18th of March

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

In early March I began to see signs around Tekirdag advertising what looked like a military commemoration.  Most military remembrance days in Turkey have to do with the legendary WWI Gallipoli campaign, in which Ottoman forces defeated an attempted joint British/French/ANZAC invasion, but I knew that ANZAC Day wasn”t until April 25 (I’m planning a weekend trip to bake in the sun with some pasty Aussies).  Heading to dinner one night with my Turkish friend Emel (I met her on Couchsurfing, she’s used to explaining Turkey to others), I stopped her and asked her what the below ad in the center of town referred to:

Turns out March 18th is Canakkale Naval Victory Day, which I found a bit confusing because the dates of the Gallipoli campaign (from April 15, 1915 to January 9, 1916) don’t include March 18th.  Hmmm.  Actually, March 18th marks the aptly-named Battle of March 18 in 1915, in which Ottoman naval forces defeated the first major British/French campaign to take the Dardanelles.  The attack laid the groundwork for the subsequent mud-laden slog and trench warfare during freezing winters and agonizingly hot summers that characterize WWI and did so much to catapult Ataturk to national recognition and shape the growing ‘Turkish’ consciousness.

Back to the sign.  My beginning Turkish led me to believe that a group of hearty folks would be trekking from Tekirdag to Canakkale (a bus trip of at least 3 hours), and man, was I impressed.  But really, Tekirdag was sending a delegation on a bus to participate in a Canakkale-based commemoration walk.  And though I saw ads around my town and Istanbul for remembrance ceremonies, they all seemed to take place in Canakkale itself–disappointing, because I wanted to glimpse, if not participate, in the day’s events.

Namik Kemal University was ready, however, with its own ceremony, held yesterday (3/21) though not widely advertised through the campus (well, neither was the German ambassador to Turkey’s campus visit).  Luckily, one of my favorite students informed me of the event and made me promise I’d come so I could see him play the ney.  Although it meant missing my new favorite Pilates class, I booked it from English class and Spanish tutoring and bike riding at the gym to the campus Pyramid Salon (think NKU multipurpose fancypants salon–important speeches under the glowing mirrors of a disco ball).

Sponsored by the Ataturk Though Association, whose members I think start every day asking ‘What would Ataturk do’?, the ceremony was quite solemn.

This backdrop is pretty standard fare for university occasions–the Turkish flag and Ataturk image flanked by NKU banners.  But the low lighting, melodramatic recorded music, and emotional readings of the day’s history lent it an air of great importance.  I understand generally nothing of what was said (except that the British had a boat called the HMS Irresistible) but really enjoyed feeling the equal pulls of nationalist celebration and mourning.

Part of a hour-by-hour recapitulation of the battle

Performing "Cannakale Icinde Aynali Carsi." You can listen below

My student Taha soloing on the ney and accompanying a reading

After musical tributes and the intense reading (in Turkish translation) of a letter written by a former ANZAC soldier, all of the night’s performers lined up side-by-side and repeated some lines with such fervor I was a bit taken aback.  I really wish I knew what they said, but unfortunately the students I was sitting with weren’t able to translate them for me.  The repetition ended with “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene,” a refrain seen on statues of war imagery in every Turkish town.  It translates roughly to “How happy is he who can say ‘I am a Turk'”.

Second from the left is wearing an Ataturk tie featuring the Pasa in his Humphrey Bogart phase

Then the house lights came on full blast and the solemn air dissipated.  It’s no secret that Turks are a patriotic bunch–the school systems do one hell of a job perpetuating the sanctity of Ataturk’s memory and legacy.  A large part of Turkish national identity was born during World War I (wherein only Muslim Ottomans fought together on the front lines so as to cement the solidarity of that identity–Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other minorities were conscripted to labor battalions or worse fates), so any military commemoration or national holiday is celebrated in a way America’s Memorial or Veteran’s Day could only dream of.

In a country which recognizes the horror of war but glorifies its military past (and most do, don’t they?), its citizens are taking a pretty strong stance against NATO intervention in Libya.  Twice this week, when new Tekirdaglis have discovered I’m American, I’ve been asked why America’s bombing Libya.  Oh my Turkish is nowhere near good enough to explain this, but writers are having a great time breaking it down.  Despite Erdogan’s protests, the bombing has started, and we can now simply hope for a swift defeat of Ghaddafi, minimal civilian casualties, and a new democratic government that Libyans need.  “Baris…baris” (“peace…peace”) I say when I’m pressed.  Democracy cannot be implemented by invasion and top-down control; well, it can but it’s much better if it comes from within, and without the need for battle commemoration days.

I’ll leave you with a haunting Ladino melody commemorating the soldiers of Gallipoli and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  There’s something about the strength and youthful fire of military camaraderie I admire.  But I much prefer love songs.

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