Poetry as solidarity of the soul: Notes on the campaign of PEN Norway to free the poet Ilhan Çomak

Caroline Stockford shares a long-read essay and poetry outlining her work to support poet Ilhan Sami Çomak, who has been imprisoned in Turkey for 26 years.

July 29, 2020

By Caroline Stockford, PEN Norway Turkey Adviser, Wales PEN Cymru Executive Board Member

I came to you saying,

‘Open the door to the presence of existence’

as the sky stirs in its form. I came to you saying,

‘Open the door of becoming. Open the door of existence, to me.’

                                                                    -Ilhan Çomak

It is difficult to comprehend how it must feel to be unjustly deprived of one’s liberty for 26 years.  To have been tortured as a 22 year-old for 19 days straight and to still bear the scars and pain of what they did to you when you are 46 and still in prison. That prison, I should say, is like a small town. It has its own shops, a mosque and a housing complex for the families of the guards. There is a school for their children and when I have queued, representing PEN, with four hundred other people in the car park to get into the purpose-built courtroom to observe journalist trials, I have been chilled to hear the tinny sound of the school song, sung in wiry, high voices, ringing out of a public address system on the other side of the road.  Welcome to Silivri High Detention Facility. There are 23,000 men locked up here. President Erdogan is convinced there are not enough prisons in Turkey and has ordered building over forty more.

Ilhan Sami Çomak (pr. Chomak) is one of the prisoners in the political block.  He was a student of geography who was convicted in his early twenties for the ‘crime’ of separatism.  He signed a false confession after over 2 weeks of daily torture to say that he had lit a forest fire near Istanbul in the name of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and had possessed a gun with the intent of holding up a train.  He was tried by a military court in 1994. He was sentenced to death and this was later commuted to life in prison. That is to say, 36 years. He will be eligible for parole in 2024 to serve his final 6 years in the world outside Silivri. Ilhan continues to firmly maintain his innocence.

Like many prisoners before him, notably the great communist poet Naz?m Hikmet, Ilhan took to writing poetry. He has written and published 8 collections from solitary confinement. The subject matter is nature, freedom and love. In the words of one of Turkey’s leading poets Haydar Ergülen, ‘In his confinement Ilhan has turned everything to poetry.’

PEN Norway is leading the campaign to call for Ilhan’s freedom. We have a mission to Turkey in September 2020 to meet with the Ministries of Justice and the Foreign Ministry. The mission is more closely connected to our current legal project in which we’re tasking European lawyers and judges with examining and critiquing indictments of journalists and civil society figures whose trials have taken place in the last 5 years. However, we will use this opportunity to advocate for Ilhan’s immediate release.

As Turkey Adviser for PEN Norway, I raised Ilhan’s case with Mr Hac Ali Açkgül, the Head of the Department for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice during a multi-NGO mission to Ankara and Istanbul in September 2019.  He advised me to advocate through the channels of the Foreign Ministry in overseas embassies. The departmental heads at the Constitutional Court, when I asked if Ilhan’s case was before them and if we might find a way to intervene, said they were not sure if his case was pending and that we should enquire via Ilhan’s lawyers.  The case is pending and we will try to submit an expert opinion on the case to accompany the file if it is not too late. In essence no-one in the government wants to talk about Ilhan. His case is a source of shame for even this authoritarian regime.

Ilhan, a mild man who collects bird feathers in his cell and writes poetry of wonder and marvel, is the case they all want to forget. The magnitude of the unfairness and illegality of his detention is an embarrassment to a government who, although they were not on watch when he was first incarcerated, carry forward the same phobia of Kurdish men and women that means that almost 70% of incarcerated journalists in Turkey are Kurdish and that the majority of the 70,000 students in prison are also Kurdish.

