by Isabel Jordan
“A benevolent dictator,” were the words my father whispered to me as we stood on the cracked sidewalk of a tree-canopied Istanbul boulevard and gazed at three massive muraled renditions of the solemn, blue-eyed face of Turkey. My dad’s hushed tone and nervous body language indicated something sinister, something I could not comprehend at only eleven. But in that moment, if we were to look around, even our most acute observations could only pick up universal celebration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The heavy-handed secularist reformer and founder of the country is omnipresent, his face on fridge magnets, his quotes on banners in kindergarten classrooms, and the tattooing of his signature practically a rite of passage for multitudes of millennial “white Turks,” that is, the urban, Westernized elite.
Thus my first journey to Turkey became nothing less than a desperate campaign to become a member of this supposedly united people. For much of my life, my Turkishness (and Muslimness) had meant taunting from classmates, anxiety at airports, and an overwhelming feeling of alienation. By the end of my childhood, if someone asked, I was Greek or Sicilian. That was it. Yet suddenly I was in Turkey, and I felt the bittersweet rhythms of the waves of the Bosporus, and, as a sign of respect, touched the weathered warmth of the back of my grandmother’s hand to my forehead after I kissed it. With the weight of generations before me pressing down on me in the hot summer air, everything I felt about myself changed. Captivated by the glitz of past empires and grounded by the grim realities of its current inhabitants, Turkey was at once familiar and mysterious. I became proud of the cultural practices I was once ashamed of by seeing stylish and joyful people engaging in them. When my difference was exposed by my Swedish genes and broken Turkish, I felt I had to prove my devotion. I became quite the little nationalist, touting pins with the Turkish flag on my backpack and gushing to everyone stateside about the “modernity” of our “democracy” where “east-meets-west.” I defended its notorious then-prime minister and forced myself to become comfortable with the pervasive nature of its military.
The first ethnically-Turkish Armenian genocide scholar, Taner Akcam, wrote that Turkey’s creation necessitated foundational myths. One of these myths is the heroism of its founders. The Committee of Union and Progress, famously known as the Young Turks, were the men who transformed the Ottoman Empire into the current republic. They also orchestrated the Armenian genocide. The men who constructed the idea of Turkish identity and whose characters are never questioned in history textbooks were the opposite of the assumed Turkish ideal of democracy. But if you had been told all your life that your beloved homeland was surrounded by hostile enemies and had barely avoided a massive land-grab campaign by Western powers, and the Young Turks had saved your village from French rulers or the terrorism of rebellious Armenian militias, would you doubt them? As the prevalence of Turkish genocide denial conveys, the natural psychological reaction is to understand new information as an attack.
As I grew older, my hardheadedness first slowly, and then quickly, melted away. For one, I found out about my family’s subversiveness and their Kurdishness; I also learned of the physical and cultural violence Kurds were subjected to in pursuit of legitimizing Turkishness and homogenizing the highly diverse Anatolia. Once the Gezi Park protests exploded, I was exposed to leftist organizing and educated on the hushed-up aspects of Turkish society: femicide; the great contributions by the now almost-absent communities of Armenians, Greeks, and Jews; and the oppression of Romani. I realized my interest in protecting human rights globally was misguided if I could fight against some occupations and excuse the brutal occupation of Kurdistan.
My passion for my history must guide me towards justice. Atatürk, who participated in the slaughter of, and whose glorious national project would not exist without the genocide of Armenians, will not be included in my ideological heritage—no matter how many times I am confronted by his likeness.