The tyranny of space: interviews with Ahmet Altan and Ahmet Turan Alkan

Ahmet Altan and Ahmet Turan Alkan are among more than 180 journalists and writers currently in prison in Turkey, according to the latest figures from the freedom of expression group P24.

Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s best-selling authors, is serving a life sentence, along with his brother the economist Mehmet Altan, that has been widely condemned as based on bogus charges. He currently appealing his sentence. Ahmet Altan has written a book of essays in prison due to be published in Germany, Spain and Norway this autumn, with English editions also planned. The first essay Altan wrote in prison was published by English PEN, in partnership with the Society of Authors.

Ahmet Turan Alkan has been in pre-trial detention for almost two years, facing charges that include attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. He was a columnist with Zaman, a publication that has been closed down and was affiliated with the Gülen movement. The charges against both are considered to be politically motivated, as part of an ongoing crackdown against freedom of expression in Turkey.  He has written three books in prison, including a novel about right-wing politics in Turkey.

Jo Glanville interviewed them both for the Guardian, by sending written questions to them in prison. The interviews are published in full below.

Ahmet Altan

Can you describe the circumstances in which you’re writing? Where and when do you write? How difficult is it to do in a cell with two other men?

We have a white plastic square table that is one metre on each side. When we don’t pace the courtyard we sit at this table. Most of our lives is spent in the plastic chairs around this table. I write on this table, using a ballpoint pen. I start writing once the words have been shaped in my mind; sometimes I write for eight, nine hours. I have to take a break at meal times. While I write my cellmates usually watch TV. Of course every writer wants to write in a peaceful and quiet place. This is not a luxury I have at this moment. But once I start writing my connection to what goes on around me is gradually broken. I don’t hear the sounds. I don’t notice the movements. I dive into my writing, I forget where I am. Of course, the dining table in a cell is not the most convenient place to write, but in my case, complaining about the conditions is not meaningful.

What is most important to you in the act of writing in prison? Has it affected the kind of subjects you are writing about or even the way you write?

This is how my father described happiness in an essay: ‘Happiness is to forget time.’ And in another essay, he described the prison as such: ‘The prison constantly reminds one of time.’ I forget about time when I write. I also forget about space.

Time with its unstoppable movement that defies human will is the greatest tyrant in our lives. You know that it erases the contours of your existence, that it drags you into nothingness and that some day your image will disappear altogether. This fact becomes ever so palpable in the prison. My only weapon against this tyranny is writing. As I write I not only forget the tyranny of time but also feel satisfied with the sense that I am doing something that time cannot erase. Time can erase the writer, but it cannot erase the written word. Even if it erases what I write, it won’t be able to erase what someone else has been writing. To feel that I am part of a great power that resists tyranny gives me strength in this small cell.

The prison, on the other hand, represents the tyranny of space. Writing helps me to forget the tyranny of space also, it helps me to tear down the walls.

I am able to resist both tyrannies by writing.

The prison determined the subject of my latest book. It is a collection of essays. It will come out in the autumn and is about what I have been through in police custody and in prison.

Your writing is reaching an international audience, perhaps before it reaches Turkey. Where is it most important for you to be heard?

For the first time in my life, a book I have written will be published in other languages before it is published in Turkish. This is a new situation for me.

A writer’s adventure with writing oscillates like a pendulum between two words. While writing you don’t think of ‘anyone,’ once you’re done writing you want ‘everyone’ to read what you wrote. I, too, want everyone to read what I wrote, I want the whole world to hear my voice. Of course, I want my own country to hear my voice, too, but it looks like this won’t be possible for a while.

When speaking out is a dangerous business in Turkey and there is little space for independent journalism, how do you think writers and journalists (inside and outside prison) can best respond?

One doesn’t need to tell anyone how they should respond, everyone knows how it should be done. Some do the right thing, some don’t. Those who don’t do the right thing act that way not because they don’t know how to respond, but because they simply don’t want to.

What is the subject of the novel you are writing?

I would like to write about a happy woman. In literature, happiness never has the excitement and attractiveness of unhappiness. That is why happy protagonists are almost non-existent compared to unhappy ones. Can a happy woman sustain her happiness, how long can she remain happy? Can the story of a happy person be told in an attractive and exciting way? I would like to try to find the answers to these questions.

Ahmet Turan Alkan

I understand that you have written a novel in prison. What is the subject?

Yes, I wrote a novel while in prison. It’s called Sağ Yanım (My Right Side). In a nutshell, it is an encounter between me and Turkey’s right-wing politics through imaginary characters. It is a confrontation with the constituents of ‘the right wing’: nationalism, conservatism in its old and new forms, politicised Islam (or Islamism), right-wing delusions, myths, or to put it more precisely, with the [right wing’s] perception and knowledge of history. Had I not been in prison this confrontation would have been more documental, perhaps in the style of an essay, but the trouble I faced in getting my hands on books and other source material pushed me towards the more permissive and impassioned realm of the novel.

How far is the novel shaped by your recent experiences?

I would say almost completely. We could speak of a major literary tradition in Turkey that exclusively delves into the right wing, but this, I mean, my book, looks at the matter at hand ‘from the inside’. I tried to face up to everything that I had been through, more importantly — and sadly — everything that I once believed in, and fought for, for many years. My novel became the product of some sort of catharsis, a thought treatment, if you will. Inevitably, some of what I had been through got reflected in my novel — just like every novelist experiences one way or another. But this surely did not amount to an autobiography.

Why did you decide to write a novel rather than non-fiction?

For many years, I wrote essays — and several thousand newspaper columns in the meantime. I have always felt some longing towards other literary styles, particularly the novel. When I was ‘outside’, despite my desire of writing a novel, I never managed to come up with one, but behind bars, I had no other option but write a novel because of the reasons I mentioned. Of course, calling what I wrote a ‘novel’ is a highly subjective claim, for up until now, no one has read my text from

start to end, and it is still in the form of a manuscript. Therefore I cannot be too assertive about the literary aspect of my book, but at least I can say that each of the smaller stories that make up the larger story is true and honest.

How far have your experiences affected the subject of your writing and your approach as a writer?

The prison is not an ideal place in which to write, for returning to pen and paper for someone who has gotten used to writing on a keyboard ever since the Macintosh Plus came out poses enormous pains in arranging the flow of one’s ideas. Furthermore, I paid extreme attention to not include anything from my experience behind bars in this book. I never really liked prison literature anyway, and I have no intentions of being a part of it. I would like to invite my potential readers to try and be aware of the beautiful things in life through my writing, not mentally place them inside a prison. The other two books I also wrote while in prison are exactly in that manner: the first one is a weird autobiography in which I make fun of my passion for hobbies — an ‘autohobbyographie’, if you will — and the second one is my attempt at writing a romance novel called “Küçük Abla” (Little Sister), which slightly delves into Turkey’s Armenian issue in its backdrop.

Do you have a publisher for the novel?

No, I do not have a publisher yet. For some reason, my old publisher, which published and distributed all my previous books, has not even once contacted me in two years! It’s not a big deal though. What mattered [during my time in prison] was being able to write and this way prevent my ‘internal bleeding’, and I believe I’ve managed to do that.

With thanks to Yasemin Çongar for her generous assistance and to the Guardian for permission to publish the interviews in full. The Guardian article ‘Inside stories: Turkey’s grim tradition of publishing behind bars‘ may read on the Guardian website.

From The Guardian, 23 June 2018

Richard Beard, Maggie O’Farrell & Victoria Whitworth shortlisted for PEN Ackerley Prize 2018

English PEN is pleased to announce the shortlist for the PEN Ackerley Prize 2018 for memoir and autobiography.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Richard Beard, The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker)
  • Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am  (Tinder Press)
  • Victoria Whitworth, Swimming with Seals (Head of Zeus)

The PEN Ackerley Prize was established in memory of Joe Randolph Ackerley (1896-1967), the author and long-time literary editor of The Listener magazine. The prize is awarded annually to a literary autobiography of outstanding merit, written by an author of British nationality and published in the UK in the previous year. The PEN Ackerley prize is judged by biographer and historian Peter Parker (chair), writer and painter Colin Spencer, author Georgina Hammick and writer and critic Claire Harman.  The winner receives a cheque for £3,000.

