Hello! I’m so honored to be here today for this celebration of Youth Day. Atatürk was the only leader in the world to make a holiday just for children, and I think that’s so wonderful. A thank the Atatürk Society of America for inviting me to speak to you today. Because of a research paper I wrote in school two years ago, I was sent to Turkey this spring by the Atatürk Society of America. I’m here today to tell you the amazing story of how, as 14-year old from central Iowa, I ended up traveling to Turkey all by myself, and all the fascinating things I learned along the way.
Each year, students from all over the country are invited to develop a National History Day project. History Day is kind of a nationwide science fair, only for history projects. Each year, over 700,000 middle and high school students and more than 40,000 educators participate. The goal is to ensure that students, through the study of history, become better prepared and more knowledgeable citizens. Students can work independently or in groups to create documentaries, exhibits, performances, or papers on a specific topic in history. The topic must relate to the annual theme of the History Day competition. First, extensive research on the topic is required, then the information must be presented in a professional and unique way. There are three levels of competition–local, state, and national. Only 200 students out of 700,000 reach the national level each year.
I first heard about National History Day in 7th grade, almost three years ago. When I learned that the theme for History Day that year was, “Revolution, Reform, Reaction in History”, I asked my family for topic suggestions. I have a great uncle named Carl Leiden who lives in Texas. He’s a retired professor of Middle East politics. Carl recommended Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of modern Turkey. It was his opinion that Atatürk was the single most important individual in the 20th century.
No one else in my family had heard of Kemal Atatürk except my grandfather, who was in the Air Force in Turkey after the Korean War. He explained to me that Atatürk is as important to Turks as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln put together are to Americans. This made me very curious: what made Atatürk such an important person to his country? Why was this leader more significant to his people than some of the greatest leaders of the United States?
So I did some research and found Atatürk a fascinating and inspiring leader. I decided to write a paper on Atatürk, because I’ve always enjoyed expressing myself by writing. It was not the easiest topic to research. The majority of the research projects entered into the competition were from the United States. My teacher told me that the judges tended to favor local topics. She warned me that writing a paper on a leader from another country was going to be frustrating at times. And it was. I had trouble finding information in libraries and books in my hometown. Even on the Internet the facts were sometimes incomplete, inconsistent or even in another language. But as I look back now, it was worth every struggle. My eyes were opened to a whole new country and culture that I didn’t know about before. I’ve met so many wonderful people and seen so many wonderful places. I had the amazing opportunity to witness Atatürk’s work for myself. But most importantly, I was able to raise awareness of Atatürk’s reforms and the country of Turkey throughout my state and maybe even the country.
Though he was difficult to research, Kemal Atatürk fit the theme of History Day very well because he was the perfect example of a reformist leader. He was able to accomplish many vital reforms in a very short amount of time. And with all the focus on the Middle East, I was intrigued by the man responsible for the only Muslim country with a secular government and education system. Turkey is peaceful, prosperous, and modern while maintaining its Muslim traditions, and Atatürk was largely responsible.
So who was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk? His story begins at the end of World War I. Turkey was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which was declining rapidly. It seemed Turkey was destined to be divided up by the Allies. An invasion by the Greeks was the final straw. Kemal Atatürk, who was then a young officer, led the resistance during the successful War of Independence. He became the founder of the new Turkish Republic and was elected its first president. During his presidency from 1923-1938, Atatürk implemented sweeping and visionary reforms. These included secularization of government and education, and equal rights for women.
In the course of my research on Atatürk, my great uncle Carl Leiden connected me with one of his former students. She’s now a professor of anthropology at Boston University specializing in Turkish culture. Through contacts at my mom’s work, I was able to e-mail two people living in Turkey-a professional woman, and a high school boy who offered to tell me about Atatürk in exchange for a chance to practice his English. We grew to be good friends, and we still email back and forth. I had the opportunity to meet him and his family during my stay in Istanbul, which was great. Our schools and friends are similar, but it’s interesting to find the differences between our cultures. For example, he is learning his third language, German, right now. Usually students in my state learn only one language other than English. Right now I’m taking Spanish in school and working on my Turkish in my emails to my Turkish friends.
