Ali Fethi Okyar‘s grandson and namesake reflects on his grandfather’s life, and his own.
Ali Fethi is Assistant Professor of Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering at Yeditepe University, Istanbul.
Ali Fethi Okyar, one of the main players in the story of Turkish nation-building passed away at the age of 62 on 7 May 1943, five years after the death of Mustafa Kemal, his closest friend and comrade-in-arms. Fethi’s last name was given by Kemal himself, who combined the words ok-(intelligence, wisdom), and yar-(friend), hence “the wise friend”.
Fethi and Kemal’s friendship formed around the ideal of modernising the Empire, drawing on the principles laid out by French thinkers: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Confronted with the current state of affairs in Turkey and the post-truth context within which she struggles to maintain the principles of democracy as a sovereign nation, I cannot help but wonder what they would have made of it.
Born into a very different world 29 years after his passing, I frequently compared my life with what my grandfather was doing at the same age. At 32, for example, I joined the engineering faculty in an academic institution, while he served as military attaché in Paris, reporting on the arms race between the world powers along with his closest aide – Mustafa Kemal.
At 39 he was detained in Bekiraga Bolugu prison in Istanbul, located in the basement of the British invaders’ High Commission. There he was paid a visit by Mustafa Kemal, and the two were said to have consulted together for two or three hours; this just days before Kemal moved to Samsun to spark the national struggle for independence. Soon after, Fethi was sent to Malta as a prisoner of war, to be released after two years in a prisoner exchange between Ankara and London. Thinking about all this, I tremble and exclaim: “what an exciting, breath-taking life story!” As the war of independence unfolded, Kemal took the position as the supreme leader, someone to be followed rather than advised as he directed the emergence of modern Turkey.
In 1930, he was asked by Atatürk to form an institutionalized opposition to the regime, only for Ismet to openly refuse to accept criticism from within his domain. My grandfather had no other option but to jump into the arena by founding the Free Republican Party, which unsurprisingly did not last more than 100 days in the intolerant political culture of the early Republic. He was 49 when he had his first stroke.
I became an academic, and have been teaching mechanics and computing for the last 19 years. My experience could hardly be compared with his adventures, and that’s probably why I have mercifully been spared a stroke. To my regret I know only one language in addition to my mother tongue, which is quite a concession when I consider my well-educated, polyglot ancestors.
But what I am most curious about is whether my grandfather would be happy to see that his grandson choose engineering as a profession, despite the politics running in our veins. To be honest, until recently I did not think he would be. But lately I have come to realize that the reason he and his collaborators kept up with their promise of liberating our country and chased after their ideals was probably just this: to enable future generations to compete head-to-head with their western peers and colleagues in science, the liberal arts and culture as well as engineering.
He had the remarkable Galibe as his wife, much adored in London’s high society toward the end of the thirties. British intelligence reports described the couple as “the Turkish Greta Garbo and her ambassador husband with a Tatar’s looks.” Well, grandpa, you would be happy to know that I have a loving wife in my second marriage, and a daughter, Galibe, from my first. Although I cannot spend as much time with her as I would have liked, she remains in my prayers and thoughts. The good news is that we with my wife Ilkim are now busy preparing to make the archives grandfather left behind available to academic research and inquiry.
Returning to the question posed at the beginning, about what Fethi would make of the current state of the Republic, and how roughly it is being orchestrated: well, I can only answer by putting myself in his shoes one more time. We should get our system of checks and balances system back into working order, give the highest priority to redressing the failed general education of the majority, and fight public indifference towards the head-on collision course between man-made ecological destruction and our survival. I better get back to it. There’s still much to do to keep up with grandpa.
FEATURE IMAGE: ‘ALİ FETHİ OKYAR,’ SOURCE: ALİ FETHİ OKYAR ARCHIVES, COURTESY OF THE OKYAR FAMILY