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Micah Reader in March 2016 by Brenda Levenson
The Pera Palace, the object of Charles King’s 2014 book, was once the place to see and to be seen. In its lobby politicians and businessmen mingled and illicit encounters took place. To quote one of our readers, the author “uses the hotel as a vehicle for the changes” that Turkey underwent in the first half of the twentieth century, changes that were both political as well as sociological. It should be noted that King uses Mustafa Kemal’s given name, rather than Atatürk, which means “father of Turkey” as he is generally known.
By the end of the 20th century Pera, once a luxury hotel, had long lost much of its cachet. In 1924, Turkey had been declared a republic after a revolution led by Mustafa Kemal who became its first president. Mustafa Kemal inherited a much smaller country from what had been the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I.
Kemal was born in 1881 in Salonika, Macedonia, then part of the Ottoman empire, the child of a “low middle class family” writes Lord Kinross, one of his early biographers. At the age of 12 he was sent to a military academy where his mother felt he would get a better education, and from there to the Military Training School in Istanbul from which he graduated with the rank of Captain. He had been opposed to Turkey’s entry in World War I, predicting that Germany would lose and that Turkey would be dismantled as a result. However, he fought valiantly and his success at Gallipoli set him on the road to power. As the president of his country, he was determined to turn it into a modern, secular state independent of Islam. In a move to separate his regime from the 619 year sultanate, Mustafa Kemal transferred Turkey’s capital to Ankara. The city’s wide avenues and elegant art deco buildings are a far cry from the tortuous alleys and picturesque houses that made Istanbul mysterious and more Oriental than European.
King’s book is as much about Mustafa Kemal as it is “a portrait of the city,” as was observed in our discussion. One reader coupled Kemal’s intent of “modernism” with “nationalism.” Kemal may have taken his cue from Peter the Great who ordered the boyars (members of the aristocracy) to shave their beards and to wear Western-style clothes in an effort to “Europeanize” 18th century Russia. Kemal banned fezzes on men’s heads as well as traditional bouffant trousers. The Latin alphabet replaced Arabic script. Modifying the calendar had political ramifications. “Kemalism devolved in ways less martial than civic and political. It contained republicanism, national populism…. The first five of these principles owed a great deal to the French republican tradition” writes King. French influence was also behind the changes Kemal brought to the military, among others. He also promoted women’s rights by establishing a “system of legal equality” in terms of inheritance, the right to divorce and the right to vote (1930) when 18 women were elected to the legislature, “more than double the number in the US Congress at the time,” he adds.
Was Turkey a democracy then? Well, not really. Mustafa Kemal ruled in a one party nation, not quite a dictator, according to King, because “unlike Mussolini or Franco, he knew how to draw the line.”
Ankara was the capital but Istanbul remained a cosmopolitan city in which Jews, Armenians and Greeks formed a large element of the population. The Treaty of Lausanne that ended the Allied occupation of Turkey after World War I contained an agreement between Greece and Turkey for an exchange of populations, Greeks from Turkey would be sent to Greece and Turks in Greece would be sent to Turkey. It will be remembered that the genocide against Armenians took place in 1915, predating the Revolution.
Charles King dedicates a chapter to the Jews, as many of those fleeing Germany sought to use Turkey as transit to Palestine. But in the summer of 1938, the Turkish government officially barred the door to them, drawing among our readers a comparison with the refugee situation we are witnessing today.
Midnight at the Pera Palace, the Birth of Modern Istanbul is rich in colorful characters, women as well as men. The introduction of American jazz was among the many changes Istanbul underwent, giving way to a lesson on how it is played.
Will Kemal’s legacy survive efforts to reinstate a past he abhorred? President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be galloping towards dictatorship. Abolishing freedom of the press is but one important step leading to the end of democracy.