Becoming Turkish: Nationalist Reforms and Cultural Negotiations in Early Republican Turkey, 1923–1945 by Hale Yılmaz (review)
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Becoming Turkish: Nationalist Reforms and Cultural Negotiations in Early Republican Turkey, 1923–1945, by Hale Yılmaz. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013. 328 pages. $39.95.

Hale Yılmaz’s pathbreaking work on the history of the Turkish Republic, Becoming Turkish, unearths and measures the ways Turkish citizens from all classes resisted, reacted to, or negotiated the touchstone reforms of the Kemalist period. The book targets four reforms: men’s clothing, women’s clothing, language, and national holidays. The content of these reforms are surely familiar, but the depth of their enforcement, and the varied, uneven responses to them have been obscured by uneven access and attention paid to the pertinent corners of the Prime Minister’s Republican Archives in Ankara. What Hale Yılmaz uncovered by peering into those dimly lit areas, and supplements the state-down perspective from which they have been viewed with oral histories, memoirs, and journalism, should be an invaluable resource for historians of the Turkish Republic for some time to come.

The first two chapters detail evocative sets of negotiations between Turkish citizens and the sartorial demands of the state. Taken together, they point out the significant differences in the ways men’s and women’s reforms, mainly aimed at headgear, were implemented and enforced. Both reforms were united in setting a model outfit for the modern Turkish citizen that was “in part defined by what it was not: clothes that were identified as or perceived to be ethnic, tribal, Islamic, or traditional” (p. 88). Yılmaz shows how men’s clothing reform carried the unambiguous, and violent, support of the bureaucracy, but reforms directed at female counterparts, though coercive in their own way, were set apart by widespread disagreement among the ministerial class regarding their enforcement. In both chapters, Yılmaz tells the rich and textured stories of Anatolian men and women whose lives were substantially [End Page 480] altered by the imposition of a new dress code in the 1920s and 1930s, and how those people coped, resisted and negotiated with President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision.

The third chapter focuses on script reform policies of the late 1920s and the extraordinary efforts on the part of the state, through the creation of “The Nation’s Schools” (Millet Mektepleri), the army, and press subsidies, to proliferate the new Latin script and increase literacy rates. It is an interesting juxtaposition, since script reform, though unevenly successful, was not met with the levels of resistance as the sartorial reforms. Although readers will benefit greatly from Yılmaz’s careful analysis and perspective on this reform, the kinds of revelatory and deeply descriptive archive-based negotiations that drove the first two chapters are less vividly present here. However, the section that seeks to represent the “multiplicity of experiences of transition” to the new script is a welcome addition to the study of this subject (p. 163). Perhaps a deeper look at the press and literature in the new script would reveal how the script reform became as much a tool for opponents of the Kemalist cultural agenda as it was for its supporters.1

Yılmaz turns to the less-studied subject of national holidays and celebrations in her fourth chapter. The author demonstrates how the modernist nationalism of the Kemalist state was performed and remembered by its citizenry across the nation with the same archival richness of the chapters on clothing. At celebrations like the April 23 Children’s Day or at Republic Balls, all of the modernist reforms of the Republic, including dress and alphabet reforms, were on display, and Yılmaz ably guides the reader through several examples of the various ways Turkish citizens participated in them.

From one vantage point, Becoming Turkish presents a compendium of anecdotes that demonstrate the “weapons of the weak” deployed by Black Sea villagers, Kurdish tribesmen, and middle-class Anatolians to meet the Kemalist desire for a modern Turkish subjectivity with inconsistent levels of conformity. From another, it scrutinizes the foot soldiers of Kemalist ideology: provincial governors, mayors, police, gendarmes and parliamentarians. Yılmaz both decenters the narrative of Turkish modernist nationalism from the person of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk...