James Kelman reading from The Book of Whispers, April 2015

James Kelman: Extract from “And The Judges Said… and other essays”

This is an edited extract from two essays by James Kelman relating to Turkey and Kurdistan, contained in his collection, And the Judges Said… and other essays [Polygon Books 2008] and is being reprinted here with the writer’s permission. The first “Freedom for Freedom of Expression Rally”, organised by a 200-strong group of artists and activists took place in Istanbul […]

April 27, 2015

This is an edited extract from two essays by James Kelman relating to Turkey and Kurdistan, contained in his
collection, And the Judges Said… and other essays [Polygon Books 2008] and is being reprinted here with the writer’s permission.

The first “Freedom for Freedom of Expression Rally”, organised by a 200-strong group of artists and activists took place in Istanbul 1997. I was one of the twenty international writers who attended the rally at the invitation of international PEN and/or Amnesty International (A.I.). A multiple trial was in progress. We were there to present ourselves to the State Prosecutor in solidarity with the writers, musicians, actors, journalists, lawyers and trades unionists then being prosecuted by the State Security Court.

More writers are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country in the world. Prisoners are routinely tortured and beaten, sometimes killed. Rape and other sexual violations occur constantly. In the Kurdish provinces the mass murders, forced dispersals and other horrors practised by the security forces are documented by a many domestic and international human rights’ agencies. People have been made to eat excrement. From Kurdish villages there are reports of groups of men having their testicles tied and linked together, the women then forced to lead them round the streets. There are files held on children as young as twelve being subject to the vilest treatment. In 1983, in Diyarbakir prison, forty Kurdish youths were tortured to death for refusing to say “I am a Turk and therefore happy.”

I should say that I accept the significance of the distinction between ‘democratic rights’ and ‘human rights’: ‘democratic rights’ – unlike civil liberties or human rights – “assert the rights of the people to struggle against exploitation or oppression;” the right to defend yourself under attack, it allows of empowerment, of self determination. I accept the right to resist oppression and that this right is inviolable. The people of Turkey and suppressed peoples within it will resist oppression in whatever way they see fit. I can have criticisms of the form this resistance sometimes takes but I am not about to defend a position that can only benefit their oppressors.

The juridical system in Turkey may be complex but its central purpose is straightforward, it sanctifies the state and protects it from the people. The very possibility of democracy is denied at the outset. The Constitution entered existence in November of 1982. This from the opening Preamble:

no thought or impulse [may be cherished] against Turkish national interests, against the existence of Turkey, against the principle of the indivisibility of the state and its territory, against the historical and moral values of Turkishness, against nationalism as defined by Ataturk, against his principles, reforms and civilising efforts…

There exist “152 laws and about 700 paragraphs…devoted to regulating freedom of opinion.” The Turkish Penal Code “was passed in 1926… (and is) based on an adaptation of the Italian Penal Code… (Its) most drastic reform was the adoption in 1936 of the anti-communist articles on ‘state security’ from the code of Mussolini. 0nly in April 1991 were some changes made through the passage of the Law to Combat Terrorism.” Before then court cases against the print media reached a record level with 183 criminal cases against 400 journalists… at least 23 journalists and editors in jail with one of them receiving a sentence of 1,086 years. The editor of one journal was prosecuted 13 times and had 56 cases brought against her. 0ne of her sentences amounted to 6 years, 3 months. Despite international appeals and protests the Turkish government refused to reverse her sentences. No left-wing or radical journal was safe from arbitrary arrest, closure or seizure of entire editions. Police persecution extends into the national press and includes daily newspapers. Authors and publishers of books are victimised. In November 1989 449 books and 25 pamphlets were burned in Istanbul on the orders of the provincial governor…. 189 films were banned in 1991… the liquidation of journalists, newspaper sellers, and the personnel of newspaper distributors, as well as bombing and arson attacks against newspaper kiosks and bookstores… (In 1992) twelve journalists were murdered by ‘unknown assailants’ (and) the circumstances point to participation or support by the state security forces. (In 1994 writers and journalists were sentenced to) 448 years, 6 months and 25 days… There were 1162 violations of the press laws (and) a total of 2098 persons were tried, 336 of whom were already in prison…

Alongside the Armenian genocide the barbaric oppression of the Kurdish people are major scandals of this century. The British State has had a pivotal role: ‘We’ needed a client-state “to secure (‘our’) right to exploit the oilfields of Southern Kurdistan,” and so ‘we’ created a country, gave it a king, and called it Iraq. The UK participation continues to the present where ‘we’ retain a leading interest in diverse ways and Turkey itself “is now the number two holiday destination for U.K…” Two weeks before I went to Istanbul The Scotsman newspaper, included the following snippet in a rare U.K. report on Turkish domestic affairs:

Turkey’s armed forces have intervened three times in the past 37 years to restore law and order in the country and to safeguard its secular nature.

In Turkey itself the 1997 visit of the international writers had a high media profile; television and radio, newspaper front pages. The last full day we spent there we had a public engagement at Istanbul University. A forum on “Freedom of Expression” had been organised by students and sympathetic academics. Twenty of the students came to meet the writers then escort us to the campus; four of their student friends were serving prison sentences of 8 to 12 years for so-called ‘terrorist’ activities.

Every day between one and two hundred police are on campus-duty and the students have their bags searched each time they enter the gate. When we arrived we discovered not only had the forum on “Freedom of Expression” been cancelled by the Security Forces, they had shut down the entire university. More than two thousand students had gathered in protest outside the university gates. We writers were instructed to link arms and march in quick time as a body, flanked by students on either side, straight to the gates of the university.

Hundreds of police in full riot-gear were present. The cancelled forum had become the focus of a mass student demonstration, the underlying concerns being the current withdrawal of subsidised education and the continued victimisation of students. Demonstrations are illegal in Turkey unless permission has been granted by the Security Forces. Most people have given up seeking permission; instead they organise a Press Conference and invite everybody. I could not see any tanks present but occasionally they arrive for student-protests. When we got to the gates at the entrance to the university the riot-police circled and sealed us off. Some student-representatives, lecturers and the media were allowed into the circle with us. A few held banners which in-itself is an act of ‘terrorism’.

After negotiations the Security Forces agreed that an abbreviated Press Conference could take place with the international writers and that statements might be broadcast to the students via a loud-hailer. A female student opened the meeting then a representative from the organisers called for everyone to stay calm, no blood should be spilled under any circumstances. Next to speak was the lawyer of the four imprisoned students, whose own relative was raped during one period of detainment. Each writer present was introduced and given a great ovation by the students, especially the representatives from the USA and Russia. Soon after we had to leave at once, linking arms to stay as closely together as possible, returning quickly the way we had come. There was no news of any bloodshed although we did hear that a disturbance and arrests had taken place after we had left the scene.

Next morning it was time to fly home to ‘freedom and democracy’. Later, at the Scottish version of a Press Conference, organised by Amnesty International and Scottish PEN, only one journalist turned up; an embarassed young man from List Magazine.


James Kelman reading from The Book of Whispers, April 2015James Kelman is considered the most influential Scottish writer of his generation. He is a Booker Prize winner (for How Late it was, How Late), an internationally renowned novelist and short story writer, dramatist and political essayist. This picture shows him reading at a recent Scottish PEN event in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.