Certain things in the Turkish national pantheon, you touch upon peril of death. The man called Ataturk. The notion of Turkish identity. YouTube died in Turkey recently after the government decided that Armenians and other anti-Turkish elements were smearing the nation with videos insinuating that Ataturk was gay. But YouTube will be back; Hrant Dink, the idealistic editor, journalist, and minority rights activist, will not. Just over a year ago, he was shot dead by a seventeen-year-old who could later be observed in photographs flanked by celebrating Turkish police, who presumably saw the young man as a nationalist hero.
Dink, an Armenian Turk and editor in chief of the bilingual weekly Agos, was under constant threat of death. But he clung to the belief that his stories — his prodding the Turks to admit the Armenian genocide, his prodding the Armenian diaspora to move on — could redefine what it meant to be from Turkey. Not a Turk, but of Turkey. One of those stories touched both untouchables, Ataturk and Turkishness.
Dink said he’d discovered that Sabiha Gökcen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter and a Kemalist icon, was an Armenian orphan; he’d actually found her relatives in Armenia. True or not, his words kicked up a storm. Gökcen’s life was a tribute to her natural orphan spunk and Ataturk’s transfiguring vision. In 1936, at age twenty-three, she became the first female combat pilot in the world. She was feted throughout her long life — she died at eighty- eight in 2001 — as a symbol not only of modern Turkish womanhood but of the Turkish military and of her father’s nationalist project. Today Turkey’s international airport bears her name.
No wonder the head of the Turkish Army pounced on Dink for his story, charging him with a crime against national unity. It’s a shame that Gökcen was dead already and unable to defend Dink. But then, would she have defended him? Nobody believed in Ataturk’s vision more than she did. Nobody — nothing — was such a pure product of it.
Gökcen was a strange national treasure, almost a museum artifact. In a memoir fittingly entitled My Life with Ataturk, she said that her lived life began in 1925, when Kemal adopted her, and ended in 1938, when he died. Thirteen years, a life in miniature. The rest, she wrote, was serving time.
Was she in mourning for an adopted father she adored? Or was she such an object of Ataturk’s fashioning that her spirit left with its creator, even while her body remained on earth? That might sound like a fairy tale, but the pivotal events of her life often seem the stuff of one.
Scene 1: The Garden
Her story began once upon a time in Bursa, a war-torn town in northwestern Anatolia. The year was 1925. Sabiha was twelve, poor, an orphan. President Mustafa Kemal came to visit Bursa and happened to lodge in the mansion next door. She watched him for days, an idea percolating. Unable to contain herself, she leaped over the fence and landed in his garden. (In fairy tales, the garden is often the portal to magical realms.)
The founder of the Turkish Republic beckoned to her and petted her head. She kissed his hand, told him that she was an orphan, a burden on her siblings, that she dreamed of going to boarding school. He nodded, and it was done. The urchin had been turned into a princess, albeit not your typical princess. She was no beauty, Sabiha, but that was all right; he didn’t intend to marry her off. What he was creating was more magical than a dynasty.
Come with me to Ankara, he said. Become my daughter. She accepted, of course, and off she went to join his other adopted daughters at the presidential house. She had private tutors, attended the American schools in Istanbul, and spent time in Paris (which she hated — too far removed, perhaps, from her father).
Scene 2: What’s in a Name?
In 1934, Mustafa Kemal passed the Surname Law. How could citizens of a modern nation-state, modeled on France, not have surnames? Kemal became Ataturk: father of the Turks. To others he dispensed names. The man he sent to Mexico to study pre-Columbian ruins for ancient Turkish connections became Mayatepek, “Mayan hill.” Sabiha became Gökcen — “of the skies.” Her fate was sealed.
Scene 3: The Biplane, #19
The following year, with her father, she watched Russian aviators performing at a ceremony for the opening of the Turkish Bird Flight School. She was entranced by the skydivers and the parachutists. When Ataturk asked her whether she wished she could be like them, she answered with sudden seriousness: “I am ready right now.” Ataturk liked the match between her name, her courage, and her ambition, and he instructed the head of the school to admit Gökcen as his first female student. Seeing her accomplish her first solo flight, Ataturk saw an icon flashing across the skies. “Now I can tell you what I have planned for you,” she recalled him saying, in her memoirs. “Can you imagine how proud it would make us feel to have a Turkish girl become the world’s first woman military pilot? I will act now and make arrangements for you to receive special training.”
It was around this point that her fairy-tale life crossed a threshold. There was still magic in it, but her innocence was lost. The sky is not simply a frontier of wonder. It’s also a theater of operations. Air is for superiority; the sky is for bombing.
Scene 4: The Silver Pistol
In 1937, Gökcen heard whisperings of a secret operation that her air force peers were about to embark on. They were to squash the Dersim uprising of the Kurdish Kizilbash and their rebel leader, Seyit Riza. She wanted to fight for her country, too, but the decision was not her commander’s to make, so she borrowed a plane and flew to Ankara to make her case directly to her father, the father of the nation. He accepted, with conditions.
Ataturk: You should not forget this: you are a girl…. You will be faced with a band of deceived men….You might have to do an emergency landing and surrender to them…. Have you thought about what you would do in such a situation?
Gökcen: … If something this unfortunate happens, don’t you worry, I will never surrender to them alive.
Ataturk: Gökcen, then, I will give you my own pistol…. If anything that will put your honor at risk should happen, do not hesitate to use this pistol against others or to kill yourself. Gökcen [kisses his hand, kisses the pistol]: I will not forget your words for as long as I live and will always keep this promise!
The next day she flew with her comrades to Dersim. For a month, she dropped bombs and flew gun runs over the Kurds. The rebellion was suppressed — a rebellion one can easily imagine Gökcen participating in, had she been adopted by the Kurds instead. Seyit Riza, their leader, was captured, but before he was hung, he shot out a warning: “I am seventy-five years old…. I am joining the Kurdistan martyrs. Kurdish youth will get revenge. Down with the fickle and liars!” Stealing the show from his persecutors, Seyit Riza grabbed the noose, pushed the executioner aside, and hung himself. The Dersimlis were devastated. Tens of thousands were deported and massacred. Kosovars and Albanians were resettled there to alter the ethnic composition. Yet not a word was uttered about what happened at Dersim when Gökcen became a national hero. She was glorified for eliminating “feudalism” with her bombs. Even in her memoirs she never talked about Dersim or its aftermath or consequences. She was ever the dutiful soldier and daughter. In the words of Ataturk:
I am proud of you, Gökcen! And not just me, the whole Turkish nation that has been following this incident very closely is proud of you….You should be proud of yourself for showing to the whole world, once again, what our young girls can do…. We are a military nation. From ages seven to seventy, women and men alike, we have been created as soldiers.
After the operation, Ataturk dispatched his creation on a goodwill tour of the region — Sofia, Belgrade, Athens — to promote not only Turkey’s advancement of women but also the country’s combat readiness. Ataturk showed her off in military uniform at balls and ceremonies. She was heralded by poets and editors as a model for the youth, for women, as a heroine out of pre-Islamic Turkish legend. And yet women still had no formal position in the military. Ataturk either could not or would not change that on his own. Instead Gökcen would make appeals on his behalf. At the Republican Day ball, she confronted Marshall Fevzi Cakmak, urging him to pass a law allowing women to be soldiers. “There are so many young girls that I know who are ready to sacrifice the best years of their lives to wear this honorable uniform,” she told him.
But he was opposed. “Please child, don’t ask me,” he said. I do not at all agree that our girls and women should become soldiers. For a nation to exist, its women need to live.”
She was devastated. In her memoirs, she writes, “I had convinced myself that, after all that work and all that success, we would have rights equal to men in the realm of the military as well. Yet, as usual, reality had reigned over dreams.”
Such a wistful line for one who had fulfilled so many of her own dreams. Yet one can see, perhaps, the source of that wistfulness in the many photographs and video clips of her life: Gökcen propped on the propeller of her biplane; Gökcen as gunner in the rear seat; Gökcen in leather jacket and cap and goggles riding in an open car with Ataturk; Gökcen in uniform kissing Ataturk’s hand as suited Turkish gentlemen and a few guards look on. Iconic images of a miniature life.
One day in November 1938, the fairy tale came to an end. Ataturk had succumbed. After his death, Gökcen had to leave the military. In 1940, she married, but her husband died three years later. In 1950, she asked to fly combat missions over North Korea, to do her part “for the free world” and for NATO, and was denied. She ended up serving as the chief instructor at Turkey’s Civil Aviation School and flew tours in the US in the 50s, representing Turkish society. Decades later, in 1996, the US Air Force included her in a poster honoring the “20 Greatest Aviators in History.”
We shouldn’t judge Sabiha Gökcen too harshly for her admission that the larger part of her long life was “time served.” Ataturk was her muse and her creator. He breathed agency into her, made a girl into a living legend. Without him, she felt she was no one — just another object in the national pantheon.