How a Playwright Connected Muslim Bulgarians to the Ottomans

A century ago, Namik Kemal’s dramas became a way of maintaining identity and claiming membership in a wider polity

How a Playwright Connected Muslim Bulgarians to the Ottomans
The Siege of Silistra during the Crimean War, which forms the backdrop of Namik Kemal’s most famous play, “The Fatherland or Silistra.” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Perhaps no other figure is as emblematic of 19th-century Ottoman intellectual and political history than Namik Kemal (1840-1888). A member of the Young Ottoman society, he is known for his efforts to synthesize European and Islamic political ideas, advocacy of constitutionalism, and for popularizing concepts such as the “fatherland” (“vatan”). He was a prolific writer, whose works included journalistic articles, political essays and poems. But he also distinguished himself as a playwright. Kemal saw theater as a particularly valuable medium because of its potential to convey ideas, while also producing an emotional impact upon viewers. Kemal’s life was marked by vicissitudes and ended prematurely during his exile. His works shared a similar fate. They galvanized public debates and drew admiration, but also provoked the suspicion of the Ottoman authorities. After decades of being out of favor, particularly during the Hamidian period, Kemal’s works were revived following the Young Turk revolution of 1908.

Kemal’s indelible mark on the history of the Ottoman Empire is well known. So is the influence of his ideas on the subsequent development of Turkish nationalism. What is less known is the story of the extraordinary journeys of his works and the impact they had on Muslim communities in the post-Ottoman Balkans. For the latter, theater was a way of claiming a rightful place in Bulgaria and the wider modern world, while the works of Kemal proved important for maintaining identity.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Western-style theater was no longer confined to Western Europe. By then, the form had made its way to other parts of the world, including the southeastern part of the continent and the Ottoman Empire in general, where it was becoming a part of the cultural experiences of the local urban inhabitants. In the Ottoman Empire, Western-style theater was introduced in the 1840s in conjunction with the Tanzimat, a series of ambitious European-inspired reforms. The new artistic form was championed and patronized by Ottoman circles, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who identified with the goals of the reform program.

The inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire had commonly enjoyed other performing arts. Karagoz, the traditional shadow puppet plays, were performed on various occasions, such as at festivals and fairs as well as on street corners. Later, Karagoz-style sketches were interpreted by actors in what came to be known as Orta Oyunu. In the 19th century, however, educated circles spurned such plays as vulgar and inappropriate. Instead, as Alla Franca culture, the European-inspired culture of the Tanzimat, became the fashion, Western-style theater turned into a part of the cultural life of many inhabitants of Istanbul and other larger Ottoman cities.

From the 1840s onward, specially designated theater buildings proliferated in Istanbul and some of the bigger cosmopolitan cities, as did theater companies. Ottoman Armenians were particularly prominent as company owners, actors, directors, playwrights and translators of European plays. Yet Ottoman Muslims also began participating in theater activities. Many of the staged plays were written by Western authors and, until the 1860s, they were performed in French and other European languages. Some plays were later translated into Turkish. However, Ottoman authors writing in Ottoman Turkish began making contributions to the genre, too. They often sought to tap into theater’s potential to provide social and moral commentary. In 1859, Ibrahim Sinasi penned “The Marriage of the Poet,” the first original Turkish play, which criticized the practice of arranged marriage. In the 1870s, Kemal went further and used theater to advance political ideas, particularly through the emotional connection the medium established with the audience. Some of the theatrical works of this prominent Ottoman author have gone on to enjoy an extraordinary reception among Muslims in post-Ottoman Bulgaria.

Kemal came to be celebrated as one of the most prominent Ottoman poets, playwrights and political thinkers. He was also a member of the Young Ottoman society. A group of bureaucrats, journalists and literary figures, the Young Ottomans appeared on the Ottoman political scene in 1865 as ostensible critics of the Tanzimat reforms, which they saw as a capitulation to European demands and the authoritarian rule of the bureaucracy. They proposed their own solutions to the problems the empire encountered, sometimes drawing on Islamic traditions in juxtaposition with the orientation of the Tanzimat. Significantly, they also advocated for a form of constitutionalism. In 1867, many of the Young Ottomans were forced into exile to Europe because of their daring criticism. A general amnesty allowed them to return to the empire in exchange for pledging to discontinue their vociferous criticism.

