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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Motherland, or Silistra

Namik Kemal
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Vatan yahud Silistre (Motherland, or Silistra)

2Originally published: Istanbul, n.p., 1889

3Language: Ottoman Turkish

4Excerpts taken from Vatan yahud Silistre, reprinted by the Turkish Ministry of Culture (Ankara, 1990), pp. 25–34; 44–46; 56–57; and 84–85. The play was translated into German by Leopold Pekotsch, with the title Heimat oder Silistria (Vienna, 1887).

About the author

5See Namık Kemal, Ottoman History, pp. 94.


6This play, seminal in the propagation of an Ottomanist national consciousness among the wider Ottoman populace, was written and performed at a time when the Balkan provinces of the Empire were simmering with revolt. Vatan is set at the time of the Crimean War (1853–56), and narrates the story of a group of Muslim Ottoman civilians who volunteer to join the army in defense of the castle of Silistra (now in northern Bulgaria) that was besieged by the Russian army. It must be noted that the evocation of the Crimean War, and in particular the siege of Silistra (1854), played a significant role in enhancing the play’s emotional impact, since, in public memory, it represented the only palpable victory gained by the Ottoman army in the recent past.

7While espousing patriotic zeal in its fiery sentimentalism, Namık Kemal’s epic on the defense of the Ottoman motherland is also redolent of the rising Islamic sentiment of the 1870s. With the relative freedom allowed during the initial years of the reign of Abdülaziz (1861–1876), Ottoman intellectuals of various tendencies gained the opportunity to voice shared anxieties and demands arising from the rich social ferment of the Late Tanzimat (see Ahmed Midhat Efendi, The basis of reform). The tenor of the public debate, however, was largely dictated by the rising sentiments of the historically dominant and privileged Muslim population. In the wake of the 1856 Reform Edict, which re-affirmed the state’s commitment to institutional reforms based on European models and sanctioned the rights given to the non-Muslim communities, the critical discourse on the reform agenda of the Tanzimat was suffused with an unmistakably conservative and traditionalist mood. Vexed by the indefinite prospects of economic integration with Europe, several members of the burgeoning intelligentsia (from men on the fringes of the constitutionalist movement to more xenophobic ultraconservatives) called for a re-examination of the impact of the Tanzimat program at large. Prompted by the new and multi-layered debate on the future of the Tanzimat, those in charge of the official reform policy also realized the urgency of being more responsive to the changing realities of Ottoman society (especially those of the dissatisfied Muslim populace). They believed that it was time to refurbish Tanzimat ‘Ottomanism’ as a coherent ideology with a wider popular basis. Thus, while the state retained the rhetoric of international cosmopolitanism it inherited from the founders of the Tanzimat, the weight of Islam as a basis of legitimacy became more accentuated within the everyday official discourse of the Abdülaziz era (as observed in the new emphasis placed on the title “caliph” by the sultan himself). In sum, in an attempt to procure the political commitment of the Muslim masses, the reformist strategy of the Tanzimat was realigned with reference to the rising conservative mood in the public psyche.

8Namık Kemal’s treatment of the term ‘vatan’ clearly evinces the fundamental flaw in the configuration of a common sense of Ottoman patriotism during the Late Tanzimat. While, in theory, the novel Ottoman notion of patrie demanded the allegiance of all ethno-religious elements in the empire, the sentiments that actually went into the making of the idea perceptibly appealed to the dominant Muslim community. Throughout his literary and scholarly works, Namık Kemal weaves an emotional aura around the concept of vatan as a sacred domain that was drenched in the blood of the Ottoman martyrs. It was impossible for non-Muslim Ottomans to project themselves into the national-dynastic mythology conjured up by Kemal. In his historical writings, he recounts the story of the fatherland, in romantic grandiloquence, by evoking the glories of the Ottoman conquests and the valiance of the sultan’s armies. In Namık Kemal’s grand narrative of Ottoman splendor, all heroic deeds are fulfilled in the name of the dynasty and of Islam. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the most heroic figure in the play Vatan is named Islam Bey, and that the volunteers in the Silistra castle are invariably Muslim subjects.

