Thursday, May 13, 2010

Framing Ataturk

Continuing with the movie theme of the previous post, I have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor website that takes a look at some recent films about Ataturk and the controversy surrounding them. The debate over how to define Ataturk's legacy goes to the core of the current ideological battles currently raging in Turkey, it appears to me. From my article:
It's easy to mistake Muratoglu Kirtasiye, a tidy Istanbul stationery store, for perhaps a small museum dedicated to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder.

Located in a bustling district filled with print shops near the heart of Istanbul's Old City, Muratoglu specializes in providing schools with Ataturk paraphernalia and is stocked floor to ceiling with items bearing his image. There are gold-colored busts, clocks with his picture on them, and framed photographs and paintings that seem suited for every conceivable setting: Ataturk riding victoriously in uniform on horseback, gazing pensively skyward, surrounded by children with a kind smile on his face, looking gentlemanly while sitting in a wicker chair and dressed in a smoking jacket.

"He's the world's biggest man. There's no one else like him," says Fadil Karali, the store's manager, scanning the numerous pictures of Ataturk, who died in 1938, lining the walls.

"He was the kind of person that, unfortunately, only comes once every 100 years," Mr. Karali adds. "He died a long time ago, but we haven't forgotten him."

But the question that seems to be increasingly facing Turks is which Ataturk to remember? Like the multitude of images in Karali's store, there now appear to be competing, if not conflicting, takes on just who Ataturk was.

One place where the battle over how to define Ataturk and his legacy can be clearly seen these days is on the big screen in Turkey. In the past two years, three new films about the legendary leader have been released: a controversial documentary that, despite its efforts to humanize Ataturk, was criticized for insulting his memory, and two biopics that were in turn criticized for glossing over certain difficult details and for overly romanticizing the life of a complicated figure.

Turkey is currently going through a period of deep political polarization, much of it over two unresolved issues left over since the time of Ataturk: What role should religion play in the public square, and what role should the powerful state play in private life? In many ways, it appears that the battle over how to portray Ataturk is very much at the heart of Turkey's ongoing struggle over how to define itself.
You can read the full piece here.

(photo by Yigal Schleifer)

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