Mehmed Âkif Ersoy | Kerem Sadikoglu

“May God take my life, my beloved, my all being / May He not deprive me of my only Home on this world.”

Cânı, cânânı, bütün varımı alsın da Hudâ / Etmesin tek vatanımdan beni dünyâda cüdâ.

One must search hard to find a Turk who would not tear up on hearing these two of forty-one beautiful verses of his national anthem, the “March of Independence”. Crafted by Mehmed Âkif, it is the most beloved poem in Turkey, written during the days of defeat, occupation and resistance following the end of the Great War, in 1921. This is the story of the mind behind this poem, today widely revered as the national poet of Turkey, who became the unwanted man of the new regime which replaced the Ottoman Empire, soon after the achievement of the March of Independence.

Âkif was born in 1873, in the historic Fatih District of Constantinople. He spent his childhood in the ancient streets and schools of the capital of a crumbling Empire, witnessing the slow and painful decline of a civilisation. He was a resilient child. He lost his father in 1888, at the age of fifteen, -whom he revered as both his father and his teacher, he “…learned everything he knew from him”- and had to switch to a veterinary school to be able to provide for his family, quickly. He graduated as the best of his class, in spite of the destruction of his family home at the Great Fire of Fatih, in 1893.

Having been appointed as a vice-inspector at the Ministry of Agriculture of the period, he began travelling through European, Anatolian, and Syrian countryside, witnessing the misery and struggles of the peasants of an Empire in crisis. He was deeply influenced by this decline of a people, of which the unwavering piety and courage had carved it a place among the great civilisations of our world. He was disillusioned by the decadence of the Western-educated Ottoman elite, who were disconnected from the people they wanted to illuminate from the top. He was disgusted by the authoritarian -we would have to concede that it was stable, he reigned for 33 years- rule of Abdul Hamid II. He wanted another path for his homeland, a path that would not cut his people off from their roots, taking inspiration from them to achieve prosperity and progress. He loved science, but not science deprived of its eternal inspiration of seeking truth. He loved literature, but not literature obsessing over carnal pleasures.

His agony drove him to poetry and to rhetoric. He joined numerous organisations with the aim of educating his people, working relentlessly to awaken a calling in the hearts and minds of the Ottomans. He published a magazine bearing the name of “The True Path”[1] in 1908, which had a profound influence over its readers, garnering thousands of them and being continued to be published through 1925. He wrote there of his love for his land and his religion, of the misery of Muslims worldwide, the causes of their decline and his offers of ways out of this hardship: widespread education, conserving Islamic morality, catching up with the technological and political advances of the West.

His ideology might be as debatable as the next, but his love and loyalty for his homeland was not. Following the disastrous Balkan Wars, -where the Ottomans lost their 500-year-old homeland-, he spent his days preaching hope and resilience at the greatest mosques of Istanbul, at Fatih, Suleymaniye and at Bayazit. The public was devastated. He said: “Though, some of these wretched have / A hope that shines as bright as stars in their hearts / That is faith, Lord! How great it is, / a rusty heart without faith is a burden in the bosom.”

He quickly came into conflict with the regime that replaced the rule of Abdul Hamid II, the Committee of Union and Progress, comprised of mainly French-educated, positivist, materialist officials who sometimes openly derided religion. His criticisms of this were not tolerated, his magazine was ordered to suspend publication several times by Ittihadist authorities until 1914.

The Ottoman Empire was carried into war by the Ittihad government, alongside Germany, who had close ties with Turkey since the end of the 19th century. Some even say that we had joined the war to obtain German economic aid, indeed, millions of golden Marks arrived at the ports of Constantinople, without which we could not have paid the salaries of civil servants. Indeed, the amenities were not enough, but Turkish troops fought valiantly. On the hills of Gallipoli rest today thousands of young Turkish, Australian and New Zealander men. At the outbreak of the First World War, Âkif was sent on several intelligence missions, due to his influence on pious Muslims of the Empire, including a mission to embolden Arab tribes who remained loyal to Constantinople at the Arab Revolt of 1915. He composed several works of pure, enchanting religious sentiment at the lands of the Prophet, which were considered by some of the renowned writers of that time as his masterpiece.

In 1918, at the end of the Great War, the Ottoman Empire was devastated. Turkey lost more than a tenth of its population to the conflict. Her lands and her ancient imperial capital were occupied by the Allies. The Ittihad government had fled to Germany, while the new government struggled to establish authority, under strict surveillance of Allied authorities, issuing constant threats of further occupation. The Turks felt humiliated. Understandably, some thought this was the end of the Turkish Empire, and sought a foreign mandate to govern and modernise the country. A handful refused to give in. Secret societies were founded all over Constantinople and Anatolia, the former providing the latter with supplies with smugglers working overtime under the dark cover of the night. Âkif was provided with a well-paid and well-deserved chair at Ottoman Islamic Academy, the “Dârü’l-hikmeti’l-İslâmiyye” in 1918. He felt increasingly uncomfortable with his position, as the humiliation of his fatherland seemed endless; even the Greeks have invaded Smyrna, on the heavy terms of an armistice.

