Highlights from the Aga Khan Library Collections – Ottoman Collections (II)

İntibah: Sergüzeşt-i Ali Bey (انتباه: سرگزشت علی بك) by Namık Kemal

Reviewed by Seda Karamanli

Namık Kemal (1840-1888) was a prominent figure in the 19th-century Ottoman intelligentsia who played a vital role as a poet, novelist, playwright, and intellectual activist advocating for concepts such as liberty, national rights, and constitutional government. He was a member of the “Genç Osmanlılar” (Young Ottomans) political group, which aimed to establish political reform based on Western ideas of representative government. Namık Kemal’s political views significantly influenced Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Namık Kemal wrote İntibah: Sergüzeşt-i Ali Bey (Awakening: Ali Bey’s Adventure), first published in 1894, during his exile between 1873 and 1876 at Magosa Castle in Cyprus. This exile was the result of the staging of his play Vatan Yahut Silistre (The Motherland or Silistre) in 1872, which contained a political narrative centred on revolutionary concepts of “nations” and “nationalisms.” The play sparked widespread protests against Sultan Abdulaziz (1830–1876) and in support of the accession of Murad V (1840–1904) .

Despite Namık Kemal’s original title for the novel being Son Pişmanlık (The Last Regret), the Ministry of Education, which supervised publications during that period, changed the title to İntibah: Sergüzeşt-i Ali Bey without consulting the author. Kemal’s name was not even associated with this book during his exile.

İntibah is a remarkable piece combining conventional literary forms, contemporary storytelling, and orthodox Islamic principles. Occasional references to couplets of Ottoman classical poetry relevant to the ongoing plot throughout the novel, as a 19th-century modern genre, serves as a significant demonstration of the unique blend of traditional and modernist structure. The work strengthens the realistic features without idealising or disparaging the characters. The narrator avoids stereotypical judgments and adds depth to their portrayal by deviating from the conventional approach of Tanzimat novels.

However, while the narrator aims to analyse the characters’ personalities and psychologies thoroughly, the novel’s realistic portrayal is sometimes hindered by glorifying morality and honour, leading to the trivialisation and belittlement of prostitution. This is evident in the depiction of the female protagonist, Mehpeyker (moon-faced), a prostitute viewed through the lens of orthodox Islamic moral standards.

İntibah stands out as a transitional stance of early Tanzimat novels, with its particular internal dynamics constantly challenging boundaries, breaking stereotypes, and subverting established systems. The exploration of İntibah in 19th-century Ottoman literature as a political tool for promoting modernisation provides fruitful dynamics for those interested in the intersections between literature and Ottoman social history during fin de siecle.

You can find the book in the Aga Khan Library Rare Books Collection: PL248.N227 I48 1932

Bibliographical Sources

Duman, Hasan. “Atatürk ve Namık Kemal.” Milli Kültür Dergisi 64 (1989): 27-33.

Izmirli Karamanli, Seda. “A Review on Hancerli Hikaye-i Garibesi, Intibah and Zehra.” Academic Journal of Language and Literature, 4.2 (2020): 621-636. DOI: 10.34083/akaded.761062

Sönmez, Ayşan. “Reflections on the Legacy of 19th-century Istanbul Armenian Theater Projects in the Contexts of Ottomanism and Turkishness.” Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 28, 2 (2022): 249-263.