A prisoner’s freedom, a society’s captivity

Writer and human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey served almost four years in a Turkish prison without trial. Once released, he saw the world with new eyes – and noted how the limits of freedom of speech had shifted in Turkey during the period of his imprisonment.

October 13 2015 Text: Muharrem Erbey Translation from Turkish: Alev Yaman

On 14 April 2014, when I was released after four years, four months and twenty days in jail, I was able to embrace my wife and children. I cannot explain what freely embracing them made me feel. When I got out, I saw that people were experiencing more economic hardship, that they were becoming more isolated, that they were running around ceaselessly, that they were trying to live at an ever faster pace than before. I saw the world spinning quickly, ceaselessly. My partner at the legal bureau swindled me. All my cases, my legal dossiers fell through. My family life, my work had become a mess. My house had changed, my bureau had changed. I was greatly demoralised. It was right at this point that I received good news from Sweden that restored my spirits. I had been awarded Swedish PEN’s 2014 Tucholsky Award. The trip I made to Sweden with my family and the award ceremony I attended there was an honour. Very fine people in Sweden have always supported me. Swedish PEN, the Swedish Parliament, Lawyers Without Borders, Kurdish friends, writer friends and activist friends always supported me. I will never forget them. I wrote a novel inside. My novel’s name is The Fortress of Sinners. The chief protagonists of the novel are called Amina and Jacop. Both are Swedish parliamentarian friends of mine who always wrote me letters. My writer friend Fırat Ceweri never abandoned me either.

Jail was like a veritable hermitage for me. I read a lot there, I plunged into contemplative study. I reassessed myself and life; I questioned myself, my life. As you know, a life unquestioned is no life at all. There, there was a life that flowed slowly, a life that I grew to enjoy. Nothing was consumed quickly. Slowly I discussed everything, slowly I decided everything, and slowly I put everything into practice. I seized the chance to look at the stars, to watch the flying bees, to stop at the sound of crickets, and bear witness to the miracles of nature. I would have been a lesser person had I never experienced it.

It was forbidden to grow flowers, to make contact with the soil. We looked at the sky over the seven-metre high wall of the ventilation unit. Seeds brought by the wind had settled in the fissured cracks of the concrete wall; dust and debris from the wind had filled the fissures up; and forbidden flowers had blossomed there, watered by the falling rain. Under no circumstances does nature recognise man’s prohibitions. You can forbid it all you want, it will find a way to bring itself into being.

One day we were sitting in the sunshine in the garden. On the plastic table there was a plastic tablecloth covered in floral print. A bee came and tried to gather pollen from the flowers on the tablecloth. However, try as it might, it could not gather any. Insistently, it could not give up on the plastic tablecloth. It tried for a long time. When it looked it saw a colourful flower but when it came to gathering pollen it could not succeed. It eventually flew away, unable to give any meaning to why it had failed. It had been conditioned to live in a world where the trees, the flowers and the forest were alive and real. The bee was a stranger to a world where an imitation of everything was made. We have made an imitation of everything. Imitations of relationships, of friendships, of nature have multiplied rapidly. After a while the imitations began to take the place of the real, to make us swallow the fake messages telling us that it was they who were real.

Outside, people work like servants to the objects and things that they own. Inside, I owned a few things and I was very happy. Because they did not distract me. I had a bed, books, a small radio, some pens, some notebooks and a washbowl in which I washed clothes. We had a few spoons, plates, cups and pieces of clothing and a multipurpose samovar in which we heated water to make tea, to bathe, to make dinner and to wash our clothes. Things existed to serve us. Whereas on the outside, there is no meaning to the race that people continue running in order to own more things and more objects for them to serve.

I also saw that people had grown more selfish on the outside. I saw that friends who could absorb your pain, blow away your concerns, listen to you, and tell you, ‘you’re not well,’ just by looking at your face when you tell them, ‘I’m fine,’ had decreased. The world was increasingly drifting away from the traditions, customs, and rituals of old that we had once been taught. A material-centric life has rapidly encircled us from all quarters and our solitude is increasing. Most of all, the new life tells you to be solitary in crowds and to grow used to this. To keep yourself isolated when amongst many people is akin to counterfeit alienation. There is an unseen billboard in every person’s chest. There, it writes, ‘value me.’ The people of old possessed eyes that could read these billboards, whereas now, man’s eyes have become blind. The eyes of the young are set on the android telephones that they never let go of, caught up in their haste to stay in contact with this young world that never acknowledges anyone standing next to it..They have terminated any opportunity to listen to the people next to them, to the sound of flying birds, or to the rhythms of nature with the earphones they have plugged in their ears. Ears have surrendered to a volume that paralyzes the brain. By shrinking an immense world with smart devices, we have created our own communicationless world and unwittingly manufactured our own end. Civilization is working in reverse; it is manufacturing the end of humans and humanity. We are drifting away from nature and that which is natural. We have grown alien to the growth of a sapling in spring, the opening of buds on trees, the existence of birds, cats and bugs, occupying ourselves instead with their colourful avatars in the digital world. We need a spiritual and digital detox.

