The Historicity of the Mundane: Turkish Periodicals from the 1930s

Lockdown, and the post-lockdown reluctance to re-enter normal social life, have helped me get through the stack of unread books around and just outside of my bedroom. Like so many of you, I acquire volumes, both physical and virtual, that I tell myself I will read. They invariably end up stuck mid-way in a stack above and below other volumes that I tell myself I will read. I’ve rediscovered some very eager purchases from the period 2013-18, and happily delve into printed items, no matter what their subject might be, as a reprieve from the omnipresence of glowing screens.

Cover of book with title in black and image of text in white in Mediaeval script on a maroon background, with black border.
Federico Chabon’s Lezioni di metodo storico in its 1969 edition published by Laterza Universale.

Most recently, I’ve been powering my way through a title on historiography I picked up at Victoria College’s annual book sale, always a cherished event during the now rare occasions when I’m back in Toronto in the fall. Federico Chabod’s Lezioni di metodo storico (Lessons in Historical Method) is not quite the winter thriller you might expect, but it has been enlightening. Chabod provides an overview of historiographical practice in Italy from the Mediaeval era to the mid-20th century, creating a welcome departure from the Anglo-Franco-German triangle that usually dominates European historiography. Even for those of us interested in Turkish historiography, Chabod’s insights are illuminating. To start, he links up Italian history writing to broader European trends, providing a guide for how this might be done in a way that explores the context of national historiographies without depriving them of their idiosyncrasies, or making them appear to be derivative of German or French trends. More than that, he stresses the importance of a holistic approach to sources. Historians must do more than just revisit original chronicles and official histories. Chabod encourages us to see all texts, whether in writing or not, whether intended as historical monuments or not, as viable and valuable keys to understanding the past, and the emotions and aspirations of its inhabitants (Chapter 5, pp. 55-60).

Chabod’s writing is lovely, but his message is also inspiring. It’s hard to escape as I return to some of the images that I’ve captured from the British Library’s holdings of Turkish periodicals. I had the pleasure of sifting through loads of earlier publications to produce the List of Pre-1928 Ottoman Turkish Literary Periodicals for HAZINE. In turning now to the magazines from the 1930s in the collections I curate, it becomes painfully obvious that many of these are still awaiting cataloguing and contextualization. It sometimes feels as though cultural products from the period are less interesting, less urgent. Even as pundits draw conclusions about similarities between the present and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the inter-war period, publications from the era seem to be discounted. To be certain, economic pressures often led to inferior production values in a physical sense (and thus works that are more vulnerable to rapid decay). Rapidly tightening state control over freedom of expression and opposition politics also tended to stifle the open expression of creativity and innovation, leading to formalistic and pastiche outputs. But that doesn’t mean that what does survive from the 1930s isn’t rich in signifiers about daily life and ideology. In this blog, I’m going to take Chabod’s challenge to heart, and look at what we might be able to learn from three periodicals produced in the period of what Çağaptay calls “High Kemalism”.

It wouldn’t be a proper blog on this site if I didn’t include a few caveats or clarifications. Here they are. The three items I’m going to focus on are arts, culture, or literary magazines, so they don’t overtly encode the political and ideological changes implemented in Turkey in the 1920s and 30s. The establishment of the Republic on 29 October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) at its head ushered in a tumultuous period of social reorganization. Some changes were aimed at refashioning the nature of the country itself, including through the formalization of its nation-state status; the creation of a unitary legal code for all citizens; and the subordination of religion to the state (not its separation from the state). Others were more cosmetic, targeting outward symbols of the ancien régime. These included such reforms as the law on religious garments, which banned the fez, and the 1928 adoption of the Latin alphabet. In all, the reforms created a veneer of Europeanization. Intellectually, they were likely more reliant on Ziya Gökalp’s ideas of Hars ve Medeniyet (Culture and Civilization; Niyazi Berkes’ explanation can be found here) than an earnest desire to be French or German. In Gökalp’s view, modern nations survived by adopting universalist technologies and retaining national cultures. The goal was to enjoy the benefits of global technological culture without losing one’s national essence.

A number of scholars have demonstrated that the result was an essentially conservative cultural scene that adopted various European or “modern” signifiers as counterweights to Ottoman survivals or folk cultural traits. Dr. Sibel Bozdoğan and Dr. Reşat Kasaba show this beautifully in Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey. Bozdoğan’s Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic restricts problematizing the “modern” in 1920s and 30s Turkey to the field of architecture. In her Masters of Architecture thesis, Yüksel Pöğün explored similar themes in İzmir’s Kültürpark. Similarly, Dr. Nazım İrem has looked at conservative modernism as a form of “cultural renewal.” The SALT Gallery of Istanbul, together with Google Arts and Culture, have done this in a more conversational manner with their online exhibition about one of the big names of this era, Sedad Hakkı Eldem.

