On unnecessary talk offers and missing pens

At last, we are also receiving longer messages from Max Zirngast. This article documents translated and edited extracts from a longer letter, which he wrote on October 18th, 2018 and has only recently reached us. For ease of reading, we have added some notes and headings, marked with square brackets.

October 18, 2018

I am indebted to you all; Thank you all a thousand times. I’m sending my best regards. There are no words for your friendship and your solidarity. I do not think that I deserve so much interest and effort.

First of all, I would like to explain in detail what we do here and under what conditions we live. I apologize for writing in pencil and not with a pen. There were some problems with money and we no longer have pens. Here, you can only shop once a week. On Monday we have to submit the shopping list for the canteen, on Wednesday we receive the desired products. If you have no money on Monday, you have to wait for the Monday the following week. For fruits and vegetables, we submit the shopping list on Tuesday, and on Thursday we get the fruits and vegetables. Since I still do not receive vegan food [Max is also an animal liberation activist and vegan, editor’s note], [these fruit and vegetable purchases] are all the more important. What I mean to say is that not everything is so easy here, and so sometimes we also lack pens and paper.

Besides, we have only been here for a few weeks [in Sincan 2; previously Max was in the high security wing of Sincan 1, editor’s note]. After a week we were transferred here. We had to start all over again, and right now we are slowly (re)building our routines. Our visitors are not yet confirmed. Can you imagine that? Mithat [the cellmate of Max; editor’s note] can at least meet with his family, but for me, even [for the family visits] a separate application must be put in. Furthermore, we are allowed a maximum of five books. In addition, we may order five books from the library. We have requested 20 books, but they randomly choose between them and send us five of them.

[Daily routines]

Our days go by somewhat like this: I get up between 6:30 and 7:00 o’clock. I run downstairs – it’s kind of a duplex here, upstairs are the beds, downstairs are the toilet, miniature kitchen, table, chairs and so on. And of course a 60m² yard. I read a little or prepare applications or letters and things to submit during roll call. After that we have breakfast. They give us olives, eggs, or cheese, and halva [a flour sesame dish; editor’s note]. We ourselves can buy olives, jams, tomatoes, cucumbers and so on; I keep myself going that way. The roll call takes place between 8:00 and 8:30 am. During the roll call, the door to the yard is opened and we hand over the shopping lists for the canteen and [fruits and vegetables], as well as our applications and letters. We show up to roll call in button-down shirts and slacks. We would also like to appear in dinner jackets, but we have none here. If you send us some, we will wear those as well! On Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday between 8:30 and 10:00 o’clock we do a bit of sport: We jog in the yard and then do intensive strength training. We do not do sports every day; but when we do, it is very intensive. Apart from the huge water tanks, we have no weights, but we do a lot of exercises without equipment. Mithat and I have done a lot of sports before. So don’t you worry, we’ll get out of here very fit. Actually we are meant to be allowed to do 40 minutes of sports in the closed sports room every second Wednesday. But yesterday we were not allowed to do that, for example. What works and what does not work depends somewhat on the will of Allah; but it seems we still somehow manage.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we learn foreign languages. Between 10:00 and 12:00 am, 3:00 and 5:00, 6:30 to 8:00 or 8:30 and 9:00 to 11:00 or 12:00 pm are our reading times. At night we read novels or write letters. Lunch is served at 12:30 and dinner at 5:30 pm. After lunch we read the newspaper or make music. In order to get in motion for a while or to clear our heads, we pace back and forth. Hot water is available between 8:30 and 9:00 and 10:30 pm. That means that we have to take a shower at these times. We do the cleaning on Monday evening, while there is hot water. So far, as of October, we get Hürriyet [one of Turkey’s most widely circulating daily newspapers, once relatively independent, now run by a government ally; editor’s note]. Next month we want to apply for two or three additional daily newspapers. By now, we do not get any newspapers or magazines that do not appear daily. We also do not know how many we are allowed to own. That’s determined from the outside. It would be very good and important, because right now we can only follow current affairs to a very limited extent. There is no TV and we do not intend to buy one. Depending what happens, perhaps we will reconsider, but we do not need it at the moment.

