Three glass boxes
Ahmet Altan penned this piece for Le Monde during his few days of freedom last week. Translated by Yasemin Çongar from the original Turkish. The piece first published at P24.
In prison, inmates meet their lawyers in a row of glass boxes. During one such visit by my lawyer, a serial killer was sitting in the glass box to my left, and a mafia boss in the box to my right. You might come across a serial killer and a mafia boss in a high security prison anywhere in the world but I suspect in only few special countries would you come across the particular trio of a serial killer, a novelist- and a mafia boss. Of course, in place of the novelist there could be a leftist lawyer, a Kurdish politician, a religious journalist, a socially responsible businessman or a revolutionary student. All of them would make the same interesting trio. All of them could be found only in the prison of countries of a certain kind.
In “our prison” there were quite a few mafia bosses, and whenever I met them, during a meeting with lawyers or queuing up for the infirmary, I would say hello and ask them how they were doing using a kind of sign language. In prison, everyone greets each other. Some of us had committed the grave crime of shooting a person or writing an article and, as a consequence, found ourselves in the same place. Our common fate was to be cast out of life— so no one ever held back a hello. Yet, I never saw anyone greet the serial killer. He never looked at anyone either.
My father used to say readers, as a rule, were not much interested in prison literature and I think, with a few exceptions his was an accurate observation. But when a novelist is arrested on charges of “sending subliminal messages” to coup plotters and sentenced first to life without parole for having supported a military coup and then to ten and a half years in prison, this merry chase does provoke some curiosity.
After an incarceration of three years I was let “out.” In the few days I’ve spent “outside” the prison, the things I’ve heard and watched gave me the feeling that life might only comprise a prison and a madhouse. It is as if a strange ideology one might call “lumpenism” has, in various guises, taken hold of the “outside.” A lowly case of madness has penetrated the texture of society. The intellectual hierarchy of society has been turned upside down and those with the poorest acumen and skills have gained the right to speak the most. Intelligence, skills, knowledge and creativity are demeaned. One of the most horrifying questions of humankind determines everyone’s place in society: How much do you like your homeland? Everyone loves their homeland; they love it like crazy, love it to death, and, in order to prove it, they keep shouting out how much they love their homeland. Political authority has the final say on who loves their homeland more.
In this terrifying competition, there is no place for those who have not lost all wisdom and reason. Any reasonable objection, any belief in law and human rights will suffice to leave you out of the race. Literature is demeaned, skills are demeaned, creativity is demeaned, life is demeaned while death is exalted, ignorance is exalted, loyalty to power is exalted. Lumpens have planted their flags everywhere.
What is even scarier is that this has become an international phenomenon. Lumpenist madness is riding high in many countries. As the intellectual level of the society and its acumen retreat, violence and animosity are on the rise. In a crowd of black shirts, writers, artists, scientists, intellectuals are pushed to a corner. The “homeland” doesn’t need writers, it needs soldiers — soldiers who don’t ask questions, who don’t make objections, who obey orders.
There are people who explain this pathetic situation as the result of economic developments and the fear and anger in the face of a new era felt by those unable to adapt to technological progress - and there is more than a grain of truth in what they say. However, I think that humankind has a manic-depressive temperament with attacks of madness that it has to get out of its system every now and then before it can be cured. Humankind struggles with the inner conflict of possessing both the acumen that enables space travel and the folly that is called “nationalism.”
Writers around the world more or less resemble each other and so do nationalists. They all claim their own nation to be the most precious, never questioning how all these nations, can be “the most precious” all at the same time. I suppose the common idiocy begins by not asking that question.
Being much older than my readers I can speak from experience that the only antidote to this insanity is to take a decisive stance agains nationalism. Everyone who feels suffocated by this insanity should come together in rejecting nationalism and speak out to remind their fellow countrymen that nationalism is the worst poison for humankind and societies that drink poison will certainly get sick.
Nationalism spreads around the world like a stain of grease. Incompetence, injustice, hatred, animosity, corruption hide behind the question: How much do you love your homeland?
They are everywhere. In some countries, they already ask this question caustically, with confidence; in others, they await the day they will be comfortable enough to ask it. Nationalism, like a cloud of radiation is seeping into all countries and is growing.
I watched that movie, On the Beach, about a group of people waiting for the radiation to reach their shore in the aftermath of an atomic bomb attack. They had put up a large banner which read, “There is still time, brother.” At the end of the movie, everyone died and only the sign remained.
Look around and you will see these signs, too. “There is still time…” How much time? If writers, artists, intellectuals, scientists and especially lawyers don’t put up joint resistance against the attack by lumpen nationalism while “there is still time,” the radiation of nationalism will spread to every beach and there won’t be a safe patch of land left anywhere.
There are glass boxes in every country. There may sit a serial killer on one side and a mafia boss on the other. Look at the box in the middle. Ask yourselves what is the safest way of ensuring not to see a writer there. During certain times, not only writers occupy that middle box, every honest person who resists lumpenism can be put there.
French intellectuals along with many others elsewhere have supported me a great deal in these past years. This essay is both an expression of gratitude and a reminder to myself what to do in order not to be in need of others’ help again. There is still time. We need to use this time wisely so that it will not be just a banner that remains.