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Letter to a brave writer imprisoned in Turkey for telling the truth on Erdogan’s regime and refusing to submit to evil. His freedom denied must concern us all

February 22, 2021 IN WIP
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Dear Ahmet Altan, your magic is stronger than their walls

Letter to a brave writer imprisoned in Turkey for telling the truth on Erdogan’s regime and refusing to submit to evil. His freedom denied must concern us all

Corriere Della Sera

Dear Ahmet,

as of today, February 6, 2021, you’ve been jailed in Turkey for 1589 days, that is, since September 23, 2016. Your crime? Being a writer. 1589 days. Not years, but days. Counting jail time in years gives you the impression that time flies by, but no, jail time should be marked in minutes, seconds, single breaths even. It should be measured in daylight denied, in square feet of restricted space.


You see, Ahmet, when I think of you in detention I can’t stop thinking of every single thing that has been taken from you, however small. Out here, and far away, it’s so easy to explain the reason of your sentence: you wrote novels, you spoke your mind in a number of articles, and you did so on Taraf, the newspaper you launched in 2007 to spread information and awareness. No gimmicks, no mystifying words, everything out in the open: just like your published books and articles. Ideas, facts, theories, to which anyone could respond with other ideas, other facts, other theories. But no: they took away your freedom. To freeze your words, they locked you up in a cell. They can’t even begin to imagine that a cell can at best emprison bodies, but has no power over words.

College students take to the streets in protest

I’m writing to you from the pages of Corriere della Sera, because private letters can’t reach you anymore in Silivri jail. My words would be scrutinized and confiscated, they’d be robbed of their right to make their way into your hands. I decided to write to you now because I presume the new Biden administration in America will turn the international spotlight back on Fethullah Gülen, that old enemy, the enemy Erdogan has provisionally pushed aside. But a very useful enemy he is: his alleged accomplices can be hunted down and arrested, seen as they are as a new set of threats to foil with the weapon of repression. I’m writing to you right now because the entire academic world in Turkey and all the college students are rising up and demonstrating in favour of lay culture, free from political pressures. I’m writing to you right now because these students are being arrested, and denied their right to speak freely. And I’m writing at this moment because I find it intolerable that a writer can be thrown into jail so easily, while the Turkish regime carries on as if nothing happened.

In 2018 you were given a life sentence for «inciting a coup» through «subliminal messages». Later on, the most damning charges were dropped and your sentence was cut down to 10 and a half years, to which – on Jan. 7, 2020 – 5 more years and 11 months were added for «insulting the president» and «spreading terrorist propaganda». You’re living a nightmare, a nightmare called Turkey. How can you stand up to it, Ahmet? We are empty-handed, sadly: we have no weapons, no capitals to shift, we don’t belong to the powerful elites. All we have is our ideas and our words, but I won’t give up, Ahmet. I’ll keep asking this simple question over and over, although I’m sure you already know the answer: how did your words manage to unnerve Erdogan – a powerful head of state, with an impressive, 700-thousand-strong army under his command – to the point of having you thrown into jail with no hope of recourse? How can it be that Turkish authorities, in their desperate effort to keep you behind bars, have made fools of themselves by dredging up the most absurd charges against you? From those «subliminal messages hinting at a coup» to «having tried to overthrow the Turkish government», from allegedly «being a member of a terrorist organization» to the most recent accusation: «to have supported a terrorist group without being part of it». But truth be told, there are no credible charges against you to explain the harsh treatment you’ve been meted, there is no real reason for you to be remanded into custody and no convincing explanation for the farcical prosecutions you’ve been put through or the judgments rendered against you.

The charge of sending subliminal messages, just because a few hours before the failed golpe of July 2016 you were a guest on TV with your brother Mehmet Altan, is simply ridiculous. How could it be endorsed by the government and law-courts, shouldn’t such institutions care about their credibility, not just at home, but abroad as well? Or could it be they know for sure that international observers pay little attention to such matters or have their minds elsewhere? And what are they accusing you of, exactly? Of giving voice to your thoughts in writing? Of spreading messages? But that’s exactly what a writer does when he tells a story, that’s what a journalist does when sifting through events. Those messages defined as «subliminal» by the prosecution are nothing but the subtle emotions rising to the surface in the wake of ideas, and when emotions and ideas embrace, then words become important, imperative even. This is why they tried to stop you. In the end, you see, I get it. Your words are so dangerous, you can’t be allowed to use them. And they’re dangerous because they’re complex, and addressed to everybody, even those who disagree with you. Dangerous, because you show power for what it really is: it’s nothing, it’s the void, it’s arbitrariness which retains the ability, nonetheless, to clamp down on society and crush the individual.

