A Single Sentence

In an clandestinely written memoir, a jailed Turkish novelist and political dissident remembers the single sentence that changed everything at the moment of his arrest.

Ahmet Altan | translated from the Turkish by Yasemin Çongar | an excerpt adapted from I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer | Other Press | October 2019 | 9 minutes (2,482 words)

 

The following essay, like all those collected in I Will Never See the World Again, was smuggled out of jail among Ahmet Altan’s notes to his lawyers.

 

I woke up. The doorbell was ringing. I looked at the digital clock by my side, the numbers were blinking 05:42.

“It’s the police,” I said.

Like all dissidents in this country, I went to bed expecting the ring of the doorbell at dawn.

I knew one day they would come for me. Now they had.

I had even prepared a set of clothes in an overnight bag so that I would be ready for the police raid and what would follow.

A pair of loose black linen trousers tied with a band inside the waist so there would be no need for a belt, black ankle socks, comfortable soft trainers, a light cotton T-shirt and a dark-colored shirt to be worn over it.

I put on my “raid uniform” and went to the door.

Through the peephole I could see six policemen on the landing, sporting the vests worn by counterterrorism teams during house raids, the acronym “TEM” stamped in large letters on their chests.

I opened the door.

“These are search and arrest orders,” they said as they entered, leaving the door open.

They told me there was a second arrest order for my brother Mehmet Altan, who lived in the same building. A team had waited at his door, but no one had answered.

When I asked which number apartment they had gone to, it turned out they had rung the wrong bell.

I phoned Mehmet.

“We have guests,” I said. “Open the door.”

As I hung up, one of the policemen reached for my phone. “I’ll have that,” he said, and took it.

The six spread out into the apartment and began their search.

Dawn arrived. The sun rose behind the hills with its rays spreading purple, scarlet and lavender waves across the sky, resembling a white rose petal opening.

A peaceful September morning was stirring, unaware of what was happening inside my home.

While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on.

“Would you like some tea?” I asked.

They said they would not.

“It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.”

Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father.

My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.”

What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead.

Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning.

During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.

Mehmet appeared at the open door with the smile on his face I always find reassuring. He was surrounded by policemen.

We said farewell. The police took Mehmet away.

My two high walls were built with a single sentence.

I poured myself tea. I put muesli in a bowl and poured milk over it. I sat in an armchair to drink my tea, eat my muesli and wait for the police to complete their search.

The apartment was quiet.

No sound could be heard other than the police as they moved things around.

They filled thick plastic bags with the two decades-old laptops I had written some of my novels on and therefore could not bring myself to throw away, old-fashioned diskettes that had accumulated over the years and my current laptop.

“Let’s go,” they said.

I took the bag, to which I had added a change of underwear and a couple of books.

We left the building. We got into the police car that was waiting at the gate.

I sat with my bag on my lap. The door closed on me.

It is said that the dead do not know that they are dead. According to Anatolian mythology, once the corpse is placed in the grave and covered with dirt and the funeral crowd has begun to disperse, the dead person also tries to get up and go home, only to realize when he hits his head on the coffin lid that he has died.

When the door closed, my head hit the coffin lid.

I could not open the door of that car and get out.

I could not return home.

Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends, walk the streets. I would not have my room to write in, my machine to write with, my library to reach for. I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze on the sea or an orange tree or smell the scent of flowers, the grass, the rain, the earth. I would not be able to go to a cinema. I would not be able to eat eggs with sausage or drink a glass of wine or go to a restaurant and order fish. I would not be able to watch the sunrise. I would not be able to call anyone on the phone. No one would be able to call me on the phone. I would not be able to open a door by myself. I would not wake up again in a room with curtains.

Even my name was about to change.

Ahmet Altan would be erased and replaced with the name on the official certificate, Ahmet Hüsrev Altan.

When they asked for my name, I would say “Ahmet Hüsrev Altan.” When they asked where I lived, I would give them the number of a cell.

From now on, others would decide what I did, where I stood, where I slept, what time I got up, what my name was.

I would always be receiving orders: “stop,” “walk,” “enter,” “raise your arms,” “take off your shoes,” “don’t talk.”


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The police car was speeding along.

It was the first day of a twelve-day religious holiday. Most people in the city, including the prosecutor who had ordered my arrest, had left on vacation.

The streets were deserted.

The policeman next to me lit a cigarette, then held the packet out to me.

I shook my head no, smiling.

“I only smoke,” I said, “when I am nervous.”

Who knows where this sentence came from. Nowhere in my mind had I chosen to make such a declaration. It was a sentence that put an unbridgeable distance between itself and reality. It ignored reality, ridiculed it, even as I was being transformed into a pitiful bug who could not even open the door of the car he was in, who had lost his right to decide his own future, whose very name was being changed; a bug entangled in the web of a poisonous spider.

It was as if someone inside me, a person whom I could not exactly call “I” but who nevertheless spoke with my voice, through my mouth, and who was therefore a part of me, said as he was being transported in a police car to an iron cage that he only smoked when he was “nervous.”

That single sentence suddenly changed everything.

It divided reality in two, like a Samurai sword that in a single movement cuts through a silk scarf thrown up in the air.

On one side of this reality was a body made of flesh, bone, blood, muscle and nerve that was trapped. On the other side was a mind that did not care about that body and made fun of what would happen to it, a mind that looked from above at what was happening and at what was yet to happen, that believed itself untouchable and that was, therefore, untouchable.

