He’s in every classroom in Turkey, every post office, aboard every departing ferry. There’s even a poem, once learned by rote by young students, that is an ode to the ever-present Ataturk: “We work hard, because when we work we see that Ataturk smiles … In everything I do this picture is my guide.”
It’s a rare thing to find a business in Turkey’s big cities that doesn’t have a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the country, hanging somewhere. His face connects barbershops with bureaucrats’ offices; it hangs in train stations and polling stations. It is equally visible on the street: lapels are pinned with Ataturk, complete with a halo shaped like Turkey. Some young Turks have his signature tattooed on their arm.
Ataturk would likely have approved: no other figure has shaped modern Turkey in such simultaneously grand and very personal ways. At the end of the First World War the Ottoman Empire was defeated, bankrupt and occupied by the Allies. Mustafa Kemal – a hero-officer, decorated for his role in the defence of Gallipoli – launched the War of Independence to drive out the foreign forces occupying Anatolia. In the victorious aftermath he assumed power and set about building a modern, fiercely secular state, with the old Sultans first out the door. The Arabic script used in Ottoman Turkish was scrapped in favour of Latin letters. The fez and turban were outlawed as anachronisms; fashionable bowlers and tailored waistcoats were worn instead and the headscarf for women was banned in government buildings. Everyone also had to take a surname – not previously the case – and Mustafa Kemal was designated Ataturk, loosely translatable as “Father of the Turks”.
With all this came the rise of a new “Turkish” identity that Ataturk sought to embody. It was modern and progressive with a dash of strongman élan (force). This was actively cultivated by Ataturk via a personal photographer, on hand for when he would pause to sip raki, take a dip off his waterside mansion, waltz in a tuxedo or be caught looking stern – his blue eyes fixed on a bright future.
The sculptor Necati Inci has spent a lifetime studying that face. Inci inherited a statue-making business in Istanbul from his late father, who chiselled Ataturks from blocks of marble. Today, he fashions fibreglass busts and statues for schools, as well as businesses that want to add a patriotic touch to their forecourt. “It’s nearly 80 years since Ataturk died,” says Inci in his office, where eight variations on Ataturk hang on the walls. “But for 70 per cent of the population Ataturk is still the Turkish flag.”
The workshop is crowded with Ataturks in various states of completion. Most are sober and stern though Inci’s son is welding the leader atop a massive, rearing stallion. “After every political turmoil, people value his legacy more and more,” says Inci. “His legacy is your only safe ground, nothing else is politically determined.”
Although the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated politics since 2002, secular Ataturk is still the personification of the Turkish state. akp ministers and mayors sit under his portrait in government buildings. When security forces retook Taksim Square from protesters in 2013, the first act of the state was to unfurl banners of Ataturk’s face.
As if by response, a different genre of Ataturk has emerged as secular Turks have attempted to claim his image back from the state. More candid moments – Ataturk playing with cats and dogs, pushing his adopted daughter on a swing and even laughing – have become as visible as the militaristic portraits associated with state power. Increasingly these personable images have drifted into people’s homes and businesses. Dr Esra Ozyurek at the London School of Economics has written extensively on this “nostalgia for the modern”. “In the 1990s, Islam started to become more visible in the public sphere in Turkey,” says Ozyurek. “Secular nationalists needed to show that they personally and privately embraced Ataturk.”
The industry for memorabilia has diversified to meet these demands. “For every ideology there’s an image of Ataturk,” says Ozyurek. “Islamists engage with early images of him praying. Leftists can embrace Ataturk with images of him on a tractor.”
It’s very rare to find a bad word uttered against Ataturk. In fact for a long time criticism of early Republican policy was strictly off limits and a 1951 law makes besmirching the memory of Ataturk an imprisonable offence. Yet with more access to information online over the past decade, some Turks have begun to question the realities of Ataturk’s legacy. Policies such as “Turkification” are now being quietly criticised by some for their homogenising effect. Quite a contrast to the untouchable ideal disseminated for decades after his death.
In the industrial fringe near Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, Ulas Hediyelik Esya & Promosyon produces brooches of the leader during Gallipoli and lapel pins of his side-on profile, both from bullion bars of zinc-based alloy. Osman Ulas, who founded the company, also produces pins for Turkey’s major political parties. “This place is like a polling station during elections,” says Ulas. “From the orders, we already know who is going to win.”
We watch an Ataturk signature being machine-detailed. At full capacity they can turn out 20,000 lapel pins a day. Yet despite fashioning Ataturk’s face every day, the team keeps a portrait of him hanging on the wall. “I’m just like any other Turkish person,” says Ulas. “If it wasn’t there, something would be missing.”