This summer a colleague and friend Sevinç Türkkan asked me to help her with her translation of a work of fiction by the Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan. The book’s title is The Stone Building—the stone building is a prison. In July and August Sevinç and I worked through her initial English translation (I can’t read Turkish and she only asked me to help with the English prose). But the more we worked, the more I became engrossed by what I was reading, a work of literature like nothing I had ever read.
On August 20th while we were still working on the translation, Sevinç texted me, “Aslı has been arrested.”
Aslı Erdoğan, besides being a novelist, is also a journalist and a human rights activist. If she had stuck simply to fiction, she would probably would not be sitting in a prison cell today in Istanbul.
Aslı Erdoğan was born in Istanbul in 1967. She attended Robert College and Boğaziçi University and worked in Geneva for CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), the largest particle physics laboratory in the World. After leaving CERN, she moved to Rio de Janeiro where she completed a PhD in physics. She began publishing fiction in 1990, and in 1996 she left her physics career, and returned to Istanbul to devote herself to writing full-time.
Her first short story won a literary prize, and since then her novels and short stories have won many literary prizes in Turkey and Europe. She has served as the Turkish representative to PEN, and in recent years she also served as a member of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem’s advisory board.
The Other Erdoğan
Aslı Erdoğan’s arrest and imprisonment is only one instance of how the other Erdoğan, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has exploited the failed coup attempt of July 15 to launch a general assault on opposition to his rule. Since July 15 the Turkish government has purged more than one hundred thousand people from the military, the police, the courts and the educational system. According to the BBC, he has imprisoned forty thousand people with no connection to the coup. Aslı Erdoğan’s only crime was serving on the editorial board of the newspaper Özgür Gündem, a newspaper that has stood up for Kurdish rights.
This is not the first purge conducted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When he became prime minister in 2003, he began purging the military of secularist Kemalist leadership to guard against his counter-revolution, that is, his plans to create an Islamicist Turkey. When the upheavals in Syria and the Arab World began, he allowed jihadis—including ISIS—free movement of people, weapons, oil and money across the border in order to bring down Bashar al-Asad. There is clear evidence that his son Bilal made huge profits from allowing ISIS to ship oil to and through Turkey.
On the August 21, 2011, there was a sarin gas attack in 2011on Ghouta just outside of Damascus. Obama had said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army would be a “red line” that could involve US military intervention in the Syrian conflict. Obama did not respond, and not withstanding the victims, the major result was journalistic pile-on in the rightwing media on Obama for not attacking Syria.
However, US Defense Intelligance Agency had already learned that the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra was aided by Turkey and Saudi Arabia “chemical facilitators” to obtain sarin gas. And the attack was almost certainly a Turkish intelligence “false flag” operation designed to suck the US into the Syrian civil war. Obama could not say that our NATO ally was involved in supplying chemical weapons to the jihadis, so he had to sit still while neo-cons foamed in the mass media about his “weakness.”
When the Kurds in Syria began to push back ISIS in Syria and close the border, ISIS struck back at Turkey, and it was only then that Recip Erdoğan, having aggravated every bordering state as well as Russia and Egypt began an “agonizing reappraisal” of his greatest foreign policy success, importing the Syrian civil war into Turkey.
His solution: reopen a war on the Kurds.
But Recip Erdoğan has controlling popular support. Despite his blunders, he has been able to direct the fear of his constituency in Turkey against “outsiders”—Kurds, Shia and Alawites in Syria.
However, the focus of this article is Aslı Erdoğan, and how she has gotten caught up in the regional catastrophe set in motion by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ultimately engulfed Syria. Her present predicament represents the injustice done to many tens of thousands of other people arrested in Turkey since July 15.
On August 25, PEN International posted this:
In an interview given to the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet from the detention centre where she is being held, Erdogan – who suffers from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes – said that she is being held in awful conditions and has been denied essential medication for five days, as well as requests for water.
PEN International considers the conditions of Asli Erdogan’s detention wholly unacceptable and calls on the Turkish authorities to immediately provide better conditions, ensure immediate access to medication and to her doctors as a matter of extreme urgency.
The work of fiction that Sevinç Türkkan and I have now translated, consists
of three short stories and a novella, “The Morning Visitor,” “The Wooden Birds,” “The Prison,” and The Stone Building. “The Morning Visitor” concerns a woman who lives in a dingy confining apartment who receives a visit from a strange man. “The Wooden Birds” tells of a group of young women live in a tuberculosis sanatorium who once a month get to spend a day on an outing. “The Prison” is about an unmarried pregnant woman’s restless day in Istanbul, unhappy in every setting until she finally ends up in front of a prison, a stone building. The Stone Building is an often delerious account of someone imprisoned and tortured who recalls it and relives it.
After Sevinç and I finished going through her initial English translation line by line, I asked her to let me go through it one more time by myself. Sometimes the words reminded me of the prose poems of Rimbaud. Sometimes they made me think of Burroughs—but beyond those semblances there was an original and compelling voice unlike anything I had heard. Reading it again, I saw the essential unity of the stories and the novella. They make up a single piece of literature with a single theme, confinement. Beyond the irony of sharing a surname with her persecutor, there is a much more profound irony. In the Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has created, Aslı Erdoğan has through her courageous human rights advocacy and journalism written herself into what she had written and spoken out against in The Stone Building. Confinement and silence.
 Simply google Erdogan, oil and ISIS for numerous articles about this connection.
 For more information about her imprisonment, see PEN’s website.