Sunday, April 29, 2007

ESSAY: ANZAC Biscuits with Turkish Coffee

A few weeks back I took a friend to visit the magnificent Gallipoli Mosque in the western Sydney suburb of Auburn. The mosque is managed by Auburn’s Turkish community. It is modelled on traditional Ottoman mosques which, in turn, are modelled on the Ayasofya Camii Mosque (which was once the Orthodox Christian Hagia Sophia Cathedral and is now an Istanbul Museum).

While my friend was admiring the hand-painted calligraphy and artwork of the inside walls, I was reading the latest news on the mosque noticeboard. Almost all the notices were in Turkish, though one stood out: ‘The Auburn RSL will be holding its ANZAC Day morning service at …’

For Turks, the place they call ‘Gelibolu’ is where a certain Ottoman colonel’s military career took a dangerous turn. Mustafa Kemal (named in honour of the Prophet Mohammed, who had the nickname of Mustafa, meaning ‘the chosen one’) was transferred from a cushy position in Sofia, in modern Bulgaria, to the front line in January 1915, taking charge of the 19th Division of the Ottoman Fifth Army. Their job was to defend the Gelibolu Peninsula from invading forces. Armed with intelligence reports showing the Allies were determined to march on Istanbul, Kemal saw this as a battle for the Ottoman Empire’s survival.

What happened next is history. Over 130,000 men from all sides lost their lives and more than 260,000 were wounded. About 36 per cent of the casualties were from the Allied side, including almost 36,000 ANZACs. The rest (64 per cent) were Ottomans.

We know that the Ottomans won the battle, that Istanbul was saved and that Kemal was eventually able to carve out a nation from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He eventually went onto become Turkey’s first President, and is referred to by Turks by the reverential title of ‘Atatürk’ or ‘Father of the Turks.’

A couple of years ago, a group of Turkish filmmakers called Ekip Film Productions got together with Turkish, New Zealand and Australian experts to make a movie about the campaign. Gallipoli (not to be confused with the Peter Weir movie of the same name starring Mel Gibson) was screened on both sides of the Tasman in 2005, the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. The film, which received excellent reviews, portrayed the campaign through the eyes of three Australian, two British, three New Zealander and two Ottoman troops.

Here’s how Ekip Productions describe the campaign:


Gallipoli is unique in world history … a story of enemies who displayed mutual respect during the battle and who became friends after it. No battle has forged such strong comradeship and everlasting peace in its aftermath. On the shores of Gallipoli, Australia and New Zealand became nations and Turkey embarked on its journey to become a republic from the ruins of an empire.

Kemal may have achieved victory for the Ottomans at Gallipoli, yet ironically, he was also the man who dealt the final political blow to the Ottoman caliphate. And for this, some Muslims refuse to recognise him as anything but a traitor.

Most Turks, on the other hand, love Atatürk and share with Australians a deep respect for the ANZACs. The largest Turkish congregation in Sydney has named their mosque the ‘Auburn Gallipoli Mosque’ in recognition of the deep friendship between Turkey and Australia. This friendship was baptised by the blood shed on the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli.

Regardless of what some immature bloggers might claim, Australia’s Muslim communities have every right to commemorate ANZAC Day. Among the dead on the Allied side were Indian troops, a fair proportion of whom were Muslim. We also salute those fallen Ottoman troops led by one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest military strategists.

But more importantly, Muslims have every reason to commemorate the sacrifices of the tens of thousands of young Australian men who fell in battle. We are Australians too. And by all accounts, the Australian troops in 1915 held no malice for the Turkish foe. When the Allies finally evacuated in January 1916, the Ottomans found letters and messages left by the Australian troops. One such letter said: ‘Johnny The Turk, goodbye. We left lots of food for you, enjoy them.’

Within decades of getting walloped by the Turks at Gallipoli, our ancestors were good-natured enough to bend the White Australia Policy and open the country’s doors to Turkish workers. It’s little wonder that last year businessman John Ilhan, the nephew of Ottoman troops, could write in metropolitan tabloids these words:


I am the proud son of Turkish parents. I missed being born in Australia by a few years, but each day I thank my lucky stars that I came to this country. I had relatives who fought against the Anzacs yet today, if there was another world war, I would fight for Australia without hesitation.

Still, some deny the post-Gallipoli heritage of friendship. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Sheehan used ANZAC Day as a chance to repeat his usual conspiracy theories about nasty Muslims threatening us from without and within.

Sheehan calls upon his readers ‘to reflect that Australia is actually engaged in a war, even if it is an unconventional, undeclared war.’ And who are we fighting? The enemy inside Sheehan’s head is


... an arc … stretching unbroken through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon — 300 million Muslims, the same population as the US and almost the same as Western Europe’s.

Sheehan engages in some creative geography in describing Pakistan as ‘the largest Muslim nation in the Middle East.’ But perhaps most amusing was Sheehan’s claim that Winston Churchill, the man who almost sold us out to the Japanese in World War II were it not for the late Prime Minister Curtin’s intervention, was ...

... intimately familiar with the arc of instability which now confronts the West. More than 100 years ago, he saw first-hand, and vividly described, the implacable anti-modernism and anti-Westernism of the Muslim heartland.


What follows is an attack on ‘Muhammadanism’ a repeat of discredited Orientalist nonsense which a casual reading of virtually any work of Amin Maalouf or William Dalrymple can dispel. Sheehan cites with approval, the following Churchillian description of Islamic culture:


Besides the fanatical frenzy ... there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.
One wonders whether Sheehan agrees with Churchill’s assessment of Indians when he wrote in a letter to the Secretary of State in India:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ On the eve of Indian independence, Churchill said: ‘Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw.
And don’t even get me started on Churchill’s assessment of European Jews!

Certain journalists might use ANZAC Day to find Islamist conspiracies everywhere, but most Australians, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, will maintain enormous goodwill toward Turkey. And Australia’s Turkish Muslims, by their respect for the ANZAC legend and their continuing contributions to Australian life, will further that goodwill.

Next time you go to an AFL or ARL game and see ‘Crazy John’ adverts across the ground, remember that the Crazy John mobile phone company would not have existed if the ancestors of a young entrepreneur named John Ilhan had not migrated from Turkey to Australia.

Regardless of what the Sheehans of this world might think, I’m sure the fallen diggers would have been happy to see a young Turkish Muslim at the heart of Australian life.

First published in New Matilda on ANZAC Day (or Red Poppy Day, as the Kiwis call it), 25 April 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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3 comments:

Legal Eagle said...

Fantastic post, Irfan.

Anonymous said...

A deranged fantasy, Irfan.

Marek Bage said...

What a wonderful article Mr.Yusuf.
It's too bad that our official mythology is so discordant with reality.
I shall copy this and give it to some friends who need to read it.
Cheers.