Prominent novelist Ahmet Altan has said that he awaits coronavirus (COVID-19) in his prison cell, as Turkish authorities continue to keep political prisoners behind bars.
“I’m writing this as I await in a prison cell the fierce attack of a virus that kills people my age. I am not optimistic for myself, but for the humanity of which I am a part,” the 70-year-old novelist said in his letter sent from Silivri Prison on May 24.
“I am not optimistic for myself, but for the humanity of which I am a part,” he added.
Altan was arrested in September 2016 over his alleged links to the movement of the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, which is the group widely believed to have carried out the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt. He was charged with “attempting to overthrow the government,” “being a member of an armed terrorist organization” and “propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
Altan was released on Nov. 4, 2019 after serving three years in prison, which was followed by Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office appealing the ruling that led to his rearrest on Nov. 13, 2019.
Turkey’s parliament passed a bill on releasing thousands of prisoners amid the pandemic, but excluded those jailed on terrorism charges despite the fact that the virus is spreading fast in jails.
‘Sitting in a fish tank at the bottom of the ocean’
In his letter, Altan commented on being jailed amid the pandemic, saying, “These days being in an actual prison while everyone else is confined inside their homes feels like sitting in a fish tank at the bottom of the ocean.”
“I can see (by reading the old newspapers the guards give us and watching some of the channels we’re allowed to watch) that you’re worried to death. Well, I’m 70 years and I’m in a prison where COVID-19 cases are spreading fast, all for offending, with alleged ‘subliminal messages,’ the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” Altan said.
“As someone who knows more about sitting at the bottom of the ocean and being the target of death than most, I’d like to tell you this: Don’t give in to self-despair,” he added.
Saying that humankind will arrive at a new era once the pandemic is over, Altan noted that “better circumstances are achieved only through disasters.”
“We’re witnessing history break along a gigantic fault line that is making life itself tremble. This rupture promises us a hopeful future,” he said.
“I’m aware of the horrors everyone is experiencing. Like billions of antelopes that had to cross a river filled with crocodiles, we are struggling madly to stay alive and reach the other side. The passage is hellish. But in a few months, this disaster will be over and humankind will arrive at a new era,” Altan added.
“This is the order of this strange planet. Better circumstances are achieved only through disasters. Wounded in wars and pandemics, we make progress.”
Altan noted that the 21st century will begin once the pandemic is over.
“This disaster has shown us many truths we’ve long ignored; it has also given us directions to our destination. I think the 21st century will begin once this pandemic is over. For a little while, it might look as if we’re skidding backward, but that won’t last long,” he said.
‘States are good for nothing’
“This pandemic has shown us that constructs called ‘states’ are good for nothing. The whole structure of states has clearly expired. It’s against nature that an administrative system from the time of horse-drawn mail coaches is still in place. States prevent human progress. The pandemic got out of control because of the blunders states and their administrators made out of greed for power. If China had not lied in the first place, and if the leaders of other countries had not remained unconcerned, the scourge would not have achieved such enormity,” Altan also said.
“In a not-so-distant future, the world will become a federation of city-states — it will realize that it has no other choice. Nations, borders and flags work against the good of humanity during common disasters, as we’ve experienced during this crisis.”
Saying that the ability to win elections and the ability to lead a society are entirely different skills, Altan noted that these skills “are at war with each other.”
“We saw yet another truth: The ability to win elections and the ability to lead a society are entirely different skills — skills at war with each other. Elections are often won by those who lie the most, those who play the epic soundtrack louder than others. But those same people cannot lead with wisdom. We have seen many examples of this phenomenon,” he said.
“This disaster has also been the dress rehearsal of a major change in history: Workers stepping out of their traditional place in the chain of production. Thanks to the Internet, people’s mental contribution to production has increased while their physical role has significantly diminished. In the 21st century, people will not be limited to physical work. We are grasping the inevitability of change as we live through this episode, discovering a new economic order,” he also said.
“We are learning that some people having more money than they can spend while others remain penniless and without shelter can create a ‘common’ disaster. If you can’t save a market worker in China, you can’t save the prime minister in Britain.”
“This could lead to a major mutation. If you want to protect yourself, you have to protect others. Selfish acts will kill you. People have realized perhaps for the first time and in such clear consciousness that they are part of a great flow called humanity. This virus not only knocks down old men like myself but also all kinds of aged concepts, beliefs and ideas. We are painfully crossing the threshold of a new world and, even more important, a new kind of human being,” Altan said.
The prominent novelist also noted that he is optimistic about the future.
“In the midst of this great trauma, I am optimistic about the future. What I’ve been talking about here is not utopia. It isn’t the meliorism of a fool. I believe what I’m saying will happen, and I know I won’t be around to see it happen,” he said.
‘If a radish dying in a paper cup can blossom, an old man in prison can be optimistic’
In November, we were given a radish along with our meals at lunchtime. My cellmate put that radish in a paper cup and left it beside the iron bars at the window. The radish began to rot. Recently, a green sprout emerged from it. It grew and grew. Little white flowers blossomed at the end of the sprout. Each morning, I get up and look at those flowers. I witness that great cliche: The radish is dying and becoming alive at the same time. A miserable radish creates flowers out of its own decay. Without giving up its optimism, it reaches out to the future as it dies,” Altan wrote.
“Perhaps I will have fallen sick by the time you read this. But what difference does it make? If a radish dying in a paper cup can blossom, an old man in prison can be optimistic. We aren’t going to be more despairing than a radish now, are we?”