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By Roberto Saviano  published in Corriere della Sera on November 26 2021

YES, WORDS ARE EVERYTHING AND THOSE WHO ATTACK US KNOW IT

Every year on November 15, PEN International holds a day dedicated to imprisoned writers, shedding light on cases of writers persecuted because of words they wrote, declaimed, pronounced, but mostly because their words were heard.  Words alone are rarely as frightening as  those who support and spread them. The PEN’s Committee for imprisoned writers asked me to write a letter to Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish writer and opposition political leader currently imprisoned in Turkey. He is seen on the photo I chose this week. On the right, during a public meeting, in prison on the left. Selahattin is smiling on both photos, but you’ll have no trouble seeing the differences between the two smiles.

Dear Selahattin,

I am writing to you today as the number of days of your detention approaches 2 000. Thinking about the enormity of that figure hurts, it hurts knowing you were not liberated as expected by the European Tribunal of Human Rights. Thus, in Turkey, you are arrested, judged and sentenced for your words. You are arrested, judged and sentenced for your life journey, which is not a criminal one, but a journey of thought, of sharing, of study.

The “evidence” they claim in order to confirm your “guilt” consists of your public speeches, the words you spoke and that were reported by the media…no criminal activity, but words. For us, who are in the field of words, words are everything, and those who accuse us for our words know this well. They know that each word we think, write and pronounce represents us. They know we are ready to sacrifice everything to defend those words. We may be wrong, but that’s how it is.

EVEN THOUGH THEY TRIED TO DEPRIVE YOU OF THE POSSIBILITY OF FREELY DISPOSING OF YOUR BODY, YOU HAVE NOT KEPT SILENT

My situation cannot be compared to yours, but I’ve often been asked if I regret my words and their consequences of my life. I’ve always answered tat I am not a hero, that I never aspired to being one, that I only wrote what I thought was the right thing to write and that, had I known what I would experience, I might have stopped sooner. I don’t know if, knowing all that I know today, I would have done it, except in order to confirm that criminal organisations fear the story – the word! – as if it were  a weapon. This induces an awareness from which it is impossible to turn back. It is the cornerstone to my life: the power of the word, of civilian involvement, of denunciation, of defending the voiceless ones.

THE STATUE OF GIORDANO BRUNO, BURNED ALIVE IN 1600 SEEMS TO TELL US: “LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENS TO A MAN WHO SPEAKS” 

My dear Selahattin, you know of Giordano Bruno, a philosopher from my country. He is the one toward whom I turn when I consider that the suffering I lived through wasn’t worth it. On February 17 1600, Giordano Bruno was taken to the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, undressed on the public square and burned alive on firewood. Where he was burned there now stands a bronze statue  that observes us even when we try to ignore it. I cannot ignore it, so every time I lift my eyes, the statue seems to tell me: “Look at what happens to a man who speaks !”  Bruno understood that all men are made of the same substance; moreover, that the universe, of which we are but a small part, is also made of the same substance, having as sole rule to harmonise itself in its infinite diversity and infinite possibilities.

Imagine the marvellous symphony of freedom and fear it generates in any power that wants to centralise, control, establish borders to reasoning and block off the territory of your being with walls. These infinite worlds – ethical, political, social, human – are truths that die as soon as we cease to defend them, just as law and freedom die when no longer defended.  Bruno would have been saved, if only he had renounced his infinite worlds. But he did not recant, even though he loved life deeply, because, had he denied them, his truths would have been extinguished. There was nothing left but to die in order to affirm them. You, dear Selahattin, have revealed life,   life behind the headlines in Turkey, and you have even put your body on the line to defend these words. And although it is precisely of the possibility of disposing freely of this body that they have wished to deprive you, you have not accepted to be quiet. This is why I am here writing to you, so that my words may walk along beside your own.

Roberto Saviano


Headline photo: During a public meeting for the defence of the Kurdish people, two photos were shown on the same topic, Selahattin Demirtas, writer and opposition politician: on the right, during a public meeting and, o the left, in prison where he has been in detention since close to 2 000 days. (Photo Yasin Akgül/Afp via Getty Images)
Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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