Early on in my research I discovered the Atatürk Society of America’s website and found it extremely helpful. The Society’s main objectives are to raise awareness of Atatürk’s reforms in America, and to promote Atatürk’s principles for world peace. While revising my paper for the national competition, I came in contact with the Vice President of the Atatürk Society of America. She was invaluable in helping me polish my paper. She also arranged a tour of the Turkish Embassy for me, and I had the honor of meeting Mr. Faruk Logolu, the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, and his wife. I was very pleased to receive a complimentary lifetime membership to the Atatürk Society of America.
As a result of my performance in Washington DC and meeting Filiz and other members of the Atatürk Society of America, the ASA decided to send me on an educational trip to Turkey to see first-hand the effects of Atatürk’s reforms on his country. This spring, they sent me by myself to Turkey to stay with two host families in Ankara and Istanbul. My parents were comfortable with my traveling, but the rest of my extended family was a little nervous! Some of them had the impression that Turkey was like the images of the Middle East they had been seeing on television. We reassured them that it was nothing like that, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect. It was a long flight, but I didn’t sleep much; I was too excited about seeing a different culture, tasting new foods, learning about the history of Turkey, and meeting new people.
I knew a lot about Turkey through my research, but little did I know how much more there was to learn! I’d like to tell you what I knew before I went to Turkey, and what I saw and learned while actually there.
Through my research, I had found that the country of Turkey spans both Europe and Asia. It is a peninsula bridge where the two continents meet. It shares borders with countries such as Greece, Syria, and Iraq. It has about 5,200 miles of coastline, which is a little more than the United States’. It’s a fairly large country; about three times the size of Texas.
On March 21, I flew all by myself from Des Moines to Chicago, from Chicago to Istanbul, and from Istanbul to Ankara. When my plane landed in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, I looked out the window and saw mountains. As I’m from Iowa, that’s a sight I haven’t seen many times in my life. I’ve been all around the United States and even to southern France, but Turkey was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. Around Ankara were green fields and tall, rocky hills with houses dotting the slopes. The city itself was very urban and modern. My host family lived in an apartment near the university that the daughter attended. Downtown Ankara reminded me of Chicago or Minneapolis; there were streets full of shops and stores and restaurants of every kind. There was even a McDonalds there. I have yet to find a place that does not have a McDonalds.
After a week in Ankara, I went to Istanbul for a day. I knew that Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, and the center of the nation’s commerce, culture, and trade. I was still amazed when I arrived, just at the complexity and beauty of it. Parts of the city seemed like New York, with office buildings and heavy traffic and shopping centers. But then, nestled between the skyscrapers, would be these incredibly beautiful, ancient mosques and temples. A tall stone wall over a thousand years old still surrounds part of the city. Istanbul is a perfect marriage of modern city culture with rich historical beauty. Atatürk would be very proud of the city; it is the successful culmination of his efforts to westernize his beloved country.
Some of the historic places I visited in Istanbul were Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahçe Palace. One of the stories that my host family told me was the legend of Maiden’s Tower, which perches on an island in the Bosphorus. The story says that a father received a prophecy that his daughter would die from a snakebite. He locked his daughter inside the tower to protect her from the prophecy. The end of the story is that a snake was hidden inside a fruit basket and carried inside the tower, where it killed the daughter. Historians say the island was probably only a tollbooth built in the Byzantine Empire, but I prefer the legend.
From all the newspaper articles and people I had talked to, I knew that the people of Turkey regarded Atatürk as a savior. As my grandfather had told me, Atatürk was more important to the Turks than George Washington and Abe Lincoln are combined to Americans. Some of the people who edited and commented on my paper wanted me to cut out the part about Atatürk being a savior. They thought I was being biased, or that it was a generalization and not actually true. In Turkey, I found that Atatürk is indeed beloved and revered even today. Everywhere I went, I saw statues and paintings and photographs of him. It was very inspiring to see so great a man so greatly honored by his people. He gave all of himself to his country, and his country in turn honors him more than any other.
