May 19th is Atatürk Day. It’s actually called Atatürk, Youth and Sports Commemoration Day, but that seems like false modesty, not something you’d normally associate with the man responsible for carving out modern Turkey (actually a little more than present day Turkey according to his maps). So the holiday to celebrate the start of the Independence war was one of the biggest non-religious events for the village – especially because their kids got all dressed up.
The busts, statues, paintings, and quotes from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are a common sight on Turkish walls, but on this day, you’d think he was marching through town any minute. At 9 am sharp, the students at the Gebeçeler primary school have begun to march along the main street next to their school, drums beating and shoulders back.
Arif Keskin, the director of the school and my guide for the day, looked every inch a general as he climbed the pedestal and led the students in what I assume to be their version of the pledge of allegiance.
The army has always taken a significant role in Turkish politics. My first host in Istanbul asked several times which political party the CIA was loyal to. When I told him I didn’t think they took sides, he was confused and skeptical.
People take great pride in the Turkish Republic – this modern self-determination is the flip side of the subtle, historic Ottoman legacy that sleeps below the countryside like an underground lake. Almost every home I’ve been invited into for tea or coffee in Afyon has a portrait of Atatürk and one of Mohammed’s descendants decorating their living room (which descendant is a complicated question that I’ll come back to in a future post).
The schools I’ve seen are the secular flag-bearers of the society. At Gebeçeler’s ceremony there were no prayers and no speeches by the imam – instead the children recited from memory Atatürk’s address to the youth. To be fair, one class of boys also dressed like pregnant gypsies.
As the photos above show, this was not a wholly serious affair. Between the solemn vows to die for their country, the children performed skits by grade level, from the adorably paralyzed six-year-olds who stared at the crowd dressed as flowers and bees to the familiar adolescent choreography of “Turkish Delight” (it’s a small mercy that I was the only person there who understood the lyrics).
The older boys came out with sparkling guns drawn until one by the one they fell on the battlefield. A few female classmates slowly covered each one with a Turkish flag and mourned. Then the boys hopped to their feet and shouted patriotic slogans.
The rest of the day was spent looking at a poppy seed bakery, a local paht-paht factory (I have no idea how this should be spelled – just imagine the sound of a small motor) and of course, Turkish tea in a farmer’s field after an incredible picnic of potato bread, yogurt, and a half-dozen other things whose names I cannot remember.
Hope you enjoyed the slideshow – below are the individual photos. I’ve decided to post most of the photos as small sizes to make The Donkey load faster (I know, I know! It’s a very stubborn beast), but you can click on any image for the full size.