Kemal did not regard theater as a form of education, as many intellectuals did at the time, but rather as entertainment. Yet, for him, it was the most beneficial of all entertainments, with an unmatched potential for a profound impact. Theater provided greater services than newspapers and books, he contended, because it could stir emotions and convey ideas in an accessible manner. In fact, theater proved to be an effective medium for popularizing Kemal’s concept of the fatherland and the notion of patriotism among broader Ottoman circles.

Shortly after his return to Istanbul in 1872, Kemal penned his first and most famous play, “The Fatherland or Silistra.” The play made for an engaging show because of its dramatic plot, ardent invocations and symbolism that appealed to Ottoman sensitivities. It celebrated Ottoman patriotism and bravery and provided audiences with examples to follow.

The play is ostensibly set during the Crimean War, when Silistra, then an Ottoman border fortress on the Danube, is under threat of being captured by enemy forces. The destinies of the fortress and the homeland are interlinked: The fall of Silistra threatens to open the way to invasion. The play begins with the protagonist, Islam Bey, bidding farewell to his fiancee, Zekiye, as he heads to defend Silistra as a volunteer. His devotion to Zekiye is surpassed by his love for the fatherland, for which he is ready to sacrifice his life. After his departure, Zekiye, an orphan, sees little point in life without him. But she is also moved and captivated by his exalted feelings for the fatherland, so she dresses up as a man and follows her beloved, joining the forces defending Silistra.

Throughout the play, Islam Bey delivers fervent speeches as he encourages his comrades in arms and appeals to their patriotic sentiments. The Danube is the Ottomans’ “spring of life,” he proclaims. Without it, the Ottoman state is doomed: “If the Danube is gone, the homeland is lost,” he warns. At Silistra, Ottoman soldiers face a superior enemy and imminent death. Islam Bey and his comrades perform heroic feats. Zekiye, whom everyone takes for a very young man, does her part: She volunteers with another soldier to blow up the enemy’s arsenal. She also endures great anguish when her beloved is gravely wounded. But all ends well: The defenders of Silistra repel the invading forces, so the fatherland is saved; Islam Bey miraculously recovers, and Zekiye’s true identity is revealed. The intrepid commander of the fortress turns out to be her long-lost father. Zekiye and Islam Bey marry with his blessing. Most importantly, everyone celebrates the salvation of the fatherland. The play ends as actors chant “Long live the fatherland!” a chorus that ecstatic audiences undoubtedly picked up.

The play was performed for the first time in Istanbul in the spring of 1873. Judging from the reactions, ‌this was the kind of story many people in the Ottoman Empire craved. In a way, it was a response to European portrayals of the empire and its Muslim inhabitants. In European circles, the Ottoman state had acquired the moniker “the sick man of Europe”; its Muslim inhabitants were presented as religious fanatics and disparaged for their failure to become modern. By contrast, the play showcased Ottoman valor, exalted patriotic feelings and readiness for self-sacrifice. And, rather than enduring defeat, Ottoman troops scored a victory.

After its first performance, exhilarated spectators stormed out of the theater chanting “Long live the fatherland!” and headed to the headquarters of Kemal’s newspaper to salute him. Such commotion, however, proved unsettling for the Ottoman authorities. Fearing further disruptions and the prospect of other groups critical of the government seizing on the turmoil, they canceled the play. In the delicate political climate that prevailed in Istanbul, such sentiments could take an unexpected turn. Kemal himself was exiled to Cyprus, where he completed two other historical plays, “Gulnihal” and “Akif Bey.” He was amnestied in 1876 following the deposition of Sultan Abdulaziz and returned to Istanbul, where he made crucial contributions to the deliberations on the first Ottoman constitution. However, as the new sultan, Abdulhamid II, consolidated his authority after 1878, the celebrated author fell out of favor again. He was appointed governor of the Aegean Islands, essentially another exile. Kemal ended his days in 1888 in Chios after years of languishing with tuberculosis.

