LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: A remarkable man | Lost Coast Outpost

9:05 a.m. From the roof terrace, horns could be heard everywhere in the city, even ships in the Bosphorus. In the streets below, someone was playing “Taps” on a soulful trumpet. And finally, the moving and majestic sounds of the Turkish national anthem rippled like the wind through the proud flags on the cold November morning. Nearby, a few of my Turkish colleagues stood in silence, with solemn and thoughtful faces.

The unrelenting fervor lasted several minutes, but seemed longer, the great city – and the nation beyond – stopping as it does every year on this day at exactly this time – to remember the life and work of the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal. Atatürk, or “Father Turk”.

Ataturk! Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia.

Having lived here for many years, I have long since become accustomed to this annual manifestation of mourning and tribute to the legacy of Atatürk. It was at this time: 9:05 a.m., November 10, 1938, that the great leader died at the premature age of 58.

Like a yabanci, it is still a gripping event, even after so many years, to see and hear the nation pause to collectively remember the passing of the man many here feel, to paraphrase one historian, singularly pick up the Ottoman Turks exhausted and nearly lifted them in the 20th century. From the battered remnants of a defeated empire, Atatürk envisioned and designed a leaner and fitter republic, equipped it and guided it into the modern age.

I made it a point to learn more about Atatürk when I arrived in Turkey over ten years ago. How could you not? More than 80 years after his death, his face is still visible everywhere, his portraits hang in almost every establishment, and some young people even have his signature or his famous quote as tattoos on their arms. “Happy is he who can say: ‘I am a Turk!'” is one of the most often recalled, underlining the pride that Atatürk naturally seized, instilled and exploited in his people.

Those unfamiliar with the late Mustafa Kemal and interested in modern history will find his life story well worth their time. During World War I he was a soldier, and although the Ottomans (who fought with Germany) ultimately lost the war, Kemal was the only Ottoman general who never lost a battle. After the war, with the empire in ruins, the Bosphorus under the control of the victorious Allies, the lands of Anatolia themselves threatened with splintering, it was Atatürk who assembled the army from the ranks of the people. It was Atatürk who rallied this army to wage another war, this time a war of independence, against the Western-backed Greeks. After winning this war, Ataturk forced the Allies to the negotiating table and restored Turkish control of the Bosphorus.

By 1923 the empire was gone, along with the sultans and caliphate that had ruled the country for centuries, and a new republic was born and, like his historic ancestor George Washington, the victorious general became the republic’s first president. .

Like Washington, Ataturk in the years of his presidency sought to build and develop his young nation. He negotiated a series of peace agreements with Turkey’s neighbours, a far-reaching policy of “peace in Turkey, peace in the world”, which had the intended effect: it kept Turkey away from the Second World War, which Atatürk had foreseen. Indeed, when one reflects on the current war in the north, Turkey’s role as a mediator in the conflict has its roots at least in part in the politics of Atatürk.

This policy, admittedly isolationist, but self-preserving, has allowed Turkey to focus on the modernization of its industries, its public infrastructure and its education system. For the first time, women were allowed to go to college, to work outside the home, to pursue careers. Moreover, wishing to attach his country to the West, Atatürk ordered the country to adopt the Latin alphabet, and called on all citizens to learn this new alphabet in three months. Three months! All newspapers, books, etc., were basically changed overnight.

The significance of Atatürk’s life and work, especially with regard to the future NATO alliance, was recognized long after his death. In a 25-year commemoration speech, then-President John F. Kennedy called Atatürk “one of the great men of the 20th century”:

“It is to the credit of Atatürk and the Turkish people that a free Turkey was born out of a crumbling empire and that the new Turkey has proudly proclaimed and maintained its independence ever since. There is certainly no more successful example of national autonomy than the birth of the Turkish republic and the profound changes initiated since then by Turkey and Atatürk.


Admittedly, not all of Atatürk’s reforms have aged well. For example, its ban on the headscarf for women who wish to attend university or work in public jobs has since been lifted. Women can now choose whether or not to wear the headscarf while continuing to attend university or hold public office.

In fact, one could even say that Atatürk’s legacy has become somewhat divided in recent years (what hasn’t become at least “somewhat divided” these days?). The current administration in Turkey has been in power for almost 20 years and its leader, President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, is seeking a new presidential term. How and why, critics ask, can a party hold power for so long in a so-called democracy?

The answer, some would say, lies in the arguably unintended consequences of Atatürk’s reforms. That for decades traditional and conservative Muslims have felt persecuted, unwanted, sidelined in favor of their more “progressive and modern” colleagues. Imagine being a young Muslim woman and having to take off your headscarf (hide your beliefs) to attend your classes? Or not being offered a job based solely on your beliefs? For his many supporters, especially in the more conservative lands of Central and Eastern Anatolia, Erdoğan and his AK Party remain popular and appreciated as they are considered to have restored and safeguarded Muslim traditions, having been treated (to their eyes) like second-class people. citizens in their own country for so long.

(Others would say that it was not animosity toward religion per se that drove Atatürk’s great reforms, but rather against the Ottomans and their rulers, whom he saw as responsible for the decline of empire and of Turkey’s fall from the West, of having become “the sick man of Europe”.)

I offer the above not as a critique of Atatürk, but rather as a different perspective, especially for those who are not in Turkey and know little about the country’s modern history and current situation. Yes, inflation is over 80% – rent and food prices, energy costs, in fact everything – is expensive. The country is home to countless refugees, from Syria, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine and Russia. There is a general feeling of uncertainty, what next?

Perhaps that is what gave such a resonance to the fresh morning air last Thursday, when I witnessed and heard so many people, a nation so to speak, stopping their routine to pause and reflect , wanting to remember. What did they remember? Greatness? Or maybe it was the stability, the comfort that comes from remembering great events and great people.


And why did I stop and think? Was it some sort of veiled response to the US midterm elections? A few oblique comments on today’s murky and divided situation here and in much of the West? A deaf warning about the rise of fascist forces in the East?

Was it a cry of unity, of clarity in today’s world, a world that some describe as in “permacrisis”, beleaguered by the pandemic, by war, by inflation, by real threats and perceived? Is there anything in the story of Atatürk and his nation that we can all benefit from hearing?

Perhaps I was moved by the sights and sounds of 9:05 a.m., by the majestic tribute to a remarkable man. After all, my wife is Turkish and our son is Turkish-American. Would such a union have been possible without the legacy of Atatürk? Don’t I also owe a debt of gratitude?

It is perhaps important for me to remember that much of the best we have in this world, the world we have inherited, is the direct result of remarkable people. The ground on which we stand has been tilled, and the grain lifted, as it were, by firm, strong, sure hands. We must remember them. “The greatest battle is the war against ignorance”, as Atatürk himself said.

Fortunately, we still have a world around us, and we surely still have remarkable people. I hope so: for then, now and always, we need it.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.

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