“In exile, the fact of remaining upright, without dissolving, is a full demonstration of resistance. On the one hand, from where you find yourself, you continue the struggle against politization, silence and inaction to which those in power attempt to condemn you, on the other hand, in the country where you’ve arrived, you attempt to open up new roads and spaces, despite the uncertainties, the language, the lifestyle and the bureaucracy, none of which are easy to understand. It is another difficult stage in resistance.”
In Turkey, Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı was the very first woman behind the camera. She is a talented documentary film maker who, by transforming her own questions into a struggle, managed to provide breaths of fresh air during some of the most critical periods in her country. She learned to struggle against the system in her first years as a journalist, through the reality of the human stories always kept in the background of the news. By including the woman’s point of view and colors within her frame, she created a film based on every life she encountered. And, with each one of her films, she left a mark on History’s memory.
Nowadays, Şehbal continues her life – which is a constant struggle – in Germany, bearing witness to the experiences of the oppressed through her camera and her pen.
Never has Europe witnessed to such an extent the exile of those who resist… Artists, political figures, academics, intellectuals, precious individuals from Turkey who carry on their struggle in Europe because their lives are dedicated to serving nothing other than the interest of the people and the dream of a better world.
The journey for those who stand up to persecution and injustice is serious and difficult. Here are some pages from the life of Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı in order to read between the lines where exile nestles within this resistance.
“ Since earliest childhood, my will to exist as a woman in all areas of the macho domination system was instinctive. Early on, I questioned the fact of being limited to pre-defined roles. Already as a child, I questioned the social roles ascribed to men and to women. I studied at the school of journalism in the Political Sciences Faculty. In the days when I studied, those two branches were linked. During that period – which was the most chaotic period in Turkey, by the way – during which the September 12 1980 military coup d’Etat was carried out, I worked as a journalist in the press and in television while pursuing my studies in Political Sciences.
I considered it important to practice my trade during those active political times, to carry out my existential struggle as a woman and to ask myself “what should be our colo, our language, our style?” I had noticed the difference in the way women observed and analyzed events. If you are part of a macho system, you see things in a certain way; if you raise questions that tend to change the system, you see them differently. As a consequence, I always considered it important that women be “equiped” to transmit their vision in all areas.
In the years when I began practicing my trade it was particularly difficult to find a place on the technical side of cinema. Even nowadays this remains difficult, so you can imagine what it was like at the time. The material was heavy, you had trouble carrying it. You had to trot along with a 12kg camera and an 8 kg recorder. Other equipment, giant cables…Those days when I worked among hefty men were pretty painful for me.
At first, I entered the field of cinema as script writer, assistant director. But with this need I felt of seeing things differently, of filming differently, I turned toward the technical side. From arranging the cables to assisting in direction, I filled many technical jobs. The fact I became Turkey’s first “camerawoman” was in fact the result of the questions I asked myself about my own identity as a woman.
Having experimented on myself how a woman could exist in this difficult field, I decided to start teaching. I taught a number of women camera work and technique, I tried to encourage and support them.
I did not pursue my life as a journalist for a very long time because everything that remained in the background of daily news had started to hold my interest even more. The nineties were still red hot years in Turkey, leaden years, also of exile I would describe as a bit more serious than usual. It was a time when, what with burned and emptied villages, the Kurdish question was even more in the forefront of the news than usual. In those days, I was still producing information for the international press. Afterwards, I worked behind the camera as a producer for many years with Mehmet Ali Birand for the program “32 Gün” (32nd Day). After all those experiences, I felt a growing need to relate daily occurrences and events in a more consistent fashion. My search for another approach to working in a historical perspective that could serve as a vision for the future, going beyond daily, weekly or even special event information, oriented me toward the production of documentaries. Turkey’s fundamental problems were always part of my agenda and in my films, and I worked mainly on these topics.
In those days, the concept of a documentary was seen as something relating to nature and to animals. Producing documentaries was not understood as something showing human lives and stories. We would meet together as friends and discuss how we could change and transform this perception. Our exchanges dealt with the question “how to set up an activist cinema recording current life”. Following this, we founded the Belgesel Sinemacılar Birliği, (the Union of Documentary Film makers) comprising an important number of film makers. I may claim to be the godmother to this idea. This is how the perspective of human stories was included under the notion of documentaries. Most of all, while the documentary was not a part of the purview of cinema, we developed travelling cinema allowing for a meeting of human stories with the public. Our films, through these human stories, naturally spoke of the problems in Turkey and were not included on televised programming. We were then forced into developing our own methods. Towns and villages, every small space where our films met with a small public were transformed into places where the problems of Turkey were discussed. After viewing in a village a film on the Kurdish question, the Armenian question, minorities, we had the opportunity of discussing with the people, and of exchanging on the country’s fundamental problems.
While pursuing my professional life and parallel to it, I also maintained a political process as an activist. I was animated by the feeling that we were falling behind, especially in speaking out on the Kurdish and Armenian questions. Hrant Dink’s assassination was a turning point for me, and intensified this reflection. The Armenian question could not be approached solely by Armenians and the Kurdish problem solely by the Kurdish people. I would extend this reflection to every zone of struggle.
