In Russia the Tsar was always referred to lovingly as Little Father; here in Turkey, Ataturk’s presence is writ large. He attracts a different kind of worship. Each year on November 10th, the anniversary of his death in 1938 at 9.05, the moment he last drew breath, a siren sounds and the country collectively comes to halt for a minute. Cars hoot and drivers stand to attention. In that gorgeous wedding cake of architecture, the Dolmabahce Palace, the clock in the room where he breathed his last is permanently frozen at that precise minute. It doesn’t stop there, of course; Turks love any excuse to bring out their brilliant red star- and-crescent flag adorned with the image of the father, his head tilted upwards, his eyes gazing into the distance as if dreaming of great things to come.
Istanbul has some of the world’s biggest and finest shopping malls; on a day such as this, even they pay tribute to the great white father. In Akmerkez, a gleaming modern version of Topkapi Palace, a sacred non-commercial space has been cleared for the occasion showing portraits of the man while a band plays his favourite tunes. Bookshops display the many biographies of him, and lit-up panels carry quotations from his writings. Shopaholics take a breath in between Versace and Vakko to pay homage to a man who has never really departed. He is everywhere. Even in private homes you will see photos of him posing like Napoleon with right hand in jacket or dancing with one of his daughters.
Thus the name Sabiha Gokhcen might not be given two seconds’ thought by visitors to Istanbul’s second international airport but it is worth more than that. The lithe young woman pictured in large black and white photographs was one of his eight adopted daughters - possibly the favourite - and the first female combat pilot in the world. Like father like daughter. She had no fear of flying. I can’t help thinking of the Greek goddess Athene springing fully born out of the head of Zeus. Ataturk was briefly married to Latife Uşaklıgil to whom he proposed in company with his fellow soldiers. That was the custom back then. Though it was a childless marriage, he went on to adopt several children who came his way and appealed to him. Perhaps Sabiha was his favourite because she followed in his footsteps and lived up to his name.
It was in his latter years that he fell in love with children; by then perhaps he had tired of wars an late-night political jaw-jaws. Sabiha Gokcen was 12 when she encountered Ataturk at a public parade. She stepped forth boldly and asked him to assist her with school fees. He gladly obliged.
Later when she had become a pilot, he tested her loyalty to him. She would have to hold a loaded gun to her head and prove her love (shades of King Lear.) She did, unflinchingly. She survived because the gun wasn’t loaded.
Who was the real man as opposed to the saint? He died at the age of 57 of cirrhosis of the liver. Flouting his secular version of Islam, he once called out drunkenly from a boat on the Bosphorus, “This is raki! That’s what we drink.”
Young people are brought up to worship him. A girl in my class who has never spoken before waxes lyrical. “He was such a great man. He saved the country!” “From what?” I ask. She blushes, unsure how to answer. “And what about his alcoholism?” They all look at me blankly. “What has that got to do with it?” They do not want their hero besmirched especially by a foreigner. This is unnecessary, this disinterment of his graven image and at such a time too.
They have been sold a story which they won’t question. Certain things are sacred even to freshmen at the “Harvard of Turkey.” No modern leader has been able to match him. None would dare to try. The Prime Minister makes hurried excuses and misses the celebrations.
As worries of creeping Islamicisation abound, Ataturk -lovers cling to his revolutionary changes: the freedom he gave to women who were among the first to vote, the secularism, the changing of the alphabet and modernising of the language now peppered with words borrowed from French which the great man loved. What a relief! A few words a foreigner can grasp: reservasyon, pardon, kuofer (coiffeur.) All spelled phonetically to boot. In college the increasing number of girls with headscarves worries them. They see conspiracies everywhere. There are whisperings that the great American devil is planning a new caliphate for Turkey so that the region can be secure under his control. “Haven’t you noticed? More religious students are being given places on campus.” The changes that the great man symbolised are being eaten away.