The artist Zehra Doğan didn’t let Turkish prison break her. She became – thanks to the community of political prisoners – even stronger and more productive there.
You were in different prisons around Turkey for 600 days. When I read your letters from prison, I had the impression that it was a time that was more than just terrible.
In Turkey there’s a tradition of prison literature and prison art. When you’re imprisoned, you’re not only put in a cell, but you also dive into a new current of life, in which you can go through intense experiences. That’s also what happened to me.
You painted while you were in prison. 70 of these pictures will be exhibited at the Gorki in Berlin in February 2021. You also kept a journal in prison, wrote stories and a novel. At the same time, there were days when you stood in the queue for hours to go to the toilet.
This is how it was with the toilet: There were too few toilets for too many women. When I had diarrhoea, as soon as I was done with the toilet, I had to straight go back into the queue. As for my productivity in prison: Actually, I’m lazy. But the political prisoners take discipline very seriously. From seven in the morning to twelve at night. I let myself be swept up in that. It also helps with depression. It wasn’t easy for me to adapt to this work discipline. But the other women pushed me a lot. And besides, journalists who had written about me were also imprisoned, so I felt responsible. I wanted to document everything. That’s why we had the idea for a magazine that would denounce the breaches of law committed by prison authorities.
At night you wrote letters to your friend Naz Öke by moonlight?
During the day I had so much to do that only the night was left for my private letters. That was a lot of letters because I asked Naz to send me letters every day. She left the back sides of the papers empty so that we had paper to write on. My first cartoon was on one of those back sides of a letter.
You’re a political activist, you paint and write. In prison the discipline of the political prisoners drove you to work, what are you doing now?
I didn’t fall back into my old laziness. There’s a lot to be done now. All kinds of projects, conferences, commissions. Women’s magazines are asking me to design their covers. If I hadn’t learned how to discipline myself in prison, I couldn’t do all of the things I do now. Now I’m motivated in a completely different way than I was before I was in prison.
When did you meet Naz Öke?
When I was in Nusaybin in 2015.
That’s the Kurdish city that was flattened by the Turkish military shortly thereafter.
Yes, and they celebrated that victory by publishing a photo of the destruction on the front pages of the big Turkish newspapers. I used this photo to make a painting of the act in 2016, and that’s what I was sent to prison for. In 2015 I went to Nusaybin for an assignment. At that time, Naz was in France and reporting on the situation. She had heard about a drawing journalist in the city, so she called me. That's how we got to know each other for the first time. That’s how we met for the first time. Then we started to work together. But we only really got to know each other through the letters from prison.
In your letters you write about pigeons that live with the prisoners and build their nests in the barbed wire. You had the impression, you write, the pigeons wanted to say something to you. What kind of message was it?
We discussed it for hours at the time. At first we thought: The barbed wire protects them and their children from the cats. But then we saw there were pigeons that got caught in the barbed wire and were severely injured. Some died. The whole world was open to them. Why did they come here? It seemed like the fate of the Kurds to me. The world was also open to them, and now we live in mortal danger like these pigeons. That’s probably why we had so much sympathy for these birds.
The title of your book is Nous aurons aussi de beaux jours (We Will See Beautiful Days).
In prison I met a 28-year-old woman, mother of two children, who was sentenced to three years and four months because she wore a guerrilla costume to a party. Her father had been sentenced to nine years in prison, at that point she wasn’t even ten years old. Soon after her mother joined the armed resistance. She hasn’t heard anything from her since. At the age of ten she was suddenly responsible for her five siblings. She expected nothing more from life. But this verse by the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wouldn’t get out of her head. That left a big impression on me.
What do your parents do?
There’s not much to say about my parents. They’re about 70 years old. I’m the eighth of nine children. Our relationship is defined by one thing: They’ve waited their whole lives for me. When I went out onto the streets despite the curfew, they stayed up every night and waited to see if I would come back whole. When I was in Nusaybin for a long time, my parents waited, full of fear. When I was in prison, they waited again. In prison I would be very unhappy from time to time and thought, »better dead than here.« However, when they visited me in prison for the first time, they were very happy. I didn’t understand that at first. But they had thought I was dead. So they were happy to see that I was alive.
Were friends allowed to come as well?
Just family and only five people at once. And I was allowed to provide the names of three friends who were supposed to visit me. But two could never come. They were wanted by the police. That’s why, in all that time, just one single friend visited me in prison.
Will we ever see beautiful days? Will there ever be a world without prisons?
This belief in the future is a necessity in prison. I had it there and I’m trying to maintain it. I am sure that our system will be destroyed at some point. But perhaps it will take so long that I won’t live to see it. When we just look at Turkey, I think that it cannot be that long until the Kurds see more beautiful days. But I won’t be able to enjoy them. Too many people have been killed along the way for that ...
So there won’t be any beautiful days?
From an objective perspective, maybe. But for me, probably not.
Will Turkey change its position with regard to the Kurds soon?
When I was on the run from the police and considered escaping to Kurdistan or Europe, a friend said to me: We’ll hide you – no problem. In 15 days this wave of imprisonments will be over and you can leave again. Erdoğan, the regime is under so much pressure, internally and externally, it will give in. That was 2017, right before I was arrested. When I returned from prison, we joked and said to each other: just 15 more days.
What do you mean?
I don’t think that the end of Erdoğan will be the end of the oppression of the Kurds. When I was child, Tansu Çiller was Turkish prime minister from 1993 to 1996. Those were some of the worst years for the Kurds. Two of my uncles were murdered during that time. Many were killed and thrown into watering holes. Turkish was beaten into us Kurdish kids at school. Two times a week we had to line up and solemnly declare: »My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence. How happy is the one who says ›I am a Turk!‹« Erdogan is not the first, and I fear he won’t be the last, to try to destroy the Kurds. Erdogan’s religious views are based on a nationalist foundation that’s steeped in tradition. I don’t think that the Kurds’ future will depend on negotiations between parties. In my opinion, the Turkish people must be ready to ask for forgiveness. Not governments and institutions, but every single Turk should be prepared to ask for forgiveness for everything that happened. A change in government won’t change much. The mentality, even the emotions must change – on both sides – if beautiful days are to come.
If anything, will Europe help even less now than before the refugees arrived?
The conflicts in Turkey and the Turkish government’s interest in solving them with the military has always helped Europe sell its weapons production. Now Europe is using the »refugee question« as an excuse to achieve its geopolitical interests in the Middle East.
Interview: Arno Widmann