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In the Newsroom

June 8, 2009
Shrines, souvenirs pay tribute to Turkey’s founding founder

“Remember Me”: A bust commemorating Kemal Ataturk. Photo: Bryan Myers

Worldfocus producer Bryan Myers is currently reporting from Turkey. He writes from Istanbul about the country’s love for one of its most famed figures, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who appears on everything from office buildings to lapel pins and souvenirs.

It’s not a sight an American is accustomed to encountering when checking into a large hotel. Instead of the usual flowers or water fountains, in Istanbul, it’s a bust accompanied by the words “Remember Me.”

Those words, and the image above them, belong to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. And in Turkey, they are as inescapable as minarets and kebab shops. They are emblazoned everywhere — on the walls of schools, in public parks, at entrances to bridges and even in the lobby of private office buildings. Visit the souvenir shops in Istanbul, and they’re there too. Ataturk wrist watches seem to be the hottest item.

This Ataturk omnipresence isn’t merely a gesture of respect — it’s worship. That observation isn’t meant to belittle his memory. In fact, to do so is a crime in Turkey. It’s just that as an American, it is rare to see a politician so beloved. The last time I can remember seeing a politician’s face on a watch in America was Nixon or Agnew in the early 1970s, and I’m pretty sure those watches weren’t meant to be a tribute.

Having forgotten much of my high school world history lessons, I decided to do a little boning up. Kemal Ataturk rose to prominence as a military officer in World War I. Unfortunately, Turkey — then called the Ottoman Empire — picked the wrong side, allying itself with Germany and the other Central Powers. After its defeat, Turkey was carved up by the British, French, Italians and Greeks (mention of the Greeks’ role in World War I in particular seems to irk the Turks, but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog).

Ataturk led the army that chased the foreigners out and unified the country once again (his official bio goes on to note his love of animals and his prowess as a ballroom dancer). The name “Ataturk” literally means “father of the Turks,” and was bestowed on him by the Turkish parliament in the 1920s. According to fellow Worldfocus producer Gizem Yarbil, herself a native Turk, the Ataturk story is so moving, it’s been known to reduce small children to tears when taught in elementary school.

But for adults, the image of Ataturk has become a potent political symbol, and I think that gets to the root of why his image is found all over town. Besides being a war hero, Ataturk was also a fierce advocate of a secular state. He thought the only way to bring Turkey into the modern era was by rejecting traditional ways rooted in religion. That was a bold stand in a country that was just about entirely Muslim. And today, while many Turks are not devout Muslims, some are, and they’d like to see a return to the Islamist ways of old.

So it is that today, an Ataturk lapel pin or portrait on an office wall quickly identifies one as a “secularist,” and in their view, a modernist more closely in tune with the West than the East.

All of this got me thinking about the early planning for our trip to Turkey, and our visit to the Turkish consulate in New York for visas. As often happens when journalists stop by for a consular visit, we were loaded down with books and pamphlets intended to introduce us to the country. One contained a series of official portraits of the presidents of modern Turkey, beginning with Ataturk. It is the photograph most commonly seen of Ataturk, in which he’s dressed in a white tie and tails.

I’m speculating here, but I’m guessing he picked this somewhat unusual outfit because at the time it was considered the the height of formal European fashion, and as such symbolized a clear rejection of traditional garb. That style was mimicked by all the other Turkish presidents in the book up until the 1970s. Perhaps they were hoping that by doing so, a little bit of the public’s affection for Ataturk would rub off on them.

“Remember Me?” After several weeks in Istanbul, it will be hard to forget Turkey’s founding father.

– Bryan Myers

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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