Father Turk

Istanbul Travel Blog

 › entry 2 of 14 › view all entries
No matter where you go in Turkey, it's not easy to avoid Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  His picture, most often with some variation of a steely gaze, is everywhere, including on every banknote and in most offices and homes:  in my gym, he's exercising with an old-fashioned rowing machine (although I still haven't figured out whether it's an advertisement for or a motivational poster); above the sign for the restaurant across the street from my apartment he's striding purposefully at the head of a pack of government officials and military men.  And every November 10 at 9:05 AM, the country comes to a complete standstill for a moment of silence marking the anniversary of his death.  It was one of the very things that struck me about Turkey, because the cult of personality that surrounds Ataturk and the reverence with which his memory is preserved seems more befitting of Cuba or Soviet Russia than a functioning modern democracy.  That is, until you realize that that democracy owes its existence to him probably more than any other democracy in the world owes its existence to a single man (if not in fact, then certainly in the minds of its people), and that the preservation of his memory still acts as a powerful weapon against any forces attempting to make Turkey less democratic or less secular.  Almost anyone you talk to here gives Ataturk nearly singlehanded credit for defeating the Allied forces at Gallipoli in WWI (and thereby repelling the invasion of Turkey), creating the Republic of Turkey, reforming the Turkish language to use its current alphabet rather than arabic script, and secularizing Turkish government and society by disbanding the title of caliph and banning the wear of fezes (I guess that's the plural...) by men and headscarves by women, among many other things.  When the usage of family names was adopted in the 20's/30's and normal people were assigned last names that pertained to where they were from or what type of work they did, Mustafa Kemal was given the name of Ataturk:  basically equivalent to 'father Turk'.  That name now graces Istanbul's main airport, its biggest stadium, and probably thousands of other buildings, parks, etc. across Turkey, and the same name was invoked during the series of military coups engineered to prevent the government from introducing any form of religion into the running of the Turkish state, just as it is any time anything is deemed a threat to the modern, secular, progressive society Ataturk worked to build.  It's interesting, because it raises fascinating questions about the nature of the relationship of any one individual to a democracy and the role of a certain style of authoritarianism in developing and maintaining that democracy, but it's impossible to deny that all that the name Ataturk - and that steely gaze watching over Turkey from almost everywhere - represents is one of the main pillars of modern life here.
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photo by: Memo