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.

Abdullah Ayasun

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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.

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Abdullah Ayasun

Boston-based journalist and writer. Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. 2023 WHCA Scholar. On art, culture, politics and everything in between. X: @abyasun