Point-blank: The Turkish centennial

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 10 Oct 2023

Last week, Izmir hosted the second International Homer Festival, where I gave readings of some of those works of mine that are being translated into Turkish. That important event took place as the country prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923.


On that day, members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted to change the name of the country from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey and to abolish the sultanate and elect Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938) as the republic’s first president. Ataturk, or Father of the Turks, as he has been dubbed, continued to serve in that post until his death 15 years later.

The visitor cannot help but to observe how the centennial has become a political battleground. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that politics should be kept out of what should be a national celebration for all Turks, opposition forces have seized the occasion to remind their fellow citizens of the secular heritage bequeathed by the republic’s founder.

The Kemalist tradition, as it is called, contrasts starkly with the Islamist orientation of Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Both barely managed to survive in power in the recent, closely contested presidential and legislative elections because of the growing impetus of opposition forces, especially in the country’s bigger cities.

Izmir, with a population of four million, is Turkey’s third largest metropolis and a bastion of the opposition. Almost everyone you speak to here is a harsh critic of the Erdogan regime, which they say is bent on systematically dismantling the ideological foundations of the republic. The sentiment was palpable in the festival halls. Most speakers had some words of tribute to pay to the Kemalist principles which clearly have a powerful following in the country.

Whenever a speaker mentioned Ataturk’s name, the hall would erupt in loud applause. There were quite a few speakers. They included well-known intellectuals, writers, musicians and artists as well as some officials, such as the mayor of Izmir and other municipal officials. Not one mentioned Erdogan’s name.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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