Halide Edib was a writer, nationalist, wife, mother, feminist although she rejected the title, animal lover, scholar, fluent in several languages she wrote some of her books in both Turkish and English. “The Dervish”, my second novel, is inspired by the life of this complex woman, who born into a well to do Ottoman family at the end of the nineteenth century, and became both colleague of Ataturk, following him to Angora (later Ankara) then fleeing to exile in Europe. An admirer of Ghandi she traveled to India to meet him wrote abook about her impressions. Twenty years ago I chanced across her memoir , a fascinating story of life in late Ottoman Istanbul, capital of a crumbling Empire on the cusp of extinction.
Early childhood was spent in sprawling mansion on the hills of Besiktas, close to the Palace of Yildiz where her father, Edib Bey held the post of Secretary to the Pan Islamic Sultan Abdul Hamid II. A traditional home there were men’s and women’s quarters tended by numerous servants in constant thrall to the power of spirits who dwelt in the gardens and trees surrounding the house. After the early death of her mother Halide was raised by her devout Grandmother and a mysterious Palace Lady who became her father’s third wife since polygamy was permitted under Ottoman law. In need of more room for his extended family Edib Bey moved the household to Scutari on the Asian shore.
“The house had not been repaired when we moved in, it was an exquisite old place. Each room had eight windows and plenty of space in the good old style. It stood on a hill overlooking the winding beauty of the Bosphorus and the serpentine green hills.the garden was a pine grove, and the grounds a wild daisy field.” Memoirs of Halide Edib.
Edib Bey admired the English and their Empire, and believed English was the language of the future, even though French was spoken by the Ottoman elite. Edib also recognized Halide’s intellectual gifts and, at a time when women of her class remained sequestered until marriage, he enrolled her in the American Girls College founded by missionaries to educate the Christian minorities. He must have been a courageous, determined man, to risk his career and the affections of his devoutly religious family to do what he believed was right for his daughter. By the time Halide left for school emotional tension in the harem had reached an intolerable level:
“I was permeated and colored by the pains and daily troubles of my environment…… college had a liberating effect on me, giving me much greater balance and opening up to me the possiblitiy of a personal life with enjoyments of a much more varied kind.’ Ibid
Edib Bey was born in the provinces, probably Greek by birth. While still a boy his intelligence caught the attention of a Turkish Pasha who brought him to Istanbul , where he converted to Islam, and received a traditional education at the Ottoman court and went on to serve the conservative Sultan until he fell out of favor.
“…the Sultan did not like my father on account of his well known liberal ideas”. Ibid.
In this rare photo from the Robert College Archives fifteen year old Halide is shown with her father in the orchard of their home in Scutari. Dressed as a gypsy Halide pretends to read her father’s palm while staring at the camera with wide dark eyes. Edib looks away , gazing at his daughter with profound affection.
Besides Halide and her half sister Mahmoure whom he adopted after the death of her mother, Edib fathered four or five more children with his wives, all, according to her memoir educated without regard to gender. Without his wisdom and foresight Halide Edib would never have learned English, never written her books, and we would have been poorer for the loss. What is the lesson here, the importance of language, the necessity of determination or the impact parents have on the life of a child.