional norms. A small number had even started working—for the state, commercial firms, and factories. Women wanted to show that they, too, were strong and smart enough to cope with the struggles of life.

She describes the debate over women’s education; despite the arguments of reactionaries (“ridiculous and pathetic in equal measure”), it was ruled that men and women should be allowed to study together at university.

Zekeriya was imprisoned for the first time after the Greek occupation of Smyrna/Izmir in 1919. Sabiha took over the licence of the magazine, under scrutiny from the British censors. She describes her first meeting with Halide Edip:

That same day, I went to the notary’s office and finalised the transfer of the licence. Later, when I was working in the study, the doorbell rang. It was a short, slender woman dressed in a black çarşaf.
“Who would you like to see?” I asked.
“I am Halide Edip”, she answered.
I was stunned—I’d never met her before. She’d been writing for the journal, attending the secret meetings at our house and even presiding over them. I was not allowed to attend those meetings. Still, I’d been an avid reader of Halide Hanim’s novels since my childhood and was thrilled to find her in front of me like this. I asked her in. She entered and removed the top part of her çarşaf.
“How is Zekeriya?” she asked.
“I went to see him today; he’s fine.”
She asked me whom else I’d seen in Bekirağa Prison. I told her.
“What happens to the journal now?” she asked.
“I’ll publish it myself. I’m taking over the licence.”
Halide Hanim looked me up and down. “You’re just a child,” she said at last.
“I’ll grow up eventually.”
That made her smile. She asked what we were doing for the Izmir issue, and I told her about it.
“I can write your editorials if you want,” she said, adding that she’d send me an interview on the Izmir occupation.
On her way out, she said, “Tomorrow, we’ll hold a protest rally in Sultan Ahmet against the occupation of Izmir. Come along.”

After Halide’s rousing speech at the rally, she

had become a different person. She no longer entreated the sultan, sought refuge with the Entente powers, or talked about an American mandate.

As Zekeriya was released from prison, they formed a secret cell to support Mustafa Kemal’s campaign in Anatolia. Despite her opposition to the çarşaf, Sabiha discovered its usefulness when concealing letters between Halide and the National Assembly. But censorship forced the magazine to close.

In the USA
A new Turkish intelligentsia now had to be with modern learning. In November 1919, with the help of Halide Edip, the Sertels, now with a young daughter, gained scholarships to study at Columbia University in New York—at a time when Franz Boas and his students there were revolutionising the study of anthropology.

(In the right-hand photo, Sabiha is actually first on the left)

In New York Sabiha was acutely aware of the divide between rich and poor. Studying sociology, she learned to theorise ethnic and religious conflicts, as well as gender and class. She applied such learning in an immigrant neighbourhood at the New York School of Social Work, encountering poor workers. But finding that the school’s purpose was “to restrict the activities of labour and stifle any emerging workers’ movements or revolutionary tendencies”, she became sceptical of welfare organisations.

They’d come from Europe expecting an El Dorado, braving the oceans with their families in the hope of getting rich. But America had turned them into slaves; they worked at factories day and night, barely making enough to buy food. They didn’t speak the language and had no technical skills, so they were given the hardest jobs. Their labour was exploited ruthlessly. Women and men, children and elders—they were like mules at a mill, endlessly turning the wheel. […]

They worked in gardens of Eden but never touched the fruit. There was no way out. There was no way back.

Sabiha NY 1919

She needed to overcome obstacles in becoming involved with the poor Turkish community there. Acquaintances advised her:

“You couldn’t even get through the door of that coffee house. You’d be an alien to them. They don’t like intellectuals; they’re from Anatolia, from the villages. It’s even worse that you’re a woman; they’ll never tolerate a woman mixing with men. This isn’t a regular New York coffee house we’re talking about. And there’s so much cigarette smoke in there, you won’t even be able to see what’s in front of you.”

