Love in Ankara
1937: Capt. Kemal’s military company were serving as guards and ushers at a ball held in Ankara at the Halk Evi. This is a state event, among the main guests would be Marshal Fevzi, a five-star general; Ismet Inönü, Vice-President (and future president); and yes, Kemal Atatürk himself.
As he was standing guard at the ballroom door, Capt Kemal’s thought about last few week’s events. Few months earlier the 26 yrs old Kemal had met Nigar, a 17 yr old student in a local school, and before long they fell in love with each other. Their romance blossomed mostly in secret meetings away from her family’s eyes. Then one day, as they came out of a theater after watching a movie, the normally bashful Kemal abruptly proposed to her.
Nigar thought for a moment and then wrote down something in a piece of paper and handed it over to him, saying, “Kemal bey, you need to see a doctor”. It was the name and phone number of Dr. Bahattin Kökdemir, Harvard and John Hopkins educated physician in Ankara. Her father!
One day a few weeks later, Kemal made an uncharacteristically brazen move. He telephoned Dr. Bahattin, and arranged for an appointment. When he arrived at the Dr’s chamber he declared right away that he was there to ask for the physician’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Kemal explained to Dr. Bahattin that his father had died in WWI, that he himself was a military officer who received a modest, but dependable salary, but that each month he faithfully gave a portion of his salary to his widowed mother.
Although Dr. Bahattin was impressed with the dashing military officer’s nontraditional direct approach, about giving his blessings to the marriage he was reluctant, “I don’t want my only daughter to be married to a soldier who might get killed one of these days, and leave her a widow. I must take this under advisement. I will get back to you.” Then after a pause, he told Kemal, “Please, call me in a month, I will let you know.”
While discussing the matter with his wife, the Dr. Bahattin said of the suiter: he was very polite, and deeply devoted to his mother. And he was handsome — “Eli yüzü düzgün” (“his hands and face are in order”). But there was that seemingly insurmountable barrier, he was a soldier! And surrounded by hostile neighbors, the country seemed continually on the brink of war. There was also another important factor to take into account: a successful and well-heeled engineer had also asked for Nigar’s hand, and a man not in constant jeopardy of being inducted into the military. The conundrum was not trivial. Nigar had privately expressed to her mother that it was the young officer that she wanted to marry. But unfortunately, her preference was not going to count for much. The family seemed inclined to accept the engineer’s proposal.
Presently, Kemal’s mind was brought back by the arrival of the dignitaries. Atatürk entered the grand ballroom of the Halk Evi followed by his retinue comprised of Ismet Inönü, Fevzi Çakmak, and other leaders. When he saw Kemal, Atatürk gestured to him, appearing to have recognized him. After a short pause, he actually started walking over to kemal, who immediately ran over to greet him. Atatürk asked, “Weren’t you introduced to me at commencement ceremony at the Kuleli (military college) a few years ago?” Kemal responded nervously that he was. “Then young man, come and sit with us at our table.”
As the other young officers all looked on in stunned silence, Kemal was shown his seat — between Atatürk and Inönü! His anxiety must have been palpable. Atatürk then asked him, “Do you take raki?” (Raki is an anise-flavored liquor in the Eastern Mediterranean, known as Ouzo to the Greeks). Kemal had never tasted raki before, but not wanting to disappoint he nodded that he did — after all, it was the Atatürk asking him. After he gulped down one glass, a kadeh, he was immediately offered another, and another. And he was in no position to refuse now.
Then as dinner was being served, Atatürk asked, “Are you married? Do you have any children?” Kemal, his tongue now altogether liberated by the raki, mentioned being smitten by a beautiful young woman, but that her father, an eminent physician, was reluctant to let his daughter marry a military man. He also mentioned that he was still hopeful, after all, the father had not said, “No!” The normally unflappable Atatürk became noticeably quiet; then he gestured to his aide-de-camp, to approach. He whispered something in the man’s ear, and the man departed. All very baffling!
But just then the musicians started playing Harman Dali, a folk dance of Ankara. The dance is evocative of the Jewish folk dance, the Hava Nagila, where the participants form a chain, but in this instance the dance is performed by a group of men only. Atatürk stood up, and as if on cue, the other members of the high brass all rose. Then Atatürk turned to Kemal, “Kemal Bey, won’t you join us?” (the honorific “Bey” = “Mr”.) By then, Kemal was entirely overcome with emotion, honored to be sitting next to Atatürk at the high table, imbibing raki with his hero, and now participating in a folk dance with him and the other commanders. His friends, all lined up along the periphery of the room, watched in utter disbelief!
After the Harman dali the men returned to the table and began to sip their coffee when Atatürk’s aide-de-camp reappeared and whispered something in his boss’ ear. Atatürk acknowledged the message and stood up. Again everyone at the table springs up in deference. But Atatürk turned to Kemal, and announces, “Come Kemal Bey, we are going to visit the doctor!”
With Kemal sitting next to Atatürk in the limo, the motorcade sped the five or six miles to Bahçelievler, in the suburbs of Ankara. The roar of the motorcycles and sirens brought everyone out in the neighborhood. When Dr. Bahattin stepped out of his house, he could not believe his eyes. It was Capt. Kemal, accompanied by his “new friend”.
Well, with that kind of recommendation Dr.Bahattin is not about to refuse his daughter. Soon a brief note of regret was dispatched to the engineer’s family.