Peter Parker, chair of judges said:

An unusually large number of British memoirs and autobiographies seem to have been published in 2017, and the judges called in fifty of them – more than we have ever called in before. These included books by both well-known and first-time authors, and they told a multitude of stories, though a surprising number of them were about the writer’s relationship with water.

We gradually reduced this tottering pile to a long list of eight titles, and eventually arrived at a shortlist of three very different but wholly involving and beautifully written autobiographies. We congratulate the authors and hope their books will achieve the wide readership they deserve.

The winner will be announced on Tuesday 10 July  at a special prize event at Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA.

Book tickets now

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2018

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was chosen by this year’s judges: President of English PEN Philippe Sands; historian, biographer and widow of Harold Pinter Antonia Fraser; writer and critic Alex Clark; poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams, and Chair of Judges and Chair of trustees for English PEN Maureen Freely.

Maureen Freely said:

In this age of the privatised, marketised self, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the exception who defies the rule.  In her gorgeous fictions, but just as much in her TED talks and essays, she refuses to be deterred or detained by the categories of others.  Sophisticated beyond measure in her understanding of gender, race, and global inequality, she guides us through the revolving doors of identity politics, liberating us all.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comments:

I admired Harold Pinter’s talent, his courage, his lucid dedication to telling his truth, and I am honoured to be given an award in his name.

The PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 by the charity English PEN, which defends freedom of expression and promotes literature, in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter. The prize is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit from Britain, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

Antonia Fraser said:

I greet the tenth award of the PEN Pinter Prize with great enthusiasm. Not only is Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie a brilliant, compelling writer but she embodies in herself those qualities of courage and outspokenness which Harold much admired.

Antonia Byatt, Director of English PEN, said:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing and activism has travelled across so many frontiers showing us what is important in the world. She is a very worthy winner of this extraordinary prize.

During the event, Chimamanda will announce her co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2018, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN. The recipient will be an international writer who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty. The PEN Pinter Prize 2017 was awarded to poet Michael Longley, who shared the prize with Iranian poet Mahvash Sabet.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the prize, in addition to the annual pamphlet containing this year’s lecture, Faber & Faber, with the support of the Pinter Estate, will be privately printing a limited edition anthology of the ten PEN Pinter Prize lectures. Both will be available to the audience at the event. Tickets on sale soon at

Former winners of the PEN Pinter Prize are: Michael Longley (2017), Margaret Atwood (2016), James Fenton (2015), Salman Rushdie (2014), Tom Stoppard (2013), Carol Ann Duffy (2012), David Hare (2011), Hanif Kureishi (2010) and Tony Harrison (2009).  Former International Writers of Courage have been: Mahvash Sabet (2017), Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury a.k.a.Tutul (2016), Raif Badawi (2015), Mazen Darwish (2014), Iryna Khalip (2013), Samar Yazbek (2012), Roberto Saviano (2011), Lydia Cacho (2010) and Zarganar (Maung Thura) (2009).

Photo credit: Wani Olatunde

Egypt: PEN publishes new work by imprisoned poet Galal El Behairy

Poet Galal El-Behairy was arrested in Egypt on 3 March 2018. He was held incommunicado for a week before appearing before the High State Security on 10 March, showing signs of severe torture. The High State Security Prosecution subsequently ordered for him to undergo a forensic medical examination: the findings of the examination have not been made public, nor shared with his lawyer.

More than three months later, El-Behairy remains in detention, facing charges in both the Military Court and the High State Security Court. The charges are believed to relate to his latest book of poetry ‘The Finest Women on Earth’, published earlier this year. El-Behairy is also under investigation in relation to lyrics he wrote for artist Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’, which criticises Egyptian government policies. Following the release of the song and music video on 26 February and prior to El-Behairy’s arrest, both he and Essam became victims of a smear campaign led by pro-government media.

On 6 May, El-Behairy attended a trial in the Military Court where he was informed that the verdict in relation to his book of poetry would be handed down three days later, on 9 May. The verdict was later postponed until 16 May, and is now expected on 27 June, El-Behairy’s birthday.

