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In which there will be question of little powers, of tiny stamped papers and of our friend Zehra Doğan, a nomad in Europe.
“It is the mark of a monstrous regime such as Nazism to offer small monsters jobs covering an entire continent.”
This is how historian Leon Poliakov analyzed how a chain of bureaucrats and implementers, steeped in a dominant ideology and a sense of impunity obtained through a delegation of power, could, each at his own level, carry out absolute horror.
Of course, he was speaking then of one of the twentieth century genocides. But as Hannah Arendt does also when she writes about “power”, he described how it can play out on the scale of daily life, once humanism is absent from political decisions, when lives and human destinies are at stake.
Without meaning to plaster these analyses on today’s reality, the question of power and of who exercises it in the name of the State at his or her own level, remains current in the same way, when free will no longer reacts to inhumanity but to a collective ideology.
So, precisely: let’s talk about daily life, and of today.
And let’s unroll a casual conversation held with Zehra Doğan, which I summarize, concerning her forced nomadism in Europe and the borders she crosses. Of course, these comments are translated and pulled together from memory, but I’ve retained the essential part.
Zehra may be in a poor position to talk about Europe, and even more so about the European Union. And yet, driven out from the lands where she was born by Turcity and its accompanying systematic repression, she is now a nomad on this continent. She is forced to go through the labyrinth of temporary and residency visa requests, and because she travels, she must show the right door opener each time, drawn from the stack of papers.
Since leaving prison on February 24 2019, contrary to many migrants and thanks to the solidarity that grew up around her, she benefits from an “official” point of landing from which she can travel in response to invitations extended to her as an artist, a feminist and author testifying on the history of her people. But this point of landing remains a paper.
In 2019, the United States refused to give her a visa because her Middle Eastern roots and her prison sentence for “terrorist propaganda” were considered major impediments. Spot the mistake. Or rather: dig deeper on that spot.
Because of the solidarity surrounding her, she has met throughout Europe consular staff to which she is grateful for their faciliting her nomadism. They simply upheld the law without bending it to any ideology currently favoring nationalistic retrenchment. But through this experience she has also discovered the number of borders set up between humans, even within the European Union and, recently, because she was confined in one of these continental countries by the pandemic, how tightly they could withdraw within themselves at such times, thus revealing in the nakedness of this incredible bureaucracy, a veritable paper factory.
The pandemic has also offered an opportunity to further control, push back, prohibit migrations and exiles. It has also served as a good excuse in order to legitimize a number of illegal acts contrary to the right of asylum, a number of refusals to welcome. In the beginning of this year, the Turkish regime that signed an agreement concerning migrants dependent on the exchange of euros, attempted a blackmail while the pandemic threatened. This agreement, transformed into a means of exerting pressure, increased the vulnerability of migrants and justified every form of refusal to greet them, such as “penalizing” sea rescues. Did not Greece massively turn back asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea?
Friends who, like her, are unwillingly feeling political persecution in Turkey because of the threats against their daily lives, imprisonment or worse still, keep providing her with proof the times are to closed borders to any new migration into the European continent, at a time when the entire geopolitical situation in the Middle East serves as their source.
This is why I will talk about what happened to her in the beginning of this month, not because her personal case is of interest but because, precisely, she was subjected in September to what is the fate of thousands of people attempting to cross borders when they are not expected.
In doing so, I specify that this is of my own doing since Zehra would never talk about it, and would never lament over her own fate. For those who do not understand this, I refer them back to her prison letters.
During her incarceration in Turkey, a solidarity campaign slowly built up, both to get her out of prison and to avoid that her anonymity allow the regime to exert against her the worst of which it is capable. Nominative solidarity to prisoners allows the creation of a “monitored imprisonment” around them and the maintenance of an outside contact. And even when censorship is exercised, it can be verified. Recently a prisoner in Saudi Arabia made it known that “I know when solidarity is expressed, because the whipping sessions become almost symbolic”. This type of solidarity also played in Zehra’s favor, and that of her co-detainees, along with internal solidarity within the prison.
Zehra is an artist, a journalist, an author. What could be more obvious than to build up solidarity around these realities. Making her writing known, exhibiting her works, helping those works to escape. Three years of solidarity that carried her struggle out beyond the walls. So much so that, just as Aslı Erdoğan became a figure of anti-regime feminist opposition, so did Zehra with the added element of her struggle in favor of Kurdish women. But through her artistic talent, her creative force also stood out. The solidarity around those prison years brought her into the light, made her work known and acknowledged by activist artists of renown, and beyond, into what is known as the “artistic milieu.” A number of papers are now devoted to her.
This is how Zehra kept this solidarity as an inheritance when she left prison. And this gives her a voice she dedicates to her feminist struggle – in particular as a Kurdish woman involved in Kurdish history, and its creative and political utopias.
So, does this mean Zehra has become a VIP for all that?
Whoever might imagine that this is the case and that she is now managing a “career” would be heavily mistaken. The woman who entered prison in 2016 has remained the same, save for the fact those years, paradoxically, served as an apprenticeship.
So Zehra was not hurt this past month because she was not treated with consideration by police representatives of the European Union, when she encountered among them, the mark and behavior of small implementers of a power of which they are a link in the chain : the chain of dehumanization, so close to the anti-Kurdish racism she has known so well since childhood.
