Our new issue, “War Is a Racket,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today!

“They May Have the Power to Imprison Me, but No One Has the Power to Keep Me in Prison”

Ahmet Altan
Yasemin Congar

Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan was just released from prison after spending three years incarcerated on trumped-up charges. In an interview with Jacobin, Altan discusses his new memoir, his arrest, and the Erdoğan government’s war on dissent.

Ahmet Altan in January 2012. Kokkalis Program / flickr

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

It’s a story from the absurd depths of Kafka: an author is charged with transmitting anti-government propaganda via “subliminal messages.” At his trial, he is accused of being both a “religious putschist” and a (presumably secular) “Marxist terrorist.” The contradiction notwithstanding, the judges deliberate on his fate while he comes to the sudden realization that he’s seen this all before: in one of his novels. And just as he had convicted the character in that novel, he knows that he, too, will be convicted. His sentence is life in prison. At his appeal, he is once again convicted — but then released for time served. It would be a good story if it wasn’t true.

Altan was among Turkey’s most-read novelists when counterterrorism officers took him into custody in Istanbul in September 2016. Earlier that year, Altan had appeared on a television talk show criticizing the government’s brutal reaction to a recent coup attempt. In response, the state jailed him on charges of supporting the plotters. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. After being held in Silivri Prison on the outskirts of Istanbul for three years, Altan was released on Monday, when he was simultaneously convicted of aiding a terrorist network and allowed to walk free for time served. Throughout his time in jail, he struck a tone of defiance, at one point writing: “They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison . . . Like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.”

Altan penned those lines as part of “The Writer’s Paradox,” one of nineteen essays he produced in prison, which have been collected in the new memoir I Will Never See the World Again. Passed from Silivri to the outside world via his lawyers, the essays describe the terms of his incarceration, meditate on the impossibility of imprisoning the imagination, and relate moments of humor — even joy. Lacking access to reference material, Altan quotes other authors from memory, often drawing on their own tales of confinement. In perhaps the grossest irony, he also reflects on the fate he had supposedly written for himself as he imprisoned one of the characters in his novels. Together, the essays produce a memoir about the horror of prison and the power of art.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar had the opportunity to interview Altan via email, through the author’s publicist, in September and October of this year. The two discussed I Will Never See the World Again, Altan’s arrest and imprisonment, and what hope of freedom lies in the future.


AD

In I Will Never See the World Again, you recount how you were charged with being both a “religious putschist” and a “Marxist terrorist” based on the same evidence — a bit of your writing and a television appearance. The contradiction in the official narrative is evident, but why do you think you were really targeted?

AA

It isn’t easy to know the real motivation behind their strong desire to keep me in prison. It could be an act of revenge for my previous journalistic writing; it could be to silence my ongoing criticism; it could be to make an example out of me in order to scare other critical writers; it could be to terrify society by demonstrating how easily they can violate the law. It could be a combination of all those things.

AD

The ways that you are able to find moments of humor, courage, and even joy from this Kafkaesque ordeal are truly remarkable. Did you have to look back at your experiences, searching for those moments? Or were they evident at the time, just needing to be saved for later?

AA

Any kind of despotism has a funny side to it. While oppressive regimes cause people horrible pain and suffering, the lies they say to justify their actions, their fake and almost surreal patriotism, their exaggerated gestures and tirades make them look ridiculous.

Remember how a psychopath like Hitler emerges as a comical figure in Chaplin’s film. Even when you fall victim to such oppression, you still notice the ridiculousness of it all. Realizing this gives strength to the victims and at times amuses them.

AD

You not only recall the story of your arrest, trial, and incarceration, but the power of literature to aid in “passing through” the prison walls. Is reading and writing only a form of escapism? Or did you also draw the strength to persevere from figures like Boethius, Oscar Wilde, and others who managed to produce great literature behind bars?

AA

Remembering simple facts helps one a lot during times of hardship. Time passes: this is a simple fact. I will die, the people who imprisoned me will also die: this is another simple fact. If a few lines remain from what I write after our time has passed and all of us have left the stage, that will be my big revenge from this period.

Few people would remember the emperor who had Boethius killed. No one remembers the torture Boethius was subjected to in prison. But everyone knows what he wrote, awaiting his death in that terrifying dungeon. You don’t remember the judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde, but you are familiar with the ballad Wilde wrote.

One can think of many more examples like these. All those writers managed to save some pages from the claws of forgotten suffering and lost time. They showed us that the written word has more power than tyranny, pain, and the cruelty of time. This simple fact gives strength to a writer in prison. I don’t know if anything will remain from what I’ve written, but being able to create the hope that it might is a big step for me here in prison.

AD

Your memoir was penned without the benefit of a library, forcing you to quote other authors from memory. Did you feel the brutal necessity of that? Or was it also a triumphant escape, to be able to reach those words despite the circumstances?

AA

You can’t even imagine how much I yearn to have a library, to have books of my own. Being able to write without access to books and trusting solely my memory make me feel sort of successful, yes! It is as if I’m proving to myself that I can do something even in the worst circumstances.

AD

Something that may come as a surprise to readers, especially those in the United States, is the generally congenial relationship between you, your cellmates, and the other prisoners. Is there a sense of solidarity there? Or does everyone simply try not to step on each other’s toes?

AA

Today, thousands of innocent people are in prison in Turkey.

One of my cellmates was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for “being a member of a terrorist organization.” Among the evidence that proved he was a terrorist is an autographed jersey of a star soccer player — a jersey he bought and did not get rid of when the soccer player was also accused of terrorism.

The crime of a journalist who was tried in the same case with me and sentenced to life without parole is a TV commercial — one that advertised the newspaper he used to work for and was aired nine months before the attempted coup in Turkey. The court claimed that the commercial in question signaled that a baby would be born in nine months, the baby being the military coup.

You can find thousands of examples to illustrate this absurdity. The people languishing in these cells know that their fellow prisoners are innocent. This common act of injustice creates a sense of solidarity. This is why people here are friendly to each other.

AD

You create the impression that one of your cellmates, “the teacher,” was imprisoned in relation to the time he spent working in a Kurdish village. How much was the 2016 coup used as a pretense to crack down on the Kurds?

AA

After the attempted coup in 2016, they imprisoned the leaders, mayors, members, and sympathizers of the HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party], a political party in Turkey of which the rank-and-file majority are Kurds. But this wasn’t the first act of injustice Kurds faced. Kurds have been mistreated and oppressed for nearly a century.

AD

You finished writing I Will Never See the World Again in May of 2018. Have there been any substantial updates in your case since? Do you foresee any way of being exonerated or granted parole?

AA

The Court of Cassation overruled the life-without-parole verdict but demanded that I be kept in prison for a shorter term of between five and fifteen years. The next hearing is on November 4. I suppose they will convict me again.