Meanwhile, as in all one-party or totalitarian systems, questions of autonomy and individuality persist. Dr. Duygu Köksal has explored the manner in which key members of the artistic and intellectual élite of the period adopted and adapted modernism to their own needs and tastes, producing an aesthetic that was at once in tune with Turkish cultural currents and alienated from the masses. Köksal’s “The Role of Art in Early Republican Modernization in Turkey” is an earlier, but no less pertinent dismantling of tropes about a lack of individuality or personal initiative in the realm of Turkey’s aesthetic modernization. She identifies specifically magazines as one of the areas in which personal initiative and expression can be seen clearly. A look at some of the periodical press from the time, then, should provide us with ample material to explore the meanings of Turkishness, modernity, and progress, all without having to delve into overt propaganda or academic tomes.

The first magazine up for discussion is Album, a short-run contemporary arts and culture periodical that appeared in 1934. It was owned by İskender and edited by Vahdet Gültekin over its brief life. The lack of an umlaut over the u in the title speaks to a Francophile approach, and this is indeed played out in the letter from the editor at the start of the first issue. Here, we see that the magazine (mecmua) takes its inspiration from the original Arabic word jama3a (جمع), implying collection and gathering, as well as the advice of a French editor that only through the reading of a text can an individual reader be certain of its beauty. The editor of Album assures his readers that what they about to read and view – for Album was meant to be filled with imagery – is undeniably beautiful, but that they’ll have to read and see it to make up their own minds about it. What follows are largely musings: conversations with artists, writers and editors; short original poems and stories; essays on the meaning of creativity or life; and plenty of small aphorisms, quips and anecdotes. These remain in following issues of the magazine, but the reliance on imagery is lightened. The letter from the editor at the start of Issue 2 gives us a clue as to why: sales have been disappointing. Readers and admirers are asked to consider evangelizing on behalf of the publication, and to take out subscriptions of their own. Even for aesthetes, the realities of the cut-throat media business were hard to escape.

Although billed as an arts (sanat) periodical, much of the material found in Album is related to literature rather than the plastic or performing arts. Most articles and original pieces are by Turkish authors – Mahmut Yesari, İsmail Safa, Süreyya Hayrettin, Salahattin Cemil, and Vâlâ Nurettin are all names that appear frequently – as well as translations of European pieces. There is a marked preference for French authors, revealing more of the editor’s Francophilia at a time when Germany, as well as Italy and Hungary, were frequently looked at as models for the development of a new, nationalistic Turkish culture (see especially the magazine Hayat, and Murat Belge’s excellent Militarist Modernleşme). This does not mean that Album is a hangover from a pre-1913 Ottoman fascination with France and its achievements. It embodies, rather, an interesting synthesis of continuities with pre-1923 cultural trends and a new focus on the enunciation of a nativist and nationalizing identity firmly rooted in official ideology. How else do we explain a magazine that would carry extracts of an ethnographer’s collection of Yörük oral literature in Issue 2, a review of the latest exhibition of work by D Grubu (a collective of contemporary artists) in Issue 4, and translations of 19th-century French literature?

Album’s existence was clearly brief, but it was at least national in outlook. Whatever Istanbul-centrism might underlie the selection and presentation of pieces, it was not made explicit in the statements of either Gültekin or the contributors. Other publications, however, were clearly concerned with the cultural and social happenings of the erstwhile Ottoman capital. The next periodical I turn to, Beyoğlu Âlemi, made no apologies for being the voice of Istanbul’s most cosmopolitan neighbourhood. The broadsheet was owned and edited by M. Nizamettin and called itself a “scientific and literary magazine” (“ilmi ve edebi mecmua”), which usually meant that fiction and non-fiction pieces about the arts and current events would be offered. Perhaps its most charming aspect is the orthographic errors sprinkled throughout the texts, indicators that we are about 2 years into the imposition of the Latin alphabet, and that the editor and contributors were likely far more comfortable with Arabic-script than Latin-script Turkish.