9In terms of its literary merits, Vatan ranks low among Namık Kemal’s other novels and dramas. The play’s historic significance, however, is immense, as it represents the first dramatic expression of the love of motherland in the Ottoman cultural realm. An instant success, Vatan proved Namık Kemal’s contention that theater was not merely a means to educate the common people on morals, as perceived by the earlier Ottoman playwrights, but a powerful tool for the propagation of ideas as well as for the mobilization of the masses. With its intense emotional charge, Vatan aroused the strong defensive sentiments of the Ottoman public, long beleaguered by an atmosphere of crisis and vulnerability that loomed large over the troubled empire. Following the play’s debut on 1 April 1873, an overenthusiastic crowd took to the streets, shouting patriotic slogans. The demonstration soon changed course though, as political slogans were heard in support of Murad V, the heir apparent who was favored by the constitutionalists for his liberal inclinations. The public stir caused by the play’s consecutive performances alarmed the government about the rising popular sway of the Young Ottoman opposition. The performances were cancelled, and Namık Kemal was arrested and exiled to Cyprus. The exile of other intellectuals and journalists affiliated with the Young Ottoman circles followed. The arrests marked the beginning of a new period of intense government surveillance on all media of public communication in the Ottoman Empire. Still, Vatan remained embedded in public memory as an outstanding symbol of patriotic action. Following the 1908 revolution, amidst the popular euphoria over the advent of ‘freedom,’ Vatan was restaged several times in Istanbul and Thessaloniki theaters.


Motherland, or Silistra

11[from ACT I]

12As the curtains are drawn, a room facing the street becomes visible. Zekiye, wearing a proper lady’s costume special to Albania, is lying on a cushion with a book in her hand, and a candle in front of her. … Suddenly, [her lover] Islam Bey enters the room through the window, and reveals his decision to join the army in defending his homeland. His lover is perplexed.


14ZEKIYE: … If you really love me, then why should we part?

15ISLAM BEY: I must go…


17ZEKIYE: (running towards Islam Bey, interrupting him) Then kill me first.

18ISLAM BEY: (unmoved) I will go … I will go, even if my path is surmounted by the flames of hell. I will go, even if the angel of death thrusts his claws into my chest. I will go, even if I must step on my father’s grave with my own feet. Even if my grandmother’s body is to be crushed under my feet, I will go. Knowing you will die for me, I will go again.

19ZEKIYE: (walking anxiously, talking to herself in an audible voice) Oh! He does not believe… he does not believe that I will die for him. Maybe he will not even believe me when I die. (turning towards him) You will go… You will go… Why?

20ISLAM BEY: (determined) On holy nights, you visit the cemetery, don’t you?

21ZEKIYE: (irritably) I do… So?

22ISLAM BEY: Have you not seen my ancestors lying there? I know the names of forty two martyrs from my lineage, but I have not yet heard of one man who died peacefully in his bed. You see? Not one man… Today, the state has declared war. The enemy is determined to trample our martyrs’ bones under their feet. The enemy points his gun towards my motherland and my bare chest is not standing in front of it… Is this possible? Should I sit comfortably in my home while the motherland is in danger? Should I stand still while the entire motherland is trembling? How is it possible for me to be solely absorbed in your love, when today, the love of the motherland must be holier than all? Shall I not live up to the promise of my father and my ancestors while our entire world is in disarray? Motherland… Motherland… The motherland is in danger, I say. Do you hear me? God created me, and the motherland brought me up. God feeds me, and He feeds me [to serve] the motherland. I was hungry when I came out from my mother’s womb. It was the motherland that nourished me. I was stark naked, and it was the motherland that dressed me up. The motherland’s blessing resides in my very bones. My body is of the motherland’s earth, my breath of the motherland’s air. Why was I born if not to die for my motherland? Aren’t I a man? Don’t I have a duty? Shouldn’t I love my country? Oh, how can you hope for love from a man who does not love his country?

23ZEKIYE: If… Motherland… When it’s the motherland… I… What should I say… I... What can I say? Go! Go Bey! I guess this was meant to happen. I know the motherland. I have heard about her. But I never thought she could tear two hearts apart. Apparently she can. She tore my heart. I am still bleeding inside … Let it bleed as much as it wants. Go Bey! At most I shall shed a tear or two. If you do not let me, I won’t even do that, but keep them in my heart, and let each one turn into a drop of poison. You are going to war, aren’t you? Are you not going for your motherland? Then forget me, and the whole world too… I… I won’t even expect a letter. I hope to God you come back safe and sound. Then, here, you will find your slave waiting for you. […]

24[from ACT II]

25When the curtains are drawn, volunteers in one bastion of the Silistra Castle are sitting here and there. Zekiye stands within the group wearing men’s clothes.

26[Colonel Sıdkı Bey enters]


28SIDKI BEY: Those who want to stay in the castle, step aside.

29A VOLUNTEER: Well, we all came here because we want to stay. Why should we leave?

30SIDKI BEY: Aghas! The enemy has crossed the Danube. There are skirmishes at the other end of the city. It seems our homeland is going to be entirely besieged within a couple of days. [But], may God show no misfortune, the state is capable of defending her castle with her own soldiers. Those among you who do not wish to remain here, leave immediately, the Pasha [commander] has granted permission.


