Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the national hero of Turkey. He was an army officer, a revolutionary, founder of modern day Turkey but above all one hell of a drinker. The man drank a liter of raki, the Turkish national liquor, a day. Probably also the reason why he died only 57 years old from a chronic liver disease. Still he is the man that turned the declining Ottoman Empire with it’s Islamic laws to a modern secular state. With that he brought his people freedom to drink.
Atatürk was born in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, which at that time (1881) was still part of the Ottoman Empire. As many people in the Balkans he was probably a real mix. His father was said to be an Albanian, where he might also had some Slavic and Jewish blood. However the family he grew up in was an ordinary middleclass Muslim family. Thessaloniki at that time as one of the few territories on the Balkan peninsula was still under Turkish rule. The Ottoman empire was already heavily declined and by that time it had already given up territories in Hungary, Bosnia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. And things weren’t really looking up. The Turkish regime was old fashioned, crusted and suffering from corruption. And worst of all: Alcohol was still officially prohibited in the Empire.
Atatürk like his father joined the military and had his share in the Young Turk Revolution in 1908. Two years later he was sent to stop the Albanian revolt and in 1911 he fought in the Italo-Turkish war. These battles weakened the Ottoman Empire even more and the Balkan states that were still oppressed saw their chance. In 1912 Atatürk and the other Turkish officers had to rush home, when Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro started the first Balkan War, trying to drive the Ottomans off the European continent. When the Bulgarians on one side and the Serbians and Greeks on the other started fighting over won territory, Atatürk saw his chance and reclaimed some of the lands Bulgaria had conquered in Thrace. In World War I the Empire hooked up with Germany and Austria-Hungary and therefor lost the war. These new humiliations led to the Turkish War of Independence against the Greek, Armenian and allied forces controling territories in modern day Turkey. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed.
Basically Atatürk not only saved face for the Turks. He led them into the 20th century as a modern republic, where politics and church were kept seperate. For this he is still idolized in Turkey. In statues, on money or stamps, Atatürk is simply everywhere. In the many movies made about him he is shown as a flawless superior human being. A fearless warrior, who’s loyalty to Turkey was unbreakable. A lot of Turks therefor were really upset when Can Dundar (a Kemalist himself) made a more realistic movie in 2008 called ‘Mustafa’. In this documentary he showed the human side of ‘Father Turk’. Mustafa Kemal was a heavy smoker, afraid in the dark and he drunk a bottle of raki (about 40 to 50% alcohol) a day.
Where we thought that second thing isn’t what people want to hear about there heroic role model, it was actually the raki part that shocked most people. Turkey is still an Islamic country and the current government of prime minister Erdogan is always trying to get his people off the booze. A lot of Turks rather deny the true lifestyle of Atatürk. As the journalist Reha Muhtar explained on Turkish television: “Of course Atatürk had his human weaknesses. But what’s the point of showing them? He is the great leader, the cement to our nation. If you break down the idea of ‘Atatürk, our great leader’, Turkey will fall apart.”
But there’s also the young generation that finds the truth quite a fresh breeze after the thick fog of propaganda spread over the nation through the years. In Dutch media the 19-year old Feliz said about Mustafa: “This documentary was not amazing, but it was nice to see the human side of Atatürk for the first time. Critics say that in the documentary Atatürk was small. Well, was he big than? Didn’t he drink raki? Didn’t he smoke? We need to stop treating this man as a prophet.”
In 1937 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Obviously his heavy drinking – something he did all of his adult life – was the cause, but still he tried to maintain this lifestyle that he loved so much. That didn’t help of course and the 10th of November 1938 he blew out his last breath at age 57. Not the most heroic end for a national hero perhaps. But someone who has been drinking and fighting all his life is likely to die of one of them.
Well, we’re not judging about what Turks nowadays chose to believe or remember. Nor will we judge Mustafa Kemal as a soldier or a statesman. We just think that it’s impressive that someone who drinks a bottle of hard liquor a day can grow out to be the father of a nation and idolized long after his death. So Şerefe to that!