As for “The Fatherland,” it endured its share of vicissitudes. Following the disturbances provoked by its first performances, the play was banned or at least shunned in a bid to exercise tacit self-censorship. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, it made a comeback when it was staged at fundraising events for the war effort. As Abdulhamid II took firmer control over the Ottoman state, the play again disappeared from public view. Based on the available information, during the Hamidian period, even the text of the play was not published, except for one edition dating to 1890. Other works by Kemal shared a similar fate. It was only after the Young Turk revolution of 1908 that “The Fatherland,” along with other writings by Kemal, made a comeback. The Young Turks, who claimed intellectual pedigree from the Young Ottomans and came to dominate the political life of the empire after the revolution, even ordered the publication of Kemal’s collected works and distributed them freely. In the meantime, the play’s extraordinary journey had taken another turn — this time closer to the location of its plot.

While “The Fatherland” and Kemal’s writings largely disappeared from public view in the Ottoman Empire during Abdulhamid II’s 33-year reign, they came to enjoy significant popularity among the Muslim community in Bulgaria.

By then, Bulgaria had separated from direct Ottoman authority and become an autonomous principality, with the treasured fortress of Silistra coming within its territory. Among the Muslims who stayed in the newly founded Bulgarian nation-state, the play acquired a special significance. Its performances, organized almost exclusively by local Muslims, became a way of boosting communal morale and cohesion. For Young Turk sympathizers, whether political emigres fleeing the Hamidian regime or locals, the staging of Kemal’s plays was an opportunity to keep the works of a revered political figure in circulation.

Five years after “The Fatherland” was first performed, Islam Bey’s grave warning almost came to pass. The Ottoman Empire lost control of the Danube following the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. The Ottoman state survived, but it was forced to cede significant territories in the Balkans. The lands south of the Danube, along with the celebrated city of Silistra, became part of the newly established Bulgarian state. Elsewhere, Bosnia came under Austro-Hungarian occupation, while Serbia and Greece expanded their borders, taking over chunks of the Ottoman domains.

Though Christians made up the majority of the population of the new Bulgarian nation-state, it remained home to a sizable Muslim community. In the first decade of the 20th century, there were about 600,000 Muslims in the country, representing around 15% of local inhabitants. They were a living legacy of Ottoman rule in the region and Bulgaria’s largest and most politically significant minority population. Most were ethnic Turks, followed by smaller numbers of Muslim Roma, Pomaks and Tatars. Despite these differences, until World War I, the members of all these groups commonly self-identified as Muslims, which came to mean a distinct ethnic identity.

The development of theater among Bulgaria’s Muslims was associated with the activities of a movement for cultural reform and political mobilization that emerged from the 1890s onward. The movement’s driving force came from among a generation of younger local Muslim intellectuals. Their ranks and cause were boosted by the arrival of Young Turk emigres from the Ottoman Empire fleeing the regime of Abdulhamid II. Many of these intellectuals shared common convictions with the Young Turks, such as belief in the transformative powers of modern knowledge, admiration for progress and criticism of established political authority.

The reform movement emerged partly out of the sense of crisis precipitated by the Muslims’ experiences in Bulgaria, where they encountered its nation-building endeavors. At the same time, it was stirred by awareness of the fate of the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim communities threatened by European imperial domination. Asserting the Muslim community’s rightful place in Bulgaria and the world while maintaining its own cultural identity became the movement’s ultimate goal. As Muslim intellectuals debated the means of achieving their aim, they elaborated on their own visions of reform and modernity.

