Turkish poet jailed for 26 years for a crime he did not commit | Turkey

TThe good news is that last year Turkish poet İlhan Çomak won a major award, the Sennur Sezer Prize for Poetry, for his eighth and most recent collection of poems, Geldim Sana (I came to you). The bad news is that he has been in prison and has been in prison for 26 years, since his arrest as a geography student at the age of 22. All of his books were written in prison.

How did it come to this? One factor, most likely the main factor, is that he is Kurdish. It is not a crime in itself, but belonging or even associating with a Kurdish political organization is. There is also the specific issue of the outbreak of a forest fire, but no serious evidence has ever been provided to prove it. The only “proof” was his confession under torture and this was emphasized in all calls to release him.

It is not uncommon in Turkey for writers to be imprisoned. There have been and there are still too many to mention here, but none have been in jail for as long as Çomak. Some have published from within, some with great success. One of Turkey’s greatest poets, Nâzım Hikmet, who died in 1963, spent much of his life in prison or in exile.

İlhan Çomak… appeals against his conviction have been constantly delayed

Aside from the writers, there are the students. As a result of the environmental protests in Gezi Park in 2013, there were over 70,000 students in Turkish prisons and the total number will have increased since the 2016 attempted military coup. The exact number is unknown.

After the abortive coup of 2016, some 53 newspapers were closed. Many other media organizations have been banned. There are regular pre-trial detentions for those who write or share posts on social media considered to be mildly or indirectly subversive. It is perhaps above all the Kurdish population and Kurdish writers who have been the most affected. The Kurdish Institute was closed after 2016 and the very existence of Kurdish literature is threatened. Çomak’s poems appear more and more in English translation, but not yet in book form.

Should we consider Çomak as a prisoner who writes books of poetry? Poems do not need such framing. They are not political in the sense that they defend a particular point of view. His concerns were elementary and filled with memories of freedom, love and companionship. As he writes in “Life Does Not Lie”, translated by Caroline Stockford:

I am between the moon and the tide.
Between the murmur and the cry.
As a child, I still had the script of a child, I was held hostage to my mother’s pomegranate smile.
When I looked out the window at the full light of the garden
Looking at the philosophy of the hands picking the fruit tree,
In those times when you could still hear the sound of frogs,
When women walked through my life the lake was blue
And I knew the value of blue. I also understand the pain, on the steps of life.

Another poet, Haydar Ergülen, suggests that the poems could have been written inside or outside the prison walls. And of course, we have to remember that it was not for his poetry that Çomak was imprisoned.

Its contacts with the outside world are very limited. He was moved from prison to prison to prevent his parents from having access to him, but they followed him every time. It should be noted that Britain has strong economic ties with Turkey and may demand Çomak’s immediate release as a precondition for any deal. Appeals against his conviction have been constantly delayed, but his poetry, rightly, is reaching more and more readers.

Ann G. Starbuck