Ahmet Altan, 69 year old writer… is in cell in Silivri Prison, on the outskirts of Istanbul
“Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends, walk the streets … I would not be able to eat eggs with sausage or drink a glass of wine or go to a restaurant and order fish. I would not be able to watch the sunrise.” (I Will Never See the World Again, Ahmet Altan)
Too many of us are living in dark times and even darker places… like “a bug entangled in the web of a poisonous spider” (Ahmet Altan) …and of the rest, too many have become so deluded with the supposed rewards they have been thrown from the capitalist table (“bread and circuses’) that they can’t hear the majority of this world’s inhabitants calling out in pain. Yes, pain – “When the minutes slow down, we feel wounds opening inside us” (Ahmet Altan) – what other 4-letter word can simply and honestly express the raw reality of the hurt of being human in a dark time?
NATO’s great ally, the Republic of Turkey, is not alone in turning this type of pain into a way of being some societies seem to take for granted – but like other collapsed empires it has a lot of apologising to do for its “bad behaviour” down the years, much as the current neo-ottoman nationalist hysteria would like to deny this and consider it an “insult to Turkishness” (currently redefined as being “illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation or Turkish government institutions”), if not an insult to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself.
Let me say… this is not an attempt at insulting anything Turkish (with the exception of murder, genocide and the current ongoing wave of relentless oppression – “Like all dissidents in this country, I go to bed expecting the ring of the doorbell at dawn.” Ahmet Altan). The best of the Turkish people themselves have stood up and said something similar. Look at a writer like Nazim Hikmet who had a passionate belief in the life and the lives of the Turkish people; seeing there all that was necessary for a good life if not for the hand that wielded the whip, or the prison bars or some other form of human violence that has come to dominate all our dreams of freedom, making them now seem almost like the dreams of a mad-person.
Nazim Hikmet (Istanbul House of Detention), February 1939
“I love my country:
I’ve swung on its plane trees,
I’ve slept in its prisons.
Nothing lifts my spirit like its songs and tobacco.
goats on the Ankara plain,
The sheen of their long blond silky hair…
…and then my people
ready to embrace
with the wide-eyed joy of children
anything modern beautiful and good –
my honest, hard-working, brave people,
Now, despite all the new technology, as we still struggle to cross an enormous distance in cultures, languages and people – (“This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead – Ahmet Altan) – it seems all there is left to discover is another example of the vindictiveness of Turkey’s current regime – the ruling Justice and Development party of chairman and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with its far right nationalist MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) allies – and its contempt for “anything modern, beautiful or good” – in the case of writer and journalist Ahmet Altan, even if, sadly, in Turkey today, he is just one among many…
Ahmet Altan, 69 year old writer
…is in cell in Silivri Prison, on the outskirts of Istanbul; “In a matter of 5 hours I had travelled across five centuries to arrive at the dungeons of the Inquisition.” (Ahmet Altan).
He is a writer with 10 novels published as well as having written, oftentimes critically, for many of Turkey’s leading papers, including Hürriyet, Milliyet and Radikal and from November 2007 until December 2012 was the founding editor-in-chief and lead columnist for the liberal Turkish daily newspaper Taraf.
Altan has been attacked many times, most notably in September 2008 when he published an article titled “Oh, My Brother” dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. For that he was charged under the above-mentioned Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for “denigrating Turkishness”.
Recently, however, in September 2016, in a dawn raid that also picked up his brother Mehmet, Ahmet Altan was again arrested, this time not for sympathizing with Kurds or Armenians, but following the attempted coup of July 15, 2016 on the bizarre charges of providing “subliminal messages” to coup supporters, the charges changing as the prosecution developed its case into one of participating in the failed coup… “We are said to know the men who are alleged to know the men who are alleged to have directed the coup” (Ahmet Altan)… the usual, by now, charges also eventually being thrown in, “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “attempting to overthrow the government”. Already Altan was facing a possible life sentence if found guilty of the absurd but very ‘real’ charges.
Ahmet Altan, in the New York Times, February 28, 2018
“I will never see the world again; I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard. I am descending to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who writes his own destiny. My hero and I disappear into the darkness together.
We will spend the rest of our lives alone in a cell that is three meters long and three meters wide. We will be taken out to see the sunlight for one hour a day. We will never be pardoned and we will die in a prison cell.
That is the decision. I hold out my hands. They handcuff me. I will never see the world again. I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard.
I am going to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who wrote his own destiny. My protagonist and I disappear into the darkness together.”
Nevertheless despite the pain of his incarceration at the hands of the current regime, at the time of his arrest he told the press: “This country is ours, we are not afraid. We’ll always defend law and democracy…”
Released briefly on probation under ‘judicial control’ and subject to a travel ban, Ahmet was rearrested within 24 hours of his release, detained yet again and sent to prison. More than six months later, in April 2017, it was reported that the prosecutor had demanded three aggravated life sentences for the brothers. Shortly afterwards, on World Press Freedom Day, it was announced that their first hearing has been scheduled to take place on 19 June.
On February 16, 2018 Ahmet Altan was sentenced to “aggravated life in prison”, meaning he will not be eligible for parole and will not be considered in future amnesty decisions.
In October 2018, the appeals court in İstanbul upheld the aggravated life sentences against him and his brother, Mehmet Altan and the other co-accused, Nazlı Ilıcak, Yakup Şimşek, Fevzi Yazıcı, and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül.
“It is said that the dead do not know that they are dead. According to Islamic mythology, once the corpse is placed in the grave and covered with dirt and the funeral crowd has begun to disperse, the dead also tries to get up and go home, only to realize when he hits his head on the coffin lid that he has died.
When the doors closed, my head hit the coffin’s lid.
I could not open the door of that car and get out.
I could not return home.
Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, to embrace my kids, to meet with my friends, to walk the streets. I would not have my room to write in, my machine to write with, my library to reach for. I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze on the sea or an orange tree or smell the scent of flowers, the grass, the rain, the earth. I would not be able to go to a movie theater. I would not be able to eat eggs with sausage or drink a glass of wine or go to a restaurant and order fish. I would not be able to watch the sunrise. I would not be able to call anyone on the phone. No one would be able to call me on the phone. I would not be able to open a door by myself. I would not wake up again in a room with curtains.”
‘Freedom’ detained, charged and imprisoned
On learning of his original charges, Ahmet commented:
“Why are we confronted with this legal monstrosity? I surmise two reasons.
One motive is to sow fear by showing that ‘we can silence any sort of criticism with all manner of absurdities.’
The second reason is to turn the July 15 coup investigation into some sort of nonsense; some sort of joke and thus divert it from its course.
I do not know why they are so fearful of investigating the coup or why they are trying so hard to divert the investigation from its course.
But this I know: distorting the law to serve these two purposes is itself a serious crime.”
Ahmet Alton’s New Book
Now the writer (“…confined in a cell four metres long, imprisoned on absurd, Kafkaesque charges” Granta), has released his 224 page memoir written as a prisoner of “Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s oppressive regime” from his prison cell in the city of Silivri, on the outskirts of Istanbul.
The translation, published on March 7, 2019, I Will Never See the World Again “…put together from papers found among notes Altan gave to his lawyers, and translated – superbly – into English by his friend Yasemin Çongar” contains essays “released one by one to his friend Yasemin Çongar, who has translated them into English”.
“When he was taken away by car, he tells us, the policeman accompanying him offered a cigarette, which Altan declined. ‘I only smoke when I am nervous.’ This simple sentence — an accidental quip — became central to his mindset in prison…” John Self tells us…
Granta has published the first of the essays online:
“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on.
‘Would you like some tea?’ I asked.
They said they would not.
‘It is not a bribe,’ I said, imitating my late father. ‘You can drink some.’
Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father.
My father had asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined he laughed and said, ‘It is not a bribe, you can drink some.’
What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead.
Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning.
During a morning, which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”
Ahmet Altan also has other things to say of relevance to this daily stroll too many people are forced to make across the courtyards of Hell.
“As defense lawyers talk about the most crucial matters, his mechanical voice orders: “You have two minutes. Wrap it up.” I remember what Elias Canetti said about such people: “Being safe, at peace and in splendor, and then to hear a person’s pleas while determined to turn a deaf ear … could anything be more vile than that?”
…Likewise could anything be “more vile” than this whole pathetic regime?
