Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: A Childhood Recollection

By Guran, Azmi | Contemporary Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: A Childhood Recollection

Guran, Azmi, Contemporary Review

On the eve of the 21st century, Turkey is celebrating the uninterrupted 75th anniversary of her foundation (29 October 1923) and commemorating the 60th anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (in November 1938). The man who founded modern Turkey, the successful fighter against European colonialism, was at 35 years of age, the youngest general of World War I and the hero of the Gallipoli campaign. Even today I remember how we Turks mourned him as though we had all lost our father. There are not many of his contemporaries alive today, but there are many of my generation who saw him in their youth or childhood. I am one of them.

My encounter with Ataturk occurred in elementary school. The year was 1937 or 1938. News of his visit brought excitement to the school. The blackboards were painted and even inaccessible corners were cleaned. The school administration distributed new history texts to each class. The text was written by Afet Inan, 'a liberated woman historian', whom Ataturk admired. The students became impatient. Each wanted to see him, while the teachers, overcome with emotion, wanted to be relieved of their classroom duties.

There were some descendants of famous personalities scattered in various classes. The school administration took care to make their classrooms especially attractive. Still we had a little bit of hope in our class. According to our teacher, if he was to be believed, Ataturk would not overlook our class since our teacher fought in Ataturk's army during the war for independence, 1920-1922. As rumour of his impending arrival spread, Ataturk appeared at the end of the week. We were studying Turkish history exclusively that day. We did not hear Ataturk arrive but realized something was happening because of the commotion in the corridor. Every eye turned to the windows with a view of the corridor. There was no doubt that Ataturk was here. Our teacher counselled us to avoid losing our heads in the excitement.

Ataturk's presence did not raze my classmate at the neighbouring desk. He had a mania for copying secretly from a book which he kept on his lap during examinations. Even in a subject in which he was well versed, he preferred to copy. When he filled in his name, date of birth, and address, he would glance at his identity card and copy. Cheating was a game for him. Ataturk's presence did not dissuade him from keeping his copy book on his lap. He was the type who would be proud to say later 'You see, nobody would dare cheat in Ataturk's presence but me.'

Meanwhile, Ataturk and his party had gathered in the corridor. Ataturk was in the middle, flanked by the senior school administrators. The remainder of the group followed at least two steps behind them. Then the door opened wide and Ataturk entered with his entourage. We all stood at attention just like soldiers. As we jumped to attention, the book fell from my classmate's lap. He blushed with embarrassment. Fortunately, no one noticed in the excitement.

Ataturk told our teacher to seat us, which he did. Our teacher then bowed, not extremely low, but at just the right height and introduced himself rather modestly as 'Your obedient teacher in history'. Since he was a member of the board of education as well, we were astounded that he referred to himself as merely a teacher. Perhaps Ataturk would have questioned him more diligently if he had known of the teacher's other responsibilities. Ataturk asked him 'Do you teach from the book or from your own concept?' The principal and the teacher answered simultaneously 'From the book' as they tried to prevent him from asking 'From which book?"Very nice' replied Ataturk with a glance at the text book on the desk. Had he asked us about anything in that book, we would have been dumfounded. Thank heaven, he didn't. The principal and the teachers explained the curriculum to Ataturk to change the subject.

I had seen a picture of Ataturk. He posed with two fingers in his waistcoat pocket, his head bent slightly forward. …

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