Ne Mutlu ‘Atatürküm’ Diyene

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Atatürk lookalike Göksal Kaya visits school children in Izmit.

For those of you who don’t know Turkey, the title of this post is a riff on one of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s most famous aphorisms – Ne Mutlu ‘Türküm’ Diyene – “How happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk’.”

For Turks, of course, or for anyone who has spent a bit of time here, it requires no explanation. Atatürk as a national symbol is as omnipresent as ever. Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene is one of his many sayings that still adorns public spaces throughout the country. Whatever charges are laid against the AKP government regarding their supposed undermining of Atatürk’s secular values, they have been zealous custodians of the cult surrounding him. They have changed none of the laws that promote his veneration.

Göksal Kaya, Turkey’s premier Atatürk impersonator, offers one of the odder manifestations of this cult. I met him in Izmit, where he was visiting schools at the behest of the AKP-controlled municipality. I had seen an article about these school visits, which take place ahead of Children’s Day (tomorrow). Kids went wild for him, so the story went, and I decided I’d have to see for myself. As it turns out, the story was right.

I too found myself unaccountably excited at meeting Kaya, and ended up grinning inanely in his presence (see picture below). I realise now that there is something uncanny and exhilarating about doppelgängers, particularly when they resemble someone whose image is as ubiquitous as Atatürk’s. It is as if some of the charisma of the original infects the double. In a weird way, I kind of felt like I was really meeting him.

Kaya, 49, first realised his resemblance to Turkey’s founder when he was 20 years old. A general pointed it out when he was doing his compulsory military service. It was only eight years ago, however, that he became a professional ringer for the great man. Formerly a civil servant, he was forced to retire at the age of 40 and needed a new living.

He now describes himself as an actor, although his resemblance to Atatürk is so striking, he laments, that he cannot get work playing anyone else. He portrays him in documentaries, films, and at live events on national holidays and festivals.

He clearly loves his job, and takes it very seriously. “It’s a big responsibility because I also have to have the lifestyle of Atatürk,” he told me. “He was loved and respected so much by people, I can’t just look like him, I have to behave like him… It’s a big weight on my shoulders.” Once he was reproached by a woman for smoking in the street: since he looks like Atatürk, he should set a good example for people, she said.

He also told me about a dream he once had. He was standing alone in a green field, wearing a military uniform. He wondered why he was wearing it and began to change out of it. Suddenly, Atatürk appeared before him, laid a hand on his shoulder, and said, “No, keep it on”. I’m not sure why he told me this, and I relate it now only because it strikes me as the most Turkish dream ever.

For a great story about the interesting and unexpected side-effects of having a famous double, listen to this piece by This American Life last year, “The Audacity of Louis Ortiz”.

Here is the article I wrote for the Times:

Whenever Goksal Kaya enters a primary school, pupils swarm around him, grab at him, scream and cry. Some even faint.

“Can you see the magic?” asks the premier impersonator of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as he disentangles himself from yet another throng of adoring children.

Mr Kaya’s career is a bizarre manifestation of what may be the world’s longest-running personality cult. Seventy-five years after his death, Ataturk is still regarded with a veneration that a decade of political and social change in Turkey has done little to alter.

This week Mr Kaya has been visiting schools in Izmit, near Istanbul, as part of festivities in the run-up to Children’s Day on April 23.

“Over the years, love of Ataturk has increased among the younger generation,” claims Mr Kaya, 49, a retired civil servant and amateur wrestler. “I remember a four-year-old girl who came up to me in Trabzon. She hugged me and whispered in my ear: ‘My Ataturk, why have you left us?’”

Since the Islamist-rooted Government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power in 2002, opponents have accused the Prime Minister of seeking to undermine the secular system of government that was one of Ataturk’s signature accomplishments.

“Many people are worried about that,” says Yusuf Kanli, a news columnist. “Turkey is shifting more towards religious conservatism. Without secularism it will be impossible to sustain democracy in the long term.”

This week those fears were highlighted by the conviction of one of the country’s most illustrious musicians for the offence of insulting Islam. Fazil Say, a world-renowned concert pianist, received a ten-month suspended jail term for “denigrating the religious beliefs of a portion of the population” in tweets that poked fun at religious hypocrisy.

Mr Erdogan has insisted that he is committed to secularism, and he has done nothing to alter laws that encourage the veneration of Ataturk. It is illegal to insult the late leader’s memory and his portrait is still obligatory in all classrooms and public buildings. Children start learning about his deeds, including his military victory against the Allies at Gallipoli, in kindergarten.

“Ataturk represents national pride, national revival, national respect and victory after so many humiliations,” Mr Kanli says. This nationalist hue to his legacy is becoming more contentious, however, amid efforts to resolve the grievances of Turkey’s long-suffering Kurds.

In 2011, Mr Erdogan apologised for massacres that were carried out in 1937 and 1938 under Ataturk’s presidency. The Government is currently engaged in peace negotiations aimed at ending the 30-year insurgency of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

“Not everything that Atatürk said or did in the 1920s and 1930s is helpful in building the liberal democracy we deserve to have in the 21st century,” Mustafa Akyol, a longtime critic of the Ataturk cult, wrote recently in the Hürriyet Daily News. “Yet he is still a very powerful symbol and respected icon in Turkish society. So the pragmatic solution is to preserve the helpful, or at least harmless, parts of Ataturk’s legacy while abandoning the hazardous ones.”

Last month, one of Ataturk’s most famous aphorisms — “Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk” — was removed from the main square in the Kurdish-majority city of Batman. The saying, which reminds Kurds of decades of forced cultural assimilation, was replaced with one of the late leader’s less divisive dictums: “Peace at home and peace in the world.” Mr Akyol believes that tweaking Ataturk’s legacy may prevent a “down-with-the-statues moment”.

That’s good news for Mr Kaya, who says that eight years spent professionally imitating Turkey’s founder has made him a better person. “I want to keep on doing it until I die,” he says.

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One thought on “Ne Mutlu ‘Atatürküm’ Diyene

  1. […] a country I have personally come to love as my own despite its seeming disconnect from my origins, national ethnic homogenization has been the source of both a unity and a disunity in the country, creating hate and love in the […]

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