On my second day in Ankara, I visited Atatürk’s mausoleum and museum. The building looks similar to the Lincoln memorial at a distance. It sits at the top of a hill covered with thousands of trees. My host mother told me that originally the city of Ankara had arced around the hill in a crescent moon shape, so that the hill and the city had resembled the Turkish flag. The city eventually grew to stretch on all sides of the hill. The view from the top was breathtaking. A tour guide showed me Atatürk’s sarcophagus, then walked me through the extensive museum there. There were paintings, items that belonged to Atatürk, exhibits on his reforms, and even some of his cars. One thing that I learned there that particularly touched me was one of Atatürk’s quotes. During a war between Turkey and another country, he addressed the families of the enemy soldiers killed in the war. He told them not to cry, because the dead soldiers were now the sons of Turkey and mourned by all. To me, this quote was very stirring. It increased my respect for Atatürk that he was such a compassionate and honorable man, even while being a great leader and leading a formidable army. Another thing that was very interesting to me was that Atatürk was not actually buried in the stone sarcophagus that rested in the mausoleum’s hall. Directly below that sarcophagus is a sealed room containing another sarcophagus surrounded by vessels with soil from every part of Turkey. Atatürk is not buried in the second sarcophagus, either; he is actually buried below the sealed chamber with more Turkish soil.
One of the most important reforms that Atatürk achieved was equality for women. Under the Ottoman Empire, women had to cover themselves and could neither vote nor hold a job. Because of Atatürk’s social reforms, Turkish women received the right to vote in the 1930s, only 10 years after women in the United States, and far ahead of women in France, Italy, and Canada. Also, the first female Supreme Court Justice and the first female fighter pilot were from Turkey.
I arrived in Turkey during the week before elections. There were colorful flags and posters everywhere. Turkey’s spirit of democracy was enthusiastic and passionate. Atatürk was responsible for instituting a democratic government system, and it has worked very well for his country. I also saw many professional women there, dressed exactly like women in the United States. I think that’s so wonderful, that Atatürk could free Turkish women to vote and take an active role in their country. The media is full of pictures of women covered in veils in other Middle Eastern countries, but I saw hardly any veils in Turkey. Atatürk was very successful in his reforms for gender equality.
One of the major reforms Atatürk accomplished as the first president of the Turkish Republic was the secularization of the government and educational systems. When researching my paper, I learned that the secular law system Atatürk established didn’t just mean the separation of church and state. It also involved the removal of religion from legal proceedings and education. Secular law made it illegal to mix religious and state affairs, although it was perfectly legal for everyone to choose his or her own religion and follow it. His reforms were controversial among Islamic fundamentalists, but they have stood the test of time. While I was in Turkey I got a chance to visit two high schools, got a first-hand view of the educational system, and saw how it compared to the educational system in the US.
First I visited the Turkish school, Bilkent High School. I met the principal, some of the teachers, and the student ambassadors who would accompany me the rest of the visit. They welcomed me with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. We introduced ourselves, a little awkwardly. They were shy about using English, and I was shy about meeting Turkish people my age. But we quickly grew comfortable with each other. We chatted about little things: shows I watched on television, what kinds of music they listened to, how our schools were similar. They reminded me so much of my friends back home. After we had talked for a while, the student ambassadors took me into a larger room where many more students were seated. I talked to them about my paper and the research I had done. They had read my paper beforehand, and they asked me questions they had prepared about my research and what I thought of Atatürk. Then the student ambassadors gave me a tour of the school. I went around to a few classrooms to be introduced to the teachers, and answered some more questions from the classes. All the students had started learning English early on, so they spoke very well. They taught me some Turkish words like anne, which means mom, and güle güle, which means goodbye. As I was leaving, I saw a bronze statue of Atatürk in front of the school. It reminded me of his reforms in educating his people and removing religion from government and education. What kind of school would this be if Atatürk had not existed? What kind of country would this be?