Convinced of the need to participate in active structures in order to change prejudices and perceptions, I felt the need to be part of a political party. In those days, the BDP existed (Democracy and Peace Party) as part of the political struggle for the Kurdish liberation movement. I was a candidate at parliamentary elections.
When this proposal was first made to me, I thought long and hard. I was already in active political life, but very few people in Turkey were taking responsibility on the Kurdish question, and there was need for others than Kurds to speak out. There were very few of us at the time. But slowly, a whole new process began with the foundation of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as a roof sheltering other peoples as well as Kurds. My parliamentary candidacy was only a means to providing an example of how the struggle could be carried out in other areas, for other populations. I was a candidate in the Aegean region and although my election was impossible in this area where nationalism weighed heavily, 1 it was important to speak there about the Kurds and their struggle. This was the work I carried out. In the end, my political party life continued within the council of the BDP.
It was a way of speaking to the Turkish people of what the Kurds endured, of their demands, and to the Kurdish people, of the fears of the Turkish people. In other words, a way to look for an answer to the question “how can we build a different way of living ?”
I then settled in Amed (Diyarbakır) in northern Kurdistan (Eastern Turkey). The foundations of my political life, ongoing with the congress of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) were grounded in the work we pursued in order to reach a durable peace in Turkey. We were looking for a societal model. What kind of governance could bring durable peace to Turkey? While searching for answers, we studied the model of autonomy and discussed its feasibility in Turkey. During these exchanges, my work focused on ecological economy. As a woman, the struggle led by women was also a part of my life, ecology, gender freedom were approaches which offered a widening of the horizon on our problems.
The resolution process 2 began in Turkey while we were conducting these discussions. But we remained observant and discussed in all sincerity with those in power. Sitting at the peace table required, as a minimum, discussing the over one-hundred-year old problem with the State in Turkey. Transmitting this information to the public allowed for even a partial breathing space…Unfortunately, the breath from the wind of peace was short lived, the table upset and the process reversed.
In the last 7 years before my exile, efforts were made to seek answers to the need for peace experienced by the peoples of Turkey and Kurdistan. All the work done in the peace axis were criminalized: Cizre, Sur… Reverting to all its old reflexes, the State headed for the annihilation of an entire people. Massacres, custodies, arrests… If truth be told, the road to exile was already open at this time3 because all the efforts for peace were transformed into grounds for accusations under the heading “destruction of the State”. During the events in Kobanê, I was briefly held in custody. I still remember how at the time I thought “I will not yield before decisions these men mutter without conviction”. I was held in custody again when my trial began. A confidentiality order was placed on our files and even my lawyers could not learn why I was detained. I later learned that I had been arrested for the speech I gave in 2011. The fact I was arrested simply for having expressed my opinion did not augur well for the future. “Who knows what’s ahead for us?” I told myself and I then decided to leave the country and deal with exile.
Today, those of our comrades who have stayed in Turkey are involved in a great struggle requiring tremendous efforts. But the fight can be carried out from everywhere. No matter where we find ourselves, they cannot silence us. One way or another, we continue and will continue to express, transmit information about the injustices committed. Personally, I had reached a point where I could not pursue the struggle inside Turkey and in order to continue through other means, I left for exile abroad.
Arriving in Germany and searching for means to stay here longer, I sollicited help from various structure. The German PEN provided immediate support and I was able to obtain a residence grant.
I thus have found myself in exile for over three years now.
Of course, as others do, I will say that life in exile is a demanding process. While following events in your own country, you often forget where you are. When you wake up at night, for a brief moment, you don’t know where you are. In Turkey ? Elsewhere ? It’s such an odd sensation. On the one hand you experience a split sense of being and on the other hand, you enter a struggle in order to remain standing and solid where you are, and to equip yourself with tools so you can express yourself. How to learn the language of the lands where you now live, how to discover the country, its structures, institutions, policies… How to attempt relating what happened and what is still going on, in their language, to those who don’t know about it…
These days, I mostly focus on literature. While remaining active in my ongoing struggles, I’m intensifying my writing. A book of my correspondence with Terezia Mora was published with support from PEN. I’ve completed another book titled “Exile Journal” and a novella, currently under publication. I also continue writing for magazines in Germany. I participate in various initiatives and, of course, I carry on the political struggle. Moreover, I attempt to contribute to solidarities with migrants and exiles, not only from Turkey, but from all peoples. As exiles from antidemocratic countries, we have common problems. For this reason, international solidarity is of utmost importance.
Exile is not only our identity.
“The truth I draw out of my life, consolidated by the experience of exile consists, not of answers provided, but of questions that constantly change and mutate according to new conditions.“
As Şehbal mentions in her final sentence, she has spent her life in struggle and questions, and solidarity is the key to this ongoing fight, while searching for answers to new questions.
This is why in her article “Knowing a city… Recognizing one’s self” Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı summarizes her struggle with the following words:
“As has probably happened thousands of times for thousands of life experiences, names and places change but the strength to resist, to remain in solidarity against injustices is always present!”