From tortured prisoner to Harvard graduate

by Colman McCarthy

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Unexpectedly, emotions overcame Gulsat Aygen. A tenured and full professor of linguistics at Northern Illinois University, she was in the audience in mid-January at a concert honoring Martin Luther King Jr., staged by the Chicago Sinfonietta in the city's Orchestra Hall.

At the end, the crowd spontaneously sang "We Shall Overcome." As Aygen joined in -- she recalls "holding hands with some strangers yet feeling very close to them" -- memories came, touching her soul and carrying her back more than three decades, when she was a political prisoner in Turkey from March 10, 1981, to Sept. 13, 1986.

The civil rights anthem was a song she taught her fellow inmates at the scabrous Mamak military prison in Ankara. Aygen, a 21-year-old pacifist and medical student, had been rounded up under martial law in the mass arrests of unionists, journalists, artists, writers and other "suspected extremists." On the day she was being shipped east to the Metris military prison in Istanbul, prisoners behind their bars said farewell by singing "We Shall Overcome."

The story of how a former prisoner of conscience -- one of as many as 100,000 by the count of a 1984 Amnesty International report -- survived the torture chambers of Turkish prisons, and went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard and win a teaching post at an American university is one I have closely followed. It is the story of a woman who never gave up, wore out or sold out.

On May 5, 1984, I wrote an op-ed column about Aygen for The Washington Post titled "Torture Turkish Style." Weeks later, The New York Times ran a news story about the country's human rights violations and an editorial, "Bad Show -- in Turkey."

Aside from the Amnesty report, one of my sources about Aygen's imprisonment was her older sister, Nursat, a summa cum laude graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia and an economist in New York City. To get a follow-up column, which ran Aug. 12, 1984, I took her to meet Elliott Abrams, the Reagan administration's assistant secretary of state for human rights. Surely, he will intercede, Nursat believed, once he learns the details of torture.

It didn't happen. Full of himself, his total disinterest in the Aygen case was matched by his arrogant dismissal of groups like Helsinki Watch and Amnesty International. The latter reported that torture in Turkish prisons was "widespread and systematic."

Shortly after our meeting, Abrams escalated his nastiness in a Times op-ed, in which he attacked the groups for their "appalling shallowness," for being "ill-informed and self-righteous," and for their "shrill and uninformed criticisms" of Turkey.

A month earlier, Abrams, who would be convicted in 1991 of unlawfully withholding information from Congress, had been to Ankara, there to praise the Turkish military government for the "extraordinary progress" it has made in "replacing chaos with democratic development."

Recalling her years in prison, in which her torture included hanging from her wrists naked, blindfolded and electrically shocked, Aygen told me recently, "My major source of strength was my faith in humanity. I always looked for its signs even under torture, and tried to remind my torturers of my human values."

During one session, as recounted to Jeri Laber of Helsinki Watch, who did more than anyone to work for Aygen's eventual release, she "heard the head torturer complaining about a pain in his stomach. I suggested a pill that he could take, something I learned from my studies, and later he came and thanked me. And he was the one who was torturing me. But he was also a human being who could feel a pain in his stomach. I think that when he was hurting me, he was killing something human in himself."

After her release from prison -- all charges were dismissed -- Aygen taught English as a private tutor and translator of books and articles. In 1992, she returned to college, switching from medicine to languages, eventually earning a master's in linguistics. Her strong academic record earned her a scholarship to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and a doctorate in 2002.

At Harvard, she was mentored by an empathetic Noam Chomsky. "He was never formally my professor," Aygen recalls, "but I learned a lot from his feedback. ... I have always considered him a friend because he is a friend of the oppressed. After I left Cambridge, I asked him to write letters for me. He did and he always supported me. I have considered myself privileged because he always had time for me. I have visited him whenever I went back to Cambridge for a conference or to teach a summer course at Harvard."

Without doubt, on her next visit with Chomsky, Aygen will give him a copy of her new book, English Grammar: A Descriptive Linguistic Approach, an engrossing text scented with both practical instruction and enduring wisdom.

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. His new book is Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: From tortured prisoner to Harvard graduate.

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