Sitting next to Mustafa Kemal…


What do I do when I have ample time and no report to finish, no case study to dissect? I sit down, wrapped up in a blanket and indulge in a 500+ page book written with the smallest font size possible. Day after day even when I know the end of the story.

When I was writing essays for the MBA application, one essay question was “Who are the two people you would like to sit in between on a long flight and why?” It was an easy one. I have been curious about two men in my life. One of them, since I was a little girl, has been Ataturk, or to me always Mustafa Kemal. Especially after my dad told me that when he named me “Ilke”, he was thinking about Ataturk’s Principals (Ataturk’un Ilkeleri) or doctrines which he based the country’s foundation on and he said that he had hoped I would follow his path.

Growing up, learned more and more about him, but I always felt like something was missing in the story line. What was missing was, I realized while writing that essay, the human part of the equation. We, of course, always study history and the historical figures after the fact, that is after everything is said and done. We judge the decisions taken and words said based on the already known outcomes.  But do we know the whole story? Are we fair in our judgments?

Do we know the psychology of the person who makes those drastic decisions? Do we know who or what shaped their personalities? What kind of struggles have they been through? We know the ideology but do we know how they handled day to day interactions or how they dodged what was against them and still made it work or why they failed?

Then I got my hands on Kinross’ book “Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation”. I got lost in the book reading the struggle of a man who had a clear vision for the people and the struggle of the people who had doubts about that vision or had their own visions. How do you know which one is the best for the future at any given time? How do you convince others? By persistence? By luck?

Was it too early for him to do some reforms and put the country in a shock therapy?  Maybe. But then would it work if he did not? Maybe or maybe not.

Was he stubborn? Certainly. He was sure of what he believed in and he wanted everyone to see it the way he did.

Was he dominant? Most of the time. He only backed off when he was being tactical and worked on the issue until he convinced everyone.

He was all about empowering Turkish women. He wanted them to vote, to get elected, to have an education and have rights in their day-to-day social lives. But he could not handle it when he married to a Westernized Turkish woman. Was he still stuck in an Oriental mindset when it came to marriage even though he adored Western civilization?

And yes, he loved his raki, get-togethers around his dining room and paid a hefty price in terms of his health. He never tried to hide that fact.

He wanted the best for the people. He wanted a civilized, educated, open-minded, thriving country. He did not believe in authoritarian regimes where Sultan would decide for the millions of people. He believed in people’s voice. I would like to say he got what he wanted for Turks, with many sacrifices, hardship and at the expense of a lot of lives. This is true not only for him but all the people who rallied around him.

When you believe in and follow a leader, what the leader or ideology asks of you is that your full devotion. Sometimes this is wanted without a question or discussion on your end. Ataturk has been the Father of Turks, the authority figure. His ideology, like himself, does not enjoy being questioned. Seculars have been devoted followers of Ataturk, just like myself. And we get blamed with following “him” blindly sometimes. However, I do believe in learning more about the thing you believe in and raising some questions. When you do that, you get to know it better than anyone, can defend it stronger and have a clear conscious about what you are actually supporting. Radicals or fundamentalist religious groups always question his ideology and his image in the hopes of bringing it down. But same question goes for them as well: Do they do this after reading more about him or just believing blindly in what someone else told them to?

No matter how much I wanted to argue with Ataturk on some points while reading his book, I believed in his vision deeply. There are many ways to implement a change and he chose what he chose under the circumstances he had, in the light of what his gut told him to. Most of us would behave the same way – that is following your gut with what you know. But now I know the backstreets of history. Makes me appreciate the country we have today and the freedoms we have had since 1923.

This book gave a great account of the conflicts, personalities, disappointments, sacrifices, political and military tactics, patience, personal clashes, leadership, betrayals, work-arounds, and respect. History of how a huge empire crumbled into pieces when the new country was being built while giving me a first row seat to watch how Ataturk’s mind worked – as much as a book can give.

So I got what I wanted from this book. I feel like when I take that seat on that long flight, I am ready!

Notes: This book is by no means the only source for detailed account of that era. One other book I found interesting was A Peace to End All Peace. Many more out there by Andrew Mango, Bernard Lewis and others. 




  1. by April Ozbilgin
    6:10 pm
    Jan 20, 2014

    I will look for this book. I love reading about Ataturk. He was a very interesting man and a great leader. Alot of Americans do not know that much about him, especially things you mentioned like women’s rights.

  2. by Ilke
    6:13 pm
    Jan 20, 2014

    There was a good insight into his younger years which I found very interesting. Makes it easier to understand the whole drive behind the new republic.

  3. by cali
    8:54 pm
    Jan 20, 2014

    Thanks for the review. I love history books and will see if they have this one on kindle. Btw Ilke I meant to tell you that I ended up buying the fine Bulgar instead of using the coarse bulgat for the Adana Bulgar balls and they came out great! I didn’t want to risk it since I was cooking for other people.

  4. by Ilke
    8:56 pm
    Jan 20, 2014

    Hi Cali, glad it worked out. I am sure it would have been fine with the coarse too.
    I should start using Kindle more often instead of packing the books in my purse all the time.

  5. by John@Kitchen Riffs
    12:42 pm
    Jan 22, 2014

    This sounds fascinating! There’s so much in the world I don’t know, and I want to know everything! Not going to happen, I know, but at least I can chip away at my ignorance. Fun post — thanks.

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