According to them, reform of the community had to begin with education. But education was not limited to schools. It was an intellectual’s lifelong pursuit, and a moral and cultural accomplishment. Theater was one of the means that would lead the Muslims along this path. Consequently, they regarded theater not so much as entertainment but as an educational experience, in contrast to how Kemal viewed it. Reformers saw theater as a necessity of civilization and “a school of morals.” Given the gravitas they attached to theater, it is unsurprising they favored serious plays that offered explicit moral guidance and exhorted audiences to strive for higher ideals. Consequently, they scoffed at musical plays and operettas.

Theater invoked mixed reactions among Bulgaria’s Muslims. While many were enthused, others viewed it with disapproval. Dislike of theater probably stemmed from conservative mores and suspicions that it would corrupt the morals of the community. Such reactions were perhaps stoked by observing the emotional effect of theater performances and by the presence of female actors on stage. At the time, the women who acted in locally staged plays were exclusively non-Muslim, but there seems to have been fear that theater enthusiasts would go further in enticing Muslim women to act as well. Disapproval was expressed in various ways. Muslim education boards canceled plays on the pretext that they coincided with religious holidays. On one occasion, a group of Muslims who were rehearsing a play in an abandoned Muslim religious school building were chased away by the local townsfolk. Some critics expressed more complex attitudes. In a letter to a local newspaper, one Muslim stated that he was not against theatrical plays per se, especially those authored by Kemal, but it was better to read them than perform them on stage.

Theater enthusiasts warded off such criticism in spirited fashion. One prominent author asserted that theater was a respectable and edifying entertainment and that theater houses were not brothels. Another pointed out that even Abdulhamid II watched theater performances in his palace and, if theater promoted vice, the head of the Muslim religious hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire, the seyhulislam, would have banned it in Istanbul a long time ago. To underscore the respectability of theater plays and their service to the public good of the Muslim community, they were often dubbed “national theater.”

Many of Bulgaria’s Muslims were familiar with theater. Larger Bulgarian cities had their own theaters with professional and amateur groups. Foreign companies, including troupes from the Ottoman Empire, also toured the country. They performed in French, Greek and Turkish, so people from various communities attended their shows. Visiting companies often gave two different performances per evening — a heavier drama followed by a comedy or a series of humorous sketches. Ottoman companies presented a repertoire typical for the empire. It was a mix of European and Ottoman plays, though Kemal’s works were notably missing. One such touring troupe gave a performance of “Akif Bey” only once.

From the early 20th century onward, Bulgarian Muslims also began staging their own theater performances. Occasionally, local professional actors assisted them. In certain places, there was so much enthusiasm that there were even suggestions to form an amateur Muslim theater company. The repertoire consisted mostly of Ottoman plays that drew on Islamic and Ottoman history. But, above all, Kemal’s pieces proved to be a particular hit.

There were various reasons for Kemal’s popularity. To start with, many local Muslim intellectuals championed him as an accomplished literary figure and Ottoman patriot whose ideas promised to guide the Ottoman state out of peril. Since many of his admirers were Young Turk sympathizers, they were not particularly concerned that his works were out of favor with the Hamidian regime. In addition, the plays of “the great writer, immortal poet and lamenting nightingale of the Ottoman nation,” as one Varna Muslim described Kemal, received an enthusiastic reception among local audiences. Judging from the reactions, one can understand the reasons for this excitement. The protagonists of the plays were noble and valiant Ottoman characters guided by exalted patriotic ideals. The plays celebrated Ottoman invincibility, while the dramatic plots added to their appeal. And the city of Silistra, the location of his most famous play, was in Bulgaria. This fact probably evoked mixed feelings among the local Muslims. In the play, the city was a symbol of Ottoman invincibility and the Ottoman homeland, yet now it was part of Bulgaria. Nevertheless, local Muslims could still identify with Islam Bey’s heroism.

Among Bulgaria’s Muslims, these plays inspired pride in their history and community by refuting the stereotypes that presented Ottomans and Muslims as fanatics incapable of noble sentiments.

Performing “The Fatherland or Silistra” in the new political context was tricky, since it would have touched upon Bulgarian sensitivities. Hardly any Bulgarian would be enthusiastic about a play celebrating Ottoman victory over a city that was deemed to be Bulgarian. Nevertheless, the play was performed on a number of occasions in various Bulgarian cities, though not in Silistra itself.

