Sunday, December 07, 2008
ISTANBUL, Turkey--It felt like treason, and it probably was.
I was betraying my country in that dark seedy room, afraid someone would recognize me in the very act of selling out the republic. Ah, the republic that emerged from the ashes of a bankrupt empire, as we were reminded every day in school, with amazing human sacrifice and collective determination to create a fresh new order.
That would be the Republic of Turkey, my homeland. And I was about to betray it by attending the noon showing of a controversial film about the life of its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Mustafa opened in theaters on Oct. 29--the 85th anniversary of, well, the republic--to the delight of an eager crowd. A general-turned-statesman, Ataturk not only led an epic war of independence against the invading Western powers in 1919, but also transformed a declining Ottoman Empire to a modern republic by abolishing the sultanate, the caliphate and establishing a secular democratic system. His radical reforms--ranging from adopting the Latin script to equality for women--revolutionized Turkish society and anchored the young nation to the west.
While Kemalism, as in secular Westernization, has since become an official doctrine, the love for Ataturk runs far deeper in Turkish society than official ideology. (For me, a newspaper headline from 1934 framed above my desk announcing the Turkish parliament passing the women's suffrage law--ahead of France, Italy and most other nations--is an everyday reminder of this vision, his vision.)
Yet, the enthusiasm about the first-ever feature-length film on Ataturk, whose last name actually means "father of Turks," quickly turned into harsh criticism from secular quarters, irritated at the portrayal of the great hero as a lonesome, unhappy man. I wept in darkness with a tub of Ben and Jerry's--sold in theaters thanks to Turkey being Westernized--moved by the details of Ataturk's life beyond what I had memorized in school. There is the agonizing divorce from his wife, the insomnia over many battlefields, gloomy letters to girlfriends, the excessive drinking once the war is over and the republic established, and finally an unbearable ennui verging on depression as he assumes the symbolic post of presidency late in his life.
It is particularly this last emphasis, on loneliness, that irritates most secular Turks, who complain that the film reduces Ataturk's role in his final days to pathetic melancholy. The night before I went to see the film, I heard an earful from friends who were outraged at the cinematography (yes, somewhat amateurish) and the depiction of Ataturk as a detached leader.
"The battle of independence--the thing that defined us--was only three and a half minutes, and my God, the loneliness part just went on and on," complained a journalist friend in Ankara. She and her husband were upset that their 9-year-old son, an Ataturk fan, came home on the verge of tears. "You didn't tell me he drank and smoked so much," the boy said.
And speaking of smoking, we're not talking about Barack Obama bumming a cigarette here and there. According to the film, Ataturk smoked three packs, had 15 cups of Turkish coffee and drank an entire bottle of the Turkish spirit raki every day.
With political Islam on the rise, most secular Turks like my friends feel this is not the right message for children, or for society. The ongoing battle between secularism and political Islam is what puts Westernized Turks on edge.
Several friends told me they were protesting the film. "Is this the right time to question Ataturk and his personality?" a businessman yelled over the phone. "The society is not mature enough to handle a film that shows a leader drinking and partying." He was fuming that the portrayal of Ataturk as an irreligious, fun-loving guy would embolden Islamic conservatives who want to reverse his legacy here. (Interestingly, this idea that society is a child to be managed is right out of the diaries of Mustafa as a young military cadet: "Given the power, I can make the necessary changes in this society overnight. After all this higher learning, exposure to a civilized lifestyle and a life dedicated to freedom, why should I lower myself to the ranks of the ignorant. I would bring them up to my level. I will make them more like me.")
Two professors filed a formal complaint with an Istanbul court against the director on the grounds that he is insulting the great leader, both a taboo and a crime in Turkey.
Mustafa had the opposite impact on me. Director Can Dundar claims he tried to show "a more human face" of Ataturk than before, and he really succeeded. It may be due to my American education, but I felt nothing but sympathy for this leader with human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. (I can think of a few recent American presidents with similar flaws.)
Depression is such a common modern malaise that to see the great hero glum at times only made me identify with him. His leadership skills and military brilliance were apparent; his penetrating eyes, mesmerizing. A sharp dresser with a dark side--so much more interesting than the generic, sanitized leaders the modern day offers.
As for his vision of creating a more Westernized, more secular nation, I left the theater once again grateful for that legacy.
A family member told me that at a kindergarten in Izmir, one of the kids said to the teacher, "He was so lonely. Why didn't you go and talk to him before he died?" At the end of the film, I felt like calling up my dead grandma and asking the same--even though when Ataturk died in 1938, she was just a little girl.
Asli Aydintasbas is an Istanbul-based journalist and former Ankara bureau chief of the newspaper Sabah.