Friday, June 18, 2010

For today, two more Turkish Miscellany entries today, for letters A and B:


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)—the Ottoman officer who made a name for himself during the Gallipoli campaign of World War I and later led the Turkish War of Independence, founded the Turkish Republic, and became its first president—is everywhere in Turkey. You can't walk more than a few steps without confronting a photograph, a poster, or some sort of likeness of Atatürk. His image appears on almost every stamp, and is on every piece of Turkish currency. A visitor would be forgiven for feeling like he or she is being followed by the gaze of Atatürk.

"There is much to justify Turkey's reverence for Atatürk," writes Stephen Kinzer in Crescent & Star. "He is the force that allowed Turkey to rise from the ashes of defeat and emerge as a vibrant new nation. Without Atatürk's vision, without his ambition and energy, without his astonishing boldness in sweeping away traditions accumulated over centuries, today's Turkey would not exist and the world would be much poorer." It is remarkable to consider that one person can, indeed, change the destiny of a nation; Atatürk was among the most significant leaders of the twentieth century, and when one considers that Turkey's next-door neighbors are Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Turkey's secular state, though not perfect, is all the more impressive. Among the many changes that Atatürk made was to abolish the sultanate. Michael Levey, in The World of Ottoman Art, shares an interesting but little known story about the last member of the dynasty to occupy a position in Turkey, Abdülmecid II, who was caliph without being sultan. Abdülmecid apparently had quite an artistic nature, but in a very Western way, so much so that one of his pictures was exhibited in Paris at one of the salons. But, Levey notes, "to have exhibited a painting at the Salon proved an inadequate gesture by the ex-Caliph, deposed and soon himself traveling in a westerly direction, to Switzerland. He left Istanbul, for ever, on a Tuesday, the day that Mehmed the Conqueror had first entered it; and the coincidence was noted by superstitious people."

Of the books published in English on Atatürk, two stand out as definitive volumes: BioAtaturk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal, Father of Modern Turkey by Lord Kinross, (William Morrow, 1965) and Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango (Overlook, 2002). Kinross—born John Patrick Balfour in 1904, also known as 3rd Baron Kinross and the author of eight books on Islamic historiography—notes from the start that Ataturk differed from the dictators of his age in two significant respects: "his foreign policy was based not on expansion but on retraction of frontiers; his home policy on the foundation of a political system which could survive his own time." Aside from relating the life of Atatürk, Kinross provides much descriptive information about Salonica, Ataturk's birthplace, and about Constantinople at the turn of the century: "To the north of the Golden Horn rose Pera, the city of the Christians; to the south of it Stambul, the city of the Moslems. To drive across the harbour by the Galata Bridge was to pass from one world, from one period of history, to another…At night Stambul, looming up above the Golden Horn, was a dead silhouette behind which the Turk lay rapt in an oriental hush. Pera, with its bright lights, beckoned like a siren from across the water – the city of the present." Kinross concludes that Atatürk's progress was too rapid for some in the new Turkey. "He had abruptly uprooted the traditions of centuries but had not yet evolved a new culture in place of them. This had caused some dislocation in the mind and the life of the ordinary Turk, whom a leader more sympathetic to Islam might well have weaned more gradually from one civilization to the other." Even today, the unity that Atatürk envisioned has yet to be fully achieved—there is still a gap between the far eastern rural population and that of the literate, sophisticated urban dwellers. Yet, Kinross explains, "the soldier in Atatürk saved his country, confounding, as no other man at that time could have done, the designs of the European powers against it, and thus changing the face of its history. The statesman in him then won their acceptance of his country on equal terms, and ultimately its incorporation into the Atlantic Alliance, as a bulwark against Russia—its hereditary enemy—and an element of stability in the shifting Middle Eastern world."

Andrew Mango, born in Istanbul and fluent in Turkish, is a retired BBC expert on Turkey (and the author of three other books on the country). Since the publication of Kinross's book, new sources of information on Atatürk continue to surface, and Mango has exhaustively researched everything he could find (much of it untranslated material). It's clear that Mango admires Atatürk as much as Kinross, but I think he goes further than Kinross in showing how Atatürk was simultaneously arrogant and ruthless, qualities that undoubtedly he had to have in order to establish laiklik (secularism) in Turkish society.


What I most love about Turkish breakfast—which traditionally consists of white cheese, tomatoes, olives, bread, and tea or coffee or sometimes çorba ("soup," usually lentil)—is the stainless steel tray many simple inns and guest houses serve it on. These trays are segmented just like American TV dinners, with separate compartments for each item. You won't find them in high-end hotels, but they are ubiquitous in many budget and modest establishments. There is something very comforting about them, and I hope they don't ever give way to ordinary ceramic or glass plates.

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