PEN believes that El-Behairy is being held in violation of his right to freedom of expression and urges the Egyptian authorities to release him and the many other writers and activists unlawfully detained in Egypt immediately and unconditionally.

To draw further international attention to his case ahead of the expected verdict, PEN centres – Danish PEN, English PEN, Finnish PEN, French PEN, German PEN, Norwegian PEN, PEN America, Swedish PEN – and our colleagues at Arablit and Artists at Risk are coming together to publish a new poem that El-Behairy has written while in detention, and to continue calls for his release.

Read Galal El-Behairy’s ‘A letter from Tora Prison’


Spread the word
Join us in sharing Galal’s piece, details of his case and calls to action on social media. If possible, please join the Twitterstorm from 1pm on Saturday 9 June. #FreeGalal

Sign the petition
Add your support to the petition for Galal’s release

For further background information, please see PEN’s open letter to the Egyptian authorities

A Letter from Tora Prison, Cairo: Galal El-Behairy



You, something
in the heart, unspoken,
in the throat, the last wish
of a man on the gallows
when the hour of hanging comes,
the great need
for oblivion; you, prison
and death, free of charge;
you, the truest meaning of man,
the word ‘no’—
I kiss your hand
and, preparing for the trial,
put on a suit and pray
for your Eid to come.
I’m the one
who escaped from the Mamluks,
I’m the child
whose father’s name is Zahran,
and I swim in your name, addiction.
I’m the companion of outlawed poets.
O my oblivion, I’m the clay
that precedes the law of concrete.

In the heart of this night
I own nothing
but my smile.
I take my country in my arms
and talk to her
about all the prisoners’ lives… out there
beyond the prison’s borders,
beyond the jailer’s grasp,
and about man’s need… for his fellow man,
about a dream
that was licit
and possible,
about a burden
that could be borne
if everyone took part in it.

I laugh at a song
they call ‘criminal,’
which provoked them
to erect a hundred barricades.
On our account, they block out the sun
and the thoughts in the head.
They want to hide the past
behind locks and bolts,
preventing him from whispering
about how things once were.
They want to hide him
by appointing guards—
weak-minded foreigners
estranged from the people.
But what wonder is this?
His fate is written
in all the prison cells.
His cell has neither bricks
nor steel,
and he was not defeated
within it.
Outside… a squadron of slaves.
Inside… a crucified messiah.
The thorns above his brow
are witnesses: You betrayed his revolution
with your own hands.
With shame in your eyes, you
are the Judases of the past,
whatever your religion, whatever
miniscule vision you have.
We’ve come back
and we see you.

You who imprisoned
the light, that naked groaning.
The light doesn’t care
how tall the fence is;
it’s not hemmed in
by steel bars
or officers’ uniforms.
It cannot be forgotten.
You can take a public square away from us,
but there are thousands and thousands of others,
and I’ll be there, waiting for you.
Our land will not betray us.
With each olive branch
we’re weaving your shrouds.
And the young man you killed
has come back, awake now
and angry.
He’s got a bone to pick
with his killer.
He’s got a bone to pick
with the one who betrayed him,
the one who, on that night of hope,
acquiesced, fell silent, and slept.
His wound has healed; he’s come back,
a knight
without a bridle;
he’s setting up the trial
while an imam prays among us
and illumines the one who was blind;
he’s rolling up his sleeves, preparing
for a fight;
he was killed—yes, it’s true—and yet
he has his role in this epic;
he stands there now
and holds his ground.

We’ve returned
to call on God
and proclaim it: ‘We’ve come back,
come back
hand in hand.’
Again we proclaim it: ‘We’ve come back,
and we vow
to spread the light,
the new dawn,
the keen-sighted conscience.’
We’ve come back, and we can smell
the fear in in your veins;
and our cheers tonight
are the sweetest of all:
‘We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.’

We saw a country
rise from sleep
to trample a pharaoh
and cleanse the age
of the cane and cudgel.
We saw a country sing:
those were no slave songs,
no harbingers of doom, rather
songs fitting
for a new kind of steel.
We saw it.
We saw a country
where no one is oppressed.


Translated from Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Due to the potential for political repercussions against himself and his family, the translator of this poem has chosen to remain anonymous.

Read more about Galal El-Behairy and take action