Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ataturk Mausoleum as Text

“Listen very carefully,” our Turkish guide, Bejazit, told us as we approached a massive neo-Hittite temple structure where the body of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is buried, “beyond this point no pictures are allowed. Follow closely behind me and I will explain what is happening, but please do not take pictures.” If the Antikabir as it is called in Ankara were the only tribute to Ataturk it would be less pretentious to have built a thunder-god temple in his memory. Except in every city throughout Anatolia enormous simulacra depict the face of this one man who led the Turkish War of Independence (1919--1923) . Outside, a man on a marble stone-cleaning machine continuously buffered the flat floors of the temple. Inside, we were under constant observation by the hundred-or-so soldiers staffed there. For fear of living in a Turkish prison cell for the next two years I kept my camera safely in its bag.

The temple itself, from the outside, is an architectural pastiche of modern Turkish motifs and ancient Hittite-styled cut-stone buildings and ceremonial grounds. Outside we took pictures of each other smirking and standing just as solemnly and rectilinearly as the guards who stood along the temple’s many rows of tall, thick pillars. In conversational Turkish it is common to ask people you meet where they are from (Nerede yaşiyorsunuz?) before you ask their name or their impression of the weather. As if completely disinterested, no one asked this question at the temple, unlike the inquisitive shopkeepers in Istanbul or Cappadocia. Their faces reflected their strong national ethic and concentration on service-work—such as guarding the nation’s most important shrine: its founder’s mausoleum. The Turkish Armed Forces views itself as a kind of Atlas, a god carrying the nation’s hard burdens on its shoulders.

Making our way to the entrance of the museum, one of the German student program directors, Karin, turned to me and said quietly, “This is fascist architecture.” The symmetry, the size, the purpose: all of it testified to its fascist similarities (pictured left). It was as though the goal was to make the individual feel very little self importance. We continued to comment about the size and austerity of the structure, speculating about what Hitler or Stalin's reactions might have been had they visited. “Hitler would have loved this place,” Karin whispered, “except he would have made it more elaborate, perhaps by adding a bowl with fire in the center or something like that.” Karin admitted to me at this moment that in her youth she had grown up under the Communist Dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaşescu. The Ataturk museum was almost too painful.

Kemalist architecture is an odd mixture of fascist, social realism and modern architecture. It also has no futuristic projection, and therefore it expresses little concern for progressive or futurist dimensions, unlike socialist popular art which is noticeably obsessed with the future (as depicted with peasants locking arms and singing, for example). In fact Kemalist principles were strongly reinstated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) after the government made a sharp turn in the direction of socialism in the 60s. Another important feature of Kemalism is its self-importance by means of showing how strong its empires had been in the past while simultaneously being anti-Ottoman, its most recent predecessor. Nietzsche once said that every generation rebels against its fathers and make friends with its grandfathers. This certainly seems true for Kemalism, which artistically aligns itself with the thousands year-old Hittite Empire and whose capital city, Hattusa, was not far from Ankara. The new art draws its content primarily from its passionate submersion in “the essence of the national being” and it is turned inward and against the future. Along the walls of the temple in Ankara one can see images of Hittite peoples and animals performing ceremonious acts directed towards the centerpiece, where Ataturk is resting. Kemalism is therefore strongly nostalgic but not insofar as it distinguishes itself from the pre-republican empire-building projects.

For example, as a state-builder, Ataturk took great measures to distance himself from the sultanate and the Ottomans, (e.g. by moving the capital city away from Istanbul, the seat of the Ottomans.) Yet everywhere there is a cacophonic mixture of fragments of the former and present regimes: where once there was a statue or head of the emperors and sultans, now everywhere there is a statue or head of the Great Reformer, Ataturk. Just as every tragedy recurs as farce, so all the former Ottoman symbols have been transformed into their ironic opposites—the symbols of the secular state.

The museum displays similar items to those at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul—national jewels, swords, treasures, important artifacts of Turkish identity. As I made my way deeper into the nationalist labyrinth, however, voices from the lugubrious chorus-singing jerked me into a trance-like state. The museum seemed more like propagandistic montage to me at this point. The deafening mortar-fire soundtrack shook the leisurely mausoleum-goers and gave an added dimension of romanticism and revisionism. Unlike other museums which housed dead artifacts, these artifacts were pulsing with the Turkish revolutionary zeitgeist. I became conscious of myself as a historical person, as someone embedded in a particular time and a particular place in history. I began to see things around me with a renewed sense of importance. My reaction to this encoded ideology was very inward at the time, but it seemed in general we were all stuck in some kind of mystical Kemalist knowledge system, with a particular social reality that could not be penetrated by external truths; such as the principles of Western liberal democracy.