Beyoğlu Âlemi appeared exceptionally briefly in 1930, before the dissolution of the Liberal Republican Party, the last political party opposing the CHP in this period, but after the draconian measures introduced to quell the Şeyh Sait Rebellion. By and large, though, Beyoğlu Âlemi was concerned with the preservation and evolution of culture in one of the city’s most multiethnic neighbourhoods. There are poems about Beyoğlu, articles about gambling, and plenty of short translations from French authors. But what I find most interesting are the things not said explicitly, but visible nonetheless. Issue 2’s headline was “Kültür”, an article about the culture and language of the neighbourhood. In it, the author – presumably M. Nizamettin – attacks the idea a people can be fully assimilated into a culture without knowing its language. The topic is not the Turkification of minorities, but rather the Francization of Beyoğlu’s residents. The author is adamant that knowing a few works in translation, or speckling one’s speech with French phrases, does not make one a Frenchman. On the other hand, he points out, the great author Yahya Kemal (Beyatlı) himself identified French as a must-have for any serious scholar (alim); a technology to be preserved rather than a cultural trait to be expunged. It is an impassioned defense of cosmopolitanism (you might remember Marcy Brink-Danan’s article on it in Jewish communities in the city highlighted in my earlier piece), and it makes me wonder if there might have been a few complaints about the publication’s first issue and its heavy feature of French authors. Even this apologia in Issue 2 might have been a bit too political, as Issue 3’s headline was Blackmail (Şantaj), featuring a short story by Abdülhak Hamit (Tarhan).

Beyond this, however, Beyoğlu Âlemi is also fascinating for the way that its advertisements track the names and professions of the neighbourhood’s residents. 1930 is well after the Treaty of Lausanne and the Population Exchange with Greece, meaning that Turkey’s population has already undergone a massive shift towards religious, if not ethnic, homogeneity. Matmazel (Mademoiselle) Anjel, İsak Bitran, L. Salsburg, Otel Tokatlıyan, A. Plafidis, Pastacı Lebon, Niko Yasumidis, Jean Weinberg (Fransız akademisinden mezunu!), D’Andria Matbaası, and Lazzaro Franko are the names of people and firms hawking their wares to Beyoğlulular. Their names are found amongst those of numerous Turkish proprietors, artisans, doctors, dentists and other specialists, indicating just how diverse the neighbourhood was prior to the upheavals of the Varlık vergisi and the anti-Greek riots of 1955. Population statistics attest to the same facts, but these ads bring to life not only the presence of the communities in question, but their interactions, their hopes and dreams, and their interconnectedness more than a decade after Wilsonian Principles sought to put an end to multiethnic polities.

This brings me to the final periodical I’m going to look at, another Istanbul-based magazine called Boğaziçi (Bosphorus), published monthly between 1936 and 1938. According to this now-defunct Wikipedia article, its stated purpose was to capture life along the Bosporus, in all of its forms. A quick look at the imprint of the 17th issue, from February 1938, shows that the owner was listed as Sadi Akant, and Yusuf Mardin the Responsible Editor. Yusuf Sıdkı Mardin was a well-known author, poet and politician; at the time the magazine first appeared, he was a mere 20 years old. When we return to Issue 17’s table of contents, we see that he was also one of the contributors to the magazine, along with a host of names now recognizable as being among the literary or political elite of early 20th-century Turkey. Authors provided fiction pieces, from short stories to poetry and satire, all revolving around life at the heart of Istanbul. Such fascination with Istanbul as the modern, Europeanized non-capital of Turkish life and culture tells us of a renewed self-confidence about the city’s contribution to Turkish identity.

Through the 1920s and 30s, heavy emphasis was placed on Ankara as the new capital of the republic, and considerable effort was expended to build up the city. Bozdoğan and Kasaba’s work, among others, speak to this reality. Istanbul, associated with Ottoman power and statehood, took a bit of a backseat. Of course, it was still the financial hub of the new state, and neither its economic nor demographic importance could be overlooked. But Ankara, and by extension Anatolia, became the new locus for the articulation of Turkishness, free from the cosmopolitan nature of the Ottomans’ seat of power. Boğaziçi’s celebration of the city and all of its idiosyncrasies, then, was in some ways an act of subversion; a means of reclaiming the importance and urgency of culture along the Bosporus, come what may.

But the culture here is certainly not what might have been perceived as Ottoman; quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, Boğaziçi was keen to press the “modern”, Europeanized nature of the contemporary city and its inhabitants. Issues abound with illustrations of women in European dress, employing aesthetics reminiscent of contemporary drawings from Western Europe and North America. The period might be different, but the logic is largely similar to what I described in my piece about the periodical Mehasin. Once again, the image of women dressed in the latest European fashions and partaking in pastimes perceived as European function as signifiers of Turkey’s progress towards modernity.

