- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

ISTANBUL — Public pressure has blocked the publication of the private papers of a former wife of Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey whose personal shortcomings might have come to light as never before.

The papers, hidden away in the vaults of the Turkish History Foundation for the past quarter-century, had been expected to expose disturbing truths about a near-mythic figure with a penchant for late-night drinking sessions with his friends.

In the process, critics feared, radical Islamists could have found ammunition to undermine the secular model on which modern Turkey is based.

It has been 82 years since Ataturk wrenched the remnants of the Ottoman Empire from the grip of an invading Greek army and set about creating a modern, secular republic.

Statues and busts of him preside in town squares throughout the country. His face adorns the national currency and — by law — public buildings everywhere. Speaking ill of the man is a punishable offense.

But the personality cult created by followers anxious to cement the republican legacy has always emphasized Ataturk’s public persona — his administrative and military genius.

“To be frank, the Turkish people doesn’t know the country’s founder,” wrote historian and journalist Avni Ozgurel in the daily newspaper Radikal. “We know [the image we have of him] is closer to fable than to real life.”

Latife Usakligil’s private papers, argued those who supported their publication, would shed a more human light on her former husband.

The trouble is, Ataturk’s marriage to this daughter of a wealthy merchant was a failure. Not content with the role of ceremonial wife in public and companion of last resort at home, the young woman protested too much. Ataturk divorced her after less than three years.

Living alone until her death in 1975, Mrs. Usakligil never again spoke of her life with the Turkish leader, and the papers she bequeathed were shut away by court order until this month. With the days ticking away, though, the thought of her 170-page diary and love letters being made public has proven too much for some.

“A select few in Turkey are trying to make monkeys of Ataturk and Latife,” thundered Emin Colasan, a columnist for the mass circulation daily Hurriyet known for his vitriolic ultrasecularist views. “The Islamists hope to use her to attack Ataturk.”

He went on to accuse Turkish History Foundation head Yusuf Halacoglu of having links with a prominent Turkish Islamist in exile in the United States.

Other newspapers are publishing stories charging that Mr. Halacoglu’s brother was involved in a pornography ring.

The pressure eventually paid off. At a press conference earlier this month, Mr. Halacoglu said that, at the request of Mrs. Usakligil’s surviving family, the decision had been made not to release her papers.

Citing the sacredness of private life, many ordinary Turks seemed to approve. But prominent reformers criticized the final decision as further proof of the limits of freedom of information in Turkey.

“State secrets, we know that rhetoric,” scoffed Radikal columnist Murat Belge. “In America, are the things a divorced minister’s wife writes about her ex-husband locked away in closed boxes?”

With Ataturk’s own notebooks due shortly to be made public, it’s a debate Turks will likely have to get used to.

As far as the Usakligil affair is concerned, though, the greatest loser would appear to be Mrs. Usakligil herself. Deprived of her voice, historians have had to reconstruct her brief marriage from spare descriptions left by close associates of Ataturk.

Unsurprisingly, she comes across as shrewish, demanding and fond of public scenes, stomping down from the bedroom to drag her husband away from yet another evening of conviviality.

It is an impression that has only been strengthened by the last few weeks’ controversy.

“It is not everybody’s lot to be the wife of Ataturk, and that woman’s sacrifice will be more than anybody else’s,” wrote one journalist in the popular daily Sabah.

“Thinking that you can be married to the man and at the same time say, ‘Come on dear, let’s turn on the radio, have a cup of tea and do the lotto’ — out of the question.”


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