Destroying Sevan Nişanyan via isolation, modern torture -
By Alin Ozinian
Author and journalist Ahmet Altan once said: “Allah keeps man away from perfection; He grants a vast land so that he discovers; He wishes man to walk alone on this land, make some progress and please the Creator by this progress. For this reason, I imagine that Allah regards every pursuit, invention and progress by man as a sign of respect for Him and as recognition of His might.”
“Tourism entrepreneur" Sevan Nişanyan was sent to jail to serve his time after being convicted by a court of law for building a stone house on his land in Şirince village, İzmir, illegally; he was first sent to İzmir-Torbalı prison and then transferred to İzmir-Buca prison; and finally he was taken to Aliağa Sakran prison in İzmir. This is the usual and visible part of the story. But there is also a crucial side that needs to be carefully analyzed.
Nişanyan is a linguist, historian and intellectual. Well, he is also (sorry to tell you this) an Armenian. (This part is important because this ethnic identity is mainly responsible for what happened to him in prison). Teachers realized he was a smart kid in early childhood; in fact, the troubles he has had may have something to do with this. He was an accomplished student who studied in the US and he was also a successful businessman.
However, he loves movement, action; he gets bored. Nişanyan decided to move to Şirince, Turkey, to prove that an alternative lifestyle is possible by creating a utopian world. (He explains everything eloquently in his book, "Aslanlı Yol," his autobiography he wrote because of the question he asked himself about what if his daughter, little Anahid, would not have the chance of knowing him. I strongly recommend this book).
Pushing the limits while questioning existence
He faces difficulties in daily life. He needs some sort of motivation, something that keeps him alive. In short, he loves fighting. There is a conventional model of man in our geography: a man who cannot live without tradition and identity and finds himself without thick borders of his identity. Well, Sevan is not one of them. There is a global problem he is dealing with: meaning. His pursuits and questions are a reaction to the senselessness of existence.
Nişanyan loves pushing the limits during his journey of questioning things. He pushes the limits and boundaries of himself, but also of his wife, children, neighbors, schools, local administrations, publishers, columnists, prosecutors and prison guards.
He runs a thorough analysis of the language called Turkish; he explores other languages within it. He investigates the roots of the maps and the names in the memory of former owners and of the truth. He writes the dictionary of places whose names were changed in a book, "Turkey: A country that forgets its name." He travels to many villages despite obstacles. He takes his sons with him; the only assurance he has in this voyage is articulated in this sentence: “Many things are theory in Turkey; nothing happens, just walk.” Sevan names his book, “Wrong Republic,” after some minor changes to the 90-year old Kemalist dicta regime. Everything was fine so far; it was a proper time to criticize anything that the “sovereign” did not like. Sevan got to ask a question at a time when it was possible to become “a recognized Armenian” and to remain on this track: “Can't you question faith?”
There are other ways to tell an Armenian that faith cannot be questioned, particularly the dominant faith and particularly when it is by an Armenian. But the criminal code was preferred. They tried to identify what wrong he did. Bingo! They found it: He built something illegally on his land. (Sevan spoke about this many times; he was unable to get a permit for a small balcony; but finally he decided not to wait and start the construction. He also spoke about the Math Village, the Theater Madrasah and stone-grave and he always just used this method (going ahead and constructing). Great! Lawsuits were filed. After being moved to Torbalı prison in January of this year, Sevan did not feel hopeless. He thought he would have time and the proper environment to complete his book.
We believed what he said; he wrote in the preface of the etymology dictionary that he previously completed in prison: “This is a twist of fate; if I had not been imprisoned, I would not have been able to complete this dictionary. I owe gratitude to the little rural bureaucrats and particularly the former director of Selçuk Museum, Selahattin Erdemgil, who unknowingly gave this opportunity. I would like to thank them.”
When a lawsuit was filed by those who were referred to in this preface alleging that he insulted them, Sevan bravely asked: “Which part is wrong? Little, rural or bureaucrat?”
