By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 29 March 2020
Photo by Wikimedia
National anthems are, by definition, bombastic, over-the-top, full of braggadocio and glittering generalities. But even in such an unrestrained musical category, Turkey’s national anthem stands out as an exemplar of hyperbole, blood-and-guts vows, triumphalism, self-pity, and paranoia.
The Turkish anthem also has the rare distinction of being the only national rah-rah whose title is made up two foreign words—İstiklal Marşı (‘independence’ and ‘march’ in Arabic and French respectively.) As well, with forty-one lines, the Turkish anthem must be one of the longest. One can only imagine the cruel imposition on millions of Turks who are expected to remember the rambling and interminable lyrics.
Poet, politician and academic Mehmet Ersoy (1873-1936) wrote İstiklal Marşı in 1921. Several years later Ersoy moved to Egypt. During a trip to Lebanon he contracted typhoid and died shortly after.
Almost every line of the anthem is an invitation to disbelief and ridicule because of excesses in expression, absence of logic, or historical truth. Perhaps unsure whether his feverish lines had conveyed his ultra-nationalist bipolar message, Ersoy peppered his lyrics with eighteen exclamation marks. Ersoy also couldn’t differentiate between an exclamation mark and a semi-colon. The English translation of the anthem has a number of such illogical English phrases as “take shame” and “unhand not”.
“Fear not; For the crimson banner that providing ripples in this glorious dawn shall not fade,” starts the anthem. It’s not clear who is addressing whom. Is it the poet-politician-academic Ersoy addressing Turkey or Turkey addressing the Turks?
The third line refers to the star on the Turkish flag: “For that is the star of my people…It is mine, and solely belongs to my valiant nation.” Thus Turkey appropriates a symbol that has been universally in use since at least 1,000 BCE.
Ottoman Turkey adopted the crescent-and-star in the mid-18th century, borrowing it from Christian Byzantium (it was the flag of Byzantine Constantinople). When Ersoy wrote the lines about “Turkey’s star”, a dozen nations—including the U.S.–had the identical five-point stars on their flags. Now there are at least fifty states—from Angola to Zimbabwe—with the same star on their flags. Tunisia’s flag is almost identical to the Turkish flag.
The anthem describes the “Turkish” star as “coy”. Coy means simpering, arch, flirtatious, kittenish, and skittish. A simpering star representing a nation? Addressing the star, Ersoy wrote: “Do not frown…please smile upon my heroic nation. Why that anger? Why that rage?” Putting aside the “anger/rage” tautology, “heroic nation” is a humorous description of a nation that had just lost its empire during WWI. Immediately prior to that, it had lost the Balkan Wars and for nearly two hundred years had been given a bloody nose by Tsarist Russia.
“Freedom is the right of my nation,” declares the martial song although Turkey has never experienced freedom—whether under the Ottomans, the Young Turks, Ataturk’s dictatorship, or Erdogan’s dictatorship lite.
In the next line, Ersoy contradicts himself: “I have been free since the beginning and forever shall be so.” It’s obvious Ersoy is referring to Turkey. Turkey free from the beginning?
He continues: “What madman shall put me in chains?” Was Ersoy inadvertently referring to dictator Ataturk? President Ismet Inonu? General Cemal Gursel? The various military juntas? Erdogan?
Even when excusing Ersoy/Turkey for the excessive language, one has difficulty swallowing such hyperbole as “I am like the roaring flood, trampling my banks and overcoming my body. I’ll tear apart mountains, exceed the Expanses, and still gush out!”
Vividly expressing the innate Turkish hostility to the West and civilization itself, the anthem has this four-line stanza:
“The horizons of the West may be bound with walls of steel,
But my borders are guarded by the mighty bosom of a a believer.
Let it bellow out, do not be afraid! And think: how can this fiery faith ever be extinguished,
By that battered, single-fanged monster you call “civilization”?
The most outrageous stanza is reminiscent of a grotesque scene from “The Night of the Living Dead” movie. After mourning ‘martyrs’ buried in Turkey, the anthem promises: “Martyrs would burst forth should one simply squeeze the soil!”
Yes, the skeletons of Bloody Sultan Abdul Hamid, genocidiers Talaat, Enver, Jemal, and Ataturk would crack the sod and pop from underground in a scene Stephen King might have imagined. Pity Turkish kindergarten children who have to sing the morbid words every morning per government law.
Addressing Allah, Ersoy says:
“Oh glorious God, the sole wish of my pain-stricken heart is that
No infidel’s hand should ever touch the bosom of my sacred Temples!”
However, it’s fine that 2,434 Armenian churches and 450 monasteries in Turkey lie in ruins or are used as bars, for storage, or as dumps.
There’s no let-up as Ersoy limns, “Let noble sound prevail thunderously across my eternal homeland… my fatigued tombstone…prostrate [myself] a thousand times in ecstasy…my lifeless body shall burst forth from the earth like an eternal spirit…our every last drop of blood may finally be blessed…noble sound prevail thunderously across my eternal homeland.”
The drivel continues:
“For freedom is the absolute right of my ever-free flag.
For independence is the absolute right of my God-worshipping nation!”
Was dictator Ataturk who squelched freedom aware of this factoid? Does Erdogan who jails journalists and judges, shutters newspapers and blocks social media?
Despite his excesses, Ersoy is circumspect about referring to national origin which is essential for most national anthems. According to Turks, a Grey Wolf was the “mother-creator” of Turks: she was a lactating wolf in Central Asia who nursed the first Turks. Perhaps Ersoy knew the wolf exalted by Turks as their matriarch is scientifically known as the Iberian Wolf–from Spain. Turks are already in denial about their origins. That they got their matriarch’s identity and its habitat wrong would shatter their shaky sense of Turkish selfhood.