Tribute to Safiye Behar 

Michael Blum

Tribute to Safiye Behar 

Michael Blum


“Drink raki, and you’ll want to become a poet” – allegedly said Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Safiye Behar was born in 1890 in Pera, Istanbul, the daughter of a Jewish bar-keeper. She often spent time at the beer bar “Zeuve Birahanesi,” known for its political discussions and passionate debates, lingering in the slow swirls of smoke. Unnoticed, the smoke, saturated with the ideas of Marx, Proudhon, and other theorists of socialism and anarchism, absorbed into young Safiye Behar.

Michael Bloom constructs the biography of his heroine in rather logical and compelling manner.

“As a young adult, she married (Günay), had two sons (Aaron, Aziz) and yet continued to emancipate herself and others. A self-taught woman, she became a teacher in Istanbul and later, in Chicago, a well-respected labor organizer and public speaker, supporter of the Free-Thinking movement and advocate of women’s rights. Eventually, she became the first English translator of Nazim Hikmet.”

Safiye Behar’s inspiration might have been drawn from the character of Halide Edib – a Turkish novelist and one of the early suffragists in Turkey. She was a comrade and close friend of Mustafa Kemal, took part in the War of Independence, and was involved in the reeducation of Armenian orphaned children who had suffered from the genocide and were residing at the Aintoura Orphanage in Lebanon in 1916. However, conflicting information exists about her specific involvement in these events. Halide Edib was accused of the crime of forced assimilation of children. In 1920, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Zaven Der Yeghiayan, personally accused the feminist and her husband, Dr. Adnan Adviar, of taking Armenian orphans into their home and forming them into Turkish Muslims». Children were subjected to torture, and overall, it was a forced assimilation, the remnants of which were tattooed on the faces and bodies of the survivors. 

Blum continues. “There have been other women who developed similar interests in the last decades of the Sultanate and the first ones of the Republic, but they were mostly from educated families. What makes Safiye’s position unique is the double emancipation that she operated: from class and from gender. In addition, she had a relationship with Mustapha Kemal over a period of three decades. Even though her role has never been acknowledged publicly, she was the inspiration of many of Mustapha Kemal’s reforms in the 1920’s. Not only did she confront Kemal on a certain number of central issues, but she managed to influence him strongly.”

The paradoxical image of a strong woman in Turkish history dates back to the 16th century. The renowned Roxelana (Hürrem Sultan) was the chief consort and legal wife of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. She became one of the most powerful and influential women in Ottoman history. Born in Ruthenia (then an eastern region of the Kingdom of Poland, now Rohatyn, Ukraine) to a Ruthenian Orthodox priest, she was captured by Crimean Tatars during a slave raid and eventually taken to Istanbul via the Crimean slave trade, becoming the Ottoman capital’s chief consort.

But let’s return to Safiye Behar and Atatürk. Blum writes about the scant documentation that remains at our disposal.

“What was the very nature of their relationship ? It’s difficult to say, since they have left very few traces. If Melik Tutuncu still has a few photographs of his grand-mother and most of the letters Kemal had sent her, he could find neither a single picture of the two lovers nor any mention connecting them to each other. Though, their correspondence indicates an intense and intimate link – whether they discuss important issues or are just writing love letters. It should also be mentioned that Safiye and Kemal, from very early on, used almost exclusively French as their correspondence language. It remains unclear if they did so to bypass censorship, to keep secret from Kemal’s secretaries and later Lâtife, or simply out of pleasure (they both enjoyed the language very much). Nonetheless, it is likely that Kemal didn’t want to be associated with Safiye, for both personal and political reasons”.

Atatürk is a contradictory figure. His persona, as Foucault would say, is a series of different singularities: born in Thessaloniki (democracy again coming from Greece), acquaintance with Ziya Gökalp (the idea of Pan-Turkism, roots of secular nationalism), influence of a European mindset, war, and the impact of women such as Halide Edib, mentioned earlier. On his conscience, there are mass killings in Smyrna, yet simultaneously the salvation from the complete collapse of Turkey and the full-scaled reforms of the country. It’s remarkable how Mustafa Kemal sometimes resorted to harsh methods. However, were there any other ways in that extraordinarily complex survival disposition he found himself in? All these factors undoubtedly influenced him.

Turkey remains one of the most contradictory countries today. But if we look at the status of women and compare it with other Muslim countries, wouldn’t it be evident that a figure like Safiye Behar would need to be invented, unless she didn’t exist in reality?

According to Michael Blum. “After Kemal’s death, Safiye decided to join her husband Günay permanently in Chicago, where he had been living since 1923, teaching law at the University of Chicago. Astonishingly, Safiye adapted very easily to American life. She found a common ground with many liberal European immigrants and felt at ease with the Chicago leftist tradition, not to mention the active Rogers Park cell of the Communist Party. She also enjoyed discussions within the Free-Thinking movement, mostly after her son Aziz had started dating Esther Goldman, the grand-daughter of Emma Goldman, an outspoken feminist, atheist and anarchist. Aged 48 when she definitely left Istanbul, Safiye showed an impressive energy in her commitment to Chicago political struggles, as well as to the Nazim Hikmet translations. She knew that Hikmet had a potential readership in America and worked tirelessly towards bridging the gap between Istanbul and Chicago”.And finally. Atatürk’s reforms – the policy of “Kemalism,” as known, were based on the ideology of the “six arrows” (Turkish: Altı Ok). The poet Alexey Parshchik expressed it with the line: “Shot! The arrow connects the chest and the back!” Each individual can interpret what the back and chest symbolize in the context of this story. One can interpret for themselves what the back and chest symbolize in the context of this story