Notes From the Margins…

Ahmet Altan’s Freedom Song

  • August 04, 2019
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There have been many times in my life, particularly during these last few years, when I have doubted my vocation as a writer.  Faced with the rise of populism, ‘post-truth’ politics, churnalism, nationalist demagoguery, and the shallowness and hysteria that so often underpins 21st century politics, it’s tempting in one’s more despondent moments to conclude that writing, reading and even thinking itself have become obsolete and irrelevant activities.

Of course I don’t spend too much time dwelling on such possibilities, because even if all this was true, writing isn’t something you just walk away from, and a part of me continues to believe that reading is an essential and liberating human activity that will always open the world for us, and that therefore readers need writers as much as writers need readers.

Nevertheless, the doubts are always there, and even though you learn to work with them, it’s something to celebrate when you come across a book that reminds you unequivocally why we do this and why we need to keep doing it.

One such book is the marvellous collection of essays I Will Never See the World Again, by the Turkish novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan.  To those who don’t know – and I didn’t before this book was brought to my attention – Altan was arrested with his brother, the economist Mehmet Altan, shortly after the aborted military coup in July 2016, which attempted to topple the authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Altan brothers were amongst the more than 100, 000 people arrested in the aftermath of the coup, in what rapidly became an ongoing purge of any opposition to Erdogan’s government.  The Altan brothers were initially accused of disseminating ‘subliminal messages suggestive of a coup attempt’  during a television panel interview on the night before the coup.  This ludicrous charge, which Altan has rightly described as a ‘legal monstrosity’, was subsequently changed to the charge of ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order’, with further charges of ‘insulting the president’ and ‘conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation.’

No evidence has ever been produced to justify any of these charges, which appear to have more to do with the liberal-left politics of the Altan brothers and their defence of human rights, Kurdish rights, and Ahmet Altan’s recognition of the Armenian genocide.  In February 2018 the two brothers were sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment without parole – a brutal sentence that speaks volumes about the domestication and subjugation of the Turkish judiciary under Erdogan’s heavy hand.

Deprived of his freedom, his books, his family and friends, and his readership, Altan has responded to this appalling fate with a collection of handwritten essays that he released through his agent, and which have now been published in various languages.

There are many reasons to admire I Will Never See the World Again.  Despite its title, despair is conspicuously absent from a collection of essays that overflows with humour and humanity, sharp observation, lyricism, and powerful insights into writing, fiction, and the pleasures of the imagination.

Written in bleakest adversity, these pieces contain the sharply-drawn portraits and descriptions of guards, fellow-prisoners and guards that you would expect to find in ‘prison literature’, but even these descriptions are infused with the thoughtfulness and psychological complexity of a novelist who responds to his predicament not simply as a man unjustly deprived of his life and freedom but as a writer.

As Altan observes

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…Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me, listen to what I tell you.

What does Altan want to tell us?

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.

Throughout these pieces, Altan constantly makes us aware of the truth of this.  Whether reflecting on Tolstoy’s psychological acuity, his own childhood discovery of reading and the magic of words, or the craft of the novelist, his writing is both an act of quiet defiance and a triumphant affirmation of writing and reading as essential acts of liberation – even in the face of an absurd and overwheening tyranny.

These words will be remembered long after that tyranny has gone.  Last month the charges against the Altan brothers were rejected by the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals on the grounds of ‘ a lack of sufficient and credible evidence.’   Mehmet Altan has now been released, but his brother remains in prison and may face new charges of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation without being a member.’

All those who wish to prevent Turkey’s ongoing slide into a populist autocracy should call for the brothers to be freed immediately and for all charges to be dropped.   Because few things demonstrate the absence of democracy and justice more clearly than the imprisonment of people simply because of what they think and write.   As Altan writes of his own response to his imprisonment:

Like Odysseus facing Poseidon’s fury, I had to use all my strength to survive, and for that I had to focus not on the storm but on what was within my capacity.  I had to write my own Odyssey in this dark cell.
To save oneself from the monstrous waves, the sirens and the man-eating Cyclopses, one must resist and fight.
There was the storm and there was me.
We were going to fight.

Altan does exactly that, and these essays should remind us that all of us face the storm, and that we should fight it too, and if we can show the strength, humour, humanity and passion that he does, then we might just have a chance of defeating the monsters who currently threaten us.

Anyone wishing to call for Altan’s release or send messages of support can write to English PEN at:  [email protected]  

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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