Two days later I visited George C. Marshall International School. Students from all over the world attend school there. Some were the sons and daughters of ambassadors. The students there presented me with gifts and a delicious lunch. I talked to the students for a little bit, and then I was given a tour of the school. Grades kindergarten through twelfth grade were in the same building complex. It was a very small school, which made it even more interesting. My class has almost four hundred freshmen in it; at George C. Marshall, that was the total population of the high school. It made it possible for me to visit most of the classes and meet all the students and teachers. I made lots of friends there.
When I was researching my History Day paper, one of the most interesting things I learned was that Atatürk changed Turkey’s written language virtually overnight. Turkey’s written language had been expressed in Arabic script for a very long time. Arabic and Turkish were not related languages; this was awkward, and Atatürk felt this contributed to the fact that only 10% of the people could read or write. He decided the country should adopt the Latin alphabet to write the Turkish language. The introduction of the new alphabet was sudden-the newspapers switched to Latin letters virtually overnight. Atatürk went around to schools across the country and personally taught both children and adults the new alphabet. By turning the country into a classroom, the literacy rate increased rapidly. Atatürk was able to accomplish this in only six months.
What I found when I went to Turkey in March was that the language was easy to learn because of the Latin alphabet. I was familiar with most of the letters and sounds, so I could pronounce a word fairly well if I saw it written out. I watched a few Turkish soap operas with the girl I stayed with, and she would tell me what was going on. I could fairly easily pick out the words that I understood. Turkish is a beautiful language.
The students at the Turkish high school that I visited asked me if I had ever heard of Tarkan. I hadn’t, and they told me to pick up one of his CDs while I was there. Tarkan is a very popular Turkish pop singer who is famous throughout Europe. I bought a couple CDs and shared them with my friends when I got home. Whenever I have trouble pronouncing Turkish words, I listen to the CD to hear the accent and the vowel sounds. I also think Tarkan is a very good singer, and my friends all agree.
Before I went to Turkey, I had heard my grandpa talk about being stationed in Turkey when he was in the Air Force. I also knew that Turkey was an ally of the United States from reading the newspapers and from studying history in school. But it was amazing to travel to Turkey and see firsthand the strength of the relationship between the US and Turkey. While I was in Ankara, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the US Ambassador to Turkey, EricEdelman. After visiting with him a while, I was given a tour of US Embassy. I was reminded of Atatürk’s speech to the American people on February 26, 1923, in which he said, “Keep your hearts open to Turks, who are fighting for freedom and independence, and for contributing to the establishment of progress and justice in the world just as you Americans do.”
Another area I learned a little about when preparing my History Day paper was Turkey’s rich history. I knew from my research that Turkey’s first known human inhabitants appeared as early as 7500 BC, almost 10,000 years ago. Prior to Atatürk’s presidency, the Ottoman Empire had existed in the region for over 700 years.
Traveling to Turkey, however, really gave me a feel for the vast and immense history of this beautiful country. My host mother in Ankara and her friend took me to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Turkey has been the cradle for many civilizations throughout history. I saw delicate, ornate tiles, graceful glass vases, carved wooden mosque doors, glittering illuminated Korans, intricate jewelry, and elaborate costumes.
I was also fortunate to have an audience with the President of Turkish History Society. He spent over three hours telling me about the vast history of Turkey. So much of what I had only vaguely understood was made clear to me. Living in a country as young as the United States, it was difficult to get my head around the history of a country thousands of years old. The President of the Turkish History Society didn’t speak English, so a young diplomat translated for us. And the President of History Society smiled at me the entire time we were talking, making me feel very welcome. He told me that I was looked upon with such kind eyes because I looked around me with kind eyes. I was struck by his sense of pride in his country, a characteristic I found in all Turkish people I met. They all have such a rich sense of their place in history. I was envious because, as an American, I don’t always have that sense of pride and place in history.