32A VOLUNTEER: (approaching the colonel) Sir! Sir! We came here with our own will. You show the enemy with one hand, and with the other, you point towards the gate of escape. You judge me by my youth? I think I lived long enough. I come here with my grave shroud wrapped around my neck, and I have the courage to face martyrdom. I came all the way from Baghdad for this purpose. […]

33ANOTHER VOLUNTEER: Which one of us do you think would be vile enough to run away from the enemy before the fight starts?

34SIDKI BEY: All right! You all want to die for your motherland like we do. Your endeavor will surely be valued by God. Even if your lives are lost, your names will survive. To a decent human being, it is better to die and leave a good name behind than never dying at all. Keep your hearts strong, and do not fear death. It will find you one day whether you fear it or not. You cannot escape that which is inevitable. (Addressing Zekiye) Boy! Who are you?


36ZEKIYE: (apprehensive) Adem [=Adam, Man]

37SIDKI BEY: What is you name?

38ZEKIYE: (pulling herself together) Adem Sir!

39SIDKI BEY: (to himself) All this, such an unfortunate dream. (addressing Zekiye) You are free to leave the castle.

40ZEKIYE: Isn’t there permission to stay in the castle?

41SIDKI BEY: My child. What good will you do here, that I might keep you?

42ZEKIYE: I will die for the motherland. What other kind of service would you require?

43SIDKI BEY: But you can’t even use a gun.

44ZEKIYE: I am offering you my life. And you tell me that I am young. I ask you, are you here to kill or to die? If you came here to kill, then kill me. If you are here to die, you can be sure that I will die a more eager and peaceful death than you will … What else do you want from me? Is not the motherland a [welcoming] dervish lodge? Does it matter whether the self-sacrificing dervish is portly or frail? Please be as good to let your children die for their country. So many young people die of tuberculosis and the plague. What difference does it make if one or two die by bullets or cannonballs?


46SIDKI BEY: (examining Zekiye’s face) Boy! (to himself) Those with rosy cheeks wish to die, those with grey beards wish to die. What can I say. May God spare you all. […]

47[From ACT III]

48[Islam Bey is wounded in the battle and lying in a bed. He wakes up to the sound of enemy cannons]


50ISLAM BEY: Fire them! Fire them! Wake the sleeping lions. Their faces will be right before you and their claws on your chest. What’s this on my body? Ah! I was wounded. [...] Such a pity, all the fights I’ve won, the swords I’ve crushed… the squadrons I have decimated… were all a dream. O dear God! … (The racket of the cannons intensifies) Fire! Fire! Even if you blast the earth with your fire, you will not find one woman, one child in this castle who is to be scared of that clatter… I was so wrong! I thought only a handful would die for the motherland. It seems that’s what the enemy had assumed. Yes! The Ottomans talk as if they have no concern for the motherland, they seem so indifferent, you think they are made of stone. But when you show them the enemy, when they realize that the holy soil of the motherland is to be trampled under the filthy feet of the foreigners, then something happens to these people. At that time, the differences between me and the laziest peasant are dissolved. At that time, those wretched Turks wrapped in coarse wool and felt, those gentle, kind faced peasants, the desperate people whom we do not tend to tell apart from the harnessed oxen, disappear completely. In their place appears the spirit of Ottomanness, and the spirit of heroism. Even the weakest of them grabs a sword with his teeth, bullets in his hand. In defending a single stone of the frontier, no one [among these peasants], even the most insignificant one, is less valiant than a lion protecting her cubs.


52[from ACT I]

53[Colonel Sıdkı Bey, Islam Bey, Zekiye and soldiers in the castle, following the Ottoman victory]


55SIDKI BEY: Brave lions! … The enemy has fled, and we are not in a hurry. Stop and listen to your colonel for a while…. You have regarded this division more precious than your own lives. Each one of you stood up to ten men. Within ninety days, you have endured every possible kind of hardship and tribulation. You defended the honour of the Ottoman [nation]. You proved that you are the offspring of your glorious forefathers. Go wherever you please from here. Have no fear, wherever you go, you will be surprised by the respect shown to you, when you say “I was one of the defenders of Silistra.” … Soldiers, we have saved a castle of our Sultan. Many among us reached the level of martyrdom. Come on, let us all cheer together: “Long live the Sultan.”

56SOLDIERS: (accompanied by the trumpet) Long live the Sultan!

57SIDKI BEY: (to the public) Brothers! We have risked our very lives. We fought for the good of the motherland. We will do it again. We will do it any time. Aren’t we Ottomans? The reputation of the Ottomans is that they die for even the smallest benefit of the motherland. We too, are always ready to die for this cause. Long live the motherland! Long live the Ottomans!

58ISLAM BEY: Come on, or did you lose your voices? Shout! Long live the motherland! Long live the Ottomans!

59(All together) Long live the motherland! Long live the Ottomans!

60(Curtains are drawn)

61The end

© Central European University Press, 2007

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