“They tried to kill a lawyer, but they couldn’t stop the birth of a novelist”
Interview with Burhan Sonmez
By Ginevra Avalle
Oxford, 20th March 2019
Burhan Sonmez is a Kurdish prize-winning novelist from Turkey. He received the “Disturbing the Peace” award given by Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in New York (2017). He’s awarded the EBRD Literature Prize in London (2018) for his novel Istanbul Istanbul. He is a member of the English PEN, Turkish PEN and Kurdish PEN. He is a Board member of PEN International.
G.A. What is your experience as a writer in the context of Turkey, and what pushed you to take the role you have now at PEN International?
B.S. I had two reasons; both came at the same time. My books started to be translated into other languages several years ago. Around the same time, the political situation in Turkey took a new shade of darkness. The government started a new policy towards intellectuals, writers, journalists and academics. I was in Turkey at the time, just returned from exile in Britain. There were those two developments in my life, becoming an internationally published writer and also getting involved with the newly emerged oppression style of the government on journalists, academics, and writers.
G.A. You also experienced prison. When did this happen and how did it influence you?
B.S. It happened before I was a writer. I was arrested after the military coup when I was a student in 1984. It was a famous era of systematic torture. I became a lawyer, and I was arrested again. And then in 1996 I was assaulted by the police with the intention of killing me. They left me for dead. I was heavily wounded. My life changed after that point. I had to go through some medical operations, because I had brain trauma and fractures in my face, and head. The consequences of brain trauma included insomnia, migraines, etc. I ended up having treatments in other countries like Switzerland, Germany and finally in Britain. I arrived in London in 1998 and received medical help from an independent foundation, that used to be called the Medical Foundation. Now they’ve changed their name to Freedom from Torture. They provide free treatment for the victims of torture.
G.A. Were you expecting the assault?
G.A. Can I ask you why?
B.S. Because of the time in Turkey. The first half of the 1990’s, if you ask me, was the worst period of Turkish history. It was the peak of the Kurdish Civil War. When there’s a civil war, you can understand the killing by security forces of opposing militants. But around that time, 17,000 civilians were killed by unknown people, mostly security forces and paramilitaries. It was a difficult time, especially being a lawyer of Human Rights as I was. That means you are an enemy of the state. My office had been targeted a couple of times. Those kinds of harassment were normal things; when you live in the hot water you don’t realise how hot it is. I lost many friends… Including lawyer friends who were shot by the police. I lost friends from other universities, who were murdered, and the police released their names as terrorists-runaways. Of course, we knew it was not true. I survived. I was one of the few lucky people who survived a murder attempt.
G.A. Can you tell me about the cell?
B.S. This is the story of my third novel. It is called Istanbul Istanbul. It is the story of four people, in a small cell, three floors underground in Istanbul. They are continuously being tortured. When they are left alone in their cells, they need something to pass the time. They start to tell stories to each other, beautiful stories, humorous stories, obscene stories, just for fun. Of course, all the stories are about Istanbul. So, I combined people who are in pain and are telling beautiful stories of Istanbul. I got inspiration from my personal experience. I was in a cell, similar to the one I described in my novel. I was the youngest one, there were other people. Sometimes we were six, sometimes eight people. That experience became my main source of inspiration when I wrote that book about Istanbul.
G.A. How many assaults did you face in your life?
B.S. The first assault happened while I was a university student. About ten years later I was taken there again, when I was a lawyer. Apparently I was in that torture centre some other time, too, but I don’t remember that. When I was interrogated there, when I was a lawyer, they told me that I was there four years ago, in 1989, again. But I don’t remember that. It was my last year at the university and there were operations against students. They brought some papers to show me their record that I was there for some weeks. I still don’t understand; either I lost my memory of that time in torture centre or they were lying to me, but why?
G.A. How did you manage to leave Turkey after the assault?
B.S. When I became a lawyer, my application for a passport was rejected. It took me two years to get it. Then I was able to travel. I had been invited to conferences about human rights and law around Europe. Around the same time there were some court cases against me. As I left Turkey one of the court cases resulted with the sentence to six months imprisonment. The reason for the case was that I supported a statement that criticised the security forces for mistreating and mutilating the corpses of militants they murdered.
G.A. So the first treatments were in Turkey?
B.S. Yes, in Turkey, then Germany, Switzerland and finally Britain.
G.A. What drove you to become a lawyer?
B.S. You had to get a nationwide exam to be able to study at the university. Before the exam you were supposed to make eighteen choices. Then your exam result might get a place for you in the list of your choices. Istanbul Law Faculty was my fifth on the list.
G.A. When did you join PEN International?
B.S. In 2009 I published my first novel. Then I joined PEN. The people who put me in PEN were Eugene Schoulgin and Moris Farhi. Moris recently passed away, he was the Vice-President of PEN International and also the Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. After I published my first novel, he told me I should get involved with PEN. I always thought of PEN with a high literary level. I was just a simple new writer. I didn’t think they would need someone like me. But after the encouragement by Moris and Eugene, I started.
G.A. Let’s talk about your biography now.
B.S. I was born in a small village in Turkey, I come from Kurdish origin.
G.A. Do you visit it often?
B.S. Yes, every year. My family is there, the whole big family.
G.A. Are you still having problems with the Turkish authorities?
B.S. They send you messages and threats, things like “you are number 57 on the death list”. When I got this particular message I felt a bit offended. Why 57, not a smaller number for me? Once you are targeted, you are always a target. They use your name; they send you messages continuously. They try to say two things. First, you should know that we watch you and secondly, we are watching you very seriously. In a country like Turkey, the only way to overcome that kind of problem is to speak against it openly and directly. Because you should make it clear that you don’t do anything wrong, anything illegal. You just do something ordinary, defending people’s rights, defending freedom of expression, justice… you know that kind of terms are often too radical for the politicians. If they call that kind of term “radical”, it means they are the radical ones. You are normal. We have to defend these normal definitions.
G.A. What can you tell me about the people living in Turkey now?
B.S. There has recently been a big migration to Europe, especially of journalists and academics, mostly because of the political and economic situation. 5,600 academics have been expelled from universities in the last three years. 51,000 schoolteachers have been expelled. There is a presidential decree about them: they cannot get another job. Their pension rights are stopped, they don’t have insurance. They are left to die with their families. This is the economic and political oppression pushing people out of Turkey. The government has been in power for 17 years. They are still angry because after such a long time, at least fifty percent of the society are openly against them. It’s a strong society we have. We have the Kurdish population and the Alawites community. Also, young women are resisting decisively. Because their future is in danger.
G.A. Why does the government want to Islamise the society?
B.S. Just because of the ideological and financial orientation. They have all the financial resources in Turkey. They are privatising the whole institutions in Turkey, they have been selling everything, from telecommunication systems to railways, and airways, like Turkish Airlines. They don’t produce anything, they don’t establish any factory, but they need money. When this government came to power, Turkey had international debts of 160 billion dollars. Now it is 460 billion dollars. Where does this money go? We don’t know. The justice system doesn’t work. Today I read in the newspaper that a citizen wrote on social media that Turkish Airlines is dying. The man is arrested. You cannot criticise a pro-government company. The government doesn’t accept it.
G.A. What happens to the people who are arrested?
B.S. When this government came to power 17 years ago, the total number of people in prison was 70,000. Now only the number of students in prison is 70,000. The total number is 250,000 people in prison. President Erdogan, in the last couple of years, has been promising when visiting cities: “we are going to build a new prison for your city, don’t worry. Your government is working for you”.
G.A. What do you think will happen?
B.S. There are a couple of things that might happen. The first thing is that the economic situation is getting dramatically worse. The greatest success of Erdogan is that he managed to cut the logical relation between economic problems and government’s policies. If people are getting poorer and poorer, they don’t see any responsibility of the government. In the last 10-15 years there has been an ideological shift that the government managed. For example, if the Turkish Lira is losing value, the government says it is a plot organised by evil Western powers against our nation. They say we have to defend our power, our nation and of course our religion; Turkey is about to become the strongest power in the world, as our ancestors the Ottomans were. That is the rhetoric they use every day. People are convinced. 90% of media are controlled by the government.
Let me give you the last example. A couple of days ago, a racist man killed 50 people in New Zealand, attacking two mosques. What happens in Turkey? Erdogan has been saying that the main target is Turkey, that the attack was against us, that it is a message for him and his government. He wrote this in an article in the Washington Post. Certain parts of society believe that. It is rhetoric. Nowadays people are talking about poverty a lot. Erdogan said: “which is more important, an aubergine for our meal to eat at home, or a bullet for the gun to defend our country? At the moment, we are working to defend our country.”
G.A. Is there anyone that can act as opposition to his power?
B.S. We have a strong opposition. We have a social democrat party that has 25% support in society. We have a Kurdish party, with about a 12% of support in society. There is a Turkish Nationalist Party with 10% against Erdogan. And some other small parties as well… Erdogan is powerful because the opposition is always divided. For example, the Kurdish issue is used to separate the secular people from Kurds, even though both are against Erdogan.
G.A. How did you start being a novelist?
B.S. I was a simple lawyer and then the police came to kill me. I got wounded, I couldn’t move, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t go out. I was suicidal. I started to write. Without any intention. I lost my ability to read after the assault. My brain was blocked. It was a condition for a person to die. I started to write stories. I was a refugee in Britain. I was ill, I had no money, I could speak no English. I had spent all my money for travels and surgeries around Europe. Who saved me? People like me. There were organisations helping refugees in need. Thanks to them they sent me to a school to learn English. They sent me to doctors, provided assistance. Without them, I couldn’t have survived. After ten years, I became a novelist and also a healthy man. Now, what could I do for people? For writers in need? For others like me?
G.A. When you think about your experience, what are the three words that come to your mind?
B.S. That is a game I used in my second novel, Sins & Innocents; called a three-word game. I would say: solidarity, hope and dream.
G.A. Is there a word that summarises the three words?
B.S. Resurrection. Or rebirth. I believe that in this life, we can recreate ourselves every day. I believe that. They tried to kill a lawyer, but they couldn’t stop the birth of a novelist.
G.A. What would you expect from the Exhibition?
B.S. The first thing I would expect is a positive outcome. It’s such a glorious treasure we are sitting on. I would like to get that feeling. The second thing, I think it should reflect what we represent. We have two different routes connected to each other. The route for the power of literature, and the route for the values of human rights. I think we achieved those in the past, we are trying to achieve it today and will be achieving it in the future.