A whole generation have been swept up in the purges since 2014 and imprisoned on charges of ‘membership of a terror organisation.’  And what of life in prison? It is different for everyone. Some high profile journalists were detained in small blocks resembling self-catering apartments, with a kitchen, living room and separate bedrooms. Ilhan is in a cold cell on his own with a small budgerigar for company.  He has a disciplined daily routine of writing and exercise. He is allowed only 7 books at a time.  It is always the small details that bring home to me the sadism that surrounds his incarceration, details such as that he is only allowed 2 tee-shirts and 4 pieces of underwear at any one time. That it is so cold and that the lights in the corridors never go out. As he writes in his poem, ‘Things that are not here,’ there is no darkness.

Things that are not here

There are no kids scaling back walls

to skip school. No human bond of good

making friendship from mere words.

There are no stones for throwing stones.

No flowers that pool dew, no rivers

overflowing the map. No fresh-baked smell

of sesame bread to summon up a crowd.

There are no women of selflessness and beauty,

no possibility to stretch out on grass, test

the constancy of sky. There is no candle,

just as there is no lamp. No darkness.

There is absolutely no darkness.

There are no turnings of the seasons,

no eclipses of the moon. No earth, no plants

in their simple elegance. No cat’s paws,

no sweat-drenched headlong of a horse.

No curtain for the breeze to lift,

no moldering bunches of grapes. Life,

separated from the sun.

There’s no direction here.

But there is a way out.

Always a way out.

Letters can take up to 2 months to arrive from abroad.  He is allowed one face to face visit across a table once a month and three visits per month behind glass. He can speak to a family member or friend on the phone once a week for 20 minutes.  And what a friend he has.

Ipek Özel is Ilhan’s ‘Mackenzie Friend’. She is a law lecturer who visits him every week and relays letters and messages to him.  Talking to Ipek is like holding onto a copper wire and being filled with electric energy. She takes news of our campaigns to Ilhan and receives the letters and poetry he sends to us. She also visits many of the incarcerated students and enrols them in her law course at university. She marks their work and guides them through their degrees. Ipek, like so many of our colleagues in the field of human rights in Turkey, teaches us exactly what is resistance, commitment and solidarity.

So, how can we help Ilhan? What can PEN do for him? We can demand his freedom, publicise his case, write to him and raise money for the publication of his poetry in English. The poet George Szirtes wrote about Ilhan in the Guardian in March 2020 and the campaigners Margaret Owen and Michael Baron were among those of us who organised a very special reading of Ilhan’s work at the Poetry Cafe in London in February this year.  And yet, no matter what we do, in our letters from Ilhan it is he who comforts us. His strength is incredible.

He wrote to us saying:

‘I’ve tried, stubbornly, to be a good and hopeful person. To know that my voice has been heard outside shows me that I am on the right path. It is still true that good people find one another! You are a ladder for me.  And I thank you all.’

Ilhan gives us poetry completely free from anguish and resentment. He shows us that poetry is his resistance, his mountain top and his way out. What we can do for Ilhan is of course to advocate for his release with the Turkish government and with the Foreign Ministers of our own countries.

On July 6 the Foreign Office announced that the UK will impose financial sanctions upon individuals who have committed serious human rights abuses and will not grant them entry into the UK. It is the first time that the UK has sanctioned people or entities for human rights violations and abuses, but what would really make a difference is if the Foreign Secretary extended this to countries rather than individuals and imposed sanctions for violations of freedom of expression and media freedom, as was put forward by Jeremy Hunt and his Canadian counterpart at the global Media Freedom conference in London a year ago this month.

Our appeal to the UK government should be to demand that they tell us publicly how they intend to use the leverage of their especially close trading relationship to Turkey, developed since Theresa May rushed out to meet Erdo?an in January 2017 and sign the first of many weapons deals. Then it was for fighter jets from the UK and worth 115 million pounds. More recently it has been for sub-standard protective equipment for health workers.