Caricatures juxtaposed the sounds of traditional Ottoman musicians with the cacophonous call of radios, gramophones and sound systems of modern ferries; or that of the Ottoman pasha dreaming about his timar while smoking a nargile and the contemporary image of a fat cat banker daydreaming about his wealth while enjoying a cigar. Among my favourite pieces is an article from the 14th Issue, Boğaziçi New York’ta (The Bosphorus in New York). More than just the beautiful font design, the content of the article is illuminating. In it, Ahmet Emin Yalman speaks of encountering a Boğaziçi Restaurant on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The proprietors are proud Turks, but they don’t want to give this away too much, for fear of seeming out of place.

My first inclination was that these images tell of a disdain for Ottoman life, which is contrasted with the new, modern lifestyle of İstanbullular. On reflection, it occurred to me that that is a simplistic reading, a pastiche of the narrative that we are often fed about the ruptures and discontinuities of the early Republican period. In the caricatures, positive/negative can be read in either direction. I love boats and the quiet seclusion they afford their occupants, which makes it difficult for me to square the illustration in front of me with the idea that the Ottoman side of the caricature is somehow an image of the dark and wicked past. The more I contemplated it, the more the drawing became ambiguous. Is this perhaps a comment on how the reforms of the 1920s and 30s were merely cosmetic, affecting only the most skin-deep of behaviours? This wouldn’t fit with Boğaziçi’s broader attitude. Perhaps, I came to think, Gökalp’s Hars ve Medeniyet is on display here, albeit in a far subtler form. Maybe the illustrator of these two pieces (Cemal Nadir Güler), or Yalman in his article on New York, is pointing out that national culture has remained constant, but that the technology and outward manifestation of national proclivities, attributes and flaws, has changed.

Unlike Album and Beyoğlu Âlemi, Boğaziçi shows more prominently the products of the nativist turn throughout the 1930s. Imports were occasional – the various tables of contents show an odd translated article – but by and large the pieces are by Turks, for Turks, and about Turks. The pages are filled with authors who would come to participate actively in mid-20th century Turkish literature and politics: Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel, Cemal Nadir Güler, Burhan Cahit Morakaya, Abidin Daver, Galip Ataç, İbrahim Tarık Çakmak, Oğuz Kazım Altıok, Nezihe Muhiddin Tepedelengil (founder of the first political party in Turkey, the Kadınlar Halk Fırkası or Women’s People Party), Cenab Şahabettin, and others. The multinational history of the city and of the straits is celebrated in the magazine’s pages, but its solidly Turkish present and future are the only ones on display. It is unlikely that Istanbul’s population had changed radically in the six years between Beyoğlu Âlemi and Boğaziçi, but what is clear is that the trajectory and ideal of the city’s cultural identity has been firmly and solidly aligned with the state’s ideology.

Finally, Boğaziçi is interesting because it comes at the end of a period. On 10 November 1938, Atatürk passed away, closing a chapter in Turkish political and cultural life. By this point, the one-party system had been firmly entrenched. Although opposition to the Kemalist order clearly survived and, on occasions, thrived, it was largely shut out of official culture for much of the 1930s and early 1940s. How Turkish society arrived at that point is explained clearly and succinctly in many different histories, both in Turkish and in other languages. What the ephemera of the everyday gives us is how ordinary people lived through such changes; how they saw them reflected in themselves, and how they, in turn, saw themselves reflected or erased in new ideals. The grand speeches made by politicians and the texts published by officialdom make clear what shape the political class wanted Turkish society to take. These fragile documents, in contrast, show us how that vision soaked into the social fabric and impregnated the spectacular and mundane alike. It is, indeed, this history that helps us to explain why some concepts and views have proven to be so durable in Turkish public discourse, while others seem to have flitted away in the winds of time, sailing out to an ignoble death on the waters of the Bosporus.

Interested in finding out more about Turkish periodicals, or finding the periodicals themselves? Consider checking out some of these databases:

Bibliometrical Project on Turkish Magazines from Hacıtepe University

Cornell’s Turkish and Ottoman Studies Research Guide

Leiden’s Overview of Digital Sources for the Study the Ottoman Empire and Republic of Turkey

The Milli Kütüphane’s collection of periodical publications

University of Chicago Library’s Ottoman and Turkish Journals and Popular Press

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