My ‘Turkish’ novels “Halide’s Gift” and “The Dervish” were both based on the life of Halide Edib Adivar, the writer, and nationalist, whose life spanned a pivotal period of Turkish history, from the last years of the Ottoman Empire, through the war of Independence to the emergence of modern Turkey. Halide Hanim (a courtesy title) died in 1964, thirty years after Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923.
I first came across the “Memoirs of Halide Edib” gathering dust on the shelves of the library at NYU, where I was doing a Masters in Turkish Studies. Prior to the first Gulf War, the Middle Eastern studies was distinctly unfashionable, and the Ottoman section of the library rarely used. Fortunately Halide Hanim wrote her books in fluent but idiosyncratic English. Captivated by her descriptions of harem life, family tensions, and her college education Halide Edib became my obsession; where possible I incorporated her writing into my scholarship. I had a lot to work with, two novels, two volumes of memoirs, numerous articles, non fiction books about India and Turkey, even a surreal play with over twenty characters.
At a time when women were secluded in the harem Halide’s father took the unusual step of giving his daughter a classical education, usually reserved for boys. From a young age Halide was tutored at home in Arabic and Persian. When she turned fifteen Edib Bey enrolled her at the American Girls College in Scutari. The Sultan was scandalized; Edib’s career at court ended. Edib remained convinced English was the language of the future, he must have understood the old ways were coming to an end. Ideals of the Enlightenment had been influencing the Ottoman intelligentsia for almost a century; change was in the air long before the Ottomans entered WW1 on the side of the Axis powers.
Edib Bey was a contradiction, educated, modern, democratic, yet an Ottoman of the old school. He was probably Greek by birth, from Salonika, then part of the Empire. Recognizing his intelligence an influential sheik brought him to Istanbul where he was educated at court. The Devshirme system was a feature of Ottoman rule; gifted boys from the minorities converted, were educated and became part of the vast Ottoman bureaucracy. Edib Bey was elevated to first secretary at Yildiz Palace, where the paranoid Sultan Abdul Hamid II, fearing assassination, kept his entire court cloistered behind high walls. Halide’s mother, came from a well to do family, descended from Eyoub, the standard bearer of the Prophet. Her mother died from consumption when Halide was two. After her death Edib Bey, shocked his mother in law by marrying the daughter of their housekeeper with whom he had more children.
Halide’s childhood home was a konak, a wooden mansion set in a rambling garden on a hill above Besiktas, close to the Palace. Her extended family included her half sister, Mahmoure, the daughter of her mother’s first husband, a Kurdish chief, and the family of her father’s new wife. Then Edib Bey married Teize, a former Palace Lady, and Halide’s tutor and a friend of her grandmother. Halide’s happiness came to an abrupt end; the harem seethed with jealousy and intrigue. Loyalties were divided.
Palace Ladies were a peculiarly Ottoman phenomena, some were concubines, others never saw the Sultan, let alone shared his bed. Teize must have been one of the hundreds who lived in the Royal harem, some as servants, others tutors to the royal children, or slaves, all under the supervision of the Imperial eunuchs. There is no record of why Teize quit the palace or how she came to be under the protection of Halide’s Grandmother, save the two had become friends.
Each wife needed her own living quarters, Edib moved the household to Scutari (now Uskudar) on the Asian shore. In her memoir Halide describes a crumbling mansion with spacious rooms, one leading to another, tall windows, light streaming across the wooden floors. Like the konak in Besiktas the house was surrounded by gardens and apple orchard, all enclosed by a high wall.
What writer could resist such a setting? It was a pleasure to fashion my own novels from such a treasure trove of material. Istanbul in the late Ottoman years must have been a magical city. Barely half a million inhabitants lived surrounded by large bodies of clear, unpolluted water, a radiant light reflected across the hills, covered with wild gardens and half hidden mansions. I imagined cobbled streets; city squares deserted in the heat and hushed interiors of the great mosques. Since I have always been intrigued by history, recreating Halide’s story in my own voice was a joy. When I was finished I realized my unconscious mind had woven in my own story into Halide’s along with the story of my mother and my grandmothers. All their unfulfilled hopes and dreams, their wish for a better life stifled by the conditions of the time. Another book I have yet to write.
A foot note…….I want to thank the late Dr. Kathleen Burrill of Columbia University and Dr. Inci Enginun who selflessly shared their scholarship, and their insights into the life and work of Halide Edib when I started to pursue my studies. They were generous and patient, and set a high standard for me to follow.