Turkey: In the Shadow of Atatürk
By Mac Carey
His face peers out from above my desk at work; he watches me in the bank line, following me around on my day-to-day errands. Ever since I arrived to teach and live in Turkey, I have felt the constant presence of one man, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey.
In 1923, through a series of brilliant military maneuvers and a little luck, he picked up and dusted off Turkey from the collapsed ruins of the Ottoman Empire, rescuing the Turkish people from that sick dog of Europe. In return the Turks placed his likeness on every free space in their country. His name literally means “father of the Turks.” And as far as most Turks are concerned, Atatürk is Turkey.
Mao’s and Lenin’s gluttonous displays of image are well known, but the cult of Atatürk is a bit more obscure to the outside world. After his death in the 1930’s the sect of “Kemalism” became rampant in all parts of Turkey, except perhaps a few select places dominated by Kurds and Armenians who were less keen on this Anatolian conqueror. This kind of veneration of image doesn’t seem to extend to other Turkish and Ottoman figures. Since I have been here, I have only seen a handful of plaques and monuments to other historical persons from the entire history of Turkey, from Herodotus through the present day. When I first arrived, I saw a few photos of a man in a tall old style fez hat and was intrigued as to what this other figure had done to elbow a place in. But my hopes were later dashed when I was informed that it was just a photo of a younger Atatürk in traditional dress.
I’ve noticed a few recurring poses. In one that often appears on huge, color posters in banks, he sits at a large desk signing an unknown document. In another he leans out of a window, staring at a far off horizon. Then there’s the one that appears on lira notes, with his head tilted down, giving an upward, bemused gaze. This is the most unnerving, having that Mona Lisa quality in which the eyes seem to follow you around the room. Amazingly, his image graces every piece of currency, no matter the denomination.
Even Queen Elizabeth lets Dickens or Darwin take a shift every once in a while.
And when I teach, I’m never alone. In every classroom in the school where I work there is a portrait. And not some shoddy black and white eight and a half by eleven; a full color portrait in a large polished wood frame, hung right next to the chalkboard. There he is, peering over my shoulder, my own blue eyed, blond haired shoulder angel. For the most part he is an omniscient observer that I’ve grown accustomed to, though he occasionally crosses the line by stepping into bathrooms and dressing rooms. Even those bastions of Americanism that seem to have no god but themselves, McDonalds and Burger King, are watched over by his piercing blue eyes.
Street vendors sell cheap, small paintings laid out on blankets on the sidewalks near all the metro entrances. The paintings are framed prints of the typical kitsch themes. And there as well, buried amongst all the magenta sunsets and diving dolphins, is his face, against the backdrop of the Turkish flag. His image knows no social class, gracing items ranging from 50-cent postcards to gold plated cigarette cases, to all the magnets, lighters, and inlaid boxes in between. There aren’t many tourists in most of these areas, so I often wonder just how wallpapered Turkish apartments are with his portrait.
In Turkey any questions about Atatürk and the necessity of his ubiquity is definitely not met with pleasantness. Entering one auditorium with a gold bust of the man leering down on the speakers, I had my mouth quickly covered by another foreigner who warned me that any kind of laughing or joking about the bust will not go over well. There are several laws that even make it a crime, punishable by jail time, to say anything denigrating about Turkey or Turkish national figures (read: Atatürk). November 10th is Atatürk day, a national holiday commemorating his death. At 9:05 am, the time of his death, everything stops; even Turkey’s notoriously rough and tumble traffic screeches to a halt; and everyone observes a moment of silence.
In the United States we still may retain some mythic awe of our American heroes, but it is more of a distant veneration than a thriving passion. There is no one as dogmatic as a convert, and Turkey is a 20th century convert to secularism. And that secularism was established almost single handedly by this man who managed to form a modern country out of the rubble of dysfunction and laurel resting that was left of the Ottoman Empire.
To Turks, Atatürk is the reason behind their freedoms, the reason for all of their success. As one Turk told me, Atatürk is the reason Turkey is not Syria. This reasoning becomes all too clear if you take a look at any map. Turkey’s neighbors include not only Syria, but also Iraq and Iran. You begin to realize that Turkey’s maintenance of any semblance of secularism, flawed as it may be at times, is truly remarkable.
When I leave the country on short excursions, I kind of miss the guy. His is always the first familiar face to greet me on my arrival back. And the longer I stay in Turkey, the further I find him entering into my personal life. One late night, I roll out of bed in my pajamas and shuffle into my kitchen to get something to eat, and there, staring at me from our refrigerator where my roommate has taped up his postcard, is dear old Uncle Atty, waiting for us to share my midnight snack together.
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