Zabel and Halide: A Tale of Feminist Nostalgia, Colonial Agnosia and Armenian Genocide in Modern Turkey

By Hazal Halavut
Submitted to Session P6633 (Crises of Representation, Reform, and Recovery in 18th-21st c. France, Iran, & Turkey, 2021 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Born in the same city, on opposing shores of Istanbul: Zabel opened her eyes to the world in 1878 in Üsküdar, Halide Edib in 1884 in Beşiktaş. Their families were well-respected; Zabel’s in the Armenian community, Halide’s in the Turkish. Having received the best education available to women in the Ottoman Istanbul, Zabel published her first novel in 1907. Halide’s first novel appeared in print two years later, in 1909. Both women were pioneers in their communities writing essays and articles on women’s role in modern society, giving speeches, organizing meetings. They shared a desire to be at the heart of the changing Ottoman world.

Such is the tale of prominent Ottoman Turkish figure Halide Edip and the celebrated Armenian writer Zabel Yesayan that began to be circulated in the first few years of the 21st century. It is a legend based on the parallels and similarities between the two women’s lives. A story organized and produced by a small group of Turkish feminists, intellectuals and academics to distance themselves from the official doctrine and discourse in Turkey which denies the Armenian Genocide and to confront the Ottoman past from a new, more responsible perspective. Zabel and Halide whose paths did not cross in the city they were born in, lived in and exiled from are brought together in a “once upon a time in Ottoman Istanbul” tale. This feminist tale of two women wants to remind listeners and readers of the possibilities that existed in the pre-1915 Ottoman world while simultaneously gesturing to the possibilities that feminist history-writing entails: parallel lives, parallel paths, and a sense of sisterhood that grows traversing the Armenian and Turkish woman. Yet the tale does not name the very reason which destroyed the conjuncture possible in the parallel paths Zabel and Halide were taking. In not addressing the Armenian Genocide, this tale reproduces the denialism which it wishes to distance itself from.

Reading Zabel and Halide's tale as it fails to comprehend colonialism and genocide, we arrive at agnosia - a neurological condition which makes it difficult to “assemble elements of an image into an understandable whole.” This paper will analyze the feminist nostalgia and colonial agnosia that the modern tale of Zabel and Halide produces with regards to the afterlife of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey.