Friday, November 12, 2010


Recently it was the death anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known to Turks as the father of modern Turkey. Every year on November 10th, the country comes to a halt for a moment of silence, cars stopping on the roads, students in auditoriums standing tall and proud, shopkeepers taking a minute away from bustling commerce, all to mourn his passing and remember what he did for Turkey. He is important here, and from the biggest cities to the smallest villages, you can find a bust, statue, or picture of Ataturk. His image graces every classroom and business in the country and his face adorns all of the money.

His death day is also the reason why Koray and I were brought together. Nine years ago,the death anniversary fell on a Saturday, so the entire school gathered for an assembly to commemorate the day. Some mutual friends threw a party the night before, and it was there that Koray and I locked eyes. The rest is history.

This post is kind of two fold. It is about something Koray did the other day at school, which also ties in very closely to why I love him.

As I mentioned previously, on Ataturk's death day, schools across the country gather for an assembly where the national anthem is sung, speeches are made, poems recited, music played and the students sit quietly in the audience. This has been the practice for tens of years. A similar scene also happens for the six or so other mandatory assemblies the ministry of education requires of all schools in Turkey.

But this year at our school is different.

Koray and the deans decided that things needed to change. We are educating our students to be critical thinkers who question and interact with the knowledge and content present in our curriculum in hope that they will bring this skill out into the world with them. This doesn't match with the passive ceremonies conducted year after year. So it was agreed that the ceremonies would change from the students sitting passively, to something where the students are more active in the process.

So as the head teacher, Koray decided to conduct the last passive ceremony by giving a speech that spoke to this very sentiment.

When he first told me about the idea, I admit I was initially nervous. Saying anything but positive statements about Ataturk is frowned upon, and ceremonies that celebrate the man as a hero is the status quo. Koray of course wasn't planning on saying anything derogatory, but what he planned to say was something that could be open to misinterpretation. Koray assured me that he was drawing on the core of Ataturk's principles, saying something that was a long time coming. Once I saw the look of determination in his eyes, I knew that this was something he needed to do not only for himself, but for the students at our school. Whatever happened would happen; it needed to be said and he needed to say it.

When Koray gave the speech, you could hear a pin drop in an auditorium of 1005 teenagers. I was proud and inspired by him.

I will witter on no longer and let Koray speak for himself.

Here is the transcript of the speech:

Good morning,

It was 72 years ago today that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed away and we are here to remember him and voice our appreciation and respect for him. However in this year’s ceremony there will not be the traditional sequences of the usual ceremonies, like poems cited or documentaries to be watched. If you allow me, relying on your good reason and conscience, I would like to tell you some things that my reason and conscience dictate. I have been almost regularly attending these ceremonies since 1979 and I feel it is time to share a few notions of my Ataturk, if you like. I hope I manage to say what I mean and I hope you find them appropriate and meaningful and I hope this officially becomes the last ceremony in which you are passively involved.

The year must have been 1981 because I remember being in 3rd Grade at a 10th of November ceremony. Hundreds of us were lined up in the long but narrow courtyard of our school in the neighbourhood. At around 09:05, the hour that Ataturk passed away, the school principal called all of us to attention and a moment of silence started, accompanied by the wailing of the sirens. That’s when it got a bit messy, especially for me. On one hand there were the little first graders who started crying and calling for mommy because they were probably scared by the sirens, on the other hand a group of teachers hurried away to calm the little ones down, at the very expressive facial commands of our principal and the worst of worst things happened.

I started giggling and laughing.

I don’t exactly remember what I found funny but I do remember seeing our principal staring right at me and I knew I was in trouble, a state I was quite familiar with. Later on after the ceremony, as the principal was slapping me quite hard on my head, he was yelling “Do you think Ataturk founded the republic for punks like you? What would he think if he saw you, what would he think?”

That very question has never left me ever since; what would Ataturk think if he saw these ceremonies we were running? What would he say? What would this man, who spent most of his life fighting with dogmas and struggling for individuals’ and peoples’ right for self-determination, see in these ceremonies? What do you think he would think about the expectation laid on students of memorizing bits and myths about him, as a leader who did away with sultanate and caliphate because they base their power and authority on an unquestionable divine source?

Seriously, what would he think?

These ceremonies in the way they are still performed have a set structure and ironically, even though some of these ceremonies are for days which are called “bayrams” (festivals) the structure still does not change. The connotations of bayram like celebration, getting together, having fun somehow never make their way into the discourses of these ceremonies. It is hard for me to be convinced that a leader like Atatürk, who dedicated two national days for children and for the young with the hope of them understanding what he and his principles stand for, would necessarily be happy with what he would see. You see, the Atatürk that I like and take as a role model at times, is very different from the Ataturk my principal tried to bang into my head, literally.

I was told a lot of things about Ataturk and was asked to memorize a lot of things about Ataturk throughout my school years. However, I have a personal understanding of Ataturk based on things I figured out by what I have read, watched and as well as the conversations I have had with people, in whose conscience and reasoning I trust. The most remarkable and essential quality of my Ataturk is that he was a man of action and inertia was not an option for him. Standing from our present context and reality, it is rightfully possible to be critical of some of his practices in his own time and realities. Even when doing so, it is fair to realize that we are talking about an individual who did not accept status quo, a person who actually did something about what he was not happy with.

Many of us today are driven to live lives where making a difference and taking a stance are regarded as out-of-date dispositions and maybe we have good reasons for that. But how honest and consistent is it to seemingly pay our respect and show our appreciation 4 or 5 times a year in exactly the same kind of ceremonies for someone whose portraits and pictures are everywhere we go, whilst refraining from exhibiting the very quality of him that I believe has made all the difference? A question for all of us to take a few seconds to ponder:

“When was the last time you took a risk in order to make others’ lives better, even when you knew what you did would have no direct benefit for you?”

I do not mean to say we all have to be Ataturks, we all have an essential obligation of being ourselves for ourselves and others. My point is that as opposed to paying lipservice in these ceremonies, it is more important and valuable to notice his determination to be himself against all risks and odds. Otherwise, organizing and attending these ceremonies exactly like we have in the last 30 or 40 years run the risk of standing in the way of developing our own unique and individual understandings of such an important man and of creating a lack of response and sensitivity, through mindless repetition.

One example of such confidence is very visible in a letter Ataturk wrote to his mother, as early as 1919, at the very beginning of the movement he started.

“Dear mother,

Ever since I’ve left Istanbul, I know I could send only a few telegrams and I can guess that you are worried. In order to do what I think must be done I have had to take my uniform off and start working as a civilian. That is what I did and I am starting to get results. Soon, the whole world will see the results. Do not worry and let me know if you need anything. Please send some clothes with the person who’s brought you this letter. Do not worry over things you hear. You know very well that I know what I am doing. Had I not been sure of its results, I would not have started this movement.”

One of the surest ways of avoiding these risks would simply be to work harder and meaningfully in our areas of impact. Ataturk’s main approach to laying the foundations of a new identity for a brand new nation was simply formulated with the following advice of his:

“Be proud, work hard and have self-confidence.”

It is of utmost importance that we check our understanding of this statement. Maybe it is now time to spend more time on working harder than on being proud or bragging, in order to have the kind of necessary confidence in ourselves, in our identities and in the main principles of democracy.

While reading the memoir of Hasan Riza Soyak, Ataturk’s personal assistant, one comes to a very profound realization. When we take away the very human qualities of people like Ataturk, or anyone for that matter, not only do we develop a misconception of the person but we also throw them in the pangs of loneliness and depression. Below are Ataturk’s own words, describing his state of mind in 30s, long after having established the republic:

“It is almost like the life of prisoner. I am alone during day time. Everybody’s away attending to their work but I do not have anything to do to fill an hour, let alone a full day. That means I either have to sleep or read a book or write a few things. If I feel like a change of air, maybe I will take ride into the city in the car. And then? Then I will return to this prison, where I will try to kill some more time playing pool maybe, waiting for dinner time. If only dinner time brought about a change…same faces, same names, same words over and over again. In a nutshell, I am fed up.”

Maybe I am wrong in what I am saying, maybe you would disagree. However, one disposition which I have based largely on him as my role-model is to stay true to what my mind and conscience dictate and then to take action.

So at this point, I would kindly invite you to a moment of actual silence, unaccompanied by sirens. During this minute, I encourage you to think about how we can make our ceremonies and celebrations of national days more meaningful and effective in terms creating a better understanding of people like Ataturk and the values and principles they operate with.

Finally I have two people to thank.

First one is to the then principal of the elementary school I went to. I don’t think I learned whatever he intended me to learn but he made me ask a very important question at a very early stage. By the way, this does not imply that I suggest my dear colleagues use the same strategy as his to raise individuals who ask questions.

The second person is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who has largely provided me with the freedom to speak these and other words and who has also been a role-model for me to speak my mind and take action as my mind and conscience dictate.

May he rest in peace.


  1. Ataturk would have been proud and happy to hear this thoughtful speech. Good work, Koray Bey!

  2. Great speech. Wish I could've been there for this.

  3. Thank you Annie and Koray. Thank you for having the courage to speak so eloquently and to live up to the ideals of Ataturk. I so wish I could have been there to hear it live (and to hear the silence) - but I am so proud to know Koray and to at least hear his voice in my head as I read his words. Bravo! Tears of pride are welling. xoxo

  4. great point - if only everyone thought like this rather than blindly idolizing ataturk!

  5. That is by far and a way the best speech about Ataturk I have ever come across. Good for Koray!