As she received letters from Turkey describing the hunger and misery back in Anatolia, she made contact with Turkish immigrant workers, eventually winning them over to labour organisation and support for the homeland. She conducted a survey including other US cities; as word spread, she visited Detroit, where it was no easy task to organise Kurdish workers toiling in the Ford automobile factory, gingerly negotiating a path through their antagonism with the Turks. She organised fundraisers for the cause in Turkey. When she returned to the USA in 1937 to visit her daughter, she found that her initiative had born fruit.

Return to the new Republic
Now with a second daughter Yıldız, the Sertels returned to Turkey in July 1923 on the eve of the proclamation of the Republic—a time when debate was wide-ranging, over topics such as the constitution, the secular-religious balance, and women’s rights. Sabiha had an offer of working for the Society for the Protection of Children. But

We didn’t know what to do with our lives. I wanted to move to a village and found a community organisation, but like any dreamy socialist, I had no idea how to do this. Like all youngster fresh out of college, I was living in a fantasy world. All I knew was that I wanted to be useful to the newly emerging Turkey.

Zekeriya was soon appointed to the Directorate General of the Press in Ankara.

This put to an end my dream of moving to a village and working among the peasants.

Still, when she followed him to Ankara, she found that the new capital was itself little more than a village.

Ankara was simply one of the countless Anatolian towns that had been neglected since Ottoman times. My train had passed through many villages and hamlets after leaving Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul, and in all of them, I’d encountered the same sight. Wherever we stopped, children with bare feet and torn trousers approached the train, begging for newspapers, cigarettes, a single cent. Village women tilled the soil in the burning sun, their faces scorched and wrinkled despite their young age. It was in their villages that I’d wanted to work. […]

It was time to say farewell to my dreams.

Sabiha broadly supported Atatürk’s agenda, but found him “surrounded by reactionaries, conservatives, and liberals”. She now designed a social survey project (“in order to cure an illness, one must first know what the illness is”), but it was soon blocked. With Zekeriya she returned to Istanbul.

I had returned from America with fanciful dreams. I had prepared to work for the good of the people in the heart of Anatolia. But now, the dream was over and reality showed us its true face. Zekeriya told me he would return to journalism, his true profession, and proposed that I work with him. This meant abandoning my own vocation. But what could I achieve in that field anyway? Teach sociology at a school? I wanted to work in a broader setting, grapple with social issues and disseminate my learning and ideas. Journalism seemed a suitable outlet for this.

Resimli Ay

In 1924 the Sertels founded the magazine Resimli Ay (Illustrated monthly), conveying progressive ideas to ordinary readers in an accessible and engaging style, aiming “to raise the people’s cultural level”. But repression intensified, and along with other progressive journalists, the Sertels were often taken to court.

From 1928, when Nâzım Hikmet returned from Moscow, he became a regular contributor to Resimli Ay, influencing a young generation of writers. Among his protégés was the novelist Sabahaddin Ali. The magazine defended workers’ rights and highlighted peasants’ issues. Sabiha devotes a lengthy section to a trial in 1930, at which her vigorous defence resulted in the prosecution’s case being dismissed on appeal.

The circle continued debating literature and socialism. Still, Sabiha reflects: “At the time, I’m sorry to say, socialist thought in Turkey was little more than romanticism.”

Under continuing police surveillance, Resimli Ay was forced to close down early in 1931. Certain press freedoms came into operation in the 1930s, and with more time on her hands, Sabiha translated several works on socialism (this study focuses on her work as translator). Zekeriya spent another period in prison, again leaving Sabiha to continue the struggle.

Besides the internal dynamics of Turkish society, with their anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist stance a significant part of the Sertels’ energies was devoted to opposing foreign domination. But as David Selim Sayers’ lucid Introduction comments,

The internal and external threat perception of Turkey’s ruling elites helped them justify a very loose attitude—to put it kindly—towards democratic values.

From 1936 to 1945 the Sertels ran the daily newspaper Tan, continuing to argue for democracy and human rights, and struggling to oppose single-party authoritarianism—which only increased after Atatürk’s death in 1938.

