I was chatting with my father the other day and somehow the subject went to my great-great-great grandfather from his side. About 150-200years ago he was a scholar and a large property owner. This was a period before modern Turkey was formed. Aside from managing his vast properties, he was a perfume maker. Mastering a job of skill was common in Ottoman tradition. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent for example was a great conquer but also a jewelry maker. My ancestors from the father’s side were into pleasant scents. My great-great-great grandfather had built a splendid Hamam for personal use. It was destroyed in time, but when he had built it, it was famous for its superbness. This also explains my passion for perfumes, scented creams, and spa days. It runs in the family for over 5 generations, if not more.
After the conversation was over I realized something about my family. Both from the Mother and the Father’s side they have been around long before the formation of modernTurkey. This gives me information about the era that cannot be learned from books.
The common conception is that with the formation of the Turkish Republic, women have been liberated. It is true that Atatürk changed the law, so that women could vote decades before French or Italian women. Then again life for women during the Ottoman era was never the way it has been in other Muslim countries.
My Mother’s grand mother for example was the daughter of another vast property owner. Her husband was very well educated, yet not as wealthy as herself. Education seemed more important as her family was already very well off and culture was very much valued within the family. She was a well read, elegant lady surrounded by servants, but also very sporty. She could ride her horse as well as most men, if not better. In the early nineteen hundreds, one day her husband went hunting with his crew and they got snowed in, in the mountains. The crew came back without her husband. They told her that the blizzard was too severe; they could not possibly reach the area where he was lost.
Her response was simple;
I am not leaving my husband to die in the blizzard!
She hopped on a horse, went into the blizzard, climbed the supposed impossible to reach area, found her husband in an unconscious state. She got him on her horse all by herself and brought him back to safety. She had saved his life while risking her own without hesitation and none of the men in the crew had her courage. Years later, she divorced the same husband because she did not want to be with him anymore. Not only was she strong but very independent too.
One of her daughters, who would be my Mother’s aunt became one of the first female bank directors, when Atatürk was putting Turkey through a series of revolutions. As a bank director, there were male employees reporting to her. Considering the mother that had brought her up this was not a problem. In this period there were not many female managers, in the world yet. The men in my mother’s side of the family have been respecting women as their equal for more than 150 years, which is as far as it came up in family stories. Then there are things that one does not learn from stories but they simply run in the family. The importance of proper language skills is one of them. My Grand Parents from both sides have passed away, but my Mother’s uncle is still alive. When he speaks, his Turkish is so refine, yet his abilities of precise expression are so naturally advanced that it almost sounds like poetry. He is equally fluent in German as he studied Economics in Germany. This was a period long before the gastarbeiter era, but a time when Turks and Germans still had an ongoing alliance left from Ottoman relations. Anyhow I was educated in the US and upon my return, I was using some English words while speaking Turkish. I recall precisely how my mother warned me that this was an ignorant person’s trait.
“An educated person should be able to express themselves very well in their native language and then they can also be very fluent in multiple more languages. “were her words. Needless to say that it did not take me too long to clear up my Turkish, to the extend that I’ve become a published writer in my native tongue.
Getting back to the subject of women’s liberation along with the formation of the republic; there are so many stories in my own family that the idea that women were completely disrespected during the Ottoman era and then suddenly completely liberated with the formation of modern Turkey is absurd. Atatürk has saved the nation by showing great leadership when the Empire was falling apart. He did put the nation through a series of revolutions, which were necessary to create a better life for the public in general. He was a great leader.
Lately however some blame him for anything that may have gone wrong, while others blame every thing that went wrong on his ‘absence’. The truth of the matter is that the nation went through many changes and some important bricks that create the foundation of any society were neglected.
How did that happen?
The Nouveau Riche
Naturally every revolution creates its own power figures. As the country was re-built after the war, new opportunities were formed. Those who were close to the new government became very rich, in maybe a decade of time. Some of these families are still very wealthy. As Modern Turkey is not even a hundred years old, the grandfathers of these people who did not come from a fortunate upbringing but seized the opportunities presented to them, go mostly two generations back. The Grandfathers who made the money, passed away within the last decade. Some of them never lost their country side accent. Their stories have given hope to the rest of the society.
Servants or small time merchants that made it to be the tycoons of the country!
