'Ahmet Altan's life imprisonment sentence source of shame for Turkey'
Ahmet Ümit is a novelist, best known for his crime novels and his recurring character, chief inspector Nevzat. Ümit spoke to Ahval about his latest novel and shared his perspectives on the recent events taking place in Turkey and in the world.
Ahmet Ümit began by talking about his new book Kırlangıç Çığlığı [The swallow's cry] which delves into the question ‘what is hell other than a world that has lost its conscience?’ and narrates the story of a serial killer targeting child molesters.
“If there is one mission of a story teller, it is not to narrate the contemporary, but the human soul” says Ümit. “What I tried to tell is a bitter, vile problem. I try to explain three main subjects; organ smuggling, Syrian refugees, and child abuse.”
“What I want to bring up is human soul. When someone commits a murder, people try to see this person as someone not from their kin, through the words ‘murderer”, ‘deviant’. In the case of child abusers, we say ‘they are not human’. In fact, people who do such things are human beings” Umit notes.
For Ümit, as a novelist, his problem is understanding how a human being can do such a thing. The novelist walks us through his thought process:
“What I try to do through a string of events is to [ask]; how can a human being sexually abuse a child, why do we insult and discriminate Syrians, why do we tear and take other people’s organs? Through which emotions and how can a person do this? What kind of traumas do such acts create?”
Ümit thinks the answer to those questions lies on the fact that there is a problem in the definition of human. “We say humans are good and decent beings, say they do no harm, they are creative and not destructive. This is a lie. Humans are not absolutely evil, but also they are not absolutely good in nature,” the author explains.
Ümit believes, a society that is not selfish, but embraces a philosophy that takes into account others could solve those problems. He talks about the problem of widespread child molestation in Turkey, the lack of sexual education, and the social norms that puts barriers in front of talking about sex and adds:
“Everything is a taboo… We don’t talk about sexuality… There will be no human life without sex, we cannot sustain ourselves as species, but this subject is a taboo. Families do not provide their daughters and sons education on sex. They ban it, they are ashamed of it.”
According to Ümit, children should be taught that their bodies are private and intimate, that no-one should be allowed to touch them. Children should also be taught about sexual orientations and that those orientations are natural. Secondly, sex should not become a taboo and people should understand that perverts emerge when there are restrictions on sex and that sexuality that aggrandises masculinity will make nobody - men, women, bisexuals or homosexuals - happy. Beyond that, people should manage to empathise with others, feel their pain and know that they cannot be fully happy, when others are suffering.
“The basic problem losing our touch with humanism, from a life in nature. Because when your life is linked to nature, you will feel the need for other beings and that you don’t need to annihilate them,” says Ümit. “It is the same for societies. Brotherhood, coexistence, social unity are not possible when a group oppresses the other,” he adds.
Ümit than draws parallels between general problems and his novel:
“You know, we came to existence in wild nature, with other species. Then we created another nature and called it the culture of human beings. With this culture, we built our homes, our cities. We created what we call civilisation. We got distanced from our pure selves when doing that. Because, for our pure selves, when a wolf sees another wolf, it feels threatened and kills the other. We were like that. People were killing each other and did not regret that, because they needed to kill to stay alive. That was our pure selves.
Then we went beyond that, said you will not kill other men; if you are to kill another, do it when your country is in danger or when this person poses you harm and we turned this into an organisation. During our primitive times we killed other species to prevent starving, now we build slaughter houses and killing them massively. This is violence. Of course, I am not suggesting to return to primitivity, this is the understanding of a serial killer.”
He says that in his novel, through creating a serial killer, Körebe, that once was sexually abused, he wanted to question justice.
“What happens when we start to punish others ourselves? Here, one should understand Körebe correctly. I wanted to show how sexual abuse could effect a child, what it can lead to. It creates such trauma that the child becomes a serial killer.
And this brings us to another discussion. By killing 12 people, he manages to trivialize the issue, though we cannot say he gets his revenge. But does this solve the problem, does child abuse decrease? No. He just ends up killing 12 child molesters.”
Ümit also talks about the parallels between what is happening to Syrian refugees today and what happened to the Armenians before, comparing the two periods from his perspective.
“Now, not only in Turkey, but when we look at the whole world, we see that authoritarianism, selfishness, a rush to save the day rather than moral values is on the rise.
With Trump in power in America and Putin in Russia as well as Turkey being ruled by authoritarians, we see a push [by the people] to ensure survival by seeking shelter under strong figures, rather than [through] freedoms, decency, and coexistence,” he said.
“There is only one thing left now; to stay alive. All types of indecency emerges when people try to stay alive. Although it is wrong, one acts with the lynch-mob in order to avoid being lynched. This is degradation and immorality. This is espoused both in Turkey and in the world. This is not sustainable; people cannot live with that,” he adds.
The author holds that real life itself is a thriller. “Look what we have gone through in recent times, look at how July 15 was prepared, the process before it, it is like we are living inside a detective story… Political thriller, a thriller novel…,” in reference to the July 210 coup attempt in Turkey.
Umit notes that he wished to write a novel on the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, adding that there are also other subjects that worth writing on:
“There is the whole process. An evaluation of the last 15 years. Turkey went into a totally different direction in the last 15 years. First, there was the criticism of the Republic. The authoritarianism of the Republic was criticised, and it was partially true. Monolthism was criticised, it was partially true. Single party period was criticised, it was partially true. Now, all of them are being criticised even more intensively. One has to study this, but it is still early, a bit later…”
“The problem is to analyse the problem correctly and to do it without being affected from the political current,” he added, noting otherwise an artist would sacrifice literature and aesthetics. “You should be loyal to the human. If you stay loyal to the human, if you take human as your basis, you would not sacrifice aesthetics,” he added.
Ümit believes life itself is a contradiction and that the world will enter a stage of liberalisation as it happened right after fascism. “This period will go like that for some time, but than it will fail and a better period will arise after this failure. But we cannot leave this happen by itself,” he said. Ümit thinks both in Turkey and in the world, people should work for strengthening democracy, pluralism and struggle against all types of discrimination. “We need to build a culture that comes together under the flag of humanity, one which is both humanist and respectful to nature, one that is democratic, pluralist, and away from authoritarianism,” he explained.
Ümit also talks about the recent events in Turkey, journalists and authors being jailed, others feeling themselves under risk and choosing to live in exile. The author says the following on his sentiments on Turkey:
“When I was 14, when I started to understand things, I became acquainted with politics. For 34 years - first as a young citizen of Turkey than as a novelist, I have never felt myself free and happy in Turkey. This is a natural consequence of our failure to establish democracy.
Unfortunately, Ahmet Altan was charged with aggravated life imprisonment and sentenced. This is horrible… This is such a heavy penalty… The fact that an author is sentenced to such a heavy penalty, according to me is a source of shame, not for Ahmet Altan but for society as a whole. I remain worried, like many other authors.
But this is how I see it: I was born in this country, I became an author here and I should remain in this country and experience this process along with everybody else.
This period will end, sooner or later. I will do whatever I can to ensure that this process will transform into democratisation, that everybody living in Turkey become brothers and sisters again, that discrimination ends and people are not 'otherised' because of their political views, religion, language or sex.
I will do this the only way I know best: by writing. I believe in staying in the country and trying to do what you know best and to produce.”