People alien to everything, who are distant from themselves, are multiplying. In this world in which we are aliens, the things presented to us alienate us from ourselves more than anything. On the outside, I came across a despotic understanding of politics. I saw that people were being scolded every day by the dominant political authority. Whereas the code to the future was sharing. A political understanding that aims to destroy the great cultures of Anatolia and Mesopotamia is governing in Turkey. Whereas an order where differences are met convivially, without injuring the people’s laws of fraternity is possible. In Anatolia we are Turkish, Alevi, Roma, Yazidi, Syriac, Kurdish, Jewish, Arabian, Persian and Armenian. In other words we are all different and yet, despite being equal, efforts to make us uniform or homogenous somehow never end. Of course our sincere, heartfelt cries for peace will quiet their dark, soulless roar for war! Peace will come! We will all live as brothers. Since 1923, when modern Turkey was founded, every conceivable variant of citizen has been subjected to assimilation and pacification! During this time, people have lost their ethnic, religious and sexual identity by force!

The deaths have started again these days. The peace table has been toppled because the governing party’s share of the vote dropped. Silence was wanted of people. Tools that vomit death began to speak again. Civilians, old people, children, and all living things in nature began to die. At the same time, the prime minister said that their votes were rising, that their efforts were bearing fruit. A day or two after the prime minister, who cannot hear the pain of mothers lamenting their dead, said, ‘look, you can lament in Kurdish, what more do you want,’ 15 TV channels that could broadcast in Kurdish were shut down. In reality, it comes down to saying this to the Kurds: ‘I said that you could make lamentations in Kurdish, not that you could watch television channels that broadcast in Kurdish.’

There is a beautiful saying, ‘Don’t forget, if you can feel pain you are alive, but if you can feel someone else’s pain you are a human.’ For years, ears from all quarters were deaf to our pain in Kurdistan in Diyarbakır, Şırnak, Kobane, Cizre and Rojava. Thousands of refugees fled their homes in Syria. No-one heard. All the way until images of a three-year-old boy named Alan’s body washing up on the shore made its way into the press. It was praiseworthy when the Christian world opened its arms, even if only in part, to Muslim refugees fleeing the war, despite the fact that many neighbouring Muslim nations had closed their borders to them. We would have liked to have heard a response like, ‘let a family settle in every mosque,’ from Turkey’s President of Religious Affairs to the Pope’s call to ‘let a family settle in every church.’ As I said at the beginning, the world has changed a lot. Who is whose friend, who is whose enemy has become meaningless in the new world!

As a partner, father, writer and peace activist who tries to get used to everything, I suddenly saw that I was so far from myself, such a trap for myself. Whereas in a state governed by the rule of law there should be conscientiousness rather than moral misinformation. For days, a child killed in the district of Cizre was tucked away in a refrigerator.[1] It is not possible to forget this pain.

During this period the Council of Europe’s request, ‘to conduct an observation in Cizre,’ was rejected. The Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe, Nils Muiznieks, said that in order for the military operations to be proportionate/legal, authorities/courts needed to carefully observe what was happening. Just think about it: the Interior Minister from the AKP[2] banned the EU Minister from the HDP[3] from entering Cizre. I told them that the EU Minister should ban the Interior Minister from entering the EU. They didn’t listen to me.

Those that fell victim to extrajudicial killings in the 1990s were always buried in secluded and deep ditches. Whereas in Cizre in 2015 our children who were shot by snipers had to be preserved in refrigerators. Our bodies have always been hidden away in the deep, you understand. No-one saw the deaths or heard about them. For 90 years we have tried to prove the existence of the Kurd: whereas now, in 2015, we are trying to prove that Kurdish children are dying in Kurdistan!

Alright, before it was forbidden to go up to the mountains.[4] Later, protesting for your rights on the street, sitting on the street as an act of civil disobedience, and now even going out on the streets has been banned. However, as we all know, freedom is on the streets. Everyone should be able to nonviolently seek their rights on the streets. They should be able to protest, to chant slogans or ululate in Kurdish. When I got out, I understood that in fact it was the outside that was in, the inside that was out. I hope that one day everyone will understand this.



[1] The predominantly Kurdish town of Cizre was subjected to a 24 hour curfew for eight days in early September 2015 as the Turkish army fully occupied the town. Reportedly, over 20/30 civilians died during the siege. Families were unable to bury their dead because of the curfew and had to resort to using refrigeration units to preserve the corpses.

[2] President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the biggest party in Turkey’s interim government until the next election in November 2015.

[3] The People’s Democracy Party (HDP) is a broad coalition of left-wing and pro-Kurdish groups.

[4] The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in an armed struggle with the Turkish army since 1984, has traditionally conducted guerilla warfare in mountainous terrain. Over time, ‘going up the mountain,’ became a euphemism for joining the PKK as civilians were prohibited from travelling there.