Officially, the linguist was charged with “unlicensed construction in a historical heritage site” — apparently the only person ever jailed for such a crime in a country that’s a haven for illegal construction projects (estimated at half of all buildings), including the gargantuan presidential palace.
Nişanyan’s prison break is no grand tale of a meticulously planned great escape. “It was ridiculously easy — I just walked away. We had made lots of preparations, which turned out to be entirely useless,” he chuckles over the phone from Athens, where he’s now applied for political asylum. His voice is youthful and his English near-flawless.
At the time of his escape, Nişanyan was on a day pass from the Foça Open Prison, not exactly a maximum-security facility, where he spent “a lot of time drinking rakı with friends” since being transferred there last April. He’d been contemplating his getaway since 2015 when he realized he wasn’t going to be granted parole any time soon, and decided to go through with it when he was transferred from a maximum-security facility to Foça. “New verdicts kept piling on so that I would conceivably spend the rest of my life in jail.”
As for his exodus to Greece, Nişanyan prefers to keep that bit under wraps. “Well, Turkey has a long coastline, that’s all I’ll say,” he quips, I imagine with a wink.
Nişanyan, a graduate of Yale and Columbia, whittled away his time locked up by writing, reading, and debating with his fellow inmates — “professional thieves, drug sellers, plenty of murderers, organized gang personnel, armed robbers, wife-stabbers, con artists, the lot.” He spent 3.5 years of an 11.5-year prison sentence in eight facilities, not all of which were quite as pleasant as Foça. “A couple of them were horrible,” he tells me. “[There was] extraordinary overcrowding. 120 people in a ward designed for 40.”
Since the failed putsch on July 15, 2016, about 50,000 people have been thrown into increasingly overcrowded prisons in a massive purge of coup suspects and all manner of government opponents. Many are jailed simply for having fallen afoul of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his religious conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). Nişanyan’s incarceration, though predating the purge, seems no different.
The staunchly atheist, anti-nationalist iconoclast, in a by and large religious, conservative, overwhelmingly nationalistic, and rigidly ideological country, has irked a lot of powerful people across the political spectrum. In 2013, a prosecutor charged Nişanyan with religious defamation (eventually overthrown on a technicality) after he wrote a blog post defending freedom of expression, which contained the following sentence about the Prophet Muhammad:
It is not [a] “hate crime” to poke fun at some Arab leader who, many hundreds of years ago, claimed to have established contact with the Deity and made political, economic, and sexual profit as a result.
These were fighting words for the AKP, which emerged from the prominent Millî Görüş Islamist movement. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ called Nişanyan’s comment a “hate crime” and said “only ill-spirited people show such delirium.” The pro-government press vilified him; demonstrations called for his death.
By way of explaining the real reason for his imprisonment, Nişanyan cites the hundred-year-old memoirs of American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau. “The Turks think they’re unable to run the country without oppressing the intellectuals. This was an observation made more than 100 years ago. I think the Turkish government is incapable of grasping how to keep the country together without shutting up people who talk,” Nişanyan says. “Regardless of what government comes to power, sooner or later it ends up arresting all actual and potential dissidents.”
Since the failed coup, the current government has dismissed or suspended well over 150,000 civil servants, academics, journalists, members of the judiciary, military officers, and police, mostly on vague terror-related charges and often with no evidence presented. “I think it’s madness,” Nişanyan says. “I think they have no idea how to run the country and they’ve gone berserk. I try to find logic behind the governing style of Mr. Erdoğan, and I fail to understand.”
Nişanyan wasn’t any easier on Turkey’s previous rulers, being a constant thorn in the side of the Kemalists — nationalist, ultra-secularist devotees of the Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who used to dominate the military, bureaucracy, and economy. Nişanyan’s most controversial book, The Wrong Republic (2008), challenged the founding myths of the nation. His insistence on discussing the Armenian Genocide, back when the subject was even more taboo than it is now (the Turkish government and most Turks deny it was in fact a genocide, contradicting most historians), infuriated all the major political factions.
For Nişanyan, Kemalists and Islamists, whom commentators often contrast as opposites, are two sides of the same coin. “I think they’re identical. The Turkish paranoid block is a single entity. Sometimes it comes forward as the Atatürkist line, which is essentially 1930s Nazism in a Turkish style, and at times it comes forward with an Islamic rhetoric, but the basic mentality is the same. [It’s] one of fear, a very profound feeling that unless you’re very nasty, the state will collapse and what will we do? They’ll kick us out of this country and send us back to Central Asia.”
Nişanyan is an ardent critic of Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — Atatürk’s old party, which has long been criticized for being out of touch and lethargic, though it managed to unite the opposition recently in a major Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul. “My impression is that the [CHP] has been the strongest supporter and one of the pillars of the current political situation. The reason why Erdoğan wins every election is because the alternative is so miserable, so shitty, and so electorally hopeless that in desperation, because of a lack of alternative, people end up voting for Erdoğan.”
Such contrarian views and his minority background has made Nişanyan into an ultimate Other in what can often be an aggressively conformist society. “I must confess I am a bit of an outsider everywhere. That may be why I finally felt in my true element when I began building my quasi-autonomous domain in the little village of Şirince some quarter of a century ago. Then we started growing too big, and naturally came into greater contact and greater friction with the wider world, where I would never fit from day one.”
In 1995, Nişanyan moved to a moribund, formerly Greek village near Turkey’s Aegean coast, and eventually transformed it into a sort of personal utopia. Şirince was declared a national heritage site and soon became a top tourist attraction, known for its sweet fruit wines and restored boutique cottages. It was these constructions that eventually landed Nişanyan in jail. He also co-founded — with his friend, the famous mathematician Ali Nesin — a series of top-notch, unorthodox mathematics, philosophy, and theater schools in the village, hosting prominent academics from around the world.
Nişanyan’s personal philosophy is one of enlightenment and beauty. “I detest ignorance; I cannot tolerate ugliness,” he says. “I really think that is the gist of it. It causes me almost physical revulsion. I have tried to create some beautiful and modestly intelligent spaces in my village; I have tried to write with wit and elegance on a number of topics where brutal ignorance reigns in this country. That’s it really. Political ideologies and sloganeering leave me cold. There are lots of intelligent people in Turkey who now feel abject and dejected and hopeless, but this cannot last forever.”
Nişanyan hasn’t given up on his homeland, and the country’s young people fill him with hope. “Regardless of what the president rants and raves about, the great majority of young people in Turkey are very much attuned to the outside world, and they hope and expect and wish to be citizens of the world,” he says. “There is plenty of ignorance but also plenty of goodwill and tolerance in the soul of the proverbial Turk in the street. It is the Turkish state that is paranoid.”
Nişanyan concedes, however, that many of the country’s best and brightest are fleeing in droves, whether they’re political targets or simply those with the means to move to a more stable country. “Yes, it is a problem. Maybe we’re taking over Europe, who knows,” he jokes.
As for his future plans, Nişanyan is saddened by having joined the ever-growing ranks of Turkish exiles, but he remains “possibly unrealistic, but certainly optimistic” about the future. “I think the current madness in Turkey cannot really last too long.” In the meantime, he has four unfinished books to write. “I suspect that they’ll keep me very busy for the next year. I intend to stay in one of the Greek islands, I think. Maybe I’ll do some fishing.”
Nick Ashdown is a Canadian freelance journalist, writer, and photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.