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November 11, 2011, Friday

Honoring Atatürk

Two weeks ago, I accompanied my son on a fifth grade school trip to Ankara. I had been to the capital many years ago, but spent my time there visiting friends and I did not have a chance to visit any of the historical sites.

My son had never been to Ankara since he began school and he had been eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to go along with his classmates. For both my son and I, this trip was dedicated to touring the many sites important to the history of modern Turkey.

The first stop, of course, was Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. I had seen photographs of the building, but was surprised by its vastness. We walked slowly down the Road of Lions, a 262-meter long walkway that is flanked by 12 pairs of stone lions representing both power and peace. The walkway ended at the Ceremonial Plaza, which was filled with tourists from across Turkey as well as visitors from abroad. The schoolchildren stood patiently in the plaza as we waited for our cue to follow the soldiers into the building to lay a wreath from the school at the sarcophagus. Like me, this was the first time that the students had been to Anıtkabir and we all were excited. Soldiers came and gave us instructions on how to follow behind them as we walked solemnly up the stairs to the mausoleum. In respectful silence, we ascended the stairs, entered the building and stood at attention in front of the tomb while the soldiers presented the wreath. Ceremonial music played and then we were ushered out of the building and over to the guestbook, which the teacher signed on our behalf.

The rest of our day and the following morning and afternoon were taken up with museum visits and tours through the first two Parliament buildings. Even though I found the museums fascinating and wished we had more time to linger over the exhibits, the highlight of the weekend for me was the visit to Anıtkabir.

During the wreath-laying ceremony at Atatürk’s tomb, I was reminded of the words written by American President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 10, 1963, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the passing of Atatürk: “The name of Atatürk brings to mind the historic accomplishments of one of the greatest men of this century, his inspired leadership of the Turkish People, his perceptive understanding of the modern world and his boldness as a military leader. It is to the credit of Atatürk and the Turkish People that a free Turkey grew out of a collapsing empire and that the new Turkey has proudly proclaimed and maintained its independence ever since. Certainly there is no more successful example of national self reliance than the birth of the Turkish Republic and the profound changes initiated since then by Turkey and Atatürk.”

I find the reverence shown towards the man considered the founder of modern Turkey to be impressive and sincere. People from all walks of life recognize his influence within the republic and also around the world. His words continue to be quoted and his actions are still remembered. Long after his passing, he still inspires respect.

This week, on Nov. 10, the anniversary of Atatürk’s passing, I was in downtown Üsküdar with a friend who had come to visit from New York. I explained the importance of the day and told her that when we heard the sirens and horns sounding, we were to stop and stand at attention out of respect for Atatürk and to commemorate his death at 9:05 a.m. Previously, when I had been walking down the street on the morning of Nov. 10, usually on the way home from dropping my son off at school, every person on the street stood still with their hand at their sides, cars stopped, people could be seen standing at attention in their apartments and businesses stopped transactions while clients and workers all paused to honor Atatürk. This year, however, it was different. As my friend and I watched, most pedestrians simply continued walking, not pausing for even a brief moment. Only a handful of people stood quietly until the sirens and horns ceased. I do not know why so few people chose to stop and observe a minute of silence, and am frankly puzzled about it.

Personally, I find the experience to be very moving and have always tried to be able to share the moment with others who are also out on the street, heading out to run errands or on their way to work. To me, it is a moment that pulls the country together.

After our trip to Ankara, and Anıtkabir in particular, my son and I both have a deeper respect for Atatürk, what he accomplished and his vision for the future of the country he helped to establish. It is my sincere hope that his memory will continue to inspire future generations.

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