Getting to know real Mustafa Kemal

Today is Nov. 10. If you happen to live in Turkey, you have heard the morning air-raid sirens at 9:05 am. Even though it’s Sunday, crowds of people will take part in various commemoration ceremonies or go to the Atatürk Mausoleum to pay their respects.

It’s almost impossible to think about Turkey without also considering Atatürk. A majority of the country sees him as a saviour, hero, and father of modern Turkey while others brand him as an enemy of religion because he ended the caliphate and shut down various religious sects.


Whether people view Atatürk with distaste or see him as a saviour, a good number of them do not really bother to learn about what sort of man he was. In schools, they learn a little bit about his life, but they mostly learn about what he did during and after the War of Independence. Not much is known about his childhood.

I think it would be better if everyone could see Atatürk’s human side and his loneliness; this includes the people who gather in front of Atatürk’s statues or go to show their respect and gratitude at his mausoleum in the early morning hours as well as those that do not like him, the ones who sneer at these ceremonies.
The things I have read and learnt over the years that Mustafa Kemal could not live the life he wanted or tell the whole truth about himself because of the responsibilities laid upon him.

I came across the first surprising thing about Atatürk when I was at primary school. Of course, starting in the first grade, all children learn the years of his birth and death: 1881 and 1938. However, in the book O’nun Çocukları (His Children), printed by Milliyet Children’s Publications, there is one of the few interviews with Atatürk’s mother, Zübeyde Hanım. In this interview, Zübeyde Hanım says her son was born in 1880, not 1881.

Was this such a big deal? Finding out you were wrong about the year of someone’s birth should not matter so much. But this interview piqued my curiosity, and I wondered why there was not more research about it and why no one has tried to learn more about the childhood of the founder of the Republic. Also, those who believe all of Atatürk’s work is linked to the number 19 would be shaken by the idea that he was born in 1880.

When we investigate the life of Atatürk through a somewhat more human perspective, Fikriye Hanım appears before us. Fikriye Hanım was the niece of Ragıp Bey, Zübeyde Hanım’s second husband, and she was perhaps Atatürk’s first and only true love. However, when Atatürk’s whole life is taught to us, Fikriye Hanım and Ragıp Bey are skipped over. I do not know about Ragıp Bey, Atatürk’s stepfather, but Fikriye Hanım had an important place in Atatürk’s life.

Fikriye hanım

First, the claim that Fikriye Hanım was Abdurrahim Tuncak’s mother is not widely known. So who was Abdurrahim Tuncak? Although he is officially known as Atatürk’s adopted son, if the words of Mehmet Sadık Öke (the son of Latife Hanım, Atatürk’s first wife) are to be believed, Abdurrahim Tuncak was Atatürk’s true son.

In the official history, Mustafa Kemal was the Deputy Commander of the 2nd Caucasus Front when he first met and later adopted Abdurrahim Tuncak, an eight-year-old boy who had lost his parents in the Russo–Turkish Wars. However, even Tuncak’s own daughter Nuray Çulha claims that Abdurrahim began living with Zübeyde Hanım when he was three and a half months old and that he called her “Grandmother.” 

Abdurrahim Tuncak

As for Abdurrahim Tuncak’s own words, one of his first memories is at three and a half years old, “… sitting in my mother Zübeyde’s lap in the house in Akaretler…”
Abdurrahim Tuncak never said how his path crossed with Mustafa Kemal’s, and he said he would take what he knew to his grave. Although there is an interview with him in the state television archives, it has never been released.

Perhaps the greatest gift given to Tuncak, the only family member present when Atatürk’s body was transferred to the mausoleum, was from Başkent University’s Dr Mehmet Haberal, who opened a museum with their family names side by side: Abdurrahim Tuncak Atatürk. It’s also worth noting that Tuncak and Atatürk are physically quite similar.

Today, it would not be a mistake to think of Atatürk as the cement of the Turkish Republic. The many people who believe the country he saved will one day return to its former state and continue to thrive are bringing these thoughts with them to the Atatürk Mausoleum and the house in Salonika where he was born. 

However, a reported bomb attack on the Salonika house ignited the Istanbul Pogroms of 6–7 September 1955, and the issue is quite different once we consider who planned the attack and planted the bomb. It’s important to visit Atatürk’s house, but it’s not appropriate to discuss the involvement of Turkish intelligence and the military in the incident.
However, after the bombing, according to the Turkey Grand National Assembly’s Coup and Memoranda Investigation Commission, the name of Oktay Engin (who served as governor of two provinces) comes up even though he rejected the claims.

We do not know Atatürk’s exact date of birth and nor do we have complete information about his son, as well as Atatürk’s sense of humour or whether or not he liked the cinema remains in the dark. Even today, the many claims made about him cannot be officially proven or denied.
It is as though Atatürk is the product of a public relations campaign, and for a long time, the Republic has needed an image like his. However, very few people have managed to find the real person behind the image, and even fewer have separated the image from the real person he actually was. There is almost nothing that describes Mustafa Kemal’s loneliness.

Today is Nov. 10. At 9:05 in the morning, the sirens will wail and much of Turkey will stand at attention for a minute of silence so that Atatürk will always be remembered. They do this not knowing the claim that he actually died at 7.05 and that the time of his death was pushed forward two hours because people thought Atatürk would be forgotten in a short time without commemoration ceremonies.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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