DotIW 2019: Ahmet Altan (Turkey)

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, James Robertson has written a letter of solidarity to imprisoned Turkish novelist and journalist, Ahmet Altan

November 15, 2019


Ahmet Altan is an acclaimed Turkish novelist, essayist and journalist. In the purge following the failed 2016 coup, Altan was arrested. The prosecutor alleged that his critical remarks on a television talk show was a “subliminal message” to encourage the coup. In September 2016, he was sent to prison pending trial, which began in June 2017. Ahmet Altan (along with his brother Mehmet and four others) was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In February 2018, with Nazli Ilicak, Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for attempting to overthrow the government. 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. Altan and Ilicak deny the charges. The trial began on 8 October 2019.

In November 2019, Altan and Nazli Ilicak were convicted of a lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization” and were released under supervision having already served more than three years in prison. However, on 12th November after being free for a week, Ahmet Altan was rearrested.

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, Poet, novelist, short story writer and editor, James Robertson has written a letter of solidarity to Ahmet Altan.

Dear Ahmet Altan,

I write to you, my fellow-writer, from Scotland, on the day when the clocks went back an hour. This means that winter is coming. It will be light earlier in the morning but the dark will descend earlier in the afternoon. Our winter days are very short, but our summer days are gloriously long.

I write those words knowing that for you, when you entered prison, time became something not divided into hours and minutes, but ‘a single gargantuan entity’. And I know that you had to resist the smothering, choking thing that is ‘absolute time’. You discovered why humans invented clocks and broke time into pieces: not to know time but to escape from it. In your cell, you invented new clocks from scraps of paper and from your observations of light and shadow in the prison courtyard. This is one method by which you defeat the forces that seek to crush your spirit and your imagination.

I confess that I knew little about you until recently. I knew your name and that you were one of many thousands imprisoned by the government of your country, but nothing else. I have since learned about your arrest and of your Kafkaesque encounters with prison doctors and judges. This is because I have read your book, I Will Never See the World Again.

It is ironic that the first work of yours I read is not one of your novels but the book you should never have had to write: the book about your incarceration simply for being a writer, and for writing things that made the authorities angry and afraid. ‘If only you had stuck to writing novels,’ one of the judges said to you – as if somehow you could divide yourself in two, a writer of things that are political and a writer of things that are not political; as if fiction is not a reflection of reality; as if truth cannot be imagined.

Well, I will seek out your other books now. I will read your fiction. If people all over the world are reading your books, then those who have locked you up are defeated with every word read, with every page turned, with every story told.

I thought I would find your book depressing, but on the contrary it gives me optimism. Even more astonishingly, it makes me laugh. Even from the dark place that is your life right now, from the life sentence without parole which obliges you to declare, ‘I will never see the world again’, you make me laugh. You point out the absurdity of those who have exercised their power over you. Your writing reveals them to be ridiculous. They think they are important and clever and you show them to be insignificant fools. No wonder they locked you up. The thing that power hates more than anything is to be laughed at.

I want you to know that there are writers all over the world who are with you in spirit every day that you spend in captivity. Many of them stood in solidarity with you long before I did, but now I have joined their ranks, and I look forward to the day when I can write you a letter that says, Welcome to the world again.

I want you to know that there are writers all over the world who are with you in spirit every day that you spend in captivity.

Your book is a primer for all writers who have ever thought, What if, one day, they come for me? What if, one day, I am imprisoned for what I have said or written? I don’t believe any serious writer, even if they live in the most liberal, law-abiding, democratic society, has not asked these questions. And these: How, if this happened to me, would I react? How would I withstand the blows against my mind and my body? Even those of us who only ever imagine this, since it seems so unlikely that such a thing would happen in the settled societies in which we live, even we wonder how we would conduct ourselves in such circumstances. You always expected it to happen to you, and it did. Your book is a guide to the rest of us as to how to behave.

I am not a smoker. I have never smoked. But I hope that if the police ever come for me, and if they offer me a cigarette, I will have the presence of mind to shake my head and say, as you did, ‘I only smoke when I am nervous.’

Your book is a guide to the rest of us as to how to behave.

Then I will know that reality will not conquer me, as it has not conquered you. Then I will know that even if I am physically behind bars I am still free, because my words cannot be contained. My words will be out there, being read by others, and that means that my voice will be heard, as yours is, and can never be silenced, as yours cannot be.

You do not need me to tell you any of this. You know it already. But I did not know it until I read your book. And so this letter is also a message of gratitude. You, from your prison cell, have sent me a gift that I cannot repay.

I thank you, and I send you my warmest wishes as the cold days of winter begin.

James Robertson

James Robertson is a poet, novelist, short story writer and editor. His novels include Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack and And the Land Lay Still. He has also written non-fiction including Arrest This Moment, a biography of the Dundee songwriter and musician Michael Marra, and is a co-founder of and contributing editor to the Scots language imprint for bairns, Itchy Coo. He served on Scottish PEN’s committee for several years in the 1990s and early 2000s.