There is so much to do, to advocate for in the field of human rights and there are so many avenues of action.  And the arms trade between the UK and Turkey is a point of entry for our advocacy and activism. Erdo?an published his latest arms shopping list in June 2020 which has led many to predict an event that will result in considerable social unrest in the country in September 2020. The list, reported on by the indomitable investigative journalist Mrs Çidem Toker comprised 103,500 OC pepper spray canisters, 5,000 hand grenades, 250,000 338 cal. Cartridges, 44,000 extendable batons, 10,000 vehicle mist mortar ammo, 1 million 5.56 x 45mm armour-piercing cartridges, 1 million 5.56 z 45mm polymer-tip cartridges and 10,000 ‘protest’ hand grenades.

Let us not be the island that supplies these weapons that will be used to brutalise the average citizen who is brave enough to exercise their constitutional rights to assembly and demonstration in Turkey.

Non-governmental organisations such as those in the PEN family and those others in the fields of journalism and civil society are the watchdogs and the conscience of European institutions.  We in PEN have the freedom to be more critical and direct than many diplomats. We must remind and press institutions such as the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to act tougher in chastising its member Turkey. Contracts such as CoE membership and the European Convention have been signed by Turkey and their obligations under these contracts must be enforced.  As NGOs we have the power to collect and convey detailed information garnered from our work on the ground. Whilst at the International Press Institute in Vienna I worked with the Media Law Studies Association in Turkey to set up a programme that is still in practice to monitor every journalist trial taking place in Turkey by way of trained court observers and to collate the data for presentation to support the work of advocacy.

This kind of practical, first-hand activism is invaluable. When the rule of law is contorted into such surreal and ugly shapes by a regime that has no true intent to fully realise democracy and freedom of expression what can we do but stick to the straight and narrow?  To confront them with hard data, to ask uncomfortable questions and to keep going back and reminding them that we are watching, monitoring and reporting.

We must always bear in mind that the political and social situation in Turkey is incredibly complex. We must refrain, I believe, as foreign organisations from inviting always the same few high-profile Turkish writers to speak on human rights. We must value our experts and be informed always by our colleagues on the front line, on the ground in Turkey. There is a danger, too, of championing cases of figures, such as some former judges from Turkey, who in their time made highly questionable judgements in court cases and committed scores of left-wing activists, journalists and Kurds to jail and who, as supporters of the exiled-cleric and Erdo?an’s nemesis, Gülen, have now been imprisoned or forced into exile themselves.

When working on Turkey it is wiser to consult at all times with local partners. Hold meetings with NGOs and CSOs on the ground both in Istanbul and more rurally. Ask them what they need and then support them. I feel there should be stronger links between gay, lesbian, queer and trans groups in the UK and in Turkey. Those who are fighting for equality, recognition and acceptance in our democratic society could lend such strength to their counterparts of all forms of gender identification in Turkey. And this is why it is relevant to study Turkey and to fight for the human rights of its peoples. Whatever happens there, on the eastern edge of Europe can certainly happen here. We’ve seen it in the treatment of journalists and by the actions of a current government who lack the integrity to care for their citizens enough to share truthful facts and funding at a time of a serious epidemiological crisis. Let us not forget the high-profile trans activist Hande Kader, who was at the forefront of the campaign against police brutality in Turkey. Her body was found having been raped, mutilated and then burned in August 2016. All of these crimes are somehow sanctioned by authoritarianism. Men in Turkey have been told by religious leaders that they have the religious right to kill their wives. And they do so at the rate of one woman per day.

But back to our work as PEN centres. Can we make a difference to the law, to the conscience of our own Foreign Minister and policy makers? Yes, we can. We at PEN Norway are not campaigning for Ilhan Çomak because of the politics of the Kurdish separatist issue.  We are moving under the umbrella of literature and humanism. We are reading, translating, sharing and appreciating Ilhan’s poetry. We are celebrating the work of man who has turned everything around him to poetry. We are working with him to allow his mind and soul; his vision and interior landscape, to escape that small cell that echoes with the clanging of iron doors and the barking of guards and to come to us; to come into our homes and our lives.

Çomak was made an honorary member of PEN Norway this July. PEN International’s Turkey expert, the author Burhan Sönmez visited Ilhan in prison on 15 November, 2019, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. “I try to imagine that once I walked the streets of Istanbul, but it doesn’t make sense.” Ilhan told Burhan, “I feel as if I was born in prison. The rest of the world is what I hear from visitors or read in books.”

So, what of our call to European poets to write for and with Ilhan Çomak? In January 2020 I had dinner with Ilhan’s friend, Ipek Özel and the Turkish poet and critic Erkut Tokman. We had a meal at a lovely small restaurant in Istanbul’s Karakoy neighbourhood. The rooms were full of antiques and restored 19th century wallpaper. We ate mezzes and enjoyed the smoked aubergine salad, speaking of ways in which we could enliven and continue the campaign for Ilhan’s freedom.

Erkut told us of his collaborations with the Italian poet Delilah Gutman and I was struck by the idea of writing poetry in a call and response manner with Ilhan.  We made plans to film his poems in the beautiful city of Mardin and were excited at the prospect of the collaborations.  Ipek told Ilhan of the collaboration idea over the telephone a week later. I asked Ilhan to send me five ‘first halves’ of poems.  ‘If we write just one four-line stanza, it will take too long to send and receive, so let’s write 8 to 10 lines each’, I told him. I asked him to pose a question in his ‘first half’, that I might respond in the second, final stanza.

We send our respective ‘first halves’ in Turkish and I translate the results. Our first few poems can be viewed at  It is an intimate and educational relay and I would like to invite other poets to engage with him in this way.

Three poets from Norway are doing so, including the Writers in Prison Chair Øivind Hånes. We would like to invite the Makar and poets of Scotland to consider doing the same in either English or Scots Gaelic. Poets can respond to a long-ish stanza by Ilhan or can send him an opening stanza of their own. For a man who is currently not allowed new books or any letters (for a short time, due to a one-day hunger strike in the political block) to receive a stanza from a contemporary European poet, and to respond to it will be, I think, an education in modern European poetic style and form for Ilhan. Scottish PEN has a copy of our campaign booklet if you wish to find out more about Ilhan’s case and read his work. It is also up on the PEN Norway website at Erkut Tokman and I are translating the poetry to and from Turkish and are compiling an anthology of poems for and with Ilhan entitled, ‘Anatomy of Freedom.’

The President of Wales PEN Cymru, Menna Elfyn, herself imprisoned for Welsh language activism in the 1970’s and therefore understanding of his situation, wrote this moving poem for Ilhan in June 2020.


Translated from Welsh by M.Elfyn and C.Stockford

If I could, I’d send you a llatai

in your captivity.

A key is not permitted.

I can’t send the air of my land

or a jar of rain that makes

my country, infamous.

I send you a leaf

from a rowan tree –

beautiful for you to hold

in both hands.

In its veins a secret message

Criafolen, criaf -o- len.

A cry behind a veil.

And a song’s murmur

as you walk one day

towards her and gaze

from her branches

at the sky’s unveiling gift of ‘awen.’            

*llatai – old Welsh poetic form that would accompany

the gift of a horse, dove, dog etc.  

* Criafolen – Welsh word for the rowan tree, also

means ‘to cry behind it’.  

*Awen – poetry, inspiration, shining of the muse

By writing poetry for and with Ilhan you will be reaching past all barriers to enter his thoughts and his heart and to share in the miracle and power of poetry. To say that the PEN is mightier than the sword today is somewhat outdated. Today, the pen and especially poetry, are mightier than the thousands of armed soldiers who guard Silivri prison, than their Scorpion tanks, their tear gas and drones, the water cannons, the misapplication of justice; poetry is stronger than their propaganda, cuts through concrete, bars and cold and brings us closer, as two or more people writing together, than many in their casual everyday relationships in the ‘free’ world.

So please consider writing poetry for or with Ilhan Çomak. For poetry is the solidarity of the soul.

Take action: Resources

Campaign Booklet

Get involved instructions: Letter from PEN Norway – ‘Free the poet Ilhan Çomak’

Call and response poetry example: Caroline Stockford and Ilhan Çomak

Scottish PEN Writers for Peace Committee: Find out more and join