I Will Never See the World Again:
The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer
The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer
Original Title: Dünyayi bir daha görmeyeceğim
Translator: Yasemin Çongar
Also by Ahmet Altan
Like a Sword Wound
I first met Ahmet Altan in the spring of 2014, at a gathering in Istanbul. The city has long been special to me, as the place where I fell in love thirty years ago, drinking mint tea at a small cafe by the Ortaköy Mosque in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge, with the woman I would marry. That spring, Ahmet delivered the first Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture, a now annual event organized by press freedom group P24 to honor the memory of a renowned Turkish journalist. I appreciated Ahmet’s lecture, and immediately liked him. He spoke with passion and courage, intelligence and humor on the writer’s place in a decent society. Soon we became friends and were often in touch, seeing each other in London and Istanbul.
Four years after Ahmet and I met, in the spring of 2018, I was invited to give the same annual lecture in the same building: the splendid nineteenth-century pile that is the Swedish Consulate General in Beyoğlu on the European side of Istanbul. Ahmet was invited but not able to attend; by then he had been in prison for 590 days. His crime? To speak a few innocuous words on a television program in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup, which were interpreted as treasonous by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
President Erdoğan’s crackdown had left Turkey languishing near the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. The situation was bad and likely to get worse, even if there was a sense that President Erdoğan’s position was not entirely secure in forthcoming elections. The economy was suffering; tourists were staying away. The atmosphere at the Swedish consulate on that spring night in 2018 was one of grim resolve.
My lecture was attended by writers and journalists yet to be arrested. Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper who had been sentenced in April 2018 to seven-and-a-half years on terror charges but released on bail pending appeal, introduced the proceedings. His speech was an impassioned salute to the many journalists who had been arrested.
I dedicated my lecture to Ahmet. “We know how words are apt to be interpreted in different ways,” I said, explaining a point of connection between lawyer and writer, “and we know too that that is their beauty and their danger.” The dangerous words spoken by “my dear, absent friend” caused a judge to rule that Ahmet, who was sixty-eight at the time, would spend the rest of his life in prison. “We will never be pardoned and we will die in a prison cell,” Ahmet wrote in the New York Times, after being sentenced, from his prison cell.
The following day was spent with Yasemin Çongar, who runs P24 and is Ahmet’s close friend. We traveled together to the maximum-security prison at Silivri, a two-hour drive from Istanbul. This was where Ahmet was incarcerated, along with his younger brother Mehmet, an economist fired from his position at Istanbul University, where he had taught for thirty years. Yasemin has not been allowed to visit Ahmet – she is permitted ten minutes on the telephone every fortnight – and nor had any foreigner. I was the first allowed in to see Ahmet, because I was acting as a lawyer for the Altan brothers at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The facility was huge and forbidding, holding 11,000 prisoners. Accompanied by a Turkish lawyer, I passed through at least eight security checks and was taken by minibus to Block 9. I was not subjected to the full body search, but was required to have my eyes scanned, to be integrated into “the system.” One of the guards was friendly and wanted to talk soccer. We had a short, happy conversation about Arsene Wenger, Mesut Özil (who, much to my sadness, would soon be photographed handing over an Arsenal shirt to President Erdoğan), and what it meant to be Turkish. He had worked there for four years and never encountered a foreigner. “You are the first,” he said with a smile.
I met first with Mehmet, who was genial and gentle and had twinkly eyes and a full Karl Marx beard. He was thrilled to talk in French, surprising me with ideas about globalization and the English Luddite movement, on which he had ample time to write. He shared a cell with two other men, one of whom was a former student. Mehmet was perplexed by his situation, and the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. A life sentence, he said, is “like living without clocks, in endless time.” (Three months later, in the summer of 2018, Mehmet was released.)
Mehmet left. I waited, then Ahmet arrived in our glass-paneled cell. He looked fit. “Weights!” he chortled. We spent most of our thirty minutes roaring with laughter. “No,” he said, Turkey had not hit rock bottom yet. “We are a nation of bungee jumpers, and just before we hit the ground we somehow manage to bounce up again.” We talked about food, politics, the quality of the grass in my garden in London, and my neighbor, the English magistrate who signed the arrest warrant for Senator Pinochet back in the autumn of 1998. Ahmet marveled again at the idea of justice being dispensed by a judge who was independent. “A miracle,” he said.
What did he want his readers to know? I asked. We talked of the judge who sentenced him, a man of “swollen eyelids.” Ahmet knew I had a special interest in judges, especially those of the less independent kind. Later I would learn that the name of the man who sentenced Ahmet to life imprisonment for no good reason was Judge Kemal Selçuk Yalçin.
“Did you ever catch his eye?” I inquired.
“Just once: I am the powerful one now, his eyes said, and the power I can exercise will crush you,” Ahmet said.
We talked too about his prison memoir, I Will Never See the World Again, the remarkable volume which, by a miracle, you hold now in your hands and are about to read. “A rite of passage for any writer to spend time in prison,” Ahmet told me. “And you, you will never be a real writer!” We roared with laughter again.
It was quite something to spend a little time with a man sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, on trumped-up charges, and who was still able to laugh about it. And something else to leave the prison cell at Silivri with an unexpected feeling of elation, motivated by the sheer towering greatness of Ahmet Altan and the human spirit.
September 27, 2018
The essays in this book reached me one by one over a period of seven months between November 2017 and May 2018. They arrived among the personal notes Ahmet had given to our lawyers during their visits to him at Silivri Prison.
Each piece was handwritten on white sheets of paper in blue ink. I would read each piece, read it once again, then immediately type it out on my computer fighting hard not to be overwhelmed with emotion. Once I had the text on the screen before me, I began translating. Typing and then immediately translating each essay in one sitting immersed me in what Ahmet was experiencing, and allowed me to feel his courage and strength at a time when I wasn’t allowed to see him.
In the book, Ahmet quotes widely from other authors. In most cases he does so from memory, since in prison he doesn’t have access to these texts. Wherever his quotes aren’t verbatim, I have remained loyal to Ahmet’s memory – to the way his mind has reshaped these sentences in a cell years and miles away from his encounter with them. These recollected quotes are italicized and not sourced. As for quotes from the books Ahmet actually read in prison, these sources are cited on the page.