Prison, the Plague, Writing and Exile: an Interview With Aslı Erdoğan

This interview with the Turkish author Aslı Erdoğan was conducted by mail in recent weeks. She is a renowned author in Turkey, and well known in Europe where works have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and possibly some other languages. Her works have won numerous international literary prizes. She is also known for her human rights activity both in Turkey and elsewhere. It was that activity that landed her in hot water. Something she discusses in this interview.

I first wrote about her after she was arrested in August 2016 in the wake of the failed coup in Turkey in July of that year. That article was published here in CounterPunch (“The Stone Building” and the Post Coup Erdoğan Crackdown, Oct.16, 2016). She was one of the fifty to sixty thousand people arrested in the crackdown that followed the attempted coup. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used that event as a pretext to move against people in all professions whose only offense was their public opposition to him. Writers, journalists, lawyers, politicians, military officers et al found themselves swept up and thrown in prison in the weeks that followed.

Aslı Erdoğan was imprisoned in Turkey for more than four months. The charges made against her, the trial, the dismissal of the charges and then their reinstatement—all of that and more is recounted below in her own words. She also discusses the continuing campaign by the other Erdoğan against all dissent in Turkey and now even against dissenters in exile like herself. She speaks of the effects of the Covidvirus on the continuing crackdown and especially on those still imprisoned. That campaign of repression has gotten pushed aside in the news not only by the global pandemic, but also by Erdoğan’s clumsy misadventures in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Those she points out, no matter how they fail abroad, serve to rally his supporters. She tells how, although she left Turkey in 2017, a campaign in Turkey vilifying her goes on unabated in her absence. Once crossed Recep Erdoğan, like Trump, never tires of attacking his opponents.

The questions I sent her covered the repressive situation in Turkey now and how it has changed since 2016. They cover how the pandemic has effected that situation, and her writing since 2016 and how exile has affected her work. Other questions concern the prospects for freedom in Turkey and her prospects. She wrote me that it is a struggle for her write about serious matters in English, but that is not really evident in what she sent me. Her words speak with power and clarity. Her replies read like an essay, and for that reason, I have done little editing, mostly only joining her replies into the text that follows. She wrote too that her works are no longer being published in Turkey and only in France can all of them be found. I told her I was not surprised by French interest in her work. When I began to read her book The Stone Building and Other Places passages made me think at once of the prose poems of Rimbaud. Aslı Erdoğan is a writer of the first order—it is no stretch to mention her with Rimbaud.

At present Asli Erdoğan lives in exile in Berlin where she is battling an auto-immune disease. A charge of “the destruction of the unity of the state” hangs over her head. She was acquitted of the charge more than three years ago, but this year the charges were reinstated. The charge carries an “aggravated life sentence.” How a life sentence can be “aggravated” seems unclear, though perhaps it is all the more ominous for that.

I began by asking her how the situation for her and for other dissident writers has changed since 2016. She replied:

We are either in or out. Meaning we are either in prison or out of Turkey’s borders. All my friends in Turkey have either left or have been arrested, those who are not currently in jail cannot leave because of the travel ban on their passports.

I meet more people here in Berlin, who are in exile, than I used to meet in Istanbul. Journalists, academicians, musicians, rap singers, film makers. In every major or even small city of Europe I visited in recent years for readings or conferences, among the audience there were at least a few people in exile, in Athens the entire first row was Turkish intellectuals.

The situation is far more drastic than the foreign press presents it to be. On the average, forty thousand people have been arrested on political charges every year in Turkey since 2016. When the World War II started, the notorious concentration camps had forty thousand inmates all together.

I was, in a way, lucky to be arrested early on. Nowadays there is almost no one left to raise a voice and the conditions in Turkish prisons are horrifying. And as the number of the victims increases, people develop a certain kind of crust, they lose their sensitivity and empathy, human tragedy becomes an old-fashioned, much repeated story. Mechanisms of fear work in such a way that most people identify themselves with power, not with its victim.

What is unchanging are the rules of the power game, the wantonness of all fascistic regimes. They do most of this cruelty for no apparent rational reason, other than just that they can do it, to show they can do almost anything. And the human soul, as we all know, is a difficult and unreliable material. But then, as one is about to give up all hope, all expectations, the human species shows its truly sacred face, incredible courage and solidarity. A relentless fight for freedom by someone emerges somewhere.

The arrests have continued full force during the pandemic. Last week 182 people were arrested on a single day for example. Can you imagine being in an eight x eight-meter square cell with no running water or toilet in the basement of a police station? Exactly the same kind of cell I was locked in throughout my entire custody with four or eight other people.

I have read about one case where [with a similar number of prisoners] someone arrested was covid positive. What happened to the others in the cell? No one bothered to test them before sending them into an overflowing prison. The prisoners are not allowed disinfectants, bleach or even vinegar. They have little or no access to health care, and half of them already have important health problems due to imprisonment. Yet the authorities are totally silent and secretive about the spread of the virus among prisoners. I was very lucky not to catch the virus in a prison. But in other ways I was very unlucky.

On February 14th [2020], I had got finally acquitted after a three and a half-year trial. The Italian translation of The City in Crimson Cloak was published the last week of February. The Spanish translation of The Stone Building and Other Places was scheduled for early May. And my book of prose poetry with the title Requiem for a Lost City was to have its international publication in France by the press Actes Sud. In short, I had started to breathe again. I had finally a chance to go back to writing, or to life—they are synonymous for me. Alas, the pandemic came. The Italian translation of The City in Crimson Cloak lay dormant on the bookshelves of Milan‘s closed bookstores, the Spanish publication was postponed. Only the French book was published, and Requiem received great reviews. Certainly it was my best reviewed book in France.

The pandemic trapped me in Berlin, in a city where I was totally new. I had moved to Berlin in late January and had not even finished unpacking. First came the trauma of the lockdown in a strange foreign city. But the real nightmare started in early April. One morning I was unable to breathe and was taken to a hospital by ambulance. Naturally I assumed I had caught the virus. Instead, a serious problem with my heart and lungs was diagnosed. Sometime in late April, my mother was taken to hospital with her covid tests giving positive results. My mother was in a hospital in Istanbul, and I was locked up in Berlin, both of us very ill. In the coming months, twice more I was sent to the emergency room, each time preparing myself for the worse. Eventually, after a ten-day stay in the hospital, the renowned doctors of Charité[1] discovered that I have a very rare and very nasty auto-immune disease. My immune system is eating up my own veins, arteries, membranes, hence paralyzing those internal organs which have membranes, such as the bowels, the lungs and the heart. My bowels were paralyzed in Frankfurt last year and I had two operations in which they put pacemakers inside my colon. But, unfortunately, there is nothing to do to reverse the damage in the lungs and the heart.

I cannot tell the horror of being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease in the midst of a pandemic. The only way to prolong my life is to crush the immune system. And since my disease is so rare—less than ten in a million have it—it is very difficult to tell how my immune system can react to a new virus. A real tragedy, I might say, at this juncture, that both roads end up to the same place. We are all passing through tragic times. Now almost half the world population is facing a confrontation with a death that they were never could have been prepared for. But to be in exile, to realize you can never return, not even for a final farewell, the tragedy is… No, I cannot find the adjective. It is beyond words and should remain so. At the same time, even my acquittal was taken away from me, the court case had been revived.

All oppressive regimes need an enemy, secret, open, real, imagined, created enemies. They thrive on the ‘threat’ of the ‘other,’ which very often they themselves have initiated. Unfortunately, in Turkey, crowds fall into military formation each time someone waves a flag. And not only in Turkey. This old shallow discourse on the great history, the great country etc. has far too many buyers in most of the world. I believe, although they often seem like enemies, all oppressive regimes really support each other, and throughout the world we are witnessing a national chauvinistic wave rising. Let’s hope it is only a wave and not a tsunami. The autocratic rulers of our century, are not people of ideologies like the tyrants of twentieth century. They are populist, pragmatic, unpredictable. Erdoğan has almost become an expert in creating a war atmosphere every time his popularity decreases. And it is very disheartening to see that each time this deadly game wins.

What I say today is a promise to the prisoner Aslı I was, whom I had to leave behind the iron bars, who is still there, in the cold and wet courtyard, silent, waiting, it is my promise and debt to her that I write about the prison, the ‘real prison’—but more than that—it is my duty and my promise to all prisoners, imprisoned in actual and metaphorical prisons to tell the truth that they cannot tell. Since my first book, The Miraculous Mandarin, the story of a one-eyed woman, my writing revolves around themes like absence, void and wound, and my main search has been how to tell the essentially untellable, to pass the point of no return. Can literature go inside the torture chamber or gas chamber and still remain literature? No one can answer that. Writing can be a scream. And I believe that our world will even be more devoid of meaning without that scream.

Unfortunately, my deteriorating health left me in a state of a hunted animal, only trying to stay alive. Maybe this obsession with life or staying alive is what I have to get rid of to be able to enter the Stone Building, one more time, infinite times more.

It was Friday night around 11 pm when I was taken to prison. They first locked me up in a totally empty ward which had nothing but two rows of filthy beds, with no linen or blankets. This was the so-called quarantine ward for newly arrived prisoners. In less than an hour, and against all laws and conventions, I was put in a cell in solitary confinement. Later on, I learned that a young Russian prisoner hanged herself in that cell on her very first night. The ghost of this twenty-four-year-old woman whom I had never met has haunted me ever since. Now I have completed a suicide story or suicide ballet: Esmeralda in Bakirkoy Prison. I must add I have also been trained in classical ballet and it was an obsession for me.

For more than a year, I have been very ill, hopelessly ill. And, unknown to healthy people, the sufferings, physical pains, anxieties of a heavy disease can erase all else in life. My body is like a battlefield where the winner and the loser are decaying together. The footnotes of the story are this. I am in exile in Berlin. I am still on trial. Now four years and two months later, I am exiled from my only country, in exile from my language since I can no longer publish in Turkey. My publisher, formerly a member of parliament for Recep Erdoğan’s party the AKP, refuses to reprint my books, and he has now taken me to court since I tried to publish with another publisher. I try to find consolation in the new translations of my books, the reviews etc but because of the pandemic, almost everything has come to a halt. Like the majority of writers, poets, artists, musicians I have more and more difficulty making a living, but at least as a patient of a merciless disease, I have the luxury of not worrying about my future.

Recently, The Stone Building has been translated into Kurdish by a poet and political prisoner and I have dedicated my earnings from that edition to the publication of books by political prisoners. I hope that as an ex-prisoner I have learned a bit more about the meaning of solidarity.

About my future. Future is word that stopped resonating for me it seems a long time ago. I do not really need hope, but my belief in literature, in its transformative power, is unshakable. Literature, as a desperate search to give meaning to words and find words for Meaning, can be our way for confrontation and liberation. The miracle of the Word is eternal, and it is hidden in the fact that it always remains incomplete, it always remains in the next unwritten sentence.

Literature as a mirror has long been shattered, but some of us will always keep groping among the broken glass, searching through the dreams of a mirror long turned into sand, for a grain of truth only a bleeding hand can grasp, perhaps only for a second before it is shattered again.

Asli Erdoğan’s website is http://www.aslierdogan@net/


1. Charité is Charité – Universitätsmedizin, a major European university hospital located in Berlin.


Daniel Beaumont teaches Arabic language & literature and other courses at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Slave of Desire: Sex, Love & Death in the 1001 Nights and Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. He can be contacted at: