Jailed writer Ahmet Altan wins German literary award

Ahmet Altan, who was re-arrested earlier this month days after being released from a three-year-long detention in jail, received this year’s Geschwister-Scholl Prize. Altan sent an acceptance message to the ceremony held in Munich

25 Kasım 2019 23:30

Jailed Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan has been awarded the prestigious Geschwister-Scholl Prize for his essay collection I Will Never See the World Again. The novelist, who was released after spending more than three years in prison on trumped-up charges on 4 November was re-arrested a week later sparking a wide public outcry.

Altan, who couldn’t attend the ceremony held in Munich on 25 November, sent an acceptance letter from the Silivri Prison near Istanbul where he remains behind bars. The Geschwister-Scholl Preis is awarded annually in memory and honor of Sophie and Hans Scholl, who founded the non-violent White Rose student movement of resistance against the Nazis.

You can read Ahmet Altan’s full acceptance speech below with the author’s permission, as translated into English and read at the award ceremony by Yasemin Çongar:

There must be something in a person’s life that is more precious than their own life. Something so precious that it is worth surrendering life itself. For eons, humankind has been flowing in an infinity that is as dark as a winter night. In that darkness, we do not notice individuals who quietly pass away. Only those who carry something in their lives, something that is so precious that they would surrender their life for it, shine a light in the darkness, become visible and illuminate those who could not be seen.

Birth is a miracle, a living thing emerges from within another and so begins life. Death is glorious given its immunity, its immutability and its magnificent enigma that can never be solved. Life itself however is no match for the miracle at its beginning and the glory at its end, it is nothing but an ordinary and drab repetition. Until you bring to it something that is more precious than itself, life is no more than an endless and banal bit of repetition.

People, following an instinct common to all living things, believe that the most important yardstick is to survive, to keep on living no matter what. Most people live with this instinct and consider protecting their life and interests to be the most sensible thing. So, they eventually die and, along with millions of others, become part of the void.

Flowing helplessly toward the void in an infinite darkness alongside a murky crowd is scary and it is the fear that creates cruelty. Those who cannot produce light from within their own lives become the enemy of light because light does not become them. This animosity seems like a way out, they embrace each other in the dark and let the hatred they feel for those who aren’t like them become the basis for their existence.

I suppose this fear and this animosity are at the foundation of the wave of racism and nationalism that has taken hold of the world today. Hate and killing provide a remedy for death.

People who have caught the malady of nationalism and racism try to feed themselves on humankind like self-devouring animals. They are unable to grasp that killing another part of humankind is akin to killing themselves.

On a planet in a remote lonesome corner of a borderless universe, people with such short life spans somehow become self-important and strive to outflank each other and this brings upon them a collective calamity. As we keep flowing in the dark toward the void, the hatred inside us only makes the darkness even more inane.

I have to confess that sometimes I feel like an angry child who wants to shout out loud: “We are all going to die!” If the births stopped today, this strange planet will become empty and free of humans in ninety years or so. What is it, if not sheer idiocy, that such helpless beings keep claiming they are superior to  others?

The creation of humankind was a bit of a rush job, we’re creatures with many conflicting emotions shoved inside us. Like compassion and hatred, like goodness and evil, wit and folly too reside within the same structure.

Nationalism is a deadly disease — an intense mix of hatred, evil and folly. Compassion, goodness and wit should provide the antidote to this malady, they should rid nationalism of its mask of sanctity and demonstrate its ugliness.

Today humanity is stained once again by the flags, marches, weapons and tyranny of racism and nationalism, and it is high time we say it loud and clear for everyone to hear that our common interest lies in coming together and not in drifting apart.

No one’s adventure here will have a happy ending, because sooner or later we all die. What good is it to fill an already meaningless life that is doomed to end sadly with hatred so that it becomes even more meaningless and sad?

If we don’t say now that no good will come of this, when will we ever say it? If we don’t say it, who will?

Don’t we see that we have a “happy obligation” to bring something into our life that is more precious than the life we each have, by standing up for people’s common interest, by fighting for it, by telling the truth?

Let us never forget that when death comes it will render meaningless, all the desire, the rage, all of our ambitions and quarrels from this short time on earth that we call life. Even worse, they will all seem ridiculous.

There are very few lives that haven’t been stripped of meaning by death. Only the lives led by those who let into their lives something more precious than their lives don’t submit to the glory of death and cannot be ridiculed by it.

You are gathered here today on the occasion of a prize given in the name of two young people who put up the resistance against racism; two youngsters whom death cannot ridicule because they had something in their lives that is more precious than life. 

The Scholl siblings deemed it worth more than their own lives to save others, to stop the cruelty against them, to bring an end to the terrifying injustice, to stand up against the tyranny of racism. They put their lives at stake to achieve that.

They resisted weapons and oppression by writing. They set an example for today. Their words were enough to frighten a bloody tyrant who had rockets, artillery, tanks and bombs.

These two young people demonstrated not only how life can indeed resist being crushed by death but also that writing can provide a meaningful way of resistance and living. 

When I heard that you had deemed my book worthy of a prize given in the name of these two siblings I was in a prison cell. I am writing this speech also in prison and that is why I cannot be with you tonight.

This prize has lent me some of the strength of these two extraordinary people and has increased my ability to resist the walls that surround me. I trust that their memory will also increase your ability to resist nationalism.

Thank you all very much for allowing me to become a part of these two lives that did not disappear with death.

You have shown me once again that writing is mightier than tyranny.