In short: To keep track of what’s happening in Europe is basically impossible from here as of yet. As far as reading is concerned, I have to read in Turkish [Max is not allowed to get any documents that are not Turkish; Editor’s note]. This is not necessarily bad, but a dictionary would improve this a lot. Anyway. In a few months, my Turkish will certainly be significantly advanced. Currently I am reading about fascism and the Turkish left. After that, I think I will read, among other things, the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, as well as economic and [illegible because of prison stamp; editor’s note] and also about the history of ideas (that’s why I have Cereyanlar [in English: “Currents”, standard work by Tanıl Bora on the history of political ideologies in Turkey; editor’s note]); then going on to Marxist theory and political economy (for example, I wanted to read the work “Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century” of Harry Braverman for a long time) and so on. That’s the general framework we thought of. And in between, of course, poems and novels – they are something else anyway.

Of course, it’s not possible to just read. You also have to write something, produce something. I do that as well. I do not know yet how sophisticated my interpretations will be. So far I concentrate on notes, on a diary, and of course, the letters.

[Events of the last five weeks]

I will now describe in detail what has happened and what we have experienced in the past five weeks – including my interpretation of the events.

From the raid to the prison

It all started as a “normal” raid. When the police showed up around 6:00 a.m. in our apartment, they had no special attitude towards me. At least I had not noticed anything of the sort. On the way to the the anti-terror police headquarters, there were of course a series of useless conversational attempts, something like “Turkey is the freest and most democratic country in the world, wouldn’t you say so?”. From the start, I tried to be very calm – distant but polite. Nothing special happened. [illegible; editor’s note] In Police custody, there was a little shouting on the first day. After that, nothing extraordinary happened there. We were all kept separate from each other, communication was very limited. Compared to the prison, police custody is very bad. Instead of sleeping on a bed, you sleep on a piece of wood, with a thin blanket, without pillows. It’s stifling and very cold at the same time, and in my cell the light was on 24 hours a day. This ugly white light. There was little food, and what there was was ice cold. After a few days, I had an upset stomach, cramps, heartburn, diarrhoea, you name it. There was nothing to read and you could not talk for the most part, either. In the last few days, a corporal was in the cell with me, and before that for an hour or two, an ISIS suspect. In general, there were many Gülenists in custody: two dozen soldiers and a few teachers. They were really amazed at what happened to them. All these years, they had served the state, and now they have to go through this. There aren’t any more big shots to be arrested. The majority of them hate the state. One of those who were in the cell with Mithat, said, “this state must be destroyed.” Every day new prisoners were coming, the “purges” are still going on. From a human point of view, it produces nothing but angry, hopeless and declassed elements. Turkey’s current understanding of “terrorism” and what will be crushed under that pretext will take its toll in the next few years, I suppose.

The first interesting thing related to me happened on the night of the second day, Thursday evening, the 13th of September. I was just falling asleep when I was picked up for questioning. They have only done that with me and Burçin [alongside Mithatcan Türetken and Hatice Göz, Burçin was the fourth person in custody, and was released on September 20; editor’s note]. It did not take that long, maybe 25 to 30 minutes. I continuously indicated that I will not speak and that I demand my lawyer. If I had talked, it would probably have taken longer. But what they did was illegal. To be clear, I’m positive about everything I’ve done, and I defended myself openly before the prosecutor, without hiding anything. So while I did not speak, they asked me a whole lot of questions and I tried to understand what they were all about. There were three people. The boss kept in the background and asked nothing, he just listened. Two policemen tried a “cross-examination”, the third tried to “befriend” me. He said stuff like “I am an Alevi, I once had an Arab Alevi as a girlfriend” and so on. I understood very quickly, that this initial contact was basically about bending the whole thing towards me being an agent. They asked, “Why do you go to Hatay so often?” or “Did you build ties with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation [A German foundation linked to the Social Democratic Party (SPD); editor’s note]? Did you get funds from this foundation from abroad?” Of course I knew such games, but I could not hide my surprise. After all, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) is a legal institution with an office in Istanbul. You don’t need to have foreigners getting in contact with them, you can go there directly if you want to build connections; you can also contact the foundation directly if you have any questions. All this in addition to the fact that I have not organized any funding from the FES. Most of the questions they asked me that day I was not asked by the prosecutor later. Otherwise, there was nothing special in police custody, except what you already know: twice extended, direct reception of the court statement without a statement to the police, and so on.

