Ahmet Altan

When the Urge to Write Is a Life Sentence


By Rod Nordland

The Turkish novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan is serving a life sentence in prison in his home country, allowed to see his children only occasionally and his writing, in theory, limited to short notes to his family and lawyers. Earlier this month, however, Other Press published the English translation of his memoir, “I Will Never See the World Again,” which was written behind bars, defiantly, and smuggled out to that world he will never see.

I feel a special sort of empathy with Mr. Altan because I too am facing a life sentence — a terminal disease in the form of an often fatal form of brain tumor — but in my case at least I can blame health, God or bad fortune rather than my own vindictive countrymen.

Here it must be said that the title of Mr. Altan’s book is the statement of a brutal fact, rather than a cry of despair. There is not a smidgen of self-pity in the memoir’s 212 pages. What emerges is this: You cannot jail my mind, and you cannot shut me up. “I have never woken up in prison, not once,” he writes. “I am writing this in a prison cell and I am not in prison. I am a writer.”

If Mr. Altan, who at 69 is in his third year in prison, defies the degradations of prison life, he also doesn’t minimize them. He writes about “the fires of terror,” as he calls them; the pernicious process of dis-individuation; the substitution of his normally unused birth certificate name for the one he is usually known by; and the replacement of his clothing for a uniform. He cannot dress or undress, eat, bathe or exercise when he pleases. But one of the harshest privations is a surprising one: There are no mirrors or even reflective surfaces anywhere in his prison campus, which houses an astonishing 11,000 prisoners, most of them there for political reasons.

He had not previously realized how often one contemplates one’s own reflection, or how important it is. “Making eye contact with yourself is a small miracle,” he writes. “I looked around, searching for myself, and I wasn’t there.”

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On July 14, 2016, Mr. Altan and his brother Mehmet, a professor of economics and a political commentator, participated in a television program hosted by Nazli Ilicak, a prominent journalist. The next day, there was a violent aborted coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which included an attempted assassination, the bombing of Parliament and nearly 300 deaths. The Altan brothers and Ms. Ilicak were accused of sending a “subliminal message” to start the coup.

Ahmet Altan and Ms. Ilicak were arrested and both condemned to life in prison. (Mehmet Altan was ordered acquitted by a higher court.) Ahmet Altan has exhausted every appeal to higher courts, and Erdogan is entrenched in power.

I have been banned from entering Turkey because of articles I wrote about the country’s treatment of its Kurdish minority, so over several weeks in June, I interviewed Mr. Altan the same way that he wrote his book: by smuggling questions to him and waiting for his smuggled-out responses, written in hand, with a blue pen. (Our exchange was translated by Yasemin Congar, who also translated his memoir.)

What, I asked Mr. Altan, was the point of this book? Whatever their courage, I suggested, writers like him pose more of an annoyance than a lethal threat to the state, which can swat them away like pesky mosquitoes.

Mr. Altan’s reply was testy, which was fair enough. “You can kill writers, you can imprison writers, you can torture writers, but you can’t swat them away like an insect. A writer is not his body only,” he wrote. “The more you swat at a writer, the greater you help him become, while diminishing your own stature: The swatter turns into the mosquito. This fact is one of the fundamental reasons why writers cause so much fury in those who hold power. I think I’ve earned the right to hope that what I wrote will outlive the political authorities in Turkey today; compared to writers, political authorities are pitifully weak.”

What if, I asked Mr. Altan, the authorities deprived him of pen and paper? After all, he was jailed for “subliminal messaging,” and his memoir is hardly subliminal.

“Of course they can confiscate one’s paper and pen, but they haven’t done this,” he replied. “My book was published in several European languages before coming out in the U.S., and I haven’t faced a ban of my writing, because despite the absurdity of the allegations against me, and the fact that the trial was a farce, they want to keep up the pretense that an independent judiciary condemned me for valid reasons. If they obstruct my writing, they will have an even harder time defending what they have done.”

“But are you not afraid,” I continued, “that the publication of this book, even just in foreign languages” — it has so far not come out in Turkish — “will provoke more retaliation? You talk about the vital freedom to think, and to safeguard one’s thoughts ‘in the attic of the mind,’ but don’t you also need the freedom to record them? Wouldn’t it be devastating if you couldn’t?”

“Writing between these thick walls liberates me,” Mr. Altan replied. “Fear itself is always more dangerous than the thing you fear. The fear of death is worse than dying. Fear takes you hostage and kills your resistance. Nowhere is fear more fatal than in prison.”

He continued: “That said, your fears are mine, too. But since I have been here, I have developed a method to preserve my work whatever happens to me. As I am creating a piece of prose, I pace the prison courtyard while repeating the sentences in my mind until I know them by heart. If they confiscate my papers, the work itself will not be altogether lost. This is not an easy thing to do but I’ve become used to it in the last three years.”

A prisoner of conscience enjoys a certain prestige — including literary prestige — that a writer on the outside doesn’t. I wanted to know how Mr. Altan felt about it. I asked: “Will life imprisonment ultimately have been worth it, since it enabled you to create this book?”

His reply was refreshingly frank: “Here is my honest answer: Yes, it is worth it. I need to tell you two things about myself: First, when I don’t write, I’m nothing, I’m very ordinary; there’s no difference between my presence and absence. I’m a restless person. Writing protects me from my nothingness and restlessness. I need to write in order to protect myself from myself.”

When I interviewed Mr. Altan, my tumor had not yet been diagnosed, and in editing our exchange, I recognized an affinity that I hadn’t felt initially. We are both terminal cases — his life sentence, my brain tumor — and writing brings both of us solace, for different reasons. On some days, when I have turned a good phrase, or crafted an artful passage, or written an essay many found moving, I feel, as he does, that our sentences may actually be worth it.

His was imposed by a malevolent political authority, mine by some malevolent force of nature. Yet I find myself cheering on his book’s concluding lines, paraphrased here: “Because, like all writers, we have magic. We can pass through your walls with ease.”

(This edition of The Reporter’s Notebook was published in the New York Times on October 24.)





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