“I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.”
Ahmet Altan’s writing has been translated around the world. He is the founding editor-in-chief of Taraf, a daily liberal newspaper, and spent five years as its lead columnist. But following the attempted Turkish coup in July 2016, he was taken from his home in a dawn raid in September 2016.
Charged with “giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television” and allegations of putschism placing him firmly as a terrorist, Altan went on trial in Istanbul on Monday 13th November 2017. His prosecutors are asking for three aggravated life sentences to be given to Altan and his brother Mehmet Altan despite there being no evidence behind the charges.
On the day of the trial, the judge even ordered the defense lawyers to leave the courtroom staying that they were “speaking without permission.” Chief of Turkey’s High Court, Yargıtay, says there are nearly 7 million terror suspects in Turkey. This is roughly 9% of the country when you consider the country’s population of 80 million. Given that more than half of that figure can be allocated to children, those bedridden with illness and the elderly, it seems that Yargıtay’s estimation is directed at a number closer to 25%, a quarter of the whole population.
Ahmet Altan has written some controversial works including the powerfully written article ‘Atakurd’. He was fired from the Turkish mass-circulation daily, ‘Milliyet’ on April 17, 1995 for this piece. One of the lines in this work of alternative history that resonates is: ‘Here we are, those who say: “No it is not justified.” We want democracy.’ Looking through his body of work, Ahmet’s writing is both careful yet daring, sensitive yet challenging. He definitely does not write with the hasty scrawls of a journalist trying to milk political upheaval for his own personal gain. His work addresses basic lacks in equality and democracy that need to be voiced. A voice that is becoming increasingly rare in a state full of people with opinions, full of people whose words would make them suspect.
While spending summer 2016 in Cyprus, I visited the small cell in Mağosa where the writer Namık Kemal spent 1873 to 1876 in exile for his opinions on national identity. Peering through a small barred window in a room with a single pallet laid out on the floor, I couldn’t imagine how someone could be incarcerated simply for writing beautiful and brave words. Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, often remarked how Namık inspired many of his ideas. On the 10th of November (10 Kasım), while remembering Atatürk on the anniversary of his death, mourning poured from social media with a sense of loss that felt absolutely hopeless. Wistfully admiring his political and social ethos, Atatürk’s words were circulated around the world. In government speeches. On the radio. “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”. In Turkey at the moment it does not feel like peace at home. The country holds a record that is not acceptable. In 2016, one-third of the world’s imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives were in Turkey’s prisons. A country with limited debate is a country where our roots begin to feel less like something to grow upwards from; instead, they wither as a flat surface. Still. Slow. Sad.
My mother went to the mountains of Yayla in Mersin and met with a few writers two years ago. They told her that they didn’t feel safe with open speech. Fast forward to 2017 and a country known for civilised debate is cast under a shadow – all to protect a state that has both flaws and beauty. Rich with humanitarian efforts and community spirit, Erdoğan has built schools and mosques in almost every town in Turkey and North Cyprus. In my village in Cyprus, you see communities regenerated by his investments. Yet how bittersweet this is when the right to free speech and the limitless pen is taken away.
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