Although inevitably set against the backdrop of the grim realities of prison life, the author avoids dwelling too much on the hardships of being incarcerated in a Turkish jail -- the brutality, cold, rats, unhygienic conditions, overcrowding and all the other grim realities of life inside. Instead, each section neatly encapsulates the story of one or two inmates. While some of the characters, based on those de Souza met in jail, may not be the everyday sort of Turks expats bump into during the course of their stay here, the majority nevertheless exhibit many of the interesting and heartwarming characteristics of the “typical” Turk.
The characters de Souza wrote of during his forced stay range from celebrities through to seriously hardened criminals, political prisoners to common criminals, and from children to petty thieves banged up for stealing a couple of oranges. The author was imprisoned in 1975 and spent two years of a life sentence in prisons in İstanbul, İzmir and Antakya. The background of violence is heightened by the undercurrent of the political events happening on the outside, especially the military coup of 1980, which imposed tighter restrictions and an atmosphere of fear throughout the country. According to de Souza, the prison guards' authority was usurped by soldiers, leading to conflict not only between the prisoners and their jailors but also between the prison workers and the military.
The message of the book -- that it is futile to take away a person's liberty and then expect them to reform their behavior -- is beautifully highlighted on the first page in a comment by a Pakistani prisoner. On being given a present in the form of a white pigeon by a couple of young soldiers, much to their surprise he immediately releases the bird, explaining gently, “It's wrong to lock anybody in a cage, even a bird.” That the suffering endured by all the inmates is counterproductive becomes clear by the number of those who, when released, reoffend and are returned to prison within months.
De Souza, at one point in his sojourn, finds himself hospitalized for a short time and meets one of Turkey's most famous film actors and directors, Yılmaz Güney, then aged 42, who was serving an 18-year sentence for the politically motivated murder of a judge. The author is fascinated by Güney's friendship with Lynus, an Irish manual worker. Despite the huge difference between their backgrounds, language and culture, the two form a close bond through studying parallel texts of fiction in Turkish and English. Lynus, as it happens, is dying and wishes nothing more than to be allowed to die in his home country. It is Yılmaz who leads an ultimately successful campaign to force the authorities to release Lynus and allow his return to his native land.
Another section deals with Mustafa, the quiet and unassuming director of education for the prison. With the help of influential prisoners, he finds loopholes in the system to bypass the prosecutor's hostility to the project. With the support of prisoners from all walks of life, he succeeds in painting and equipping a school building, not just once but twice after it was vandalized by a group of hostile fundamentalists. His hard work and dedication are finally rewarded at the end with a standing ovation by everyone -- convicts and prison staff alike.
Then there is Mesut, a left-wing activist initially sentenced to death for the murder of a police informer, whose charismatic personality and leadership skills enable him to acquire a prestigious status within the prison system, giving him access to numerous benefits. Surprisingly, his sentence was successfully appealed and reduced to life instead. He then took advantage of an offer to turn informer in exchange for a number of privileges. At this point, his popularity amongst the other prisoners, needless to say, plummeted, so drastically he was shunned by all, even other prisoners involved in informing.
Erin was an 18-year-old student from a middle class family, slung into jail after hitting a police officer following a drunken night celebrating his exam results. He was taken under the wing of Abdullah Chitin, a notoriously hard criminal who ruled the roost of a slightly more salubrious dorm within the prison. Even after both were released from prison, they shared an apartment, and Erin, rather than returning to his parents and former, promising life, imitating his new found hero, took to a life of crime, resulting in many a return visit to the prison.
Then there was Hassan, a rough and dangerous criminal, transferred every six months between prisons as a security measure. Although only in his 40s, this notorious villain had become a toothless, stooped, white-haired figure. In his earlier years, he had commanded a mixture of fear and respect from other inmates. Surprisingly, he could transform himself from a swaggering criminal to an “ude”-playing singer with the greatest of ease. He sang of romance and tragedy and was able to blend themes from prison life into his spontaneous music in such a way that grown murderers were frequently reduced to laughter or tears by his music and poetry. Siding with the Marxist faction amongst the political prisoners, however, eventually brought about his downfall. Even the prison guard, Ismail, a childhood neighbor of Hassan, was unable to lessen the severity of the beatings and torture, which finally reduced Hassan to a shadow of his former self.
The wrongly convicted
Then there is the heartbreaking story of Turan, a scrawny boy of 11, convicted of stealing two oranges and thrown into the prison system at this tender age only to emerge several years later as a hardened criminal. Nonetheless, he makes strong friendships and shows a great sense of loyalty to others in the system. He moves up the unofficial prison hierarchy until he is in a position to offer his protection services to new inmates.
Nahim is another example of the wrongly convicted, a plumber who spent most of his working life in Germany, sending home his hard-earned money to his wife to buy land and build a house. On his return, he found that his wife had run off with a neighbor and sold their property. After Nahim approached the wife's lover asking for recompense, the police mysteriously found a supply of drugs in his car, and he was duly convicted and sentenced. Nahim cunningly landed himself the job of prison plumber and showed great business initiative in so thoroughly reorganizing the plumbing system that, even long after his release, he was the only plumber able to fix it.
The book is full of many warm, sympathetic snapshots of inmates -- people who despite the inhumanity of their incarceration display friendship, loyalty, respect and love for one another. Above all, de Souza's is a hopeful book, best illustrated through Ayşe, a prostitute who is in and out of jail on a regular basis, and on one of her returns, turns out to be pregnant. Not only do the inmates take a great interest in her health and well-being, they take to knitting baby blankets, building a crib and embroidering sheets. Some of the inmates felt that the baby would be better off in an orphanage, but the author argues that at least in the prison, “she's got a hundred doting aunts and three thousand uncles. She's like a princess of the underworld.”
Daniel de Souza was eventually released. Remarkably, he was so captivated by the spirit and warmth of the Turks he met in prison that he chose to live in Turkey.