Jailed Turkish writer Ahmet Altan: My words cannot be imprisoned

Newly nominated for a Baillie Gifford literary prize, the political prisoner has written a novel from behind bars

“You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here,” writes Ahmet Altan at the end of his acclaimed book I Will Never See the World Again. “Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.”

The novelist’s series of essays, smuggled out of jail among notes to his lawyers, was lauded by critics as an instant classic when it was published in Britain in spring this year, and last week it was longlisted for the £50,000 Baillie Gifford nonfiction prize.

Now Altan, who has been in jail for three years on charges arising from the failed Turkish coup attempt of July 2016, has expressed his defiance through the written word once again, writing another book from his shared cell in the high-security Silivri prison.

“I have written a new novel,” he told the Observer via messages sent in and out of his prison cell. Like I Will Never See the World Again, the new title, Lady Life, is expected to be published in English first. A comedy set in today’s Istanbul against a background of repression and political turmoil, its protagonist is a woman called Hayat, a word that means “life” in Turkish.

“It tells the story of someone who doesn’t take life too seriously,” said Altan. “She turned out to be a character who amuses me greatly.”

According to Altan’s friend Yasemin Çongar, who will translate the book into English, the novel is very funny. But always in the background is a broken society with an ailing economy, full of the “new poor”, impoverished by a widespread and seemingly indiscriminate purge of so-called dissidents. “They are people whose lives have been interrupted, almost destroyed,” said Congar.

In the aftermath of the attempt to oust the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, more than 100,000 people – civil servants, teachers, judges, police officers, soldiers, journalists and academics – lost their jobs, most of them suspected of links to Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar exiled in the US who is accused by the authorities of masterminding the coup attempt. More than 300,000 books related – and unrelated – to Gülen were destroyed; and the economy has slumped.

Altan, 69, a combative, provocative and outspoken opponent of the Erdoğan regime, was jailed in September 2016 pending trial, alongside his brother Mehmet, 66, a writer, journalist and academic, and a former MP and journalist Nazli Ilicak, 75, for allegedly sending “subliminal messages” on television in support of the coup. In February 2018, with Ilicak, Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for attempting to overthrow the government. Mehmet was freed but lost his job as an economics professor.

The sentence was greeted with outrage by writers worldwide, though an appeal to Erdoğan for Ahmet Altan’s release by 38 Nobel laureates – including VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro – fell on deaf ears.

In July the court of cassation, Turkey’s top appeals court, quashed the convictions of Altan and Ilicak but ruled that they should stay in prison and face the charge of “deliberately and willingly helping” the Gülen movement, which the regime deems to be a terrorist organisation. Altan and Ilicak deny the charges. The trial will begin on 8 October.

Philippe Sands, the British/French human rights lawyer and writer who has taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on the grounds that he is being held unlawfully, told the Observer he was “horrified, frankly, at the failure of Britain” to press for his release.

“We need the government to be bellyaching loudly about this. Boris Johnson must publicly call on Erdoğan to free Ahmet,” said Sands, who wrote the preface to I Will Never See the World Again. “All they ever say is that they are working behind the scenes, but the only thing they care about is trade. It’s an outrage.”

Sands, who is president of English PEN, which defends and promotes writers, awaits judgment from Strasbourg but has already successfully argued the case that Mehmet was imprisoned illegally.

“Ahmet is such a remarkable individual, a man of real substance, a man of strength. And after all he has been through he remains unbowed and unbroken,” said Sands.

In the meantime Altan remains in the cell he shares with two other inmates in Silivri, a two-hour drive west of Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara. He writes while sitting on a plastic chair at a small plastic table, on paper bought from the prison commissary. His father Çetin Altan, a prominent leftwing journalist, writer and MP, also published a novel (A Handful of Sky, 1974) while serving time as a political prisoner.

Ahmet’s wife, Gulnur, friends such as Çongar and supporters hope he will be released after the October trial. “He has been in jail too long already,” said Çongar. But Altan is not holding his breath. “Because the court of cassation overturned the verdict, there is now a chance that I will see the world again,” he told the Observer.

“But when? Nobody knows. The court’s asking for my sentencing one way or another shows that they want to keep me behind bars as long as possible. It is likely that I will be convicted again but I don’t know what the sentence will be. Since there is no [rule of] law, it’s impossible to make a prediction.”

He is not quite cut off from the world, however, with visits from his family permitted. “I can see my wife, my kids and siblings once a week for an hour with a glass window between us,” he said. “We have to talk on the phone but we can see each other. Aside from my family, three of my friends whose names I gave to the prison administration can visit me. In the past I was allowed to see my lawyers for only an hour a week but this limitation has been lifted.”

And after a bleak first few months without books, he is allowed 10 in his cell. “I can borrow from the prison library, and my lawyers can bring books from the outside,” he said. Altan remains stoical and defiant, surviving his detention by living largely in his imagination. “Each morning I wake up somewhere else,” he said. “Still I’m able to daydream. This really helps me.”

If and when he is released, he faces further, equally Kafkaesque, legal battles. There is an outstanding case against him dating from his editorship from 2007 to 2012 of the liberal daily newspaper Taraf, closed down in the state of emergency after the failed coup.

With Çongar, his former assistant editor, he is accused of obtaining, and then destroying, a government document about an alleged secret plan to declare war on Greece. “We never even saw the document,” Çongar told the Observer. But the charge potentially carries a jail sentence of more than 50 years.

Congar, 52, who translated I Will Never See the World Again, is now general director of P24, a not-for-profit platform for independent journalism in Istanbul, which she co-founded.

There are 140 journalists in prison in Turkey, according to P24, most of whom were charged in the crackdown after the failed coup. Ranked 157 out of 180 countries in the 2018 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey jails more journalists than any other country.

Philippe Sands is dedicating a performance of the stage version of his award-winning book East West Street in London next month to Ahmet Altan and all other writers jailed in Turkey. The event, part of the London literature festival, is at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, on 21 October.

The longlist for the Baillie Gifford prize 2019 includes On Chapel Sands by the Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming, and The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth by William Feaver, the Observer’s former chief art critic. Amelia Gentleman is nominated for the Guardian’s story of the Windrush scandal, Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment.

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