A Changing Past

by Diego Salvatierra:

The camera zooms to a palace window as the most powerful man in Turkey prepares for bed. The year is 1932, and the man is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first President and founding father. “Mustafa confided something he had hidden since childhood,” whispers the narrator theatrically: “He was afraid of the dark.”

Through scenes like this, “Mustafa,” a 2008 documentary about the figure of Atatürk, began to challenge a national narrative. Protests, disparaging newspaper editorials, and attacks by political figures followed its initial release. Today, Mustafa’s director and producer, Can Dündar, is still facing court charges for offending Atatürk’s memory, which is protected by law in Turkey. In few countries do historical documentaries have such an impact and compel such a controversial response.
On the set of "Magnificent Century," another controversial Turkish show. (Parker/TYG)
“Atatürk is a taboo subject,” explained Dündar. “Kemalism [a term that describes reverence of Atatürk] [SS1]is, or was, practically a religion.” Images and statues of Atatürk are omnipresent in Turkey, placed in every government building, public school, and city plaza. School textbooks exalt his achievements. But, in spite of the controversy, Dündar´s film was a major hit. Watched by over a million Turks, it became one of the country’s most successful films.

The Cult of Atatürk
In Turkey, it is easy to tell where people lie on the political spectrum: simply have them describe certain important public figures. “Calling the founder ‘Atatürk’ exaggerates his persona,” explained Yuksel Taskim, a scholar on conservative politics at Marmara University, “whereas calling him ‘Mustafa Kemal’ minimizes it” (“Atatürk” literally means “Father Turk,” and is more of an honorific than a surname). Ardent “Kemalists” or “Atatürkists,” those who most exalt Atatürk’s memory, are usually associated with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is the country’s old secular elite—and is currently not in power.  According to Halil Berktay, who is a professor at Sabancı University (Istanbul), a columnist, and a scholar on Turkish historical memory, traditional historiography portrays Atatürk as the country’s savior from foreign domination and its own Ottoman past. Any errors Atatürk may have made, from political mistakes to personal failings, are ignored. The old sultans are shown as negligent at best, and traitors at worst. These are views that still dominate Turkish education, explained Berktay, since the National Education Ministry strictly controls the curriculum.

But the filmmaker Dündar did not intend to disparage Atatürk. In fact, it was Dündar’s reputation as an Atatürk sympathizer that granted him access to the founder’s personal diaries, zealously guarded by the country’s “Atatürkist” military. Yet in its final form, “Mustafa” showed Atatürk’s flaws as well as successes: his military victories and reforms were described in detail, along with his drinking habit and marital problems. “Dündar intended to portray Mustafa Kemal as a tragic hero, to promote a more sophisticated form of praise,” interpreted Berktay. According to Dündar, it is actually the Kemalists who are betraying Atatürk’s memory, not him. “Atatürk himself was not a Kemalist, but a rational man,” he added.

Derya Kilic, a political science student at Istanbul University and a self-described Kemalist, agrees with Dündar’s more complex portrayal, but believes Turkey is simply not ready for it. “In Turkey, this just confuses people,” she said. “And it gives a bad example to children” when they see such a revered figure drinking, she added.

In politics, however, traditional Kemalist views have been increasingly sidetracked by the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP, a mildly religious conservative party, is often accused of covert anti-Atatürkism, and has shaken the old establishment. Kerim Balcı, editor at Zaman, an AKP-leaning conservative daily, recognized that “Kemalism may have been necessary, to some extent” in the 1920s and 30s, but not today. “Shakira is now more famous than Atatürk,” he continued. “We needed (Atatürk as) an image for two generations, but now we don’t.”

Ottoman Cool
Instead, interest in Turkey’s Ottoman past has been growing fast. From the names of trendy pubs to haute couture, the last few years have witnessed a rage for all things Ottoman. Berktay recalled how “people started buying old Ottoman mosaics, recreating Ottoman music, reading Ottoman historical novels.” “Magnificent Century,” a period drama set in Ottoman Sultan Suleiman’s 16th century palace, captured the highest ratings on Turkish television in the first half of 2011.

“People are now seeing the antiquity of the Ottomans as something to be proud of,” said Çagdas Üngör, a historian at Marmara University. “Nobody really wants the Republic gone,” she explained, but after 50 years of one-sided history, “Turks are making peace with their Ottoman heritage.”

Sentiments about the Ottoman period run deep. When “Magnificent Century” depicted Suleiman drinking alcohol (which is frowned upon by conservative branches of Islam) and implied steamy sexual fantasies in the Sultan’s harem, controversy flared. Over seventy thousand people sent complaints to Turkey’s Board of Radio and Television, and large crowds appeared outside the show’s studios, calling for its ban. As happened with “Mustafa,” advertising sponsors quickly pulled out. Several AKP officials condemned the series, even at the highest levels: when the topic came up in a press conference, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the show “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect, and show it in a negative light to younger generations.”

Balcı, the Zaman editor, explained that “Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is a hero in this country, a national image.” As Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman was also Caliph of Islam, the global leader of his religion. His appeal as a symbol of national power survived as a popular, subterranean ideology for decades, even as official discourse disparaged the old Ottomans. “Magnificent Century” captures the popular image of this gilded age: its set, a detailed reproduction of the imperial Topkapı Palace, is eerily similar to the original, from the ornate windows and Islamic frescoes to the wall ceramics and fireplaces. Nevertheless, producer Timur Savcı emphasized that unlike “Mustafa,” his show is fiction, a “dramatic plot” that should be evaluated as such. “We are naturally proud of our history and our ancestors,” continued Savcı, “but those rulers were also human.”

These dramatic liberties went too far for some: “Freedom of expression yes, but violation of historical fact, no,” complained Balcı. Academics agree that the show’s plot is inaccurate. Berktay, the historian, described it as anachronistic and kitsch. Nevertheless, what most enraged conservative commentators—implied Ottoman court promiscuity—was certainly fact. Whereas Balcı protests that Suleiman did not have “sexual” harems, Berktay contends that questioning harem sex is like arguing that Thomas Jefferson did not own slaves.

For “Magnificent Century,” it soon became clear that a deluge of written complaints, public protests, and media coverage only increased ratings. The heat died down within a few months, and the show continued to captivate Turkish audiences. Berktay, putting aside his historian’s concern about accuracy, attributed its success to Turks’ “hunger for everything that had been censored,” an eagerness to fill the cultural gap imposed by anti-Ottoman Kemalism.

Textbook Wars?
The search for a new, broader national narrative intensifies. Dündar was pleased at the controversy “Mustafa” caused, as it sparked discussion and was a “step towards finding the real Atatürk.” After his documentary was released in 2008, at least two or three new films and documentaries have come out about Atatürk, indicative of a new debate. Likewise, Berktay described the academic “mental liberation” in some universities, enthusiastically explaining how his students were often “shell-shocked” by revisionist college-level history, so different from their antiquated school curriculum, which has remained unchanged since the 1950s.

At the same time, today’s army and Ministry of Education remain staunchly Kemalist, often putting them at odds with the AKP government. Yet they retain authority, explaining why a “narrow-minded Kemalist view” of history is still taught in school, noted Dündar. On the other end, Berktay explained how the ruling AKP is often seen as sporting an “Ottoman aura.” As Turkey’s influence in the Arab Middle East expands, the term “neo-Ottoman” is increasingly used to describe Turkey’s international impact, from the popularity of Turkish television, to that of Prime Minister Erdo?an, whom The Economist called an “Ottoman dreamer” in regard to his active foreign policy.

The monolithic historical depiction of Turkey’s founder has been shaken. Atatürk’s image may still be everywhere, but Dündar’s “Mustafa” illustrates a more objective view of the man and his myth. Likewise, “Magnificent Century” highlights the renewed cultural appeal of the Ottoman era, but the show is no idealization. There are those who would have these productions banned, and return to an old narrative, or replace one dogma with another. Yet Turks by the millions are proving them wrong, simply by going to a film and turning on their TVs.

Diego Salvatierra ’13 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Pierson College. Contact him at diego.salvatierra@yale.edu.