Advice for those temporarily transported to Hell (while the prosecutors, along with almost everyone else lucky enough, are out of town on vacation)
“The police car was speeding along.
It was the first day of a twelve-day religious holiday. Most people in the city, including the prosecutor who had ordered my arrest, had left on vacation.
The streets were deserted.”
“As someone who has been thrown into the dirty, swelling waves of reality, I can comfortably say that the victims of reality are those so-called smart people who believe that you have to act in accordance with it.
There are certain actions and words that are demanded by the events, dangers and realities that surround you. Once you refuse to play the assigned role, instead doing and saying the unexpected, reality itself is taken aback; it hits against the rebellious jetties of your mind and breaks into pieces. You then gain the power to collect the fragments and to create from them a new reality in the mind’s safe harbors.
The trick is to do the unexpected, to say the unexpected. Once you can make light of the lance of destiny pointing at your body, you can cheerfully eat the cherries you had filled your hat with, like the unforgettable lieutenant in Pushkin’s story ‘The Shot’, who does exactly that with a gun pointing at his heart.
Like Borges, you can answer the mugger who asks, ‘Your money or your life?’ with, ‘My life.’
The power you will gain is limitless.”
…And lessons to be learnt by the sane (before it is to late)
“Had I not seen my father smile as he was taken away in a police car forty-five years ago; had I not heard from him that the envoy of Carthage, when threatened with torture, put his hand in the embers; had I not known that Seneca consoled his friends as he sat in a bathtub of hot water and slit his wrists on Nero’s orders; had I not read that on the eve of the day he was to be guillotined, Saint-Just had written in a letter, ‘The conditions were difficult only for those who resisted entering the grave,’ and that Epictetus had said, ‘When our bodies are enslaved our minds can remain free’; had I not learned that Boethius wrote his famous book in a cell awaiting death, I would have been afraid of the reality that surrounded me in that police car. I would not have found the strength to ridicule and shred it into pieces. Nor would I have been able to utter the sentence with a secret laughter that rose from my lungs to my lips. No, I would have cowered with worry.” (I Will Never See the World Again)
Writers including Orhan Pamuk, (himself charged for his famous statement in 2005 “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” JM Coetzee, Elena Ferrante and others since 2016 have come together in an ongoing campaign to have the author released.
Chocolat author Joanne Harris, is quoted as saying:
“Writers exist to question, to challenge, sometimes even to ridicule – the status quo. For a government to imprison a writer for doing this is to attack, not only freedom of speech, but freedom of the imagination. It is a backward, oppressive and ultimately futile gesture that can only lead to greater and more damaging social unrest. I condemn it entirely, and hope that Ahmet Altan is freed as soon as possible.”
In the end…
Asked as part of 20 questions in October, 2018 by the Times Literary Supplement: “To what extent, in your view, is writing a political act?”
Ahmet Altan replied
“This question sounds a bit naive in countries like mine. Wounds are so deep and painful in these countries that in order to clean those wounds you have to use your pen like a scalpel. We are forced to go outside literature and write directly political pieces. Writing becomes engulfed by politics.”
…Unless we choose to rediscover the pain of becoming fully human, which would appear now to come at a tremendous price, (one obviously being collected by those who seem to be turning 21st century politics into a landscape of fear and viciousness), what future can any of our struggles have in the light of the many fiascos of the last century?
“When they asked for my name I would say ‘Ahmet Hüsrev Altan’. When they asked where I lived I would give them the number of a cell.” (Ahmet Altan)
Enough challenges face us. If they cannot be faced with compassion and wisdom then there is little hope for humankind as a species. While in one place after the other now, it seems that having guaranteed the destruction of so many other species we are beginning (or rather once again) turning our attention to each other – as other – not understanding that if we do not manage to forge a way of cooperating with each other, along with the different life forms that exist in this amazingly vulnerable ecosystem, we will have guaranteed our own extinction.
In the meantime
… and “unexpectedly”…there are many of us who do not accept that conclusion.
“I realized once more that when you are faced with a reality that can turn your life upside down, that same sorry reality will sweep you away like a wild flood only if you submit and act as it expects.” (Ahmet Altan)
Marx wrote of the oppressed working class in the 1840s… “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”…. since then, despite the complexity of our environment that we have seen only too vividly (as well as some of the disturbing practices that can be attributed to a philosopher who believed in the end of philosophy – “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Theses on Feuerbach, 1845) …there are many who chose to believe and live otherways…
…So we must listen to these voices…often in the dark of night… or from the darkness of some dreary dungeon… “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us” Walter Benjamin said in another time of darkness.
…For those without it.
Despite his writing:
“I will never see the world again; I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard. I am descending to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who writes his own destiny. My hero and I disappear into the darkness together.”
It seems that Ahmet Altan still has hope… and on his behalf and in receipt of his hope and sharing his voice in among the many other voices lost in this jungle of fear and vindictiveness we will begin to create our future. If we are to have one..
Simon Callow in his review quotes the writer who says:
“’You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because, like all writers, I have magic,’ Altan says in his final phrases. ‘I can pass through your walls with ease.’ Yes: but enough is enough. He is still in prison. Eighty Nobel prize-winners have protested, unsuccessfully. We must move heaven and earth to spring him.”
“Like Odysseus, I will act with heroism and cowardice, with honesty and craftiness. I will know defeat and victory, my adventure will end only in death … a ship stands in the middle of the cell; its timbers are creaking. On its deck is a conflicted Odysseus.
“What a beautiful scene to describe. I reach for a pen with a hand that is white in the ghostly light. I can write even in the dark. I take the ship cracking in the storm in the palm of my hands and begin writing. The prison door shut behind me.”
In the meantime…it seems that the prisoner has a message to Turkey and its people… “don’t let the lunatics take over the asylum…”; human life is worth more than the corruption of a handful of supposedly wealthy and ‘powerful’ politicians or families… our human future is one that will come from wisdom and the compassion to make wise choices – free from fear and the violence it breeds… Nazim Hikmet said it… Ahmet Altan is still saying it…
Postscript – insult added to injury?
Just as the above was written, Ahmet Altan, surviving in his prison cell in Silviri, was fined 7,000 Turkish liras (about 1,300 dollars) for “insulting the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, news reports said early in the week.
Ahval, quoting T24 said the fine stems from a column Altan wrote in 2016 in relation to the 2008 Ergenekon investigation :
“Starting in 2008, prosecutors and judicial officials linked to the Gülen movement, accused by Ankara of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt, brought a string of prosecutions, known as the Ergenekon trials, against what they said was a conspiracy among a rogue, strongly secular-nationalist group within the media, state, and security services threatening to bring down Erdoğan’s Islamist government.
“‘I don’t have a personal relationship with the president. I have no reason to insult him. He is a politician. What I did was criticise the politics he conducted. And this is my constitutional right. Such cases are being opened to prevent political criticism,’
T24 quoted Altan as saying in his defence statement.
“Insulting the president carries a sentence between one and four years, according to the Turkish Penal Code.
“Between 2010 and 2017, 12,893 cases of insulting the president were filed. Of these, 12,305 were filed under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who assumed office in 2014.”
As expected – “…what I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead.” Ahmet Altan.
And so the plot continues to unfold…
…though this time not from the pages of a novel, but in the lives and struggles of real people.
Quotes from Ahmet Altan are those translated by Yasemin Congar from the Turkish.
Silivri Prison in Silivri, Istanbul Turkey
By CeeGee [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
I Will Never See the World Again, translated by Yasemin Çongar, published by Granta
A Portrait of the Indictment as Judicial Porn
You can read the full text of Ahmet Altan’s defence statement here.
The Justice of Stupidity, Ahmet Altan, Silivri, 12-16 February 2018
The Writer’s Paradox – Ahmet Altan
“Despite being denied access to receiving and sending written communications, he wrote The Writer’s Paradox for publication on the eve of his trial, which starts on 19 September. In partnership with English PEN and the Publishers Association we are campaigning to raise awareness of Ahmet’s plight as part of our Speak Out campaign.”
‘I Will Never See the World Again.’ (NY Times article) by Ahmet Altan
Interview with Sanem Altan, daughter of Turkish detainee Ahmet Altan
Simon Callow’s review of I Will Never See the World Again
Messages of support for Ahmet Altan
By Orhan Pamuk
Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver.
A Brave Heart: Ahmet Altan | Journalists Jailed in Turkey