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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.

Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı Aslı Erdoğan exil

2018 Frank­furt Book Fair: Reg­u­la Venske, Şehbal Şenyurt Arın­lı, Aslı Erdoğan… (Pho­to PEN Germany)

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.

Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı sürgün exil. exile

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.

Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı

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…

Şehbal Şenyurt Arınlı kitap livres exil exile

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!” 

Şehbal Şenyurt Arın­lı • sehbalsenyurtarinli.net • YouTube SU Film Face­book • Twit­ter @SehbalSA / @SehbalSenyurt

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Dilek Aykan
Gazete­ci, siyasetçi, insan hak­ları savunucusu. Jour­nal­iste, femme poli­tique, défenseure des droits humain. Jour­nal­ist, polit­i­cal woman, defendor of human rights.