I’m watching the coronavirus crisis unfold from a Turkish prison. This is why I’m hopeful.

Ahmet Altan is a Turkish novelist, journalist and founder of the now-defunct newspaper Taraf. He is the author of the smuggled-out-of-prison memoir “I Will Never See the World Again.”


These days being in an actual prison while everyone else is confined inside their homes feels like sitting in a fish tank at the bottom of the ocean.

I can see (by reading the old newspapers the guards give us and watching some of the channels we’re allowed to watch) that you’re worried to death. Well, I’m 70 years and I’m in a prison where covid-19 cases are spreading fast, all for offending, with alleged “subliminal messages,” the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As someone who knows more about sitting at the bottom of the ocean and being the target of death than most, I’d like to tell you this: Don’t give in to self-despair.

We’re witnessing history break along a gigantic fault line that is making life itself tremble. This rupture promises us a hopeful future.

I’m aware of the horrors everyone is experiencing. Like billions of antelopes that had to cross a river filled with crocodiles, we are struggling madly to stay alive and reach the other side. The passage is hellish. But in a few months, this disaster will be over and humankind will arrive at a new era.

This is the order of this strange planet. Better circumstances are achieved only through disasters. Wounded in wars and pandemics, we make progress.

This disaster has shown us many truths we’ve long ignored; it has also given us directions to our destination. I think the 21st century will begin once this pandemic is over. For a little while, it might look as if we’re skidding backward, but that won’t last long.

This pandemic has shown us that constructs called “states” are good for nothing. The whole structure of states has clearly expired. It’s against nature that an administrative system from the time of horse-drawn mail coaches is still in place. States prevent human progress. The pandemic got out of control because of the blunders states and their administrators made out of greed for power. If China had not lied in the first place, and if the leaders of other countries had not remained unconcerned, the scourge would not have achieved such enormity.

In a not-so-distant future, the world will become a federation of city-states — it will realize that it has no other choice. Nations, borders and flags work against the good of humanity during common disasters, as we’ve experienced during this crisis.

We saw yet another truth: The ability to win elections and the ability to lead a society are entirely different skills — skills at war with each other. Elections are often won by those who lie the most, those who play the epic soundtrack louder than others. But those same people cannot lead with wisdom. We have seen many examples of this phenomenon.

This disaster has also been the dress rehearsal of a major change in history: workers stepping out of their traditional place in the chain of production. Thanks to the Internet, people’s mental contribution to production has increased while their physical role has significantly diminished. In the 21st century, people will not be limited to physical work. We are grasping the inevitability of change as we live through this episode, discovering a new economic order.

We are learning that some people having more money than they can spend while others remain penniless and without shelter can create a “common” disaster. If you can’t save a market worker in China, you can’t save the prime minister in Britain.

This could lead to a major mutation. If you want to protect yourself, you have to protect others. Selfish acts will kill you. People have realized perhaps for the first time and in such clear consciousness that they are part of a great flow called humanity.

This virus not only knocks down old men like myself but also all kinds of aged concepts, beliefs and ideas. We are painfully crossing the threshold of a new world and, even more important, a new kind of human being.

In the midst of this great trauma, I am optimistic about the future. What I’ve been talking about here is not utopia. It isn’t the meliorism of a fool. I believe what I’m saying will happen, and I know I won’t be around to see it happen. I’m writing this as I await in a prison cell the fierce attack of a virus that kills people my age. I am not optimistic for myself, but for the humanity of which I am a part.

In November, we were given a radish along with our meals at lunchtime. My cellmate put that radish in a paper cup and left it beside the iron bars at the window. The radish began to rot. Recently, a green sprout emerged from it. It grew and grew. Little white flowers blossomed at the end of the sprout. Each morning, I get up and look at those flowers. I witness that great cliche: The radish is dying and becoming alive at the same time. A miserable radish creates flowers out of its own decay. Without giving up its optimism, it reaches out to the future as it dies.

Perhaps I will have fallen sick by the time you read this. But what difference does it make? If a radish dying in a paper cup can blossom, an old man in prison can be optimistic.

We aren’t going to be more despairing than a radish now, are we?

By Ahmet Altan for The Washington Post


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