When I was researching my History Day paper, I corresponded with several Turks and Turkish Americans. I got a strong impression that Turkish people were warm, friendly, and helpful people. I expected people in Turkey to be very nice, but my expectations were far exceeded. From the moment I arrived in Turkey, I encountered nothing short of amazing hospitality. My two host families welcome me with open arms and made me part of the family. Damla, the 18-year old daughter of the host family in Ankara, introduced me to all her friends. We went out bowling, walked in the park, drove around the city, and went shopping. I met so many wonderful people there.
I had heard a lot about Turkish food; it is one of the best known cuisines in the world. It’s rich in both meat and vegetable menus. One of the things I heard most about was the strong Turkish coffee, which is drunk in small cups and prepared in a special coffee pot. I also heard about çay (chai), or tea, which people told me was very popular in Turkey. It seemed that everywhere I went in Turkey, one was served tea as a hospitality. I grew quite fond of it when mixed with a few sugar cubes. Strong Turkish coffee was also served at all restaurants, and it was very good though a little strong for me. The food itself was delicious. I enjoyed the waffle shop near my host family’s home; we stopped there several times for these wonderful waffles with chocolate inside. I had kebob at a nice restaurant with my host mother, and it was my favorite food that I ate in Turkey. They had a very unique way of preparing it, which is difficult to explain. I also loved the many different forms of chicken I was served there. One thing I didn’t care for so much was okra. Damla, the host family daughter, knew this, so she would eat the okra for me when her mom wasn’t looking. Over the week I stayed with her, we grew to be like sisters. We write to each other every week now.
Researching my History Day project alone was a rewarding and exciting process – I had the opportunity to correspond with Turkish people and learn about their country and culture. They told me first-hand accounts of the effects of Atatürk’s reforms. But what was most educational and valuable for me was going to Turkey myself, to see Atatürk’s reforms firsthand. By going beyond what I read in books and actually visiting the country, history came alive for me. I still feel amazed when I think about the reforms Atatürk accomplished in so little time, and now I can connect my experiences in Turkey with the history I read about it.
I highly recommend Atatürk as a subject for research, because relatively few people in the United States have heard about him. He is one of the best leaders in the past century, and yet so few people in the United States know about his sweeping and visionary reforms. I am hoping the story of my experiences will increase Americans’ awareness of Atatürk. I would like more people to know that Turkey, while being 99% Muslim, is a modern, democratic society, thanks to Atatürk’s reforms. In a time where there is a lot of negative media towards the Middle East, Turkey shines as an example of peace and prosperity for all nations in the world.
In 1923, an American student wrote to Atatürk and requested an autographed picture and reply. Atatürk wrote back on Nov. 27, 1923, and said, “My advice to intelligent and studious American children is not to believe as true anything they hear about Turks, but to carefully base their views on scientific and substantive research.” I have had the amazing opportunity to do exactly that, thanks to the support and generosity of the Atatürk Society of America.
I have had such an incredible, unbelievable experience. When I first began writing my paper two years ago, I had no idea if I would even make it to the state level of the competition. So much has happened over those two years. The Atatürk Society of America has given me the wonderful gift of a deep, personal relationship with another country, its history, and its people. Turkey is now part of my heart. I don’t think it’s possible to only visit Turkey once. I know I will be back to see my friends and visit the historical places and see all the cities. Atatürk himself is one of my greatest heroes now. He inspires me to be a leader in my school and community. These experiences have enriched me as a person, and I am so grateful to the Atatürk Society of America for doing all the things they’ve done. Not just the rewards they’ve given me, but what they’re doing for America and Turkey together. I’m going to do my part to spread awareness of Atatürk and his reforms throughout my community. To the Atatürk Society of America: Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart. You’ve done so much for my country and Turkey. And I will never forget all that you have done for me over these past two years. You have changed my life forever. Thank you.