The Story That Sent Ahmet Altan Back to Jail

Only a week after his release, Turkey’s authorities again arrested famous novelist Ahmet Altan. It was a piece that spooked the regime that Altan would never remain silent. And he didn’t.

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After a week of freedom, Altan was sent back to jail to serve his sentence.

Days after his release, Ahmet Altan did not waste time to pen down a short piece chronicling his days in his prison cell. In his attention-grabbing and eloquently articulated prose, Altan portrayed the story of a man who crafted a makeshift, hand-made flute, using cardboard pages of a calendar.

For some inmates (the unwanted elements of the new regime in the post-coup era), many things were off-limits and unavailable in Turkey’s overcrowded jail landscape. And Altan was sharing his room with some of them.

One day when Altan deeply wallowed in ruminations over a new novel on his desk, he was suddenly jolted by the seducing power of a beautifully played flute song in the courtyard. When he stepped out to see the performer of this ad-hoc, impromptu musical ceremony, he saw his cellmate out there, leaning his back against a wall, playing his makeshift flute. It was a sad but alluring song. When the performance was over, there was a standing ovation behind the walls, with inmates expressing their approval and joy by banging walls and howling ad-lib outcries. They rained down whatever they had— candies and some cookies — toward courtyard through half-open, half-closed windows in a tribute to this man who, as Altan disquietingly recalled, had no visitor at all. It was Selman, the man who shared a cell with the writer and who featured as the central protagonist in his piece.

Until featuring in Altan’s story, he was nobody, one of the forgotten countless people languishing in jail. But he was instantly immortalized by Altan’s portrayal and became a reigning symbol of agony experienced by post-coup prisoners. Demands followed for more songs and Selman played his flute, a symbol of both human creativity amid a dearth of essential materials needed to make it and a powerful medium to broadcast the most paramount human emotions — longing for love, sadness, endurance, submission, loneliness and the never-ceasing will to live, however unfavorable the conditions.

Selman, Altan told us, stoically embraced his destiny and subdued in submission over the seal of fate. For him, complaining over the tribulations and trials of life was akin to grave sin, it was amounted to questioning God’s absolute will. Even after he was sentenced to serve more than 9 years in jail on dubious legal grounds, he simply acceded to the court decision without making much fuss. In fact, there was little else he could do.

For some reason, Altan noted, nobody would visit him. He was married but there was no word from his family members. Despite the suffocating world of prison, Selman found things to remain occupied with, expanding the boundaries of human imagination and abilities by building diverse stuff out of completely irrelevant and unlikely elements.

“He can turn bags of salt into dumbbells, forks into clothes pins, teaspoons into tweezers. He mixes ingredients into prison meals to invent new dishes,” Altan wrote.

In Altan’s piece, we, as readers, once again came to appreciate the power of writing as an indispensable medium to transmit the most basic human emotions beyond any wall, any boundary, even beyond a prison. Selman’s flute soon became a sensation on social media.

No wonder why authorities were spooked by Altan’s article. With this powerful and pointed story, the writer hinted, beyond any doubt, that he would not remain silent. The society, he had already charged, would remain unperturbed, but he would not.

When Altan was released, he said he could not rejoice at his freedom as long as countless innocent people remained behind bars. Both during his imprisonment and after his release, Altan revealed to the whole world that he was more than just a fine writer: he was a great man, a true humanist with unrivaled compassion for all the innocents regardless of their background and affiliation. In one memorable line, he wrote: As a prisoner, you are the victim of injustice; once you leave, you become an accomplice.

The selection of Selman for the central character of Altan’s picturesque story was certainly no accident. It was this bold defiance of the writer that infuriated the regime’s ruling elites.

Selman was no nobody after all. The only thing that sent him to jail was the fact that he was the nephew of F. Gulen, the most wanted man in Turkey’s current political climate. Selman did not need to commit any crime or involve in any wrongdoing. He simply became the victim of a “guilt by association” mindset that has become the defining feature of Turkey’s rotten legal system. The share of a surname is enough to land in jail as the government’s obsession with Gulen and his movement redefines the boundaries of sanity and insanity, unmaking the central pillars of the judicial system. The display of compassion for the victims of the movement is regarded as severe and unacceptable as a grave crime itself.

Altan certainly knew who Selman was. To avoid mishaps of the most notorious surname across Turkey, he simply used Selman’s first name. The fact that he was Gulen’s nephew did little to alter Altan’s conviction and judgment that Selman was and is an innocent man. As a man of conscience, Altan did not care about the potential ramifications his mention of Selman would stir up. Defying the government’s omnipresent censorship designed for certain segments of society (the purge victims affiliated with the movement), the writer dared to exhibit compassion for someone who is no less than a wretched cockroach in the regime’s view.

On Tuesday, a little more than a week, he was arrested again. Why were the authorities so scared about his outspokenness? Because he made the world remember the plight of the forgotten victims languishing in jail for years on end. And one of them, a young married man called Selman, happened to be the nephew of the most wanted man in the country. For Altan, it mattered little. Instead of choosing to remain silent and enjoy his days outside as a free man, he preferred Selman’s flute and prison.

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