Prison n5


When Zehra began this graphic account in 2017, she was in prison, deprived of all art supplies, of all paper products allowing her to envisage realizing such a book project. As with all the other creations she undertook in a clandestine manner in a gaol environment, she took advantage of everything she could get hold of in Diyarbakir’s prison N° 5 and, in this case, of the opportunities offered by the partial freedom consisting of correspondence with the outside world.

With complicit assistance from her friend Naz Oke, she used the reverse side of letters written on large sheets of one of her favorite supplies – wrapping paper – sent to her on an almost daily basis. Zehra’s responses to these letters are available in French (Editions des Femmes, November 2019) under the title “Nous aurons aussi des beaux jours”, and also in Italian “Avremo anche noi dei bei giorni” (Fandango, February 2022) and German (Spector Books, spring 2022). As for the original letters, or rather their reverse side, they served as the medium on which she drew her account over a two year period during which they ’escaped’ from prison.  Indeed, all of them left the prison through clandestine means, except for the final page which bears the stamp of the prison administration’s censorship board. The originals were exhibited in 2020 at the Berlin Biennial and then at Kiosk, the art gallery of the Maxime Gorki Theatre.

Thus, the French (Delcourt) and Italian (Becco Giallo) editions of this graphic book “Prison n5” are the outcome of long, clandestine and complicated creative process, supported by a within/without relationship involving solidarity and a collective struggle at both ends.

In 2021, Zehra reproduced on wooden frames twelve blow-ups of pages of the book. These were first exhibited at the Prometeo Gallery in Milan at the end of 2021.

Technical information and dimensions

108 original pages (29,7 cm high x 21 cm wide) under plexiglass. Exhibit-ready in the case or, in a different viewing as one-sided vertical views of the drawings, or two-sided vertical views showing the correspondence on the back. (The plexis are folded at the top and can be hung from the ceiling or on the wall.)

Dimensions of the case: height 138 cm, width 105 cm and depth 600 cm. The structure in divided in three separate parts. The dimensions for each part are: Part 1. 206 x 140 H x 110 cm, part 2. 206 x 140 H x 110 cm, part 3. 206 x 55 H x 110 cm. (Transportation possible with a van)

12 large panels, mixed media on wood. 4 double panels 250 cm (length), 306 cm (width) and 4 solo panels 250 cm (length), 153 cm (width).

Storage location, Milan, Prometeo Gallery.

(Left) The fascist Turkish regime used Amed gaol as an assimilation school for systemic torture. Psychological and mental torture were also practiced there. One of these was to force the prisoner to write fascist slogans on the walls.

  • Speak in Turkish, you’ll speak a lot
  • Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk One
  • Turk is worth the entire world
  • Each Turk is born a soldier

(Right) This is how they meant to deny prisoners their quality as human beings and deprive them of their identity.

For the Kurdish populations who were already oppressed, the nineties were the period of exiles, but also of class struggle and resistance for their identity.

Exile not only deprives them of their belongings but it also takes their life. Disciminated against in regions of which they do not know the language, they are subjected to racist attacks and exploitation as cheap labor. In these towns, everything has a price, even friendship. Turned into ‘others”, the struggle began. Then, they joined forces with others populations that were oppressed as they were.

When the struggles broke out in the towns, the State organized new assassinations. Disappearances under custody, kidnappings on street corners by unknowns emerging from sinister vehicles, killings, bodies that were never found.

In 1995, at the initiative of Hasan Ocak’s family – one of the disappeared – the families reacted. The mothers met every Saturday in the Galatasaray square in Istanbul. Even if these assemblies are still ongoing today, not one report, not one bone has been recovered. And the “Saturday Mothers” are subjected to police violence to this day.

The nineties, still…State of Exception everywhere in Kurdistan. Our mountains, plains, plateaus, villages, all are declared forbidden zones. Nothing new in this. The State of Exception was used for the first time by the government of Bülent Ecevit in 1978. At that time, armed groups and nationalists supported by the government committed a massacre against Alevis in Maraş, a majority of whom were Kurdish. Their homes were marked with a cross so as to then kill the residents. The ones who managed to escape fled their home, their country. And so, in the nineties, the State of Exception perpetuates the same barbarity. JİTEM, gangs, Hizbullah… The youth turn toward the mountain, families go into exile in neighborhoods of towns they had never seen or even known to exist before.

For the Kurdish people, victim of forced exile, a new life begins. Like the faded flowers in a dried out bouquet, they scatter in the large cities, where discrimination starts all over again.

In Kurdistan, there has been a system of fascist persecution for a long time. Faced with injustices, the Kurdish people have never stepped back or given up. The most difficult periods are those that see the greatest participation in the guerilla. Some, brothers, sisters, students or sheperds, or yet again newlyweds, leave behind their identity as parents and children, and head for the mountain…

Thousands of people from everywhere have thus turned toward these mountains, joining the guerilla, and this is still ongoing.

As you are walking out the door of the gaol, you turn around, and meet the eyes of those who are staying behind. In a flash, you feel wounded, like a bird whose wing is caught in barbed wire. Not totally, free, nor still a prisoner.

In the end, what is freedom exactly ?

The God is absent and the Prophet is on holidays…

The drawings I will do tomorrow will find their source in a book we are reading secretely together these days, Muzaffer Ayata who was tortured at that time, relates in Amed Gaol the daily ration of atrocities inflicted on the prisoners.

“The prisoners were left suspended for hours. Following a blast of freezing water under pressure, there followed the truncheons. Tortured with electricity, forced to sing Turkish marching songs, to recite poems praising Turcity, forced to walk on salt with lacerated feet, to ingest human faeces, saliva, phlegm, vomit, human beings were held this way for years in cells designed to prevent allowing them the sight of the light of day.”

Every day after dinner, we gather to read the papers. Every month, we elect a person in charge of the press commission who calls out after dinner “Friends, the paperrrrs!” We gather. One of us begins reading out loud. At the end of the month, during a meeting, we exchange views in order to analyze world events.

The prison administration creates problems for us regarding newspapers. Often, it does not give us Kurdish and opposition papers. For this reason, we frequently exert resistance against the administration. Because we want to know in a correct way what is happening on the outside.

The routine is the same in all prisons in Turkey. Despite all the difficulties, the women managed to create some life inside their gaols. But prison remains so terribly difficult for the children and the mothers. The ones deprived of their children miss them. Some friends take cae of their child. This is very hard. As for the children inside the walls who never see the sun and to whom the prison administration does not provide food adapted to their needs, they become ill.
Note: children can remain with their mother only up to the age of 6.

Collective life reigns in the prison blocks holding political prisoners. This communal life is inherited from the resistance of political prisoners.

Photos by Prometeo Gallery
English translation by Lucie Bourges