18 March, 2010

Canakkale day

Americanism, a book title suggests, is "the fourth great Western religion", and it is with a religious fervor that nationalistic Americans uphold their identity. At times too often and too close to home, it's difficult to tell where religion ends and the nationalism begins. Yet as a nation of immigrants, we hold no truly native traditions in common, and our common values are precious few. What it means to be "American" is a good, provocative question - one of those subjects that makes for better questions than it does answers.

It might come as a surprise to readers stateside that what it means to be Turkish is a similarly thought-provoking matter. Turkish identity, conversation with many of my friends suggest, is the state of living a contradiction: free, undeniably secular by contrast to Türkiye's eastern neighbors, and yet stifled by comparison to Europe. Türkiye Avrupa'da, veya Asya'da mı? The best answer you'll get around here is, "neither." Inşallah, this only the first in a series of musings on that living contradiction.

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When morning broke over the Bilkent campus, all the dormitories, and many of the lecture halls as well, were draped with immense Turkish flags. I asked a fellow student what the occasion was.


18 March, 1915, is an important date in the history of the modern Turkish identity. On that day, Ottoman forces, including then-general Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, scored an important victory at the port of Canakkale. The ensuing conflicts, known to Turks as the Canakkale wars, after the province in which they were fought, are best remembered by the Allied nations as the battle of Gallipoli. In fact, a series of campaigns stretched throughout spring 1915 and continued until the following year; 25 April is remembered by the Allied nations as ANZAC day. It was the victory at Canakkale that struck a chord with Turks, galvanizing a nascent national identity that fueled the 1922 Independence War, and birthed the modern republic from the crumbling remains of the Ottoman regime. It is this day on which the events of World War I are most prominently recalled. That said, my classmate had only a vague knowledge of the day's significance. He too had been wondering 'why all the flags?'

That said, even when campus is not draped in crimson, flags are ubiquitous. Viewed from Bilkent, several huge crimson banners punctuate the Ankara's skyline. There are no international displays; in Guvenlik Park, dozens of Turkish flags fly, a crescent and star held high into the blue. I suppose it is the capital city.... i'm just not used to living in a national capital!

From the perspective of someone who's American and not in general a fan of nationalism, Turkish nationalism is intriguing. Here, it feels different; less the bellicose idealism of a superpower than the delicate cohesion of a nation that is still comparatively young. Türkiye observes no less than four public holidays observing momentous dates in the foundation of the modern Republic. The vibrant nation i awake each morning in has to wait another thirteen years to celebrate its centennial, inshallah.