Like your father and Pushkin

Dear Ahmet, I guess you must be smiling watching me as I try my best to recount what happened to you. I never managed to learn your lesson, yours and your father’s: never stick to the script, never get carried away by impulse. I know it well, we’re to blame for the disruption in our lives, because we allowed it by behaving according to expectations. Your father taught you this very principle almost fifty years ago. He too was a journalist and when the soldiers came to your house, your father made tea for the search patrol. Later, as he was taken away in handcuffs, he turned around to face you, your brother and your mother, with a big smile on his face. «Reality»– you wrote – «can’t overpower me. I am stronger than reality». In times such as these you are fond of quoting a short story by our beloved Pushkin, a story close to our hearts, «The Shot». Remember the duel scene, when Silvio has his gun aimed at his enemy’s heart, but his enemy keeps eating cherries, and the more Silvio wants the other to pay attention because he’s about to fire and maybe kill him, the more his rival seems to care about his cherries and very little about his life. The shot won’t be fired: the dueller refuses to abide by the rules of the duel. Likewise your call to action. Take Borges’ advice: when the robber shouts «Your money or your life», why don’t you offer him your life? Surprise him, don’t be predictable. When they arrested you, both times, you managed to defuse the fear and intimidation that Erdogan’s men had been ordered to strike into you: you smiled at them, as you wrote in your book I Will Never See The World Again. Now I want to hold on to those pages, share them far and wide, multiply them among the only people who can truly prevent a cell door from being shut forever: your readers. You truly embody, my dear Ahmet, the principle of Epictetus: even when your body is enslaved, your mind remains free. You are getting there.

When you were freed for a few days in November 2019, presumably to see if you’d try to run away, we met on Skype… that memory will stay with me till the end. You didn’t try to flee, you didn’t even think of it, for you have always known the difference between exposing and witnessing: you expose in your words, you witness in your body. The Turkish regime itself could change by witnessing rather than exposing, as it carries in its own body the inconsistencies of power. Just a few days ago we heard of the students’ protests at Bosphorus University against the appointment – by presidential order – of Melih Bulu as chancellor, a most blatant political move, seeing as Bulu is one of Erdogan’s men. On 29 January, a group of students set up an exhibition of photos and drawings on freedom of speech, gender rights and peace. They drew a rainbow, the international symbol that stands for pacifism and the LGBT community, on a picture of Kaaba, the most holy monument of Islam. Those students have been arrested and charged for «insulting religious values», a crime that doesn’t even exist in Turkish criminal law, according to their defence counsel. They were arrested for drawing a rainbow and setting up an exhibition on freedom of speech; they were arrested because they demand that universities be free from political interference.

More students were arrested (159 in total, 98 released a few hours later); they too, just like you, Ahmet, have responded with happiness. Their protests are full of music and dance. Nothing could be further from the gloomy halls of power, so freakish and dumb. And while the foreign secretary brands them as «deviants» and «perverts», while the government threatens, jails, prosecutes and sanctions them, all of us here are simply watching what’s going on. We too have been drawing rainbows on every possible surface since the beginning of the pandemic, and we stand still, our eyes fixed on yet another act of tyranny that infringes the rights of each and everyone and deprives you of your freedom. In the last five years, 200 journalists, of all ages and political affiliations, have been thrown into jail in Turkey. This has happened because of our indifference, past and present. Since I first met you, you have taught me, through your words and books, that each individual can make a difference. An act of kindness is never useless, an act of cruelty is never irrelevant. I’m thinking of that woman who didn’t want to remove your handcuffs when they were taking you to X-ray, out of pure wickedness. The police officer was about to unlock them, but she said no, there was no need: «Leave them on!» Why such heartlessness? How was it possible? Why deny a prisoner a moment of respite? Such cruel gestures are born out of habit, maybe even out of the need for such places to exist, far removed from our eyes, where cruelty and vengefulness can be given free rein, because those who end up in such places surely deserve cruelty and vengefulness, whatever the reason.

The incarcerated mind

Let’s be clear: a jail embodies that share of vengefulness, that share of cruelty that hides in all of us. «They’re locked up because they did something bad»: with these words we justify everything that can happen to a convict. «You’re in jail because you did something wrong, and your lot in life is none of my business». This truism is applied to each and every incarcerated person, of any nationality, whatever the prison conditions. Why are we even here to tell your story? Maybe in order to explain that sending people to jail should in no way satisfy our desire for revenge, but rather lead to a better outcome: to bring the offender back into society. But if sending someone to jail allays that measure of cruelty we feel entitled to, what happens when jailing people is the only means to muzzle a dissident? To stop political opponents? To stifle, as in your case, Ahmet, your freedom of thought? The jail’s threshold is not just made of gates, locks, armed guards and security cameras: it’s first and foremost a mental threshold. You’re either in, or out. And between in and out, it’s quite convenient to deny all direct exchanges, for all interactions must be brokered by someone else. Rules and regulations are imposed, and our share of vengefulness, which must be preserved at all cost, prevents us from understanding that those codes are part and parcel of segregation; and that, as human beings, we all move seamlessly between in and out. Let’s ask this question at last. Let’s not debate it publicly, but rather ponder it in our hearts, to escape all judgment: what is a jail? Does it stand for victory, the victory of man on man, the victory of those who live outside on those who are locked in? The victory of those who «deserve» to be out on those who «deserve» to be in? Remember when we were children, when one of our mates was scolded for getting in trouble: we had got away with it and felt so relieved to see the culprit punished. Yes, that’s a square on the moral checkerboard that can’t be left empty for too long. When you know there is such a thing as a jail, and you live outside of it, not only do you feel at peace with your conscience, but you are entitled to not care.

Whereas the first thing we must do is to fight indifference and be aware of evil, because when you become accustomed to evil to the point of not recognizing it anymore, not feeling disgusted by it and keeping it there as a never-ending possibility, this means the inhumane in us has prevailed. In jail, Ahmet, you saw beaten bodies, bodies locked in solitary confinement, bodies crumpled in shame, for among the most intolerable tortures there are those that force you to accuse innocent people, people you don’t even know. You told the story of a young boy who was coerced to accuse some Kurds, any Kurds, people he’d never met… they needed his confession to justify a military attack on that village. The boy knew full well that if he mentioned the name of someone who had done him no wrong, who had broken no laws, he would probably be released from prison. But he refused: «I just can’t name names, I’m not a coward».

Ahmet, you recounted how you saw the copper that is in each and all of us turn to gold. We can turn into rare and precious metals when we so decide, this is the secret of the philosopher’s stone: to change a plain alloy into pure gold thanks to the truth and by choosing the truth. Ahmet, I’m not just inviting, with these words of mine, I am pleading from the bottom of my heart with all those people who believe in truth to put pen to paper, or open their computers, to write to you. To address, on your behalf, as many letters as possible, to send an avalanche of letters to the Turkish Embassy in Rome (via Palestro 28, 00185 Rome, or and tell them that we care deeply about you, about what’s happening to you, about what they’re doing to you. And I do hope that by word-of-mouth many more people will ask themselves how can it be that you, a writer, an intellectual, have been locked up for 1585 days, have been denied your freedom by an authoritarian president who is afraid of a free mind. Hopefully your story will travel far and reach as many people as possible.

Do you remember Anna Achmatova? She couldn’t write her poems for fear of a persecution far worse than what she had already been subjected to. So she used to write down her poems and set them on fire, but first she would learn them by heart and recite them to her friends who, in turn, would memorize them and teach them to others. The word-of-mouth worked beautifully and Achmatova’s words finally reached those who could write them on paper without fear of persecution. Thus her poems were saved, one at a time, through the memory of many people. Likewise your story, Ahmet, will be saved: we shall speak of what they’re doing to you until we have breath in our lungs, ink in our pens, strength in our fingers to tap on the keys of our computers, or until the door of that bloody jail will open and you will regain your well-deserved freedom. That day will be full of light, a day of truce, a day that will stand still when we finally stop marking time. One day soon, I promise, we’ll hug each other, because, as you say: «I am a writer and you can’t find me either where I am or where I’m not. You can lock me up in jail, but you can’t keep me there. I do magic, I can walk through walls».

A big hug to you, Ahmet, my friend…

(Traduzione di Rita Baldassarre)

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International