The first hallway had large murals along the sides that simulated a battlefield, and the further we went the walkways were transformed into theatrical stages where bullet shells rested, manikin soldiers crouched behind walls, and trenches opened around us, exposing us to the seediness of war and violence. The speaker system blared the thundering of intense machine-gun fire and explosive charges from every direction. Never had I seen anything so elaborate and nationalist like this in my life. Our group frenetically paced around the images before us until being led into a larger hallway replete with realist portraits of the important military commanders. Their uniforms were green, their hats tall, and their faces shone in the light as if angels had given them glory. I withdrew from the group a bit. It was like witnessing a live military performance, except their faces hung on the wall in neat phantasmagoric rows having been dead for several decades or more. It was a living performance no less. Bejazit told the other students stories of officers who were several minutes behind the revolutionary schedule and therefore would shoot themselves in the head. No story seemed too tall to be believed in these walls.

After comparing art styles online, it seems the golden murals on the walls were imitations of Stalinist social-realist art (pictured right)—except that the Kemalists added three-dimensional heads of fatherly Ataturk which jutted out like a knife in an apple. These images culminated at the end of another long hallway with a monumental, triumphant portrait several meters in height of Mustafa Kemal mounted on his horse, pointing the way to victory. (Which is why he was named Ghazi—“the victorious”). I suddenly learned without apparent reason that I had been fooling myself for the entire trip up to this point. Naturally, everything they tell about in newspapers and magazines can happen in real life, but not in the same way. I felt the Western press had been naïve or perhaps dishonest about Turkey’s militaristic underbelly. I gazed into Ataturk’s Clint Eastwood eyes and felt betrayed by his nation, that his life had become a temple, and his tomb a place for secular worship. Secular blasphemy in Turkey is in fact a punishable offense. The controversy over Article 301, the Armenian genocide, the Susurluk Incident, the Dink murder, etc. pushed me in a more radical direction after I decided it was impossible to flirt with the deeply statist agenda in Turkey. How far does the rabbit hole of individual liberties go? Several past Prime Ministers, including the current PM, Erdogan, complained about a secret military command chain (JITEM) and have called this the “deep state” agenda.

All this dusty, out-dated rhetoric and presentation was simply to prepare oneself spiritually for the mausoleum itself. The deafening sound of mortar fire gone, now the happy, revolutionary singing of children filled the echoing hallways. Information tablets on the walls told the story of Ataturk’s political reforms, his benevolent policies towards women, his education reforms and so on. At one information checkpoint, a speaker system played some of Ataturk’s favorite folk songs. In my experience they were real-live Turkish children singing these songs. I was reading a small info-text on land disputes with Turkey’s neighbors when I heard behind me a mother and her two children singing out loud and, astonished, I made gestures towards them with my hands. Since I knew no words in Turkish that expressed my ideas, I wanted to convey that I was impressed they knew the songs so well, although “impressed” is not what I truly had in mind. They understood my motions and began singing louder and with more folkloric gusto. I left them shortly after that, overwhelmed, and because I was unsure about how I ought to respond to their pride without, as 301 says, insulting their Turkishness.

At last I came around a corner and was surprised to find, not a coffin, not an embalmed body like at the Kremlin, but rather a massive stone door weighing something like 40 tons behind which the body of Ataturk is resting. A rotating camera view-finder at my waist continuously moved around the room and zoomed in-and-out at the flat memorial inside the stone structure. I waited and watched until it became too repetitive. I was standing several dozen meters below the center of the Hittite Temple at the top of the hill, smothered in marble, peering into the eye of a camera lens. Ataturk was a narcissistic man with a conflated sense of self-concept. It makes sense that the eye of a camera is a kind of never-ending reflection of him. Not only is he ubiquitous throughout the country, but in the postmodern age he is on television every hour of the day. Perhaps, I thought, the Turkish government will broadcast the mausoleum on a special government television channel.

At this point I half-expected to find a hidden passage somewhere beneath a carpet which lead directly into the mausoleum. Yet the guards were standing near to me and I was alone. I tried to imagine what their thoughts were like, and this contributed to my heightened sense of adventure at the time. At any rate I pushed forward and discovered many fetishistic items of Ataturk’s, such as his (stuffed) dog standing in the living quarters, a life-size model of Ataturk sitting at his desk, and a small portion of his own library which gave me the impression Ataturk was a man who had mastered many things in his lifetime. For example, some of the books had English titles regarding military field training, weapons systems, education policy, legal policy and development. The general Pan-Turkic trend has been to depict Ataturk in mythic proportions, including his body size, which was quite smaller than the manikins would have us believe. This ideology can be attributed mostly to his immediate successors who wished to hold the spirit of revolutionism and Kemalist reform. But the War of Independence was not, as it seems, a creation of Ataturk but a national populist movement headed by a coalition of army officers, religious leaders, and intellectuals. Indeed, many more people should be given credit for the independence, and there was also some discussion among the group as to whether more credit should have been given to the German commander who initiated the military movement in Turkey before Ataturk more or less hi-jacked the movement from him.

The mausoleum experience was an artistic transposition of reality. The key symbols of Kemalistic art are undeniably militarism, masculinity, glory (horses, godlike poses) and the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. Sitting in my chair here in Freiburg, I feel as though it would be possible to write a thesis, or perhaps a psychobiography, of Ataturk as a kind of Oedipal father. Although this is an antiquated strategy of seduction, I have come to believe the Turks have a kind of antiquated political consciousness, and that this sort of thesis would be quite possible and very believable in a psychoanalytic style.

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