Written during Jelena Dimitrijević’s visit in the summer of 1908, in the midst of the Young Turk Revolution, the Letters from Salonika vividly portray the days of the city’s greatest glory—filled with deceptive hopes that the empire could still be saved and that the new days of liberty and equality had arrived. “Since its foundation, Salonika has never been what it is today: the happiest city on earth, the cradle of liberty to the peoples of the Empire,” Dimitrijević wrote. The main topic of her narrative is the “unveiling” of Muslim women, but also more broadly, the women’s rights in the Ottoman Empire and their perspectives for the future.
Jelena Dimitrijević was an erudite, a feminist, and an avid traveler. She spoke six languages and she was the first Serbian woman to make a journey around the world. Thanks to her familiarity with the world of the Ottoman harem, but also thanks to her personal culture, Jelena was received in the best houses of Salonika—Turkish, Jewish, and Greek—and she described her impressions in ten letters, addressed to her French friend Louise St. Jakšić, professor at the College for Girls in Belgrade. Of particular interest is her visit to the houses of the Mu’min community, unique to this city (and therefore also known as Selâlikli), of which she also gave a detailed report. She also visited the household of İsmail Enver, leader of the Revolution, as well as other dignitaries. Dimitrijević’s description of a multicultural, Ottoman Salonika commemorates a world which would soon become unrecognizable and from which few traces remain.
The book includes a substantial critical introduction and a detailed commentary of Dimitrijević’s text. It includes an overview of her life and works and a presentation of her fluid cultural, linguistic, and gender identity, her “sincere nationalism and sincere cosmopolitanism.” The fascinating parallels between Dimitrijević’s harem writing and those of her counterparts—Zeyneb Hanoum, Halide Edib, Demetra Vaka-Brown, Grace Ellison—are also given due attention. The hybrid nature of their writing, irony, mimicry, and gender masquerade in their texts, their multilingualism and multiculturalism, their elusive homoeroticism, all reflect the complex sociocultural context of the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, but also form part of the literary dialog with the Orientalist “autobiographical fiction” of the time, especially the novels by Pierre Loti. Jelena’s text not only deepens our understanding of the European nationalisms, but it also problematizes many aspects of the dominant academic discourse on colonialism and postcolonialism.