An Open Letter to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Helen of Sparta
February 24, 2005
Dear Mr. Atatürk,
This is not a fan letter. I am a Kurd. I lived under your shadow from dawn to dusk, no, I take it back, it was more like around the clock, for close to 20 years of my life. What a waste it was. I honestly think I was cursed for the experience. Why on earth did God allow such a travesty to take its course for as long as it did? And do you know what is even worse? Millions of Kurds are still reeling under the same blight. If I say neither land nor ocean has produced another diabolical creature like you, please do not take it personally. Good and evil are a part of the human condition. It is a pity that you were under the influence of the latter for most of your adult life. What has come out of your mouth easily seconds my point. What doesn’t is a number of spurious pronouncements from a group of clueless observers who have declared you a prophet. Never has the world seen a record so atrocious or a glorification so abject in the history of the Middle East. In Turkey, the country that owes its existence to you, I would be jailed for three years for making this letter public. Heaven forbid, if a Kurdish newspaper or magazine were to publish it, then my punishment is doubled. “The arrow has left the bow,” as they say in Turkish; I am now hoping it will reach its intended target, you, Mr. Atatürk.
Don’t worry; I am not aiming to kill. My purpose is limited in scope; I only wish to wake your children up from their deep, deep trance. An awakened and enlightened Turkish population will stop, and may even apologize for the crimes of molesting the Kurds. But before I do so, let me tease you a bit and tell you of the latest that passes as news relative to you. Meriel Beattie, a journalist for the British daily, the Independent, filed the following report, on November 21, 2004, after witnessing, for the first time, the observance of your death at Kizilay, in Ankara, Turkey. “Wherever they are - cars mid-way across the junction, passengers halfway off the bus, dustman broom in hand - everyone freezes to mark the exact moment in November 1938 when modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, died. Some motorists stand by their cars. Others sit rigid behind the wheel. … A voyeur by the fountain, I am amazed, fascinated, and slightly shamed, too, that no one in my country's history has ever elicited this kind of respect from me.” Last September, Milliyet, a Turkish daily, noted that Tony Blair, Meriel Beattie’s prime minister, had read your life story over the summer. On the shores that I have sought refuge, in America, your fans are a legion and pass as the brightest ornaments the universe has ever seen or known: Richard Perle, Bernard Lewis, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, Newt Gingrich, and you are going to smile at my favorite, Jesse Ventura, a wrestler by profession.
I have, as you might rightly surmise, been baffled with such fascination for you by ordinary as well as extraordinary minds. The more I think of their adoration, the more I feel we are doomed as the human species. Not long ago, a bright American writer died of complications with leukemia. Her name was Susan Sontag. The PBS reporter who chronicled her life story noted that she had, at one time, said, “The White race is the cancer of humanity.” As someone who aspires to pass as a relatively well-informed person in this world, I hit myself on the forehead for not knowing enough about “the White race” to agree or disagree with her. But I thought of you, Mr. Atatürk, the moment I heard Gwen Ifell quote Ms. Sontag on Mr. Lehrer’s news hour on December 28, 2004. I had been looking in all kinds of places, libraries, museums, my own past, burning many midnight candles as they say, but had not been able to connect you with my people in one sentence to my heart’s content. That evening I put an end to my search. That evening, I paraphrased Ms. Sontag, and murmured, “Mr. Atatürk, you are the cancer of the Kurds!” Churchill was right after all, when he said, "Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." I hadn’t, I never will, but found it a bit odd that it took the death of an American author for me to have my own “eureka” moment and in front of a television screen. Life is bizarre, isn’t it, Mr. Atatürk? History is strange, don’t you think?
