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Atatürk, his wife and her biographer

Friday, August 25, 2006

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Çalışlar’s book is an elaborate account of Latife Hanım’s life, referring to more than a hundred books, articles, excerpts from newspapers, journals and interviews with various people, including Latife’s relatives. Almost every page includes footnotes citing Turkish and non-Turkish sources. A biography of a woman is also very new to Turkish readers. Most previous attempts at chronicling women’s lives exhibit limited research


ANKARA - TDN Guest Writer  

Charges against a female biographer who wrote about a woman are the latest in a series of charges against Turkish authors (most of who were subsequently tried in court). İpek Çalışlar's account of Atatürk's only wife Latife Uşşaki's life, “Latife Hanım,” brought the writer a possible imprisonment of up to four-and-a-half years if found guilty.

  "Latife Hanım" hit the bookstores this June to welcoming Turkish readers. The fact that there is very little information on the very first first-lady of Turkey in history books, good reviews everywhere and word-of-mouth have made "Latife Hanım" into the best-selling book of the summer.

  However, moving into the uncharted territory of Atatürk's life was a ticking bomb because there is a clause in the Turkish Penal Code can send a person to jail for criticizing the founder of Turkish Republic. We didn't have to wait long. Last week, a reader of the daily Hürriyet initiated charges against the newspaper and Çalışlar for insulting Atatürk. The account the reader argued was about an incident where Atatürk had fled a possible assassination disguised as a woman.   

Latife: Her true story:

  Both the book itself and its subsequent inauspicious fate in the eyes of the Turkish legal system signify much more than a raised eyebrow by the European Union.  Comprehensive biographies (authorized or unauthorized) with extensive research, multiple interviews and an objective tone are very new to Turkish literature. Biographies in Turkey often meant autobiographies of aging celebrities with little literary concern and casual accounts of minimal significance. When Çalışlar's biography of more than 500 pages came out, it was no surprise to readers that the book was a product of more than two decades of research.

  Çalışlar's book is an elaborate account of Latife Hanım's life, referring to more than a hundred books, articles, excerpts from newspapers, journals and interviews with various people, including Latife's relatives. Almost every page includes footnotes citing Turkish and non-Turkish sources. A biography of a woman is also very new to Turkish readers. Most previous attempts at chronicling women's lives were of limited research.

  Although every Turkish citizen knows Atatürk's life by heart and knows all about the men that fought by his side and helped him found modern Turkey, we knew little about Latife. As a persona non grata, Atatürk's wife was only known for her ill-temper, her questionable beauty and her dislike of her husband's drinking habit. We never questioned whether İsmet İnönü or Kazım Karabekir were handsome. We even learned all about those who only had brief encounters with Atatürk on his way to founding the Turkish Republic. When it came to Latife, she was a caricature of the nagging wife. We knew much more about Eva Peron and Jackie Kennedy.   

First campaigner for women's rights:

  Çalışlar's biography takes Latife from her one-dimensional image and puts her into her rightful place in the history of modern Turkey. Latife and Atatürk's marriage took place in 1923, the same year the Turkish Republic was founded. The couple had met four months before they married.

  Latife Hanım was the daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants of İzmir. The couple wed in a civil ceremony, the first in Turkey, with Latife's face uncovered. Atatürk divorced Latife two years later. She became a recluse, never talking about her relationship with the founder of modern Turkey, dying eventually in 1975.

  Latife is almost nonexistent in history books. So it was a surprise for Turkish readers to find out that Latife was educated in the West and had traveled in Europe when she was young. We found out that she spoke many languages and was an active campaigner for women's rights, throwing off the hijab and urging Turkish women to do the same. She also lobbied for women's right to vote.

  Çalışlar's book rewrites conventional history and shows Latife's probable influence on the founding of modern Turkey. As The New York Times put it shortly after their marriage: “Her clothes are a pledge of reform. Her riding breeches indicate her intention of sweeping away harem conventions.”

  The legal action cannot merely be labeled as a primitive display of patriotism. Behind this bigotry and a system that allows this kind of bigotry lies a fear of pulling women out of their conventional stereotypes, a fear of depicting a woman in more than one dimension, in all of her human forms. This case seems not to be an expression of respect for Atatürk but rather a desire to maintain the status quo and hence keep women “where they belong.” Can it be because of what the Chicago Tribune had put so simply more than 80 years ago: “Bride of Kemal outshines hero in eyes of Turks”?

© 2005 Dogan Daily News Inc.

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