This is an English translation done from the French translation of the interview of Zehra Doğan done by Cumhuriyet.
As a reminder, the celebrated newspaper Cumhuriyet has been amputated of a number of its star journalists and, like others, it now practices the self-censorship common in Turkey. Zehra Doğan replied in writing from the prison in Tarsus to questions that were transmitted to her. These answers must thus be read taking into account what this newspaper has become.
Interview by Hilal Köse, published on February 2 2019 in Cumhuriyet’s online and paper editions.
Journalist and artist Zehra Doğan, has been in prison for the past two years. She was accused of propaganda, judged and sentenced for having relayed the journal of a ten year old child during the curfew [note from Kedistan: also for a drawing]. If parole had been available, she would have been freed a long time ago. Since she is held in the political prisoners’ wards, she is not authorized to use this right. Her lawyer’s request is still pending in the Tarsus sentencing judge’s office. And so Zehra creates with whatever her imagination inspires, pencils, ballpoint pens, peelings from pomegranates, iodine, on paper, on sheets… Even notifications from the court serve as a medium. Her works slip across the bars and reach people’s hearts. Answering our questions from Tarsus prison, Doğan says: « People have been taken over by a massive indifference. Frederic Jameson calls this a « diminution of affect ». Women are the ones who can emerge from this terrifying film of greyness and apathy. I have infinite faith in the women’s struggle. And this belief makes be strong. »
Zehra Doğan was recently nominated for the 2019 Index Censorhips freedom of expression prize which honors those fighting against censorship in the fields of journalism, art and digital activism. Doğan could be dischargeable as of the upcoming February 24.
What kind of person are you, Zehra Doğan?
When such a question is put, you stop to think for a moment. I thought long and hard… My family comes from Mardin but I was born in Diyarbakır. I grew up in the most politicised neighborhood in town, in Bağlar. I was raised in a family of nine children, a bit left to the gods…I think I can say what follows about myself: I am someone who changes, who attempts to be herself, constantly searching, teasing, putting her finger on things and stunned every time the bee stings, wondering why all these bees are after me.
Your sentencing, your imprisonment and the support from the outside…How has all that influenced or changed you?
Everyone is shaped by what she sees, what she lives through, the conditions offered to her or the lack of opportunities, and the more we age the more definite the shape becomes. Since my incarceration, what crosses my mind the most is Ibn Haldun’s expression: « geography is destiny ». Everything that happens changes us. If I were not a Kurd, if I had been born in another country, my thoughts would be very different. Death, burned and destroyed villages and towns, suffering, resistance, cries, apathy, all become an eternal habituation, an eternal time of waiting… The fact all this continues without end, the fact that once something is finished, something else follows, creates a huge ball in the pit of your stomach. The pain this engenders in your heart forces you into a constant movement. But, parallel to this, one learns to become strong.
How do you spend you days in prison?
I have learned many things where I am imprisoned. There were times when I spent days and days researching topics that held absolutely no interest for me when I was outside. In this very small space where a number of themes are discussed for hours on end, be they art, literature or history, where opinions and different perspectives are shared in a fresh way every day, I could not have remained the same Zehra as before, no more than my co-detainees have remained as they were the day of their arrival. We change one another, we advance together, and we love one another very much.
I think differently now. In this space where I was placed in order to shut me up, strangely, my mouth never stops.
Have you had any news from the young girl whose notes were the cause of your sentencing?
During the curfew in Nusaybin, I was put up in the home of ten-year old Elif. I found her notes very touching. She had written down what had happened, using her own observations. I had filmed her also. I wish the judge who sentenced me for the article I wrote had seen that video also. While Elif reads her journal, the sounds of explosions and shooting disturb even the person watching the video. I would love to see Elif again. I did her portrait during the curfew. She also loved to draw.
I went to Mardin when I was freed for the first time [release on bail, 2016 Mardin]. I was hoping to see Elif. But there wasn’t a single trace left of the houses. The neighborhoods were surrounded by barbed wire and everything was destroyed. There was construction equipment instead. I don’t know where they are now. But I still hope to see Elif again and to draw with her.
What do you think of what you can follow in the daily news of the country?
I have no opinions on current affairs. Perhaps I do, but I’m afraid to express them. If I say what I think, I will be arrested. Oh, excuse me, I am already in jail? So I do not need to be afraid. I will express myself a bit. It is like a museum, frozen, rooted to the spot. It is obvious that beautiful things have happened in this museum. When we listen carefully, the remains of happy people’s laughter give us a small glimpse of this sediment. But presently, the museum is strange. Objects are exposed in it but we don’t really understand what they are. Above them, there are glaring lights that do not match these objects. This blazing light keeps us from seeing the objects on exhibition, these works that are offered to us. So we accept what we find. After all, we have entered this museum. Something is going on in this museum, but we don’t understand what it is. And I think that since we don’t understand, we are unable to react anymore. Some of us look on with indifference and apathy at what is offered up without giving it any kind of meaning. Others, not seeing well, react strongly and then, everything becomes too showy. And others yet are forced to applaud at what is presented.
This is how I see the country at the moment. As if love, affection, hatred, anger, links, life were controlled and shaped by a kind of social engineering. We have pushed back everything that is non-material. And yet, on these lands, spirituality is the greatest source of life. Everything functions according to a computable, measurable logic. One of your family members is killed, you receive an indemnity. Money occupies the space of the disappeared person. New houses go up where houses were destroyed. It is so simple. Can everything really be so simple?
I am tired of seeing hysterical and neurotic type politicians who never shut their mouths.
If I ask you what your projects are after your liberation…
I would like to pursue my work where it was interrupted. I would like to visit many countries in the Mid-East and inform on women, on the peoples’ struggles, and draw them.
What is the link between drawing and journalism?
I see journalism and art as equal. Because I make the effort of bringing both into existence. For me, it is the effort to express reality. My drawings are mostly on the theme of war. I did not choose this, it comes by itself. Things I’ve experienced, the testimonials, what I could testify to myself is reflected in my drawings. If I were not a journalist, perhaps I would choose other themes. I’ve travelled a lot and met many people. My trade has influenced my choices and my expression.
You are among the women who received the Courage in Journalism Prize from the IWMF. What is courage for you?
I am a woman who lives more with her fears. My fears are always the strongest. This is why I cannot describe courage exactly. Nor do I know if this question has an answer. Yaşar Kemal might answer. When he speaks of Slim Memed, he pays attention to perceptions and social facts. He turns everything upside down. Slim Memed isn’t a strong, fearless and imposing man. Quite the contrary, he has qualities and failings, a true human being. What make Slim Memed is the fact he is himself.
We can see the same thing in Yaşar Kemal’s Story of an island. Once we’ve finished the book, we understand that all the labels we have used were false, even if we still haven’t found the answer.
While he was still alive, I could have waited for days before his door and run to him when he came out, to kiss his hand and say « Thank you. Thank you with all my heart, uncle »…
My drawings, my exhibitions do not promise fabulous masterpieces to anyone. For me artistic considerations alone do not go beyond cultural elitism. [Missing sentences in the article that end with: expressions without the desire to live them, without even being touched by them, put in a jar solely as artistic material, cannot be sincere. They are products from the fortress of cultural elitism. They are nothing but « choosing a topic » and that is meaningless.] An artist who chooses a topic without living and breathing it, shows great arrogance. I have the impression there exists a border on earth. [Missing sentences in the article which end with: « The world of bosses, of elites, is surrounded by barbed wire. Sometimes I wonder if we are the ones quarantined or if they are? » ] Some of us throw ourselves [body and soul] against that border and attempt to break it down. We call this dynamic our courage.
What would you like to say to women?
Support from the outside gives me strength and makes me happy. It makes all the women here happy. This support must go beyond my person and become generalized. There are presently thousands of women in jail. Every one of them has a story worth telling. Mother Sisê who is 86 years old cannot sleep at night because of coughing, high fevers, hypertension.
Since first being incarcerated, I have met dozens of children who are in jail. Here, there is Dersim, 2 years old, Ayşe who is 3, Çınar who is 5. These children have never seen the outside, they do not know what it is like to touch tree leaves, earth. We try to teach them from books. Every time we come back from the walk and cross the hall, Çınar cries and yells « I don’t want to go inside. »She attacks the guards. Dersim and Ayşe are filled with anger. Every time the guards close the close, they frown. They can’t sleep because of the noise. They keep waking up and crying. All three are in different quarters. Ayşe cries out under the door: « I’m here, do you hear me? Çınar, Dersim, are you OK? »
Songül Bağatur has been given a life sentence and has been in jail for 26 years, and other women were punished with the isolation cell for having refused to be counted during their custody. Their liberation was delayed. They will have to stay in jail longer than they should have.
Some friends are on hunger strike to support Leyla Güven [note from Kedistan: freed on January 25 2019, she continues her hunger strike and several prisoners have joined her strike in a number of prisons.]
And in this climate, the women continue to laugh. They smile and keep on hoping.
What emotions inspire you when you draw?
People have been taken over by a massive indifference. Frederic Jameson calls this a « diminution of affect ». Women are the ones who can emerge from this terrifying film of greyness and apathy. I have infinite faith in the women’s struggle. And this belief makes be strong. »
The human body is like lands without beginning and without end. There is an infinite and limpid road in the abyss of the eyes. This deep, long and mysterious road is much in evidence in women’s eyes. I am very impressed by women’s eyes. They bewitch me and give me conviction.
I would like to serve as a go-between for the salutations from all the women resisting in jail to all the women outside and to all the women who struggle.