Ms. Sontag, as I said, died too soon to see the White race kill humanity. The same happened to you, Mr. Atatürk. After hanging the Kurdish leader Shaikh Said in 1925, and murdering some 40,000 Kurds in Dersim in 1937 and 1938, your drinking got the better of you, I wish it had done so sooner, and knocked you down on November 10, 1938. Your children then took up your dying wish to heart and are now the proud owners of an astonishing record by world standards: they have crippled the Kurds. These children of yours are very, very successful, Mr. Atatürk. Unlike the White race, they use something called “remote control” and have pitted the Kurds against the Kurds with incredible good luck. Abdullah Ocalan, a one-time Kurdish rebel, has now become your unabashed defender and calls, for example, the possible emergence of a federal Kurdish state in Iraq, “a Zionist plot.” Someone needs to whisper in his ears that not Hamas or Osama bin Laden, but Godless Turks masquerading as defenders of Palestinians while sleeping with the Israelis are running the show in Ankara. One other thing has been really bugging me Mr. Atatürk. Are the Turks smart or lucky when it comes to their fantastic manipulation of the Kurds? In either case, when we Kurds complete our self-destruction, for your sake and that of your children, the White race will send a fact finding-mission to the Middle East to marvel at the wonders of your progeny. I bet you a hundred dollars, okay if you are up to it I can even do a thousand on credit, their report will be titled something like, “the Turkish Contributions to Western Civilization!” What do you think? Your work complete, you could then go to sleep forever.
Mr. Atatürk, I don’t know how to put this delicately for you, but the country you helped put together is a deformity in a class of its own. When you started your war of liberation, you donned turbans, pleaded with the Kurds for help, and invoked Allah to grant you success for a place under the sun where Muslim Turks and Kurds could live unmolested. When it was over, you banned turbans, took Islam out of government, and the part I don’t understand, declared all Kurds nonexistent! Your children are now telling me, it was all for my own good. Many Kurds who have been deprived of rays of freedom and the light of science go along with this nonsense. Blame it on my education if you will, but I can’t do it. I am hoping though that through this correspondence, you might just, it is a long shot I know, but you might just make me privy to some of your evil plans relative to the Kurds. Did you, for example, think we Kurds were cowards or stupid when you declared us nonexistent? I have also heard people say, success makes people drunk, and that you thought very highly of yourself, especially after your victory over the Greeks. Lord Kinross, in his book, “Atatürk,” writes, for example, that you had your mom kiss your hand in the immediate aftermath of the event. Did you really do that to your mother? Did you also ask her to kiss your feet as well while she was at it? Did you not feel any shame afterward? I have never heard shallowness so corrosive and pompousness so rank in my entire life. It is incredible that not only Turks, but also foreigners, including the Brits, are now lining up to emulate you as a role model. On a clear day, to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, I can almost see the fall of humanity from grace, especially when I have this nightmarish vision of Meriel Beattie going down on her knees before your silhouette, Mr. Atatürk. Wisdom hurts. I now know why people say, “Ignorance is bliss.”
I wish this hand and foot kissing were just an errant thing between you and your mom, Mr. Atatürk. It looks like you actually thought very highly of yourself and took offense at those who read through your superficiality. No one, for example, abused the phrase, “Western civilization”, as much as you did and no one, apparently, I am sorry to point this out to you in public, was as clueless about it as you were, Mr. Atatürk. It was like President Ronald Reagan championing freedom while also feverishly cavorting with those who fathered the Taliban for the world. In your case, you loved having the appearance of western institutions, but refused to acknowledge their role in the government if they did anything resembling opposition. A French journalist once visited you in Ankara, observed you in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, and upon his return to Paris wrote that, “Turkey is governed by one drunkard, one deaf man, and three hundred deaf-mutes.” When your aides shared this bit of bad news with you, instead of reflecting on the merits of what the journalist had observed, you threw a fit and shouted, “This man is mistaken. Turkey is governed by a drunkard.” Why did you get so angry, Mr. Atatürk? Were you incensed that the reporter had seen you fit in the company of 301 mute and deaf persons? But when you sobered up, you actually thought of your parliament as an “Assembly of Philosophers.” If you, their leader, were an admitted “drunkard,” what were they like, Mr. Atatürk? The world has heard nothing of their accomplishments. No, I take it back, they actually erected a mausoleum to your name, and you are going to be shocked to read this, but maybe not, okay I am, not in a building, but on a city block that some historians have compared to the Pyramids of the Pharaohs in Egypt. Do you know whom the Pharaohs surrounded themselves with? You did the same and it is a pity that you called them the lovers of wisdom. Why didn’t you call them with their real names, the terrorized deputies whose understanding of the world was not even as good as yours? Truth hurts as well, but it is also liberating. Do you get my point?
That brings me to another observation about you and that is your ubiquitous statements all over Turkey, especially in Turkish occupied Kurdistan, on all kinds of subjects from bread making to kite flying. The most memorable ones have been ingrained in my mind and I know them forward as well as backward, word for word, and even in my sleep. Take for example what you said of the people you claimed to be your children, the Turks. “One Turk equals the whole world.” Or, “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.” Or, “Turkey belongs to the Turks.” The last one is my favorite for it comes close to what the Nazis used to say of Germany, "Deutschland Judenrein," which translates to something like, Germany free of Jews. The question I have for you, Mr. Atatürk, is a very simple one. Were you drunk or sober when you made these statements? If you were drunk, I can totally understand it, and we should not dwell on such petty pronouncements. But your children refuse to believe that anything unhealthy could part from your lips. They are now forcing everybody, and especially the hapless Kurds, to live and die by your words. As a child, I learnt to put up with such endless claptrap. As an adult, it becomes unbearable to say you are worth the whole world, when the latter is oblivious to your presence or considers you an utter ignoramus. I honestly think you should tell your children that they are no longer in kindergarten, and that they should start thinking for themselves, and that respecting others is a good thing, and that doing so might even genuinely qualify them, without the makeup, for the entry into the European Union. If you do, I promise you, I will call all my nephews and nieces to stop cursing you for a change and even thank you for the long overdue, would it be an admission or admonition? If you are allergic to doing a favor for the Kurds, forget my nephews and nieces and me, do it for the sake of your own children.
This letter would have a gaping hole in it, if I did not mention your views on Islam and its place in the society. As far as you were concerned, the religion of Mohammed and civilization were “contradiction” in terms. According to Lord Kinross, you actually wished all Turks were Christians. Since you were drunk most of the times, it is a little bit hard to say if you meant what you said or were engaging in some sort of jest. What was it? But your animosity towards Islam and its clergy, especially when you were tipsy, was proverbial and reminds me of how the pre-Christian era Roman Emperors treated the disciples of Christ. One incident out of Lord Kinross’ book left me gasping for air by the time I was done with it. The Shah of Iran had come to Turkey for a state visit. You had taken him on of a tour of your old battlegrounds at the Dardanelles. On the way to Izmir, in the presidential train, you had gotten yourself drunk. In Usak, a large crowd had gathered to greet you and your guest. Among the throng, you spotted a Muslim cleric with his traditional garb and began hurling profanities at him. The poor man, according to Lord Kinross, took to his heels to escape the presidential assault. You were so incensed that you ordered the imprisonment of the governor and the bombardment of the city. When you sobered up, you apparently forwent your decision.
I wish you had stayed drunk a little bit longer to put your lieutenants in a dilemma about the order to destroy Usak. Perhaps a man with a backbone would have emerged in your retinue to put you in your place, that is to say, under the law. I find it comforting to know that we Kurds were your most implacable adversaries in spite of our losses. Our fathers were right to think that honor comes before safety and the loss of the first inevitably leads to the loss of the second. It is no different with us, their children, the freethinking ones. We have not won so far, but we have not given up either. I have no doubts in my mind that we are going to win this war of yours against our children. My only hope is that we do so with reason and the backing of the international community. But if that fails, do you know what I fear will be the upshot of our struggle against your children? We will regain our common border with Greece the way our ancestors, the Medes, shared it with the children of Aeschylus. Those who look for enemies, says a Turkish proverb, are always rewarded. I think it goes something like this in your language, “Ava giden avlanir.” You are still with me, aren’t you? I am not too keen to beat a dead horse for the sake of feeling good.
One other thing, Mr. Atatürk, you were very, very lucky to get away with such an insult on Islam and that potential assault on that Islamic cleric in Usak. Today, you would not have been able to do anything like it. For one thing, you would have been afraid of Osama bin Laden. For another, Islam has proven to be far more resilient than your shallow alternative, the Western civilization, in Turkey. People in the Western world can’t stop talking about the Turkish model, some are more honest than others and call it with its proper name, the Kemalist model, but none have bothered to see what it has done to the pious Turks or recalcitrant Kurds. At the beginning of my letter, I gave you the good news that your children have crippled the Kurds. But now I want to give you the bad news, the Islamists have taken over your country. There is more to it. Do you want me to say it now, or wait till the end of my letter? At the end of my letter, I am going to tell you about your daughters, the delight of western tourists, so let me just say it now, and if this spine-chilling news keeps you awake at nights, well, you deserve it. Long before 9/11, some Islamists had actually planned to attack your mausoleum with planes loaded with explosives. You had not only openly disdained their religion, but also, as a lapsed Muslim, had said things that no Christian leader would dare say even in his or her dreams. Do you know what the Muslims think of you these days? You are one big apostate Kemal for millions of them around the world. And do you know something else? The rest of the world agrees with them.
There is more to your faithlessness, Mr. Atatürk. As a Kurd, I am consumed with what you did to my people, an existential fact, as opposed to a set of beliefs held sacred by the followers of Christ or Mohammed. You wrote us off, you wiped us out, you spoke of us in the past tense, and you did all this and more in the name of “Western civilization.” Why did you feel the need to seek shelter under such a cover? Adolph Hitler had not made a name for himself yet. Enver Pasha, your one time boss, the architect of Armenian genocide, had fled to the Soviet Union in disgrace. Your plan, if you really think about it, was more like what Selim the Cruel, Genghis Khan, and Attila the Hun did in the course of their relentless inroads to Europe and the Middle East. To be fair to them, they had slaughtered tens of thousands of people, but had never tinkered with the idea of banning languages. Who gave you this devilish idea of forbidding people from singing their songs? Muslims, the people you considered backward in bold letters, never subjected us to such a criminal design. If I were a European, in spite of Adolph Hitler, I would have said, Mr. Atatürk, please do not market your criminal project as a European thing. This sickness defies definition and belongs to a category of its own. If truth were the norm in the conduct of nations, the good folks at the United Nations would have declared a moratorium on Turkey to stop the spread of the pestilential Kemalist model in the world. Alas, instead, they are too busy making money off the Kurdish oil with the likes of Saddam Hussein.
You probably think I am exaggerating a bit. I am doing nothing of the sort. A little bit over a year ago, Al Jazeera website run a story by Jonathan Gorvett out of Istanbul titled, “Kurds Struggle to Find Voice in Turkey.” Ibrahim Tatlises had broken a taboo and sang a Kurdish song on Turkish television. Now those of you who don’t know of Mr. Tatlises, he is as popular in Turkey as Michael Jackson is in America. Soon after the singing, members of the right wing groups such as “Ulkuculer” staged a protest in Istanbul carrying signs that read, “Do Not Make Our Patience Run Out, We Might Visit You One Night Unexpectedly.” And, “We Will Hang You!” Apparently they meant what they said for the Turkish police arrested three of them on December 14, 2003, for stalking Mr. Tatlises. In their car, the officers found “a handgun, an automatic rifle and a stolen police uniform.” Mr. Jackson, I mean, Mr. Tatlises now travels in a convoy of twenty cars filled with bodyguards, an expense he could afford, but the same is not the case with other Kurdish singers be they professionals or amateurs. Asked what he thought of the event, Ahmet Dagtekin, an official of the Democratic People’s Party, minced no words to warn other Kurds who might have still fancied singing in Kurdish. In his words, “At least two people were killed recently in a shoot out at a wedding in the conservative town of Adapazari simply because a song was sung in Kurdish.”
Just as you might say, well, we are finally winning, I am sorry to say but there are hurdles. The Americans have joined the fray and are doing stuff that your children consider preposterous. On March 19, 2004, the Turkish Daily News run a story titled, “Controversial Torture Case Postponed Again.” A Turkish student, Birtan Altinbas, had been taken into custody back in 1991. His dead body was discovered in a ditch a few days later. His family sued the police officers on duty. There were eight of them. Amnesty International sided with the family to see to it that justice was served. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a letter to the Turkish Justice Minister, Cemil Cicek, praising him for his “zero tolerance” policy towards torture and expressed his hope for a speedy trial after thirteen years. Minister Cicek, apparently, called the presiding judge to remind of him of the risk of the statue of limitations. All this sounds good so far, tragic and painful as must have been the death of Mr. Altinbas. But in Turkey, it is not justice that sees the light of day, but its nemesis. Mehmet Oner, one of the lawyers for the accused police officers, refused to plead his case, because an American official was present in the audience. He addressed the presiding judge not to defend his client but to express his displeasure with the representative of the United States. The way he put it, “Today is the anniversary of victory over invading countries in the Dardannelles in the First World War. Some 250,000 Turks did not become martyrs for nothing. I will not present my plea. I will keep silent.”
Was this lawyer keeping silent because the American official might have found out something unsavory about the Turkish police? The right of defense is a sacred bond between a citizen and his or her government, but I can’t help but be a bit curious if Mr. Oner was ever alarmed about the death of Mr. Altinbas in police custody? If his own sister were raped, tortured, and murdered under similar circumstances, would he have protested the presence of an American in the audience? It all comes back to you Mr. Atatürk. You set a bad precedent and adopted the law of jungle. Unlike Mr. Oner, however, you actually knew a thing or two about the big power politics. You respected the Americans, the English, the French, and the Russians. It was with the Kurds that you lost your equilibrium. To this day, I don’t see how you found glory in battling the weak. There is no honor in killing the defenseless. Only cowards gang up on the small ones. After your victory over the Kurds, you came up with another of your memorable lines, “Peace at home and peace abroad.” What does the word peace mean to you, Mr. Atatürk? Can justice ever be divorced from the cause of peace? Can serenity ever be the lot of a molester or the molested? Can torture against an individual or violence against a defenseless people ever pave the way for stability? You obviously were clueless about these weighty issues. You saddled your children with some elementary school catechisms and thought they were going to have the ride of their lives. It has been anything but a ride.
The republic that you left behind has had four military coups since 1960, Mr. Atatürk. Can you just guess how many civilian governments your successors have put together since your departure in 1938? 58. America is 229 years old, but has had 43 administrations. Politics, in other words, is one of the most thankless and dangerous professions in Turkey. The best and brightest avoid it like a plague. You are one big reason for it. Your so-called bright lights were nothing, but yes men. They simply repeated after you verbatim. But the real blockheads have emerged from your old romping grounds, the military. I think it was Metternich who said disasters are the harvests of countries that are saddled with military leaders both in war and peace. He had his nemesis Napoleon in mind, but replace the word Napoleon with Atatürk and voila you have the whole thing all over again in Turkey. The Turkish military, beginning with you, has had nothing but contempt for successive civilian governments. Only Turgut Ozal had the guts to stand up to the Turkish brass. It is a pity that people like him are a rarity in Turkey. On January 1, 2003, the Turkish world woke up to another “war” between your military and its civilian government, this time over a picture of you in the parliament building. Fehmi Kutlu, an Islamist deputy of the Justice and Development Party, had simply suggested that a picture of you in civilian clothes would go better in parliament building than the present one in the military garb. Do you know what happened next? You should, because the army you left behind has not changed a bit.
The Turkish General Staff issued a statement, yes a statement, to put Mr. Kutlu on notice. A portion of it read, “The Chief of Staff, as the head of Turkish Armed Forces, has deep concerns over such statements.” In your days, the poor fellow would have been hung from the nearest tree. I guess, considering the differences in times, one might say, Mr. Kutlu was lucky to get a warning about his lapse. But the same was not the lot of Professor Ibrahim Kaboglu, the spokesperson for the Human Rights Advisory Board of the Prime Minister’s Office. He and his friend, Professor Baskin Oran, together with a number of respected individuals from different walks of life, were tasked with advising the government on the thorny and thankless, and it turned out to be dangerous as well, issue of human rights so that Turkey would have an easy time joining the European Union. Last November, Professor Kaboglu had the misfortune of holding a press conference to make public his board’s findings. He was physically assaulted on national television. His report was branded "a document of treason." The Prime Minister of Turkey, the man who should have stood by his embattled advisor, conspired to fire him for daring to suggest things like the Kurds should be called the Kurds in Turkey. This is a rough outline of your country, Mr. Atatürk. And yet, people all over the world are still cheering for it to join the European Union. When we tell the same people the way to humanize the Turks is to empower the Kurds, that the weaknesses of the Kurds have contributed to the brutality of the Turks, that in the liberation of the Kurds lies the freedom of the Turks, a deafening silence fills the room, as if Galileo had just told the cardinals of the Vatican, “yes, the earth moves.” You, Mr. Atatürk, may think this loneliness of the Kurds is the best news that you have heard so far, but hold your breath, it is not meant to cheer you up, rather to sting the Kurds, to defy the odds, to keep faith like the Italian scientist, and to march onward with the confidence of sleepwalkers so that we too could reclaim what rightfully belongs to us in spite of the world.
I told you I would also tell you about your daughters. The news from the kinder sex is not good. A few years ago, the Washington Post published a study of the “Center for Health and Gender Equity,” which listed Turkey as the number one offender in wife beating. 58 % of your daughters complained of physical abuse from their “loved” ones. This shocking news ties well with another rather odd observation of a long time Turkey watcher Stephen Kinzer, a reporter for the New York Times, who, after spending several years in your country, wrote a book, “Crescent & Star,” in 2001. In it, he talks of young Turkish women in the following vein, “An attractive and vivacious Turkish woman I know lives at home with her parents. Although she is already in her mid-twenties, she likes the arrangement, not just because Daddy pays her credit-card bills but also because her family is close-knit and loving. This is quite a normal situation in Turkey. It is assumed that parents will guard their daughters’ virtue, and keeping them close by is the best guarantee. But this woman has in fact been sleeping with boyfriends since she was in high school. So have most of the women she knows. Their parents have no idea how far they have ventured from conservative tradition, or are so deep in denial that they refuse to see how different the new generation of Turks is from all generations that have come before.”
The denial that Mr. Kinzer is talking about is not just emblematic of the young Turkish women and their fathers, but endemic of Turkey going back to the years when you put the country together, Mr. Atatürk. When you sowed dishonesty, did you really think you were going to harvest the truth? No one that I know of has made a connection between the duplicity of your daughters and the hypocrisy of your leadership relative to the Kurds, but I think you don’t need to be a rocket engineer to see that both suffer from a lack of honesty and open discourse. When that unfettered conversation takes place in Turkey, it would behoove your children to read of Helen, the celebrated heroine of ancient Greece, who in Euripides expresses the following telling words about the place of a real father in the lives of real children. “ … For it is the brightest fame of children, when they have a father who was good, if they match the character that gave them birth.” You, Mr. Atatürk, in an act of supreme hubris anointed yourself the father of all Turks and some 52 % of the Kurds who were trapped in Turkish Kurdistan. You did this knowing full well that you had grown up as an orphan and were wanting in that department. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not against orphans becoming fathers. What I am against is impositions for positions that have little basis in reality. I will be even more blunt, having you as a father is like choosing a one legged athlete to represent your country at the Olympics to compete with two legged competitors. To paraphrase one of Turkey’s most famous poets, Mehmet Akif Ersoy, that athlete could only be, “dostunun yuzkarasi, dusmanin maskarasi,” which translates to something like, a source of disappointment for his friends, and one of laughter for his enemies. No one should get such a representation. It leads to failure of faith, failure of love and failure of a belief in the future. It is about time for your children to wake up from their pernicious trance, declare peace with the Kurds, and chart a course that is meaningful and relevant in the world. As to the Kurds, your children out of our hair, we will bind our wounds and begin anew our own journey in the fields of light with smiles on our faces.
I am disappointedly yours,
Israel Training Iraqi Kurds