For the first time, she attempted to go on “holiday”. Don’t ask me why, she chose Rhodes. Holidays…Zehra, a tourist in a land of “enemies of Turkey” as Erdoğan would say. A few days of rest, is that too much to ask? And as she was then expected at the Berlin Biennial, she flew off on a plane. As any other tourist, she proceeded to the customary “registration”. This is when a member of the staff at the airport began, to her great astonishment, to interrogate her concerning her presence in Greece, the purpose of her trip, her Turkish “nationality” – adding insult to injury for Zehra, who is a Kurd, and forced to deal with this whiff of Greek nationalism facing the Turkish one oppressing her.
Seeing how the registration of her luggage was starting to turn into a police interrogation about her person on the part of an airline employee, annoyed her somewhat, especially since she had started by answering most politely. I spare you the details. Prior to boarding, two characters purporting to be policemen (without providing any evidence for this) asked her to follow them in a firm manner, shall we say, a firmness she has seen before in many a low-grade representative of the police. She protested in front of the other tourists, mentioning her rights in matters of interrogation. As a result, she found herself practically under custody. No one reacted around her.
A bit later, with much posturing and threats, there followed a kind of interrogation where her Turkish “nationality”, her unwanted presence in Greece, her “arrogant” answers lead up to “We can send you back to Turkey”, “We have that power”. Who were really these people? No one knows. Why, while she provided them with every written and logical reason for his trip, when all the possible stamps and visas appeared on her passport, on her papers, did they persist, while she insisted on her Kurdish identity, to spit in her face her “Turkish” presence, undesirable in Greece? And Zehra also clearly felt the violence in the gestures and the attitudes of these two men, proud in their pants, who could not accept that a woman not lower her eyes in front of them. But that is routine for a woman, yes?
Zehra is aware of the dispute between Greece and Turkey, stronger than ever over the question of gas. But, precisely, she wanted to leave their country, Greece, because her holidays were over.
They ended up by letting her take the plane, not before pushing her toward it like an animal being led to the slaughterhouse. End of the Greek sequence, go show yourself elsewhere.
There is no need to revisit the context of quasi-confrontation between Turkey and Greece. Just as it is useless to remind of the existence of ultra-nationalistic forces on both sides. The dominant ideology and the vindication implementers find in it reasons that feed behaviors carried out from the desk clerk to the air and border police…A good number of articles make mention of it, and this summer, the European Union also gave strict instructions to its anti-migrant belt, better known as “FRONTEX”. And that is how one must understand what followed.
During her trip back, she had time to think about how these people had just destroyed what a few days of holidays in Rhodes had achieved. In Turkey, where she was a prisoner for close to three years, she understood full well how, in a basic police regime, all the links from prison guard to prosecutors, form but one chain of command for the State. In this case, who holds the power? Which authority condones these attitudes?
The trip was spent in questioning herself under the disapproving eyes of other passengers. In their eyes, the border agents had labelled her as a potential delinquent, terrorist, or, because she is a women, why not a prostitute? …She was sentenced for a drawing. This time, she felt judged by tourists for her refusal to bend before injustice. She felt like asking them: “Do you want my picture?” Among them, perhaps, there were those who might have stupidly asked for a selfie, had they known why she was travelling. This meant that those two characters also had the power to stigmatize her and have others share their view.
Barely landed in Berlin, their German clones showed up, warned of course by their “colleagues” and the same battery of questions was repeated concerning her trip to Berlin. And, most of all, the interrogation started up again over her famous Turkish passport. Same lack of courtesy, to put it mildly, same obstinacy in rejecting out of hand every justification and document she could present. And yet, they were “official” documents, stamped, authentic…Had she travelled with the Greek policemen, the interrogation in Berlin would have been carried out in the same way. Therefore, it is truly a European migratory policy based on suspicion that was at play, even though she had fought for months in order to obtain the precious papers she was showing them. As for her Kurdish identity, the very conflict that forced her to leave Turkey, that only makes matters worse for her. After leaving her to moulder in a closed room, they changed their mind and, without the slightest apology, they let her go on her way. She does not even dare imagine what would have happened, had she not been expected at the Biennial.
She could always have boarded the “boat of friends.”
When Banksy finances a boat for rescues at sea, he does not do so for his fame. He does it because, precisely, human faces must replace the figures of the so-called migratory wave and of the drowned in the Mediterranean. Because a migrant is a victim of active nationalisms does not mean he or she loses his or her quality as a human for all that.
These xenophobic migratory policies rest on a dehumanization of the same type as that in we see in racism. An ideology of nationalistic retrenchment finds itself grafted onto this ordinary racism and, from there, it “trickles down” to the smallest implenenter, to that tiniest delegation of power, in all impunity, to act as a barrier. Whenever this is revealed, there is a talk of a “blunder”. This being the case, behind its empty speeches, old Europe has been blundering on a permanent basis for decades.
When a detention camp for migrants burns on Lesbos, emotion is expressed on faces wearing masks, just as when a child’s corpse, face in the sand, spread all over the media. Then, quickly, there is talk of figures, of reinforcing measures, of controlling those emotions that are such bad counsellors. Those who still dare demonstrate for “openness” are pointed out.
One does not talk too loudly in order not to destabilize the work of the tiny implementers without whom, who knows, humanism might make a come-back.
There is always someone available to shut the doors on the train wagons.