A Tribute to Safiye Behar
Mixed-media installation, 2005

Safiye Behar was born in Pera, Istanbul, in 1890. She was the single daughter of a Jewish bar-keeper and grew up between the “Zeuve Birahanesi” bar and the apartment above it. An intelligent and willing child, she was eager to read, write and learn, and was encouraged by her parents who hoped a better life than theirs for their daughter. Probably influenced by the conversations she overheard in the “Zeuve Birahanesi”, which were fairly politicized, she started to study Marx, Proudhon and other socialist and anarchist writers with 17, reading and re-reading with passion.

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.

There have been other women who developped 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 aknowledged 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.

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.

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.

Today, almost 70 years after Mustapha Kemal and 40 years after Safiye have passed away, it’s time to pay a tribute. Luckily, Safiye’s grand-son Melik Tutuncu, one of the main figures of the Chicago architecture scene, was very helpful in providing valuable information and documents, which made this tribute possible. A modest tribute, indeed, since she would not have liked a too official rehabilitation, yet a recognition of her courage and achievements, as well as a public access to the place where she had been living for so long.

In 2005, as Turkey and the EU are playing liar’s poker about their common future, Safiye might prove to be a helpful guiding model for current and future generations. A product of both the East and the West, she stood up for her ideals and devoted a lifetime to what she believed in. She was a global thinker before the term was coined, seeing the world beyond the narrow conceptions of borders, nations, and states.

 Michael Blum, 2005

The exhibition includes a reconstruction of Safiye's original apartment, located Hamalbasi Caddesi No. 18, Beyoglu, Istanbul, a comprehensive display of documents: photographs, letters, books, ... as well as a video-interview with Melik Tutuncu.

The Grand Promenade, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, 2006 (curated by Anna Kafetsi)
9th Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, 2005 (curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun)

safiye study