I was like Julius Caesar, who, as soon as he was informed that a large Gallic army was on its way to relieve the besieged occupants of Alesia, had two high walls built — one around the castle to prevent those inside from leaving, and one around his troops to prevent those outside from entering.

My two high walls were built with a single sentence which prevented the mortal threats from entering and the worries accumulating in the deep corners of my mind from exiting, so that the two could not unite to crush me with fear and terror.

Reality itself is taken aback.

I realized once more that when you are faced with a reality that can turn your life upside down, that same sorry reality will sweep you away like a wild flood only if you submit to it and act as it expects you to.

As someone who has been thrown into the dirty, swelling waves of reality, I can say with certainty that its victims are those so-called smart people who believe that you have to act in accordance with it.

There are certain actions and words that are demanded by the events, the dangers and the realities that surround you. Once you refuse to play this assigned role, instead doing and saying the unexpected, reality itself is taken aback; it hits against the rebellious jetties of your mind and breaks into pieces. You then gain the power to collect the fragments together and create from them a new reality in the mind’s safe harbor.

The trick is to do the unexpected, to say the unexpected. Once you can make light of the lance of destiny pointing at your body, you can cheerfully eat the cherries you had filled your hat with, like the unforgettable lieutenant in Pushkin’s story “The Shot” who does exactly that with a gun pointing at his heart.

Like Borges, you can answer the mugger who demands, “Your money or your life,” with, “My life.”

The power you will gain is limitless.

I still don’t know how I came to utter the sentence that transformed everything that was happening to me and my perception of it, nor what its mystical source might be. What I do know is that someone in the police car, the person who was able to say he smoked only when he was nervous, is hidden inside me.

He is made of many voices, laughs, paragraphs, sentences and pain.

Had I not seen my father smile as he was taken away in a police car forty-five years ago; had I not heard from him that the envoy of Carthage, when threatened with torture, put his hand in the embers; had I not known that Seneca consoled his friends as he sat in a bath full of hot water and slit his wrists on Nero’s orders; had I not read that, on the eve of the day he was to be guillotined, Saint-Just had written in a letter that the conditions were difficult only for those who resisted entering the grave and that Epictetus had said when our bodies are enslaved our minds can remain free; had I not learned that Boethius wrote his famous book in a cell awaiting death, I would have been afraid of the reality that surrounded me in that police car. I would not have found the strength to ridicule it and shred it to pieces. Nor would I have been able to utter the sentence with secret laughter that rose from my lungs to my lips. No, I would have cowered with anxiety.

But someone whom I reckon to be made from the illuminated shadows of those magnificent dead reflected in me spoke, and thus managed to change all that was happening.

Reality could not conquer me.

Instead, I conquered reality.

In that police car speeding down the sunlit streets, I set the bag that was on my lap onto the floor with a sense of ease, and leaned back.

When we arrived at the Security Department, the car drove through a very large gate at the entrance and started down a winding road. As we descended the slope there was less and less light and the darkness deepened.

At a turn in the road, the car stopped and we got out. We walked through a door into a large underground hall.

This was an underworld completely unknown to the people milling about above. It reeked of stone, sweat and damp. It tore from the world all those who passed through its dirty yellow walls, which resembled a forest of sulphur.

In the drab raw light of the naked lamps every face bore the wax dullness of death.

Plainclothes policemen waited to greet us creatures ripped from the world. Past them, a hallway led deeper inside. Piled at the base of the walls were plastic bags that looked like the shapeless belongings of the shipwrecked swept ashore.

The policemen removed the tie from around the waist of my trousers, together with my watch and my ID.

Here in depths without light, the police, with each of their gestures and words, carved us out of life like a rotten, maggot-laced chunk from a pear, severing us from the world of “the living.”

I followed a policeman into the hallway, dragging my feet in laceless shoes. He opened an iron door and we entered a narrow corridor where an oppressive heat grasped me like the claws of a wild beast.

A row of cells behind iron bars ran along the corridor. They were congested with people lying on the floor. With their beards growing long, their eyes tired, their feet bare and their bodies coated in sweat, the boundaries of their existence had melted and they had become a moving mass of flesh.

They stared at me with curiosity and unease.

The policeman put me in a cell and locked the door behind me.

I took off my shoes and lay down like the others. In that small cell filled with people, there was no room to stand.

In a matter of hours, I had traveled across five centuries to arrive at the dungeons of the Inquisition.

I smiled at the policeman who was standing outside my cell, watching me.

Viewed from outside, I was one old, white-bearded Ahmet Hüsrev Altan lying down in an airless, lightless iron cage.

But this was only the reality of those who locked me up. For myself, I had changed it.

I was the lieutenant happily eating cherries with a gun pointing at his heart. I was Borges telling the mugger to take his life. I was Caesar building walls around Alesia.

I only smoke when I’m nervous.

* * *

From I Will Never See the World Again, by Ahmet Altan, recently published by Other Press.

Ahmet Altan, born in 1950, is one of Turkey’s most important writers. In the purge following the failed coup in July 2016, Altan was sent to prison pending trial for giving “subliminal messages” in support of the coup. In February 2018 he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for attempting to overthrow the government. Fifty-one Nobel laureates have signed an open letter to President Erdogan calling for Altan’s release. Altan is the author of seven essay collections and ten novels.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky