Sitting on the balcony at the Izmir Palace Hotel in Turkey, gazing at the silvery vista, the sky is beginning to lift after a storm. Blackbirds, seagulls, and pigeons swoop down and bicker over a crust of bread. Peaceful and quiet, fishermen cast out their lines. The occasional passerby strolls down the path, walking a dog. I feel happy to have escaped the news. But at the same time, I think of the recent brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and wonder if there are any developments in the case. The nature of the murder is a reminder of the courage needed to speak and write freely, especially under an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, murders of journalists and writers have become commonplace under Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia. They are also reminiscent of the murders of writers and intellectuals under Joseph Stalin. I think of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sent to the gulag in Siberia for writing a sardonic poem about Stalin’s “ten thick worms for fingers.” His wife, Nadezhda, preserved much of his work by memorizing his poems—even writing them on paper was too dangerous.
Two novelists who write extensively about surveillance, interrogation, and the power of the authoritarian state are the prominent Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera. In Ibrahim’s novel The Committee, the narrator is accused of being disloyal to the state and appears before an interrogation committee to clear his name. In his briefcase, he brings “testimonials” that will vouch for his honesty; however, the committee forces him to strip naked and are not interested in denials or testimonials. The goal is humiliation and intimidation, not justice, or any kind of rendering of the truth. The evidence he carries in his briefcase is useless because the verdict is preordained: he is “an enemy of the state.”
In The Committee, the state has a file on the narrator but its contents are mysterious—and the charges against him are also a riddle. He is followed home by a committee member who monitors his every movement and even watches him defecate. A commentary on the atmosphere during the Nasser era in Egypt, it is suggested that everything in the flat is being recorded. Seeing the video of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and of two henchman joking after the killing, one realizes how sophisticated today’s surveillance methods have become since the 1960s and 1970s. And if we consider the fact that the Turkish government has an audio recording of Khashoggi’s execution within the Saudi Consulate—which President Trump famously refuses to listen to—one might also reflect upon the pernicious nature of paranoia of autocratic governments.
Milan Kundera, like Sonallah Ibrahim, also explores paranoia and surveillance. In his novella Lost Letters from his collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, even the most innocent and personal of documents—love letters—threaten to the state. The heroine in Lost Letters, a waitress named Tamina, is desperate to reclaim love letters from her late husband, which she left in her mother-in-law’s flat in Bohemia. Since he was an opposition figure, the love letters are of particular interest to the secret police. Tamina’s brother attempts to reclaim the letters from the flat in Bohemia, but someone has already rifled through the notebooks and papers. Nothing is private in the authoritarian state, even love letters in a forgotten desk.
For Jamal Khashoggi, the most innocuous and benign of documents—the state’s certification that one can marry a national from another country—turned out to be a trap. It is now early March—three months since I was looking off the balcony of the Izmir Palace Hotel at the bay. I wondered what would happen in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. A few weeks ago, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings reported that the “brutal and premeditated killing was planned and perpetuated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia.” The view out my window in Cairo is not the Izmir Bay, but a pink palace, a villa, home of a music institute—the occasional rare melody from a talented saxophonist floats up to the fourth floor. Too often it is discord: the repetition of the same note on a piano, the people below quarreling over a parking place, or the blaring of car horns. Pen International and Reporters Without Borders campaign tirelessly for writers and reporters who have been imprisoned or whose voices have been muffled by the state. Whatever the price—and the price is often times, dear: exile, alienation, penury, and even death—writers, intellectuals, and journalists are not destined to be slaves or flatterers of any state, democratic or authoritarian.