Maybe it’s the first time you’ve heard this name. Actually, he was the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. For most of Turks he is the sublime leader, a great teacher and unique person.
My First Encounter with Him…
My first encounter with Atatürk, as every young Turk experiences it, was firstly through conversations within the family and later through the school. In the classroom, we saw his pictures and reminisced about him in our school songs. We recited poems in his name on our national holidays. Atatürk was always loved in Turkey, but on the other hand, this love unfortunately caused a significant deficiency as many great people have experienced throughout history. We were too busy loving him, so in no way could we even start to understand what his ideas had really meant and pointed to. People who think they are sublimating great people by writing their famous quotes in capital letters and hanging them on their walls would not think, “Wait a minute. What did that person wish to convey with those words?” Even if they did, they would not absorb it into their personalities.
That is why those very important people and their words remain mostly in an esteemed corner of your house. You may remember them on national or religious holidays, before returning all those portraits and quotes to the corner. Almost all great people receive this treatment, and unfortunately, despite the fact that we encounter Atatürk in all aspects of our lives, he is one of the greats who is still not deeply understood. He was way ahead of his time, and he was deeply loved and highly respected, but eventually he became a leader who was not completely understood. For me, he is an example of a universal human being who could unite the material with the spiritual on Earth. I would like to try to introduce you to this great man through his own words.
A Summary of His Life
Mustafa was born in 1881 in Thessalonica, which is now part of Greece, to his mother, Zübeyde Hanim, and his father, Ali Riza Efendi. Although he had five siblings, only his sister Makbule survived past early childhood. When Mustafa was seven years old, his father died. The widowed mother moved with young Mustafa and Makbule to her brother’s farmhouse.
Mustafa enrolled in the Thessalonica Military Middle School, where his math teacher named him “Kemal.” There are different versions of this story. For example, a joyful version told in elementary schools states that this math teacher told Mustafa, “Both of us are named Mustafa, and people mix us up, so it’s better I call you Mustafa Kemal from now on.” However, “Kemal” means perfection and maturity in Turkish, and it is known that some souls start to influence their surroundings from an early age, and naming someone is a very sacred act that affects the destiny of that person. Given that many sons in the country were named Mustafa, after the second name of the Prophet Mohammed, it was very likely that the classroom was full of Mustafas. Claiming this second name was given just to avoid confusion is an obvious misrepresentation of the essence of the act. The teacher named Mustafa as Mustafa Kemal because he knew he had met an exceptional and profound spirit, a “perfect and mature” one.
After graduating from this school, Mustafa Kemal enrolled at Monastir (known as Bitola in today’s Macedonia) Military High School. He later graduated as a staff captain from the military college. Afterwards, he was posted to Damascus, Tripoli, and various other places. His name became well known for the first time during the Battle of Gallipoli, because of his achievements on the frontlines. He became known as the “Hero of Anafartalar,” because of the authority given to him over the “Anafarta section” of Suvla Bay in the Gallipoli peninsula. After the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Allied forces occupied Istanbul and Anatolia. Mustafa left the capital city and went by boat to the city of Samsun. With his first step on Anatolia, he started to organize the generally disorganized public efforts throughout Anatolia. He commanded a battle that was deemed impossible to win, continuing for years despite shortages and poverty, until the last allied soldier left Anatolia. The War of Independence had been won, but the reality was that everything would start anew. Before him, there was a country to be built from scratch.
The Grand National Assembly of Turkey was established on April 23, 1920, during the war. When it declared Turkey a republic on October 29, 1923, Mustafa Kemal was elected as the first president. The same assembly had ranked him as “Marshall” and given him the title of “Ghazi,” which was given to great victorious Muslim warriors. During the war, he was known as “Marshall Ghazi Mustafa Kemal.” The following year, after the passing of a law regarding family names, he was given the family name “Ataturk,” meaning “the father or the ancestor of Turks.” While he lived, he was always starting numerous revolutions and works. In his 57 years on Earth, he fully lived each moment and created a nation from the debris of a collapsed empire. But he did not stop there—he left behind a legacy of sayings as beacons to humanity.
Words of a Soldier
Before everything else, Atatürk was a soldier, but he was never a bloodthirsty person. You can easily understand his views on war when you consider his words on the subject: “Unless a nation’s life faces peril, war is murder.” Similarly, in his tribute to the soldiers he battled against at Gallipoli: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You now lie in the soil of a friendly country, so rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons now lie in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”
Whenever we Turks visit the battlefields of the Gallipoli campaign and see the monuments of the ANZACs and other foreign forces, we offer a prayer to them as well. Any person who has become one with our land is no longer an enemy anymore. All of them are equally respected and embraced.
