Author Dogan Akhanli receives Goethe Medal | Arts | DW | 28.08.2019
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Author Dogan Akhanli receives Goethe Medal

Together with Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and the Mongolian publisher Enkhbat Roozon, the German-Turkish author has been honored by the Goethe-Institut. Akhanli talked with DW about his writing — and state persecution.

In a Berlin café, Dogan Akhanli sits with an espresso and bites on a biscuit. The Turkish-born writer who has focused his work on 20th century genocides — and dissidents like himself who have had to flee political violence — is talking about his exile in Germany after seeking asylum in the early 1990s.

"Here I found the peace to think about everything I've experienced," Akhanli told DW, explaining about how he found the inspiration to write for the first time in Germany. "My wife, my child and I were all tortured. We were injured people when we got here."

"But I did not want to accept those injustices done to me, my family, and the entire society," he added. "I used writing as my weapon. That was the only thing I could do. That was my way of raising my voice and resisting."

Read moreSpain drops extradition proceedings of Turkish-German writer Dogan Akhanli

Early politics and exile

Akhanli was born in 1957 in southeastern Turkey, in the province of Artvin near the Georgian border. As a 12-year-old he was sent to school in Istanbul, where he studied history and pedagogy and became politically involved after joining the banned Revolutionary Communist Party of Turkey (TDKP). Following the 1980 military coup in Turkey, he went underground.

Along with his wife and his 16-month-old son, Akhanli was arrested in May 1985 and spent two years as a political prisoner in a military jail in Istanbul. In 1992 he escaped from Turkey and was granted political asylum in Germany. He has since lived in Cologne. Turkey denied him citizenship after he'd refused Turkish military service.

Akhanli deals with violence in his writings. Not only with the violence he personally experienced, but also violence against women and minorities, and historical violence during the Armenian genocide as well as the Holocaust.

Buchcover Madonnas letzter Traum von Doğan Akhanlı

"Madonna's Last Dream" has been translated into German

Four of his novels have been translated into German, including his most recent, Madonna's Last Dream, which revives the journey of the Struma, a refugee ship sunk in the Black Sea in 1942, killing around 780 Jewish refugees on board who were fleeing the Nazis.

Turkish state persecution

Since going into exile, the writer has continually been targeted by the Turkish government. When he visited his sick father in Turkey in 2010, he was arrested upon arriving in the country. The authorities accused him of involvement in a robbery in 1989. After spending several months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.

During a holiday in Granada in 2017, Akhanli was arrested by the Spanish police in his hotel room following an Interpol request from Turkey. German politicians and the international writers' association PEN, of which Akhanli is a member, say the arrest was politically motivated.

"The violation of human rights and the restriction of freedom of expression has greatly increased," said Akhanli of the situation in Turkey since the failed coup d'état in 2016. Writers and journalists are particularly affected.

"The government's strategy is to silence the voices of writers and journalists in order to prevent the exchange of information," the dissident said. "The fact that thousands of academics, trade unionists and journalists are being forced to leave Turkey is hurting the country," he added.

"In the end it is Turkey who loses, because all of this only leads to a dead end. The only thing we can do from here is to show solidarity with the people in prison and to be their mouthpiece."

Culture of remembrance

The perennial focus of Dogan Akhanli's 25-year writing career has been arbitrary violence and the abuse of power, the worst excesses ocurring during the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide of 1915-17.

His writing about these darkest chapters in history aims to ensure that the past does not repeat itself. He is also involved in civil society organizations such as "Flight, Exile and Persecution," a project that explores the Armenian-German-Turkish relationship in light of Nazism and the genocide in Armenia carried out by the Ottomans.

"With great clarity and without simplifications, he commits himself to the culture of remembrance and the dialogue of cultures. His poetry is truth, a bitter truth, beautifully interwoven in his novels, plays and essays, which contributes in a special way to understanding among nations," said the jury statement when Akhanli was honored with the Goethe Medal.

'Poetry and truth'

Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, who lives in the US, and the Mongolian publisher, bookseller and political publicist Enkhbat Roozon are also awarded the Goethe-Institut's official Badge of Honor of the Federal Republic of Germany for their commitment to international cultural exchange. The theme of this year's Goethe Medal is "Poetry and Truth." 

The medal is presented on August 28, the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann. The award "recognizes three internationally active individuals whose artistic work is characterized by their intense engagement with social reality and the relationship between truth and fiction," Lehmann said.

Between East and West

Shirin Neshat, born in Iran in 1957, moved to San Francisco in 1979 during the Iranian revolution. Now living and working in New York and Berlin, she is a photographer, filmmaker and artist who fuses politics and poetry.

Preisträger der Goethe-Medaille 2019 | Shirin Neshat (Rodolfo Martinez)

Shirin Neshat

"The battle she fights is a battle between worlds," said the jury. "With her art she campaigns for the situation of women in the Muslim world and at the same time against one-sided views of Islam. In doing so, she deals productively with the tensions between Western and Eastern cultural traditions."

Read moreIn exile: The artist Shirin Neshat

The third prize-winner, Mongolian-based publisher, bookseller and journalist Enkhbat Roozon, was born in 1958 and studied in Leipzig at the Academy of Visual Arts. In his homeland, he first worked in the field of photography before beccoming a publisher. He set up his own business with a printing house, founded a publishing house and set up a bookstore chain.

In Mongolia, Enkhbat Roozon is considered a "driving force for an open, critical and responsible civil society – without regard to any personal disadvantages. With his journalism and publishing work, he attempts to uncover inconvenient truths in Mongolian society and in particular to improve its educational system," the Goethe Medal jury declared.

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