In 1920, he left his post unannounced for Balikesir, a small town in western Turkey. He witnessed the growth of the seeds of national resistance, doing his part in bolstering it by preaching resistance and independence in local mosques. The people’s love for him bolstered the ranks of militia cells that fought the occupiers with what was left over from the Great War. Âkif had made up his mind, he knew he would eventually have to leave Constantinople for good, where censors increased pressure on publishers supporting the national movement growing in Anatolia. He was soon invited to Ankara, by the new representative delegation led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, opposing the Constantinople Government which he deemed as in collaboration with the enemy.

On 10 April 1920, the passengers of the boat sailing from Constantinople to Geyve, in Balikesir did not notice the bearded, quiet man travelling with his twelve-year-old son who would soon join the Turkish resistance. The day after the convention of a new National Assembly in Ankara, with representatives from all over Anatolia, on 24 April, he reached Ankara, the centre of resistance which would soon become the capital of the new regime. He was elected as the MP of Burdur. He quickly became the moral leader of the resistance movement, with his preach and his poems being printed and distributed among troops on the front.

In the last months of 1920, Chief of Staff of the Turkish resistance requested a competition from the Ministry of Education in Ankara, in order to choose a poem that would be adopted as the national anthem to boost morale of the resistance. The winner would be awarded a monetary prize. Despite the 700 entries to the competition, none was found satisfactory. All eyes turned to Âkif, who had refused to participate despite the insistence of his colleagues, for as long as there was a monetary award. His stoicism made the organisers remove the monetary award, only then he agreed to write a national poem for the competition, of which he was unsurprisingly the winner. In March 1921, the resistance Assembly adopted the İstiklal Marşı, the March of Independence as their national anthem. It was read time after time by Hamdullah Suphi, the education minister, to incessant applause and tears of representatives. There was one problem, the monetary award was adopted by the assembly as well, and the law could not be changed. Mehmed Âkif, probably angry at this fait accompli, donated the entire sum to charity. He did not even have the means to buy a coat the day the anthem was adopted by the Assembly, he borrowed one from a friend.

He later told the journalists: “May God never make us need an Independence March again.”

Ultimately, in 1922, Turks were victorious, the Greek Army had to flee Smyrna by fishing boats. The occupation had ended, the capital was liberated. From the ashes of an ancient Empire, from the ruin of the Great War, a new state was rising, with people rejoicing at their restored sovereignty. The odds were so against the resistance movement that the resistance government had to requisition clothing and even socks. In 1923, the monarchy, which had its reputation admittedly tarnished through the occupation of Constantinople, was abolished, to be replaced by a nascent republic.

However, the tide soon began to turn against the opposition, and the conservatives. The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 -the last Caliph was an acclaimed painter and his daughters were virtuosos, he merits a Rogue entry of his own-. The Jacobinist ideology soon took over, for them, a new, republican society had to be created. A rebellion to the east of the country meant the government would take tough measures against the opposition. Many of them were judged in extraordinary tribunals, where the offices of the judge and the prosecutor was placed between the hands of a single person. Âkif was not re-elected to the now single-party parliament. He was offered to translate the Koran into Turkish. He hesitated to do so, as he deemed this an extraordinarily heavy religious responsibility. He later ceased his work on the translation, when the State forced the change of the language of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer; from Arabic, the liturgical language of Islam, to Turkish. He feared that the State would also force the prayer to be made in Turkish and not in the 1,300-year-old way. He willed his work to be burned, although what happened to his translation is still a hot topic of debate in Turkey. Other religions, such as Judaism, were also banned from teaching their religion without state approval. Arabic letters were banned, wearing a Western hat became obligatory for civil servants. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the military leader of the resistance movement, took the surname of “Atatürk”, the Father of Turks. A hard kind of secularism had begun to be imposed in Turkey, religious holidays were neglected under clear orders from the Presidency. The Republic had become so powerful, so authoritarian that it could force a change upon the tenets of a religion.

By 1925, Âkif had already left the country he so loved. His magazine was closed down along with the entirety of opposition publications. He was disappointed by the new regime. The pension he gained from his service as an MP was not awarded to him. The man who gave the land its national anthem was now followed in Egypt by Turkish intelligence, under the codename İrtica-906, or Reactionary-906.

His years in Egypt were not kind to Âkif. He was in near constant monetary trouble; his wife was ill and he could not raise his children in accordance with his views as his wife was absent. After eleven years in exile, he could no longer bear being out of his homeland. In 1936, he returned home, ill.

His friends in Istanbul got him admitted to a private clinic, where he gave a final interview to a journalist. He said: “I have voyaged from Egypt in three days and three nights. Those three nights lasted as long as three centuries. I have stayed there for eleven years. Then came a moment when if I had stayed a day longer, I would have gone mad. Longing, how painful it is…”

Âkif passed away months later, on a cold December day of 1936. Not a single representative of the state was present at his funeral. However, tens of thousands of students were. After the funeral rites, his coffin was carried on the shoulders of youth. He was interred at the Edirnekapi Martyrs’ Cemetery, where the most illustrious of Turks lie for their eternal stay.

The author enters his old classroom during a visit to his former grammar school. He watches the portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk above the blackboard. To the right of it is displayed the March of Independence of Âkif, which is the case for every classroom in Turkey. He wonders if this symbolised the reconciliation of the roots of Turks with modernity, or if it represented an ongoing struggle between the two paths. Or whether, will there ever be a victor in this struggle?

[1] Sırât-ı Müstakîm, later Sebilürreşad, inspired by the Koran, verses 40/38 and 24/46

This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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