Before this book was offered to me, I had never heard of Ahmet Altan, a 69-year-old Turkish novelist/journalist/dissident who was arrested (with his brother) by the Erdogan government on September 23, 2016. He was accused of sending anti-government subliminal messages to the country’s people. In February 2018, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. At his trial he received two contradictory sentences from the same court: Marxist terrorist and religious revolutionary.
His slim memoir, I Will Never See the World Again, is not simply a polemic against the government or his treatment. His book is personal: an old man’s response to an injustice and its dehumanising effects on his life and his fellow political prisoners. Altan comes from a family of dissidents. 45 years earlier his father was arrested and eventually tried over 100 times during his life. “[It’s a] rite of passage for any writer to spend time in prison,” Altan says to his translator in the book’s prologue.
Altan’s book concentrates on how prison destroys the habits that keep us human. “You have to forget there is life outside,” he writes. “Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have.” Another habit that we on the outside take for granted in our literal identity. Prisoners lose their identity because they can’t see their face. What does it mean to have a face? Does it change if I can’t see it? Such seemingly mundane questions dig at the core of the loss experienced by Altan and other prisoners. Such questions aren’t discussed on TV dramas or Hollywood prison movies.
Altan describes the shame of knowing that he looks like an animal because he is being treated like one. He and his fellow prisoners are being led in chains to a bus that will take them to a hospital for health checks that will look for signs of abuse or neglect: “Perhaps no other scenario could make a person look more like a wretched criminal than being made to walk in a ragged chain of wrinkled trousers, dirty undershirts, misshapen slippers, unkept hair and untrimmed beards.” The indignities continue in the hospital where he is examined by a female gynaecologist: “A man who can stand with dignity before a woman with his trousers around his knees need never fear anything.”
Altan also addresses how prison warps time. Time in prison is not something that is counted in bundles of five vertical marks on a cell wall. Altan laments the loss of time because its normal markers and measurements have been stolen from him:
“We couldn’t tell in which direction time flowed. Sometimes it flowed towards the past, towards our memories. Sometimes it flowed towards the future and our worries. . . . [Often] it stagnated in this strange-smelling gloom.”
Prisoners don’t count time in jail: “A prisoner discovers time,” which stops in their cells because they lack access to a present tense. Those of us on the outside have a present that is connected to our past and shapes our future. Altan does not. He concludes that clocks and watches were invented to escape from time, not to control or know it.
For obvious reasons, hope is also crucial to prisoners. Altan inverts the significance of hope by focusing on the emotional wreckage if it is removed:
“I expected to be sentenced to life in a prison, but I still feel the bewildering blow of hope dying away. At such moments, a person encounters his real face, he sees who he really is. He understands his need for something other than consolation, something else, but what?”
After reading Altan’s powerful first-person narrative of life in prison, I asked myself how I could make a difference, what meaningful act could I engage in? What power can I realistically wield? I’m a 59-year-old male with no money and less political clout. Should I quit my job, abandon my family, immigrate to Turkey, and march outside the prison chanting slogans of solidarity? I have a passport and a suitcase; what more do I need?
But of course, I will not make this choice. I can not.
So I’ll read this book and empathise with this brave man. I’ll share the book with my sister and maybe she’ll pass it along to another reader. I’ll write my puny review that won’t capture a fragment of Altan’s experience or pain or humanity. Even if I were Michiko Kakutani spilling transcendent prose in the New York Times, how much actual influence would my pen’s ink have? I drop verbal nuggets like “truth to power” and exploit Altan’s experiences for social media hits.
During a 30-minute walk across one of Osaka’s best parks, I passed a snack store. I watched an old man, propped up by a silver walker and stooped over with tubing from his nose, bump into a tower of snacks. He appeared to be falling himself as he struggled to stem the flow of the packages to the floor. I thought about helping him. I didn’t. I couldn’t get my mind to communicate a conscious decision to help him. I didn’t stop. Why didn’t I spend 30 seconds and help him? What possible justification can I muster?
I don’t know, and I’m still ashamed.
How can I pretend to empathise with Ahmet Altan’s life and his pains and his confinement if I can’t carve 30 seconds out of my day to help an old man pick up some packages? What the fuck is wrong with me?
Altan’s book demands that its readers choose serious responses in the interstitial fragments of their existence. I was so preoccupied with my metaphysical musings that I fumbled an opportunity to connect with living, breathing person who needed help. I failed him. Miserably.
Even though Altan will most likely spend the remaining decades of his life in prison, he doesn’t consider himself a brave person. He describes how he struggled to maintain self-control on his first night in prison: “I knew that with a single scream I would lose my past and my future, everything I had, but the urge to get myself out of that cage with its walls closing in on me was irresistible.” He embraces the contradiction of respecting bravery while simultaneously mistrusting it: “I am not a brave person. I am a person who likes being brave but, at the same time, I scorn bravery, I am the very embodiment of a contradiction.”
Any Cop?: Altan’s memoirs don’t belong on that shelf in your library that contains relatively disposable entertainments of varying quality, depth, and beauty. His beautiful moving book demands more tangible, existential respect. I need to start making tiny, meaningful positive contributions to my little postage stamp plot of the world through my daily encounters with it. That is what I can do. That is how I can begin to take action against injustice and suffering. Tiny positive contributions within my own space. . . .