The Road Map of a Wise Man
“Greatness means you won’t try to please or deceive anyone, but you will try to discern the true ideal for the country and strive for it, although everyone will turn against you and try to make you change your course. You will have no means to resist. They will pile endless obstacles in your path, and you will surmount them, knowing all the time that you are not great but little, weak, and without resources, a mere nothing, and no one will come to your aid. And after that, if they call you great, you’ll laugh at them.”
With these words, Atatürk offered the clearest and most impressive road map for a human being who strives to proceed properly on the journey of life.
When he said, “There are two Mustafa Kemals. One is the flesh-and-blood Mustafa Kemal who now stands before you and will pass away. The other is you, all of you here, who will go to the far corners of our land and spread the ideals, which must be defended with your lives if necessary. I stand for the nation’s dreams, and my life’s work is to make them come true,” he was pointing to something greater than himself.
A Universal Man
He once said, “Mankind is a single body, and each nation a part of that body. We must never say, ‘What does it matter to me if some part of the world is ailing?’ If there is such an illness, we must concern ourselves with it as though we were having that illness.” To clarify his holistic perspective on humanity, let me add this saying of him: “All nations have become and are still becoming members of one family. Therefore, one has to respect the peace and prosperity of all nations as much as he or she respects the existence and happiness of his or her own nation. People have to endeavor to work for the happiness of all nations if they value the happiness of their own nations.”
I would also like to quote a part of a poem, which is allegedly the only poem he wrote in his twenties, and leave you to interpret the lines yourself:
“… Us who came out of the East and us again, in the West
Wherever and however we are; we know ourselves
If all people could know themselves
It could be known that we all are one.
Turk, not merely the name of a nation
Turk is the unity of all men.
O, the masses baring teeth at one other!
O, all the masses of human unawareness!
Let the veil of unawareness tear up in the skies
Truth, where is it?”
Before relaying to you some optimistic words from Atatürk about the future world, I would like to point out that “east” is also a metaphor for spirituality:
“Look at the sun rising in the East. I see the rising of eastern nations as I see the dawn today. There are many brotherly nations that will gain their freedom and independence. Their rebirth will no doubt be in the direction of progress and prosperity. They will succeed despite all the difficulties and hurdles, and they will reach the future that is awaiting them. Colonialism and imperialism will disappear from the face of the Earth, and they will be replaced by an era of harmonious cooperation that does not discriminate between color, religion, ethnicity, or nationality.”
Wherever we live on Earth, isn’t this the wish of all of us? We do not want a world where some are favored at the expense of others, but rather a world in peace as a whole, firstly in our inner worlds and later in the wider outer world. Our ultimate goal is to manifest the ideal, as is embodied in his phrase, “peace at home, peace in the world.”
I have tried to inform you about an Anatolian hero. There are so many books about him in Turkey, and his quotations cover any area of life you care to think of. Some of these we feel in the heart, even if our minds do not really comprehend what he meant with his words.
Many great names gave new direction to humanity throughout its history, and the Anatolian soil contributed many important people to the world. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was a leader, as well as a wise man, for the modern times that Anatolia offers as a present to humanity on Earth.
I just hope that we can truly incorporate into our lives not only the sayings of Atatürk, but of all those great people who have guided humanity throughout history.
I would like to finish this article with a summary of Atatürk’s life, quoted from the book Herşey Seninle Başlar (Everything Starts With You) by Mümin Sekman.
Who was This Man?
At 7 years old, he lost his father and became an orphan.
At 8 years old, he was taken out of school and moved to a village.
At 10 years old, he was beaten until he bled by his teacher at his new school.
At 17 years old, he missed the average score needed for the school of his dreams.
At 24 years old, he was arrested, interrogated for days and imprisoned in a solitary-confinement cell for two months.
At 25 years old, he was exiled.
At 27 years old, as his rival and fellow colleague—his senior by just a year—was deemed a hero because of the works of the society they both were members of, he was an insignificant nobody. As his rival was being hailed by ceremonies at the city he was born in, he was alone and watching the proceedings among the crowds.
At 30 years old, as he battled to secure other cities, his home city was taken by the enemy.
At 30 years old, his superior officer made sure he got rid of him by appointing him to another post. In this new post, he was idle for months.
At 37 years old, he was hospitalized for two months, all alone, because of a kidney disease.
At 37 years old, the army he was appointed to command was dispersed into other divisions.
At 37 years old, lacking any civilian clothing to wear for a meeting, he borrowed a frock coat from someone else. Moreover, he only had 80 liras to spend.
At 38 years old, he was fired by the Secretary of Defense.
At 38 years old, an arrest warrant was issued for him.
At 38 years old, three of his five best friends voted against him becoming a member in the national council of representatives.
At 39 years old, he was sentenced to death.
So, what happened next?
At 42 years old, he became President of the Republic of Turkey!
He was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.