In 1937, before visiting the USA to see her older daughter Sevim, Sabiha held discussions in Paris on the ominous international situation. After World War Two broke out, at a 1940 trial to vilify the poet Tevfik Fikret—twenty-four years after his death—Sabiha herself came under attack for defending him. She was forced into silence several times.

Though she described the Wealth tax of 1942 as carrying “the stench of fascism”, she seems to miss the point that its main purpose was to discriminate against non-Muslim citizens of the Republic.

Among the controversial literary figures whom the Sertels championed, Nâzım Hikmet was incarcerated from 1938 until he was released to Soviet exile in 1950, and Sabahaddin Ali was assassinated in 1948.

The postwar period
After the end of World War Two, the Turkish press “stopped defending fascist Germany and jumped on the Allied bandwagon”. But the Sertels soon found that the new stirring of democracy was only a figleaf. As Sayers explains,

Leftist thinkers and activists like Serkel, who had been persecuted for opposing Nazism and the far right during the war, were now subjected to a new round of persecution for refusing to endorse the political and economic objectives of NATO and the USA.

Tan riot 1946

On 4th December 1945 the Tan printing house was demolished by a government-instigated mob and the Sertels were put on trial yet again. Though their appeal was successful, they were under ever greater surveillance. In 1946 they were arrested. At yet another high-profile trial they were sentenced, but soon released. While in prison, Sabiha continued to conduct social research among her fellow inmates.

1946 trial

The Human Rights Association was briefly launched before being suppressed. Unable to work, the Sertels’ position in Turkey was untenable.

After all our years of struggle, we’d run out of ways to defend the nation’s and people’s cause. We’d run out of ways to speak out for peace and fight for our ideals. We were exiled in our own homeland. Our days were barren and empty; our lives were without purpose.

In September 1950 they boarded a plane for Paris. There Sabiha’s account ends.

* * *

I’m curious about the Sertels’ life after going into exile—much of which they spent in the GDR and then Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1958 they started a secret radio collaboration with Nâzım Hikmet, broadcasting from Leipzig. When Zekeriya was dismissed in 1962, he relocated to Baku, where Sabiha joined him the following year. Soon afterwards their passports were confiscated. Following Sabiha’s death in 1969, Zekeriya and Yıldız defected to Paris in 1969.

The enthusiasm for the USSR of many leftist supporters abroad was largely untrammelled by knowledge of the actual situation there. Once they lived there, the Sertels must have sensed the people’s extreme wariness; as Orlando Figes describes,

The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

I wonder how much they knew of the appalling abuses taking place, either within the USSR or with the Soviet repressions of uprisings in the GDR (1953), Hungary (1956), and Prague (1968, shortly before Sabiha’s death)—just the kind of popular movements to which they had devoted their energies in Turkey. But Sabiha must have reflected privately on having to keep her strong opinions about press freedoms to herself. *

At least she didn’t have to agonise over the tragedy of Ukraine today, or the silencing of dissent within Russia; nor, indeed, did she have to confront cases of state repression within Turkey since 2005, with charges of “insulting Turkishness”, the murder of Hrant Dink, and the Gezi Park protests. But that’s rather like wondering how Lu Xun would have reacted to Tiananmen or the genocide in Xinjiang.

For all her jargon of “reactionaries” and “imperialists”, Sabiha Sertel analyses Turkey’s political malaise acutely, constantly advocating on behalf of the most disadvantaged parts of the population, and championing free speech. Among her blind spots are the complexities of Turkey’s ethnic composition: she barely mentions her own Dönme ancestry, and gives little consideration to the plight of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, who continued to be repressed under the Republic. Her take on religion is unreservedly negative. But all this hardly diminishes the value of her valiant struggles within Turkey—where many of the dynamics that she confronted remain today.


* See also posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain. Some time in the mid-1950s, Zekeriya and his younger daughter Yıldız spent two months on a visit to the People’s Republic of China, touring both urban and rural areas. Zekeriya seems to have been becoming disenchanted with the USSR, but in his apparent enthusiasm for the revolution in China he may have glossed over the Party’s increasingly draconian control over people’s lives there too. “More on that story later”, I hope…

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