Review of Demetra Vaka's “The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul (Stamboul).” Gorgias Press (2005 [orig. 1923]).
By Yiorgos Anagnostou
“It was early in April, so early in the morning that the old city of Stamboul was turning over its bed for yet another snooze, when the Oriental Express puffed into the Sirkedji Station.” This is how “The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul” stages the return of Demetra Vaka, an ethnic Greek, to her natal city of Istanbul. Twenty-seven years since her emigration to America in 1894, and 20 years after her first homecoming in 1901, the author revisited the place of her childhood when she counted Muslim girls as intimate friends, and the Sultan commanded the political loyalty of the empire’s subjects.
When the Oriental Express puffed into Istanbul’s railway station, Vaka was about to be confronted with a reality of a different order. Turkey was caught in a raging war, the empire was crumbling in the mist of competing nationalisms, and Istanbul, occupied by the allies, was a city in political and cultural unrest. Vaka, by then an accomplished American correspondent, set out to investigate and report this profound transformation. More than 80 years since its original publication, the book is now brought back into circulation by Gorgias Press.
It should not be surprising that Vaka (1877-1946) was given this particular assignment. Born and raised in Istanbul, and having developed her craft as a writer in the United States, she was seen as the ideal insider/outsider to access Turkey and report to an American public craving stories and information about the Orient. Vaka’s numerous writings about life and politics in the Balkans and the Orient had already established her as a knowledgeable author capable of narrating the cultures of these regions for the pleasures and interests of Western audiences. Her popular romances often exploited the Orient as an exotic place staging the sexual escapades of American women travelers. Such themes resonated back home among women of the growing middle class hungry for the exotic and new social roles beyond traditional domesticity. She enjoyed great popularity. Her travelogue “The Heart of the Balkans” (1917), for example, was read widely. Major popular magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Delineator and The Century featured her essays and reports. The fact that a mainstream publishing house no less than Houghton and Mifflin published her books speaks volumes about the value accorded to her work.
This ascent into cultural recognition is particularly remarkable, considering that Vaka arrived in the United States under less than optimum circumstances. She emigrated from Turkey at the age of 17 when financial strains squeezed her family after her father’s death, arriving in America in the socially acceptable role of governess for the children of the Ottoman consul, an ethnic Greek, to the U.S. She was also, reportedly, escaping an arranged marriage. Vaka’s background provided a necessary foundation for her eventual success. As a daughter of an upper middle-class government official, she was immersed in the class privileges of the Greek bourgeoisie in Ottoman society. In addition to Greek she spoke Turkish and French (she learned the latter as a student in Paris). Once in America and before launching her journalistic and literary career, Vaka worked as a copyeditor for the Greek language daily Atlantis. She also taught classical Greek and French in private schools such as Comstock College.
In 1904, she married Harvard graduate and acclaimed writer of popular romances Kenneth Brown (1868-1959), a turning point that propelled her literary career. She published a total of 12 fiction and non-fiction books and scores of essays. Immersed in a literary world spiced with adventure and romance, it is not surprising that she showed no interest in addressing working-class issues. In fact, the telling of the immigrant experience was never within Vaka’s literary horizon. Instead, she functioned as a cultural intermediary. She not only explained the Orient and the Balkans for America, but she also translated late 19th century Greek literature into English, in collaboration with Yale Professor Aristides E. Phoutrides (1887-1923).
Writing about Istanbul in 1921 was far from an ordinary professional assignment for Vaka. She reported from a place intimately connected to her own biography, and in the midst of historical events that gravely threatened the existence of her co-ethnics in the city. Just a few days prior her second homecoming in 1921, the Greek army had suffered a devastating defeat by the forces of Kemal Atatürk in Burma. Though far away from the battlefields in Anatolia, Istanbul was at ear’s drop from the rallying nationalist calls, which enveloped the city. They deafeningly lurked in the background of the allied occupation, powerfully steering Turkish males to leave the city and join the Kemalist cause in droves. For the Turks, the war in Anatolia fed feverish anticipation for a new modern era, a country imagined as entirely Muslim, cleansed from Christians – invading armies, American missionaries, philanthropists, and autochthonous ethnic minorities. Conversely, for the subject people – Greeks and the Armenians among others – the extent and determination of Turkish nationalism led to profound anxiety about an immediate future when their historical presence in the city could no longer be tolerated. Day-by-day, the news from the warfront kept turning this fear into certain doom.
Vaka captured this historical moment toward the very end of her book, predicting destruction worse in magnitude than that of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Written a mere one year prior to the defeat of the Greek army and the Smyrna catastrophe, her comments convey the chill of a cataclysmic doomsday: “From the talk in those cafés, too, it was easy to foretell that the doom of the Christians was sealed. The Turk, sword in hand as in 1453, was to re-conquer the lands he had conquered then; but to make the conquest sure this time, he was not only to exterminate the Christian element, but was to offer as a holocaust to victory the very homes of the Christians. The obliteration of that element was to be complete.”
Far from a merely personal confession of alarm, this was an urgent political plea. The theme of Turkish nationalism as an impending threat to Christians, not only in Turkey but to Christian Europe as a whole, ran throughout “The Unveiled,” drawing inevitable attention to the necessity of European and American intervention. Vaka’s agenda on behalf of her fellow co-religionists in Turkey fell on deaf ears.
Vaka’s political activism was only a single slice in a wider net of interests to which she, wittingly or unwillingly, was enmeshed. Just to mention one example, consider the ways in which her journalism was entangled in a web of American interests in the region, as explained in the introduction of the book by Professor Yiorgos Kalogeras, a scholar who pioneered research on Vaka. Kalogeras points out that Vaka’s correspondence was commissioned by, and her articles initially appeared in Asia, a publication committed to advancing American political and commercial interests in Asia and Oceania. Tellingly, the magazine was sponsored by The American Asiatic Association (AAA), an organization initially formed in 1898 by American merchants in response to European and Japanese economic and political encroachment in China. The secretary of the Association, one John Ford, was no other than the editor of Asia.
Innocence then, it goes without saying, cannot be part of the vocabulary describing Vaka’s work. This realization alone should alert us that there is more than meets the eye in Vaka. Scholars such as Yiorgos Kalogeras, Eleftheria Arapoglou, Ioanna Laliotou and Kathlene Postma, among others, take note of the plasticity, ambivalence, and contradictions that define her writings. She sings the praise of patriotism, for instance, but revels in connections among culturally diverse people, which she saw as a fertile terrain for personal enrichment. While known for embracing the Great Idea, the notion that lands that once were part of the Byzantine Empire should belong to Greece, there are instances when she voices her criticism of Greek military operations in Asia Minor. And while she does not skirt away from stereotypical portrayals of Muslim Turks, she was well ahead of her times in communicating the diversity and complexity of Turkish women.
Things are no less intricate when one considers the range of Vaka’s personal and professional identities. On various occasions, she has been portrayed or has depicted herself as a Greek immigrant, a child of the Orient, a Greek, an American, an Orientalist, an American author, a Greek American writer, a Greek nationalist, an apologist of American imperialism, but also as a critic of America. In view of this fluidity, one thing can be said for certain: the closer one reads her work, the more layered her work emerges. Both intellectually challenging and pleasurable for the reader, this quality serves as a testament to the richness of Vaka’s writings.
As its title promises, “The Unveiled” examines a society in transition through Turkish women’s responses to modernization. Of course, the cultural manifestations of the emerging modernity were impossible to miss in the city, particularly for an author whose first-hand experiences reached well into the former Ottoman social order. Vaka duly captures, both in words and images, this historical transition in its most dramatic manifestation, women’s public conduct. She documents behaviors that were unthinkable in the recent past, where female quarters were secluded and women veiled themselves in public. Her camera, for example, seizes images of women socializing with men. And her narrative directs the readers’ attention toward women unveiled in the public; women municipal employees cleaning the streets; women entrepreneurs running their own businesses and employing women as clerks.
Vaka draws complex portraits of several Turkish women, dedicating a whole chapter to each. The titles of the chapters reflect her attention to individual perspectives: “An Old Turkish Lady Speaks Out;” “The Avenger of her Race;” “The Lady of the Mended Glove.” The author brings women’s stories to life, animating particular incidents that she experienced while interacting with these women. She builds on her encounter with glamorous Azzize Hanoum, for instance, to produce a segment full of suspense and erotic innuendo. A sensuous nationalist, Hanoum is vividly portrayed as a cunning seductress who marries a French lieutenant only to manipulate his desire for her in order to avenge the French invaders who have harmed her family. Liman, another unforgettable character, overcomes utter poverty, an orphanage upbringing, loss of home and a failed marriage. She takes it on her own hands to build a meaningful life anew. Her life story defies the stereotype of Easterners as prisoners of “kismet”/fate.
The author uniquely features women’s own point of view. She acts like a contemporary anthropologist whose primary aim is to report, as extensively as possible, the conversations she engages in with the people in the field. Through this emphasis on dialogue, human beings emerge in the text as multi-textured characters, not cultural caricatures. She gives voice to multiple perspectives, facilitating cross-cultural understanding. Conversation also showcases the similarities that people from various cultural backgrounds share, not merely their differences.
To be sure, Vaka does not manage to skirt away from Orientalist stereotypes. She reproduces conventions of non-Western people as irrational, emotional, devoid of analytical thought. But at the same time she exhibits a remarkable sophistication in confronting the idea of an essential Oriental woman. Instead, she brings to the fore the notion that national and gender labels often veil what in reality is a diversity in the ways individuals experience their identities. There are many ways of being a Turkish woman, the author suggests, not a single one.
“The Unveiled” is a delight to read, as Vaka uses exquisite prose to effortlessly intersperse authorial insights with reported dialogue. She deserves praise not only for how she crafts her narrative, but also for what she advocates in the story. She promotes intercultural understanding and shows that a person has much to gain by friendships and conversations across cultures. A rich narrative with a political message, “The Unveiled” takes the reader on an intellectual journey by inviting reflection about identity, travel, interethnic encounters, and women’s emancipation, all in the context of the East-West relationship. In this regard, it is fortunate that the book features an extensive introduction that offers valuable insights on Vaka’s life and situates her work in a wider social and political context. The 34 rare photographs in the book further add to the richness of the reading experience.
Finally, it is only befitting that Gorgias Press anthologized Vaka twice. Both “The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul (Stanbul)” and her earlier “Haremlik: Some Pages from the Life of Turkish Women” (1909) are included in its Cultures in Dialogue series, a project that brings back into circulation women writers whose work was published between 1880 and 1940. One could only hope that Vaka’s various autobiographical publications including “A Child of the Orient” (1914) as well as the writings of more recent yet neglected Greek American women authors, such as Theano Margaris, will be the next publishing target, this time perhaps in less expensive editions.
This review was originally published in The National Herald, June 28, 2008: 6.