The fact that they did not belong to a certain high class, could not stop them from achieving success. It all sounds promising, only the ways to all those riches were not all that innocent. Turkey had gone through a period were foreign goods were banned and a few families had monopolized the market. The close relations to the government had helped them all the way. The law was as good as, at their disposal. This happened after Atatürk had already passed away. The shift of money to a different class has somehow affected the rest of the culture as well. Nowadays it is almost impossible to come across anyone well off, whose ancestors were not peasants. Many who like to consider themselves as members of a certain elite, link their own past to the days that the republic was formed and almost denounce the periods prior to that.
I often hear words such as “The Ottomans were ignorant!”
My natural response is, “Who do you think the Ottomans are?” They are our past. It took me a while to figure out the depth of the ongoing polarization in the nation. Lately it is almost like some Turks accept the Ottomans as their past and have a disliking against Atatürk and others dislike the Ottoman periods and accept the history of Modern Turkey as their past.
I must explain for my readers who are not familiar with Turkish history that the above expressed distinction is absolute nonsense and is not based on historical facts but more about a desire to be related to a certain period in the past more than another period.
Otherwise by historical means of definition, the Ottoman Empire was formed and lead by Turks, and when it fell apart after WWI, a tough war had to be fought to fend off foreign invasion, after which Modern Turkey was formed, with the leadership of Atatürk.
Anyhow the nouveau riche, have strictly identified themselves with the modern values of the new formed republic such as secularism. Their two generations old, vast amounts of money, along with lack of class has made vulgarity more acceptable among the new elite. In the more traditional Turkish higher class upbringing, flashing off material possessions is considered distasteful. Treating the less fortunate with nothing but kindness is one of the unspoken obligations of members of a class that is accustomed to be served for many generations, thus the “nouveau riche wannabes” who are clueless of such details, make a point of being harsh with the waiter that attends their table. The wannabes are those who look up to the wealthy as role models and imitate their lack of manner, by doubling or tripling it. The unfortunate result is banal behavior to have some sort of acceptance within the culture.
Ironically within the last decade a new group of “nouveau riche” is being formed. The mildly Islamist party has been running the country for a decade and those who are close to them have become richer. Now the two generation old rich families, who did not care to do anything for the country for decades, look down on the newly rich ones, and blame them for destroying the country. Fifteen years ago some of these key families had a lot of influence over many important areas such as the media, the military, even the changes in law.
Now they almost claim guardianship over Atatürk’s legacy of secularism, but what most fail to see is that Atatürk tried to plant the seeds of turning Turkey into a “People’s State”.
Many followers conveniently, missed that point as it would interfere with their “Monopolize the Market” agenda. Three decades ago the importation of many items were banned, punished by jail time and the whole nation could only buy products produced by certain family businesses that turned into empires in a short period of time.
Another point that was missed was guarding cultural values. Naturally the Nouveau Riche, some of which controlled the media, was not bothered by the erosion of the language. Their own parents did not speak “High Turkish” either, so why should it be important to create role models, who would ensure that such values would not be lost to new generations?
Demure is one of the important signs of the traditional Turkish elite class. Sadly it has become rare to come across and is certainly not imitated by the new generations.
The mildly Islamist newly rich families are under the illusion that before Atatürk everyone was extremely religious. My Mother’s father was an atheist. He may have lived his adult life during the modern Turkey era, but previous generations of his family were not very religious either. I keep referring back to my own family because these days, each end of the polarized nation seems to have a different idea on how things used to be.
The fact of the matter is that a certain class was modern also during Ottoman times. Atatürk made an effort to extend that modernity to the rest of nation, while making revolutions that would help the commoners receive better education and have better rights through the democratic voting system. After he passed away, those who claim to share his views have not done much to ensure that the country would become a functioning people’s state. As explained above everyone seemed busy, while a few families were monopolizing the market. After decades of negligence and looking down on country men by the rulers, the mildly Islamist party appeared to show more concern about the public’s basic needs. In return the people have embraced them.
Some complain that the culture is being eroded due to the shift of power, but the culture had been eroding long before that and the previous nouveau riche have not set the best example. They are vulgar and distasteful, so are the new ones. The only upside for the people is that the new power figures feel more obliged to embrace the people, which is ironically more in the steps of Atatürk’s legacy……..go figure!