Afro-Turks are among the enigmas of Turkish culture. Though a considerable percentage of the nation's population are the children of immigrants, black people that speak Turkish particularly attract attention. Now an organized social group, Afro-Turks are proud of being great citizens that have contributed to the history and culture of both the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey.
For example, Zenci Musa was a Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Ottoman special forces) agent who fought for the army on many fronts during World War I. It’s particularly meaningful for me that I am writing this in an apartment just a few hundred meters from his grave next to the historical Özbekler Sufi Lodge in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district. Though never forgotten, Zenci Musa Bey’s grave had to be rediscovered decades after his death at the end of the great war.
Another sad Afro-Turk story, but with a happy ending, is that of Safiye Ayla. She was a great performer who has always been referred to as the embodiment of Turkish classical music thanks to her perfect singing (singing is called “reading” in Turkish to show its very close connection with poetry) and her soft and low but continuous and energetic voice.
Our sources are not in a consensus about the birth date of Safiye Ayla. The general inclination is to accept her being born on July 14, 1917, in the Kadırga neighborhood of Istanbul, while other sources claim that she was born on Sept. 13, 1907 or 1908. More still argue that she was born in 1902. This confusion comes from the fact that she was left at an orphanage in the city's Kağıthane district after she lost her mother, who was originally from Hijaz (now Saudi Arabia). I'm guessing she was born in 1907 or 1908 as she made her first record in 1930, was performing on stage in 1931 and during those times she was already a music teacher at an elementary school in Istanbul – all of which she couldn’t have done as a teenager. It’s more logical to think that she was in her early 20s when she made her debut record, took to the stage and resigned from her duties in education to became a professional musician.
Safiye’s mother Seyyide Hanım was a servant at the Ottoman palace until she was married, according to the royal traditions. Her father Hicazizade Hafız Abdullah was from Egypt. “Hicazizade” (meaning “Son of man from Hijaz”) may indicate that his family was originally from Saudi Arabi while “Hafız” shows that he memorized the Quran and had a musical talent, which he passed to his daughter. Hafız Abdullah Bey died before his daughter was born. The little girl then lost her mother at age 3, which is how she was left to the Darüleytam (State Orphanage) in Kağıthane.
Though it was a very sad beginning for a life, her fortunes changed at the orphanage. She finished elementary school before she was adopted by Sheikh Servet Efendi, a wealthy Sufi who also was a member of parliament from western Bursa. He took Safiye with him to his hometown, where she enrolled at the School for Female Teachers. She would then continue her education in Konya and Adana.
As a child, Safiye Ayla received private music lessons from rubabi (a person that plays the traditional Turkish stringed musical instrument rebab) Mustafa Efendi, who made an alternative composition for the Turkish national anthem. From him, she learned usul and maqam (the method and styles) of Turkish classical music and she later practiced classical songs under the supervision of Yesari Asım Arsoy, a famous composer and singer.
Safiye didn't graduate from Muallim Mektebi but she still found work as an assistant teacher at the Halıcıoğlu Elementary School in Beyoğlu, Istanbul. Thanks to the support of her tutor Mustafa Efendi, she made her debut single “Sevda Yaratan Gözlerin” (“Your Eyes Create Infatuation”) in 1930. The song was composed by Yesari Asım Bey and became a hit, selling 50,000 records. This powerful debut helped her make more than 500 records throughout her long life.
The audience, or rather audiences because she sang for many generations, loved her mild but meticulous interpretation of sorrowful musics. There is always a trace of deep feelings in the songs she read.
Safiye owed her reputation to her own talent and work but of course, social contacts also helped. Once in 1932, she sang for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. He was very touched by her velvety voice and one of the songs she sang him, “Yanık Ömer” about a Turkish soldier, which contributed to her fame. She was routinely asked to sing that song for Turkey’s state-owned TV channel TRT.
The artist married Şerif Muhiddin Targan, a famous composer and descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. They met at a musical organization and stayed together until Targan’s death in 1967. They also created some experimental works together.
Safiye was one of the two greatest divas of Turkish classical music, along with Müzeyyen Senar. Senar represented joy and energy with her loud, powerful voice, while Ayla always adopted a more apathetic style. One can think of the differentiation between Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday as a similar comparison.
Safiye Ayla survived her husband’s death, continued singing for decades and died on Jan. 14, 1998, at the age of 90 in Istanbul. Her grave is at the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery.