The second piece in our Polity of Literature series:
The second installment of ArtsEverywhere’s “The Polity of Literature” project is an essay entitled “The Writer’s Paradox” by the internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist, journalist and editor Ahmet Altan. Smuggled out of prison, “The Writer’s Paradox” is an entry from the book I Will Never See the World Again, written by Altan during his initial incarceration at Silivri prison outside Istanbul. The essays reached translator Yasemin Çongar one-by-one over a period of seven months between November 2017 and May 2018, arriving among the personal notes Altan gave to his lawyers during their visits in prison. I Will Never See the World Again has since been translated into French, Spanish, German, English, and other languages, marking the first time that his work was published in foreign languages before it was in his native Turkish.
Ahmet Altan, his brother Mehmet, an economist, and fellow journalist Nazlı Ilıcak were accused of sending “subliminal messages” to Gülenist supporters while being interviewed on a TV talk show following a failed coup d’etat in 2016. Charged with attempting to overthrow the “constitutional order,” among a host of other potentially treasonous offenses, they were convicted by the High Criminal Court in Istanbul and given life sentences, only for the charges to be overturned a year later by the same court. Mehmet was acquitted in 2019, while Ahmet and Nazlı’s sentences were suspended on the basis of time served and released. A week later the Supreme Court of Appeals overruled its decision and issued an order to re-arrest Ahmet Altan, who now sits in prison awaiting another trial.
The Writer’s Paradox
by Ahmet Altan
A moving object is neither where it is nor where it is not, concludes Zeno in his famous paradox. Ever since my youth I have believed this paradox better suited to literature or, indeed, to writers than to physics.
I write these words from a prison cell.
Add the sentence “I write these words from a prison cell” to any narrative and you will add tension and vitality, a frightening voice that reaches out from a dark and mysterious world, the brave stance of the plucky underdog and an ill-concealed call for mercy.
It is a dangerous sentence that can be used to exploit people’s feelings, and writers do not always refrain from using such sentences in a manner that serves their interests when the possibility of touching a person’s feelings is at stake. Even understanding that this is their intention may be enough for the reader to feel compassion toward the writer of that sentence.
Wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me, listen to what I tell you.
Yes, I am being held in a high-security prison in the middle of a wilderness.
Yes, I am in a cell where the door is opened and closed with the rattle and clatter of iron.
Yes, they give me my meals through a hatch in the middle of that door.
Yes, even the top of the small stone-paved courtyard where I pace up and down is covered with a steel cage.
Yes, I am not allowed to see anyone other than my lawyers and my children.
Yes, I am forbidden from sending even a two-line letter to my loved ones.
Yes, whenever I must go to the hospital they pull handcuffs from a cluster of iron and put them around my wrists.
Yes, each time they take me out of my cell, orders such as “Raise your arms, take off your shoes” slap me in the face.
All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth.
On summer mornings, when the first rays of the sun come through the naked window bars and pierce my pillow like shining spears, I hear the playful songs of the birds of passage that have nested under the courtyard eaves, and the strange crackles prisoners pacing other courtyards make as they crush empty water bottles under their feet.
I wake up with the feeling that I still reside in that pavilion with a garden where I spent my childhood or, for whatever reason (and I really don’t know the reason for this), at one of those hotels on the cheery French streets of the film Irma la Douce.
When I wake up with the autumn rain hitting the window bars, bearing the fury of northern winds, I start the day on the shores of the Danube River in a hotel with burning torches out front, which are lit every night. When I wake up with the whisper of the snow piling up inside the window bars in winter, I start the day in that dacha with a front window where Doctor Zhivago took refuge.
I have never woken up in prison – not once.
At night, my adventures are filled with even greater activity. I wander the islands of Thailand, the hotels of London, the streets of Amsterdam, the secret labyrinths of Paris, the seaside restaurants of Istanbul, the small parks hidden in between the avenues of New York, the fjords of Norway, the small towns of Alaska with their roads snowed under.
You can run into me along the rivers of the Amazon, on the shores of Mexico, on the savannahs of Africa. I talk all day with people who are seen and heard by no one, people who don’t exist and won’t exist until the day I first mention them. I listen as they converse among themselves. I live their loves, their adventures, their hopes, worries and joys. I sometimes chuckle as I pace the courtyard, because I overhear their entertaining conversations. As I don’t want to put them on paper in prison, I inscribe all of this into the crannies of my mind with the dark ink of memory.
I know that I am a schizophrenic as long as these people remain in my head. I also know that I am a writer when these people find themselves in sentences on the pages of my books. I take pleasure in swinging back and forth between schizophrenia and authorship. I soar like smoke and leave the prison with those people who exist in my mind. Others may have the power to imprison me, but no one has the power to keep me in prison.
I am a writer.
I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
Wherever you lock me up I will travel the world with the wings of my infinite mind.
Besides, I have friends all around the world who help me travel, most of whom I have never met.
Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms.
I travel the whole world in a prison cell.
As you may well have guessed, I possess a godly arrogance – one that is not often acknowledged, but that is unique to writers and has been handed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. I possess a confidence that grows like a pearl within the hard shells of literature. I possess an immunity; I am protected by the steel armor of my books.
I am writing this in a prison cell.
But I am not in prison.
I am a writer.
I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here.
Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.
Notes from The Polity of Literature
Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan’s accomplishments can be measured as well by the prizes he’s won as by the strength of the efforts to silence him. An internationally acclaimed novelist, widely-respected journalist, and editor of Taraf, one of Turkey’s most important political journals, today Altan sits in prison alongside more than a hundred journalists and tens of thousands of others caught up in a wave of political purges that swept through Turkey following an attempted coup d’etat in 2016.
This March he turned seventy, celebrating his “fourth birthday in prison” on charges that are, to say the least, hard to believe. Immediately after the coup attempt he was accused of sending “subliminal messages” while being interviewed on a TV talk show. His brother Mehmet, an economist, and fellow journalist, Nazlı Ilıcak, were also charged for these nonverbal messages that somehow abetted the attacks that threw Turkey into crisis in July 2016. They spent their first two years in prison “awaiting trial.” Although the evidence, such as it was, consisted entirely of actions and effects that none of the accused were ever aware of, in 2018 they were convicted of attempting to overthrow the state.
The public prosecutor asked for—and got—aggravated life sentences (no parole) for all three. In 2019, the court of cassation overturned the convictions and changed the charges to “knowingly aiding a terrorist organization as a non-member,” acquitting Mehmet Altan, but finding Ahmet and Nazlı Ilıcak guilty and sentencing them to 10 years and 8 years, respectively. Their sentences were suspended on the basis of time served, and they were released. A week later the same court overruled itself and Ahmet Altan was rearrested and sent back to prison, where he awaits his next trial.
During his one week of freedom Altan wrote a remarkable short essay for The Guardian:
Nothing is scarier than an encounter with the horrifying power of someone who holds your fate in his hands. That person can kill you, lock you up, send you into exile or let you go free. Regardless of the difference in outcome, to be locked up or released by such an authority is equally devastating. You don’t have a say in what happens. People with such authority usually wear a robe and sit on a dais. They are called judges. You can forgive the wielding of such superhuman powers if they are used righteously. What happens, then, if the authority in question doesn’t care about righteousness?
In his essay, Altan makes clear that the freedom he was given means nothing when so many remain unfree. “As a prisoner, you are the victim of injustice; once you leave, you become an accomplice.”
Since 2016, Turkey has imprisoned 136 journalists and seventy-five thousand teachers, bureaucrats, and other citizens whose lives were, rightly or not, linked to the outlawed “Gülenist movement.” Over a hundred and fifty thousand more have had their liberties restricted in the heavily-policed surveillance state that gained strength in the wake of the failed coup.
It is a difficult time and place for any reasoned debate, or for good, clear writing. The miracle that Ahmet Altan has given us is the sanity of his response, the pure victory of his clear thinking and elegant sentences. For English-language readers, the clearest example of this is in the superb translation of I Will Never See the World Again by the talented writer Yasemin Çongar. I Will Never See the World Again is a prison novel, in the tradition of Socrates and Boetius. Yet, in conception, transmission, and its arrival as finished words on the page, each essay is solitary, singular. Together, they make something much greater than a memoir.
Yasemin Çongar conveyed the urgency of Altan’s current situation in a recent email: “With his age and being in prison, Ahmet is already in a high risk group for coronavirus, while living in less-than-hygienic circumstances, and deprived of good nutrition. He is unlikely to get the kind of medical care he would need if he gets infected—God forbid. At the moment, we are campaigning for his release—actually the release of all prisoners, a total population of 300,000 in Turkey. Having said that, we can report that Ahmet is still in good spirits and good health, at the moment. We talked on the phone on Thursday [19 March]—our weekly visit is cancelled because of the pandemic—but he sounded cheerful and strong.”
We hope for the well-being and future freedom of Ahmet Altan, while being instructed and moved by his experience of freedom now. “The Writer’s Paradox“ was commissioned by the Society of Authors in London, UK and first appeared on their website. We are grateful to James McConnachie, the editor of the site, and to Ahmet Altan and the translator Yasemin Çongar for their permission to reprint it here. Thanks to Other Press, publisher of I Will Never See the World Again, for their permission as well. I Will Never See the World Again can be purchased online at Other Press. Readers who want to support his legal defense can find more information at ahmetaltan.info.
Ahmet Altan has received the Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media by the Media Foundation of the Sparkasse Leipzig, the International Hrant Dink Award, the 2013 Freedom of Thought and Expression Prize. In 2017, he was awarded the Istanbul Human Rights Association Freedom of Thought and Expression Prize in absentia while in prison. I Will Never See the World Again was longlisted for the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.
Ahmet Altan is a Turkish novelist and journalist imprisoned for allegedly sending "subliminal messages" while on a television talk show, an action the state describes as "knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organization." His first novel Dört Mevsim Sonbahar (Four Seasons of Autumn), published in 1982, brought him the Akademi Bookstore Novel Prize. His second, Sudaki İz (Trace on the Water) was condemned as obscene by an Istanbul court, which ordered the burning of extant copies. His seventh (of eight), Kılıç Yarası Gibi (Like a Sword Wound), was a best seller, and won the prestigious Yunus Nadi Novel Prize in Turkey in 1998. Altan’s novels have been translated into over a dozen languages. I Will Never See the World Again, his eighth collection of essays, is available in an English translation by Yasemin Çongar from Other Press.