In addition to “The Fatherland,” Kemal’s “Akif Bey” turned out to be particularly popular in Bulgaria. It extols similar qualities, such as military prowess and patriotism. But the play is also about betrayal and has a tragic end. While it features a prominent female character, her actions are condemned rather than applauded. Just like “The Fatherland,” the action is understood to be set during a war involving the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Akif Bey, a courageous sailor, parts with his new bride Dilruba in order to join the war. As he bids farewell to her, he pledges to wait for her in the afterlife if he dies, but only if she loves the fatherland as much as he does. At Sinop, Akif Bey performs feats of courage along with his comrades, eventually setting his ship on fire so as not to allow it to fall into enemy hands. However, his wife turns out to be an unfaithful woman. She cares little whether her husband will return alive and prepares to leave him for one of his friends. When Akif Bey learns of the deceit, he rejects his wife and returns home to settle scores with his rival. In a dramatic showdown, they wound each other mortally. However, at the end of the play, Akif Bey’s father, Captain Suleyman, who himself is a veteran sailor and defender of the Ottoman state, exacts a deadly vengeance on Dilruba. Although not as upbeat as “The Fatherland,” “Akif Bey” brings a certain sense of closure and justice served: The deceitful wife is punished and Akif Bey’s death is avenged.

The final scene of the play was deemed worthy to be photographed for one of the local Muslim newspapers. The image stood as a warning to those accused of betrayal. Because of its setting, “Akif Bey” was perhaps seen as more acceptable than “The Fatherland.” At one of its performances, which in fact took place in Silistra and was a remarkable success, there were even Bulgarians present among the audience. It is difficult to know how they received the play, given the lack of available information. Perhaps to them it was a story of courage and rightful retribution against intrigue and deceit.

For many of Bulgaria’s Muslims, the plays of Kemal were their first encounter with modern theater. In the Bulgarian context, the organization of such performances had another important role — boosting community morale and cohesion. In many cases, “national theater” plays were staged around the times of Bulgarian national holidays, such as the anniversary of the San Stefano treaty on March 3. These occasions were marked by mass public festivities and military parades celebrating Bulgaria’s liberation. Ceremony participants and spectators vividly relived the end of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria.

As local Muslims witnessed these events, they probably experienced an array of emotions: resentment, nostalgia, uncertainty about the future, but also a desire to assert their presence and showcase their courage. Theater could be an outlet for such sentiments and a response to the narratives presented at these celebrations, allowing local Muslims to tell another story of the past and their community. Spectators wrote to Muslim periodicals published in Bulgaria to relay their experiences. One man who attended a performance of “Akif Bey” felt that, after the play, there was a sense of national awakening among the audience. Another, who saw “The Fatherland,” felt overtaken by powerful feelings unlike any he had experienced before. Yet another viewer stated that he fell in ecstasy at the final scene when the actors began chanting on stage, “Rise up, people of the fatherland!” For these viewers, theater proved to be a transformative experience that produced deep emotional and psychological reactions. Perhaps more than any other initiative, it contributed to a sense of community that was proud of its identity and past.

But what was the homeland for Bulgaria’s Muslims? For Kemal and the characters of his play, the homeland was the Ottoman Empire, of which Silistra and the Danube were inseparable parts. At the same time, the past, present and future of the homeland seem to coexist in Kemal’s works, allowing for a certain flexibility when it comes to defining the homeland’s boundaries. This enabled Bulgaria’s Muslims to imagine themselves as belonging simultaneously to different homelands and communities. They identified with the wider Ottoman community and the Ottoman state but also felt closely attached to their native places in Bulgaria, which they saw as another homeland. Such complex identities were not exceptional at the time. Yet they were increasingly challenged, as the developing national order envisioned rigid identities and loyalties. Significantly, Kemal’s works and ideas became some of the building blocks of this order for the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy