Hunger Strike, Turkey
Born in 1950 Ahmet Altan had a slow start in his studies at Istanbul university: “My daughter got her certificate from the elementary school before I graduated from the faculty of economics”, he confesses with a laugh. But to-day he is one of Turkey’s brightest writers and he has published six novels and two essays which brought him fame and independence: “Like a sword’s wound”, published in 1998, reached 150.000 copies; and “Dangerous Stories”, published in 1995, 250.000 copies. Set in the last days of sultan AbdulHamid’s reign, when the Young Turks of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) were organising their revolution, “Like a sword’s wound” , beautifully translated in French, is a complex love story with a tragic end: in the last page of the book, Hikmet bey, the hero, shoots himself.
Love in the days of rebellion
His last book, “Love in the days of rebellion”, is also a love story set in a historical frame: the insurrection of 31 march 1909 was, explains Ahmet Altan, a popular rebellion fomented by reactionary people who wanted to go back to the days of the Sultan’s absolute power. The CUP Young Turks willingly let the rebellion expand, and then brought the third army from Salonica to crush it and overthrow the Sultan: “From these days, says Ahmet Altan, dates the connection between power and the armed forces... If the Power has joined forces with the Military, to remain in power, to have an appearance of legitimacy, it must create an ennemy... From these days the Powers in Turkey have always associated themselves with the military, assuming that there would be a rebellion: this is why this turning period of 1909 looks a lot like nowadays: the scheme has not changed, the relations between politics and religion, between the military and religion, nothing has changed”... The son of a former member of the central committee of the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP), and the grand son of a “pasha” -- a high official at the Sultan’s court -- Ahmet Altan lives in a flat full of memorabilia of the Ottoman Empire: beautiful handwritten “firmans” (decrees) signed by the last sultans, his grand father’s diploma from the ottoman faculty of law, old photos of his family during the last days of the Empire...
A novelist, not a historian
But Ahmet Altan claims he is not a historian but a novelist: “I do not consider myself as a historian, but as a novelist.. What I like to tell in my books, he explains, is the history of individuals, not the History. Why? Litterature is the only art which can penetrate at the deepest in the feelings of human beings... I am interested by individuals, their feelings and reactions. I am interested by the way love develops amongst people of very different backgrounds, in people who have traveled in Europe, who visited France or England, or in people who never left Turkey. Love has something special in the Orient: women are not supposed to have pleasure, it is considered as shameful”...
Ahmet Altan is introducing new characters in “Love in the days of rebellion” -- new types of women, the “feminists” of the Ottoman era, and a slave. And he also brings back some characters from his previous book “Like a sword’s wound” -- Ragip bey, Osman, Hikmet bey... But the reader closed the book believing that Hikmey bey had committed suicide? “Me too, says Ahmet Altan, laughing... But I decided he missed himself and survived”.
The son of a well known lelftist politician, Ahmet Altan is himself quite progressive, and he is persecuted by his country’s justice for the articles he published in the Turkish press: “I have plenty pending trials, he says, and they are opening four new cases against me. Altogether they requested 35 years of jail against me. If I write about the relations between the Military and politics they open a case against me. But isn’it the most important topic”? Ahmet Altan now faces problems to publish his views: save for the weekly “Aktuel”’, all the Turkish dailies have stopped publishing his articles since he wrote in “Milliyet” a column titled “Atakurd” -- in which he wonders how the Turkish people would react if they were living in a country called “Kurdey”, ruled by the dogmas of a founding father called “Atakurd, which would prohibit the use of the Turkish language and repress all attempts of Turkish separatism, burning the houses of the Turkish peasants and torturing the Turkish “terrorists”. This piece of political fiction was considered as a blasphema... Ahmet Altan was sentenced to a suspended term of one year and a half in jail -- which would be immediately applied if he commited a new offence within five years.
A State founded on lies
But he will never stop speaking and writing freely. Very bitter about the justice and the press of his country, Ahmet Altan says that “three corporations are betraying their vocation: the journalists, the historians and the men of law”. If they did not behave the way they did, Turkey would be in a different situation. Why the historians? “The State is founded on an initial lie: We are told lies on the foundation of the Republic, on Mustafa Kemal, on the Turks, the Kurds, the Armenians. It is forbidden in Turkey to debate on these matters”. And what about the journalists? “They lied too much, and they continue”, answers Ahmet Altan. “I have been in this job for 27 years, I started from the bottom and climbed to the top. I can say that the Turkish press is coward: it comes out to hide the truth”. And what about the men of law? “The lawyers, the judges and the lawyers, should have rebelled and told the people the truth: the Turkish law is full of articles which go against the international law. The Turkish law considers the man as an ennemy”.
Ahmet Altan is quite concerned by the hunger strike campaign against the F type prison cells which claimed 22 lives at the date of mid-may. “I am at the same time against the young people and against the State”, he says; “none of them tries to save the life of the young people. For me the homeland is not more important than the life of the young people: I am ready to sacrifice the homeland to save the life of the young people... I wrote it in “Aktuel”: “Flags have no importance. If someone likes too much his flag, he cannot approach in an objective way the people who gather under another flag”.
Very involved (“engagé”) in his articles for the Turkish press, Ahmet Altan is also careful not to let his political ideas predominate in his novels “because it would relegate the litterary aspect in the background”. He remembers that it happened with a book, “Sudaki Iz” (The trace on water) he wrote long time ago, in 1985; it describes leftist terrorists in Turkey at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. “All the discussions about this book focused on politics, he remembers, the litterary side was completely forgotten: the Leftists were against my book because I described my characters with all the weaknesses of human beings... And the State sent me to court. They decided to collect all the copies of my book and to burn them -- yes, to burn them; it was in 1985 (five years after the last coup). My novel was not that excellent, but it hurt me. Sure, he adds, it was a good advertising: the book became a best seller!”
With less and less newspapers ready to publish his articles, Ahmet Altan is decided to concentrate on litterature. His next novel, “Betray”, is the story of a woman unfaithful to her husband... Does it happen? “Yes, he answers laughingly, it happened to me”. More seriously, he explains how his new novel, set in a contemporary time-frame, will tell how “sometimes there are vacuums in our life, and we are not aware of it... Somebody arrives and fills the vacuum. And if this person leaves, we face a new vacuum: the worst time in life is when we face this vacuum”. Questioned how he works, Ahmet Altan takes us to his office where he is writing on a computer. On a book-shelf, a big photo of Balzac, the famous French 19th century writer. “I had the idea of “Like a sword’s wound” several years ago and I had written one hundred pages and stopped. I could not go further. Then I went to Paris with a woman I loved who spoke German; she found a copy of Stefan Zweig’s biography of Balzac, and started reading me chapters of this book. It gave me enough strength to write again, and after three months I had finished my book... Since that time, I speak to him -- Balzac; it proves I am not very intelligent, but I do it! Finally,he says, I am like a bottle of ketch-up: when you shake it up, nothing comes out... And all of a sudden, it explodes.”
(The Middle East magazine, October 2001)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012
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