Ahmet Altan, a Voice from Turkish Prison: “The Writer’s Paradox”
Ahmet Altan 19 October 2017

by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Yasemin Çongar*

Ahmet Altan was imprisoned in Turkey with his brother Mehmet in September 2016. Despite being denied access to receiving and sending written communications, he wrote The Writer’s Paradox for publication on the eve of his trial, which has started on 19 September. 

‘A moving object is neither where it is nor where it is not,’ implies Zeno in his famous paradox. Ever since my youth I have believed this paradox is better suited to literature or, indeed, to writers, rather than to physics.

I am writing these words from a prison cell.

Add the sentence ‘I am writing these words from a prison cell’ to any narrative and you will be adding a tense vitality, a frightening voice that reaches out from a dark and mysterious world, the brave stance of the robust underdog and an ill-concealed call for mercy.

It is a dangerous sentence that can be used to exploit people’s feelings. And writers do not always refrain from using sentences in a manner that serves their interests when what is at stake is the possibility of touching people’s feelings. Even understanding that this is their intention may be enough for the reader to feel mercy towards the writer of that sentence.

But wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you.

Yes, I am being held in a high security prison in the middle of the wilds.

Yes, I am staying in a cell where the door is opened and closed with the rattle and clatter of iron.

Yes, they give me my meals through a hole in the middle of the door.

Yes, even the top of the small stone-paved courtyard where I pace up and down is covered with steel cages.

Yes, I am not allowed to see anyone other than my lawyers and my children.

Yes, I am forbidden from sending even a two-line letter to my loved ones.

Yes, whenever I have to go to the hospital they pull handcuffs out of a cluster of ironwork and put them around my wrists.

Yes, each time they take me out of my cell orders such as ‘raise your arms, take off your shoes’ hit me in the face.

All of this is true but this is not the whole truth.

In summer mornings when the first rays of the sun come through the naked window bars and stab my pillow like shining spears, I hear the playful songs of the birds of passage that have nested under the courtyard eaves, and the strange crackles that the prisoners pacing the other courtyards make as they crush empty water bottles under their feet.

I live with the feeling that I still reside in that pavilion with a garden where I spent my childhood or, for whatever reason and I really don’t know the reason for this, at one of those hotels on the chirpy French streets of the film Irma la Douce.

When I wake up with the autumn rain hitting the window bars, bearing the fury of northern winds, I start the day on the shores of the Danube River in a hotel with burning torches in the front, which are lit every night. When I wake up with the whisper of the snow piling up inside the window bars in winter, I start the day in that dacha with a front window where Doctor Zhivago took refuge.

Until now, I have never woken up in prison – not once.

At night, my adventures are filled with even more action. I wander the islands of Thailand, the hotels of London, the streets of Amsterdam, the secret labyrinths of Paris, the seaside restaurants of Istanbul, the small parks hidden in between the streets of New York, the fjords of Norway, the small towns of Alaska with their roads snowed under.

You can run into me along the rivers of the Amazon, on the shores of Mexico, on the savannas of Africa. I talk all day with people who are seen and heard by no one, people who don’t exist and won’t exist until the day I mention them. I listen as they converse among themselves. I live their loves, their adventures, their hopes, worries and joys. I sometimes chuckle as I pace the courtyard, because I overhear their rather entertaining conversations. As I don’t want to put them on paper in prison I inscribe all of this into the crannies of my mind with the dark ink of memory.

I know that I am a schizophrenic man as long as these people remain in my mind. I also know that I am a writer when these people find themselves in sentences on the pages of a book. I take pleasure in swinging back and forth between schizophrenia and authorship. I soar like smoke and leave the prison with those people who exist in my mind. They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison.

I am a writer.

I am neither where I am nor where I am not.

Wherever you lock me up I will travel the world with the wings of my endless mind.

Besides, I have friends all around the world who help me travel, most of whom I have never met.

Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name, holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms.

I travel the whole world in a prison cell.

As you may well guess, I possess a godly arrogance – one that is not often acknowledged but is unique to writers and has been handed down from one generation to the other for thousands of years. I possess a confidence that grows like a pearl within the hard shells of literature. I possess an immunity protected by the steel armor of my books.

I am writing this in a prison cell.

But I am not in prison.

I am a writer.

I am neither where I am nor where I am not.

You can imprison me but you cannot keep me in prison.

Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.


Ahmet is among the many writers and journalists to have been charged with terror group membership and imprisoned in Turkey in the wake of the attempted coup that took place in July 2016.

The Society of Authors in partnership with English PEN and the Publishers Association believe the charges against Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet to be politically motivated and in violation of their right to freedom of expression, and they are campaigning to raise awareness of Ahmet’s plight as part of their Speak Out campaign and calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

To find out more and to take action, visit the Speak Out campaign for Ahmet.

*Originally published by the Society of Authors on 18 September 2017

Credit: Ozan Kose / AFP



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