We live in an age when our statesmen keep stressing the need for more democracy, and yet we imprison and prosecute a citizen for writing a critical article. (Zekeriya Sertel speaking in his and Sabiha Sertel’s defence, Istanbul, March 1946)
Over the last few years, there has been an effort to highlight the stories of women in early republican history, such as biographies of Latife Uşaklıgil and accounts of the life of Nezihe Muhiddin, for example. More is of course needed. However, the new translation of Sabiha Sertel’s memoirs Roman Gibi, titled Sabiha Sertel: The Struggle for Modern Turkey in English, makes a contribution by introducing this incredible person to new readers around the world.Stepmother Earth is a masterful depiction of the nation-building years of Turkey
Sertel was born in Thessaloniki in 1895 and died in Baku in 1968 after fleeing Turkey. This puts her very firmly in the generation that saw earth-shaking changes in the course of their lives, including two world wars, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the war of Turkish independence and then the political struggles to decide its future.
She was a journalist, publisher and editor who, throughout her life, wrote about and campaigned for the left, for women’s rights and democracy. Along with her husband Zekeriya, she ran, amongst other publications, Resimli Ay [Illustrated Monthly] and Tan [Dawn]. In these they tried to build a progressive agenda for Turkey and lobby for land reform and unionisation. Moreover, they proved to be fertile ground for young socialist writers such as Nazim Hikmet and Sabahattin Ali, both of whom feature in her memoir extensively.
More than once, these magazines and the positions she took would get her in trouble with the state and opponents in the media, but throughout her life she showed a real commitment towards her ideals and an unwillingness to compromise that would see her tried numerous times, nearly lynched, imprisoned and eventually forced to flee.
While I was reading The Struggle for Modern Turkey, the word I keep coming back to to describe Sertel was badass. During the Independence War she smuggled letters between Halide Edib Adıvar and the National Assembly under her çarşaf. At the same time, she was publishing Büyük Mecmua, in which she infuriated the occupying British officials by leaving the censored parts of her magazine blank so everybody knew that they were not able to write freely.Eternal Dawn: A more murky version of the origin story of Turkey
After the war, she attempted to go into politics, seeing a golden opportunity to move forward a progressive and democratic agenda in the new republic. However, in Ankara, she quickly found herself marginalised and went back into journalism where she felt she could make the biggest impact by writing about the issues she regarded as important. As she would have to for most of her life, she spent time fighting numerous lawsuits to defend herself from censorship. Interestingly, although she has strong words for the government, she does not have much in the way of criticism of Atatürk, choosing to see him as fellow revolutionary broadly on her side of the argument, despite the fact that she was under constant threat of lawsuits from a government ostensibly under his control.
It is in the era following Atatürk's death that things start to get more difficult for Sertel. Throughout World War II and into the postwar period, Sertel clearly saw that the revolution coming out of the Independence War was flagging and that the county was at risk of sliding into fascism. In this period in her career, she focused on social issues, pushing back against fascism and lobbying for more democratic reforms. Moreover, she grew to be more critical of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and İsmet İnönü. Sertal believed that they were actively trying to hold back democratic reform, progressive agendas and free speech. She felt that socialist writers such as Nazım Hikmet got heavier sentences for lesser crimes than fascists such as Nihal Atsız and Alpaslan Türkeş and that that was a sign of the government’s true political leanings.
Through this time, she increasingly ran into problems, some of which will feel all too familiar for journalists and editors working today. For instance, there were prosecutors with shaky understandings of the law who pursued cases against writers in the hopes of receiving political favors from their superiors, papers being closed down, and writers being imprisoned. She was banned from writing numerous times, and provocateurs tried to publish articles in her papers on banned topics that would get her into trouble. Ultimately, an atmosphere of political hostility culminated with the Tan Raids. Students raided Tan’s office and printing press and attacked a number of bookshops suspected of having communist books within. According to Sertel's account, they were started by people within the CHP who wanted to shut the papers down for her constant criticism of them.Turkish intelligence and the Cold War
The work of course does have its limits. Like so many ideological socialists of the era, although she is quick to suspicion, not unreasonably, when it comes to the intentions of the capitalist nations, she is less so for the Soviet Union. Though she does not exactly advocate for the Soviet Union, she is clearly sympathetic towards it. Her other weak point is the Armenian genocide. Although she does acknowledge it early in the book, she goes on to argue that fascism doesn’t make sense in Turkey because Turkey doesn’t have a history of racism. That view has a couple of glaring omissions.
Overall, this is a really good book. I would recommend it to anybody interested in Turkish history or journalism. It is broadly accessible, but does require quite a bit of background knowledge. Though the book is clearly annotated, Sertel spends a lot of time discussing the figures and controversies of the day and expects her audience to be as familiar with them as she is. Sabiha Sertel: The Struggle for Modern Turkey is a timely and fascinating look into the life of an amazing person.