How it went with the prosecutor, you probably already know that in rough terms. I did not know that my defense would become public – I did not think of such a possibility when I defended myself to the prosecutor. In general, we assumed that, although the matter itself was not fair, he would nevertheless listen to us with a minimum of seriousness and therefore a release would be very likely. Perhaps it would have been better if we had read them the riot act. Well, what’s done is done, lesson learned. Turkey is in a transitional period and many people are often unsure as to how to behave. In hindsight, it turned out that our statements were useless anyway.

If we look at the process, analyze what has happened and look at the general conditions in Turkey, I can sum up some key points. Obviously, my arrest is not a hostage case as Deniz Yücel’s case was. It does not resemble the Brunson case either. In the course of trying to silence the entire democratic opposition in Ankara, those people also rang on my doorbell. I raised my voice for a democratic republic and supported democratic struggles. During the search, the police also took a lot of books out of my apartment, in particular various books about politics and books on the Turkish left. It is quite normal for a political scientist to read such books. The prosecutor focused on these books and also asked me me about an article I had written for Jacobin. I was presented with a translation of a text explaining the Kurdish Question. Also the book of Ismail [Küpeli, the editor, entitled Fight for Kobanê, Fight for the Future of the Middle East, 2015; editor’s note] came up. It was even claimed that I am the author of this book. I had to explain to them that I am not the author of the book, that the book is a collection of articles, and that I have written one article in the book, together with others. The police also said during their “interrogation” that I insulted the President [Erdoğan; editor’s note] in an article I wrote. I have denied the accusation pointing out that I always formulate criticisms in political terminology and urged them to submit the article to me and to go over it with me. My point being, during the process they tried to “figure out” who I am. But there is nothing to “figure out”. As I have already said, I am a socialist and writer and stand behind everything I have done.

The prison

I already described our prison routine. In Sincan 1 we did not have our books, so we could not establish any routine there. It was not until October 3rd or 4th that we received our books in Sincan 2. Since then we established our routine. I will soon write in detail about life in prison. I have plans to write about the (spatial) creativity in prison – “How do I make a sponge out of a huge water reservoir and what do I need it for?” and similar questions – about prison attitudes and how to impose oneself on space and time.
Here I would like to follow the course of our detention and briefly describe how we were treated up until this point. In Sincan 1, there were no problems at all. The guards have always behaved professionally and politely. Sincan 2 has not been quite like that. Already on the first day we were shouted at for no reason, having not provoked them in any way. We were threatened: “Do not mess with us, otherwise…”. We are not in jail for messing around or for useless clashes. We do not want to waste our time here, nor do we want to brawl. If we are punished because of our political views, then we will use the time in prison as productively as possible, evolve, learn everything there is to learn to become stronger, more mature, to get out of here with more knowledge and abilities. Why should we waste our time with useless verbal blunders? We want to focus on our work. Which does not mean that we will accept everything with “yes, Amen”. Ultimately we have something to prepare for. After all, we have to build a truly free, democratic and green world, and our efforts will not end “until the face of the world is the face of love” [poem by the Turkish poet Adnan Yücel; editor’s note].

And this leads us to today. I will write several times in the next few weeks. But it takes a few weeks before the letters arrive anyway, plus you can’t rely on getting them (starting with the letter commission). I will tell you a bit about life here.
The discussions here are a pleasure; I even find that some topics can be better extrapolated here than outside. I have to admit that being in a cell with Mithat is a great blessing. At first, when I came to this new environment, I had been thrown off a few times. In the meantime, I have learned so much.

Thanks again and best regards to all.
Take good care of yourself, hugs,
Best regards,

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