In his previous convictions, we were talking about “an infidel cleric” who was reciting the Quran for the inmates and teaching them Arabic. He was also allowed to be active in social media because he was entitled to make phone calls. He was able to share his notes. He told the prison administration that they should create a library. He asked for books; many people sent volumes, but the books were not let in. First, he was transferred to Buca prison after an investigation into his public allegation that a prison warden committed thievery. Sevan and the sovereign state played the same game: “I will keep playing this game until you get my sense of truth.”
He never compromised from his position in prison. He says he never understood why he was sentenced, given that everybody does what he did, adding that he feels sad reading papers with headlines such as “Is Sevan the only person who builds unlicensed construction?”
He further says: “I did not do what everybody does. I did what they were unable to do. I tried to revive a forgotten architectural tradition in the current modern circumstances. I tried to remind a society where ugliness was made a lifestyle of the fact that beauty is the ultimate goal. I did not do this for money. I did this because it was beautiful. I did it to set an example.”
In Buca, he was forced to share a king-size bed with three others and to sleep on the stone ground because there was allegedly no space. He was unable to find a place to have a seat all day long because he did not have a spot (I think there are many other things he did not tell about). But he did not remain silent. Sevan was able to send news reports to papers. In response, he was taken to Aliağa Sakran prison. Ironically, after being transferred from Buca, the inmates were able to take a bath because of news coverage. They took a shower for the first time. Sevan was declared a hero by the other inmates. This happens sometimes: While trying to create a traitor, you fail, and the people love a person they would otherwise not know. Social engineering is not as simple as it looks.
Sovereigns who release those who do not look like them
Sevan now stays alone in a cell designed for three. He is not allowed to see anybody, except a few wardens. He complains about this isolation. His petitions are not answered; he wants to talk to other inmates for a few hours. He told Ali Nesin, his friend, “It seems as if I had not seen a prison before. Isparta, Selçuk, Torbalı were nothing. This is real prison. You are nothing here; this is the way they make you feel.”
It is hard to explain Sevan's remarks to those who fear the truth and believe that the reality is a threat against them. Fear reigns in orders that lack intelligence, reason and justice. And we should of course note that the "sovereigns" of the republic era have developed methods and mechanisms to release those who did not look like them during the republican era; they still do this. Minorities, Kurds, religious people, left wingers, Alevis, you name it. Armenians took their share of these tactics. They were abducted, they were transformed, they were intimidated; however, they were finally transformed into what the sovereigns were trying to achieve.
But we need to remain hopeful, considering that Sevan still says: “These people are ignorant; they are distant to spiritual readiness, the prior condition for knowing and learning. They are suffering from the lack of awareness of being right. I am not.”
I received a letter from him on June 18. He tried to respond to my questions swiftly: “I did not think that things would get this bad. I always had difficulty to explain the psychology of stupidity. I am not sure if the state has a plan, but I do not sense a security and safety problem that requires isolation. Bureaucracy is masterful in transforming its own paranoia into pretexts. It would be better to focus on this problem as the terrible course of Turkey's route rather than Sevan's case. The country is being dragged into disaster. I do not know their intention, but they have seven to eight more cases by which they would keep me in prison in case they want to.”
There are a lot of people who are trying to do something for Sevan. However, unfortunately, nothing happens. Ironically, even some Republican People's Party (CHP) deputies paid him a visit. Sevan told them that the article 65/B of the law on protection of cultural and natural assets was not a proper legislative regulation, that it was a source of arbitrary actions, and that the constitutional court declared it unconstitutional, but the government and the court of appeals still managed to keep it in effect. He added that a new arrangement was needed and asked the CHP deputies if they could do something on this matter. Within two days, the CHP sent a response, saying that they viewed the proposal as an amnesty.
Well, in fact, it was unfair to expect that a political group that seeks to create a homogenous nation state and regards anything that is different as a detail in the creation of this sacred nation would do something more than this. Feelings of excessive hopelessness, injustice, brutality and mercilessness force you to become more optimistic.
We need to help Sevan…
*Aline Ozinian is an independent analyst.