Mardin, a city in Turkey, stands on one of the parts of the Kurdish lands, which were divided like a cake into four, a hundred years ago, between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. I was born there.

During the yellow summer months that bathe this endless fertile plain, mothers always whisper the same tale to the children lying on mattresses on the ground, side by side, on the flat roofs of old houses. Perhaps the whole dimension of this tale comes from the fact that it is told every night, tirelessly, without respite, like a secret.

Shahmeran 2 – On carpet, acrylic, felt-tip pencil. 2021 Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

This is the story of Shahmeran, half human, half snake.

Her story is that of a love for a man, the historical symbol of the dominant civilisation, by Shahmeran, shah of the snake clans, who lives seven floors below ground, guardian of the wisdom of natural life, for thousands of years, refusing to submit to the world of men.

In those months of the hot Mesopotamian summer, the story of Shahmeran was one of the most special ones that my mother also told us every night on the roof of our little house, whose door was adorned with a painting of the creature.

“Thousands of years ago, humans stopped living in the mountains and caves. They moved down to the plains. First they built villages, then cities. At first everything went well. But as the cities grew, people drifted apart, became preoccupied with providing for each other, clinging to their possessions. Sharing diminished, and that feeling called evil took root in the hearts….” thus began my mother’s story.

And so began my mother’s tale of “Shahmeran”, just like that of all women…

Thousands of years ago, in the plain of Mesopotamia, there lived a young woodcutter named Camsab. One day, while walking in the mountains, he discovered a source of honey in the depths of a cave. He began to harvest it. The more Camsab scratched, dug and descended into the depths, the more his curiosity grew. He dug and dug…

After a while, who knows how long, he found himself in an endless pit.

Just as he was about to sink into despair, he was dazzled by a bewitching beam of light filtering from a corner of the well. He scratched a little more, cleared the opening where the light was shining, dug again, and suddenly found himself in a magical garden, decorated with flowers of a thousand colours.

At first, Cansab was filled with admiration. Then he began to be frightened, because he was soon surrounded by half-woman creatures, whose bottom was made up of forty snake heads. Among these creatures, all of which were as amazing and magical as they were terrifying, because of their unusual existence, one, quite majestic, sitting on a throne near a basin, hailed Camsab and asked him to come closer.

She told him not to be afraid, and explained that there, seven floors below the earth, they were protecting themselves and keeping away from the world of men, created by civilization.

The moment his eyes fell on her, Camsap fell in love. He longed never to leave her again.

He sat down beside her and listened. Shahmeran, for it was she, told with such ardour and honey, that he did not see the time pass, like flowing water. Each new day he wanted to listen to her more than the day before. Thus he learned all his knowledge, his wisdom, his remedies, the language and the history of the stars, the water, the plants, the animals, and the earth.

Shahmeran – On carpet, acrylic, gold paper, 100 x 185 cm. July 2020 Angers, France. Prometeo Gallery, Milano. Moratti collection. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Seven floors below ground, Shahmeran’s story lasted seven years.

After seven years, Camsab realised how much time had passed and wanted to return home. Shahmeran, seeing the desire of this lover who had stayed close to her and listened to her all this time to return, understanding that he was still under the attraction and submission of the world of men, allowed him to leave, against his heart.

But she wished to tell one last story before she left. It is the story of betrayal. Betrayal of nature and of herself. It is the story of Gilgamesh who, in his quest for the herb of immortality, had betrayed nature, just as the gods of the pantheon had betrayed the goddesses, just as civilisation had betrayed communal life…

After listening to this last tale, Camsab promised never to betray her, and left her.

Neynik (Mirror) – On carpet, acrylic, felt-tip pencil. 2020 Lugano, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. Private Collection. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Back home, months passed.

But the longing for Shahmeran split Camsab’s heart. Yet he kept his word, and told no one the secret of his home.

One day, Key Khosrow, the king of Babel, where Camsab lived, fell seriously ill. His sycophant vizier, Şehmur, announced that only the flesh of Shahmeran would cure this incurable disease. Then began a nationwide hunt for Shahmeran…

They summoned everyone to the hammams. The secret of who had seen Shahmeran was revealed by the contact with water, their skin was flaking off. That is why Camsab never bathed in the company of others. But there, in the hammam where he was brought by force, as soon as the water touched his skin, his secret burst.

Camsab finally gave in to the torture. He revealed the home of Shahmeran.

Before going to her death, Shahmeran told them her secret. She revealed to them that for her body, which was to be divided into three parts, the upper part was poisoned, and the lower serpent contained healing. As soon as she had revealed her secret, the vizier cut her in two. While the king and the vizier threw themselves with appetite on the tail of Shahmeran, Camsab out of grief, preferring rather to die, began to eat the brain. But at that moment it was the king and the vizier who passed from life to death. As for Camsab, rather than die, he acquired wisdom.

All the knowledge of Shahmeran was passed on to him, and Camsab set out on his journey. He knew that he could not be like before. He began to understand the language of all nature. He never returned home again. He wandered from country to country, and began to learn more and more of nature’s healing secrets. Thus began another story, the historical tale of Mesopotamia, the legend of the wise physician Luqman. Camsab surveyed the world forever, seeking the secrets of healing.

Told for centuries, Shahmeran is the legend of women and animals who are closely linked to nature… In this legend lies not only the betrayal in love, but also the betrayal of man against nature. The story of the ungendered, of a solid conviction that, whatever the price, gives its trust, and calls man to a life without property.

Shahmeran is the story of the non-gendered and matriarchal woman. She is Lilith, crossed with other names, Ishtar, Inanna, Ninhursak, Kybele, Nanna, Astarte, Aştoret, Arthemis, Isis, Venus. In reality, she is the woman who was deified and then cursed, in person.

This Shahmeran, are the “Siti”, the goddesses of the inhabitants of “Paradize”, which the monotheistic religions have called paradise. The ones who, on the Zagros Mountains, try to protect themselves from the macho filth of civilisation. Shahmeran is the healer of a mountain tribe, called “snake’s zeal, viper’s face” and cursed, nephilim (fallen angels) considered corrupters of the soul of men.

Shahmeran is the story of women’s self-defence against the violence of the patriarchy that targets them. It is the call for a life of peace, freedom and gender equality, which flows from the roots of the tree of life and reaches seven floors below ground.

The characters in this legend, which passes on from one generation to the next the story of those who decipher the secret of the snake women under the earth, who understand the wisdom of plants, stones and the deep, are each almost a metaphor for patriarchy. We find, in the king’s illness, the weakened macho power, in the chaos he himself has brought about, his love for policies conducted through women’s bodies, for his continuance, and the betrayal that finds expression in it.

Şahmeran Zelal – 141 x 51 cm. On fabric, mixed media. 24.02.2018 Diyarbakir prison. (photo by Jef Rabillon)

The Academy of Kineology, founded by the Kurdish Women’s Movement, provides a contemporary commentary on the Shahmeran legend:

“Shahmaran’s story, which makes explicit and intelligible the causes of violence against the female body, the political nature of this violence and the construction of power, is one of the fables deciphering the violence and massacres suffered by women throughout history.

The only cure for the disease of power is the women’s body; it is to possess it, dominate it, reduce it to pieces and consume it, absorb it, dissolve it in the patriarchal hegemony, without leaving a single crumb of its reality, thus rendering it non-existent, so that the patriarchal power can exist.

The mind and senses of a society dispossessed of women’s consciousness, will and freedom, are thus easily enslaved by power. With the presence and influence of free and resistant women, society could not be subjugated by power. The basic logic of power reasons and acts, and thus kills and eliminates any woman who confronts it.

In the legend, Camsab is the man who allies himself with power, with the forces of colonial power, and who owes his existence to the patriarchal power structure. That is, he is the man in the home; father, brother, companion, lover…

He is the man who takes the woman under his power and acquires patriarchal sovereignty in the family and social structure, perpetuating its existence through the force of state power.

As for state power itself, it exists through the patriarchal nature of all elements of the social structure; social patterns and relations, character types.

This is the most terrible, treacherous, low and depraved reality in history.

Camsab is that long-lasting friend, who traps Shahmeran, offers her to the king with whom he consumes her and thus gains power. Camsab and the king, whose stooge he is, represent the precursors of this alliance of power without borders, but also the accomplices of contemporaries, the murderer, the policeman who understands him, the judge who clears him, the patriarchal power who legitimises him, the imam who issues fatwas…”.

In this updated legend, the snake-women rebelled against the history of civilisation, tainted by plunder, surplus value, property, and by what the ambitious man calls “love”. This is, under this reading, the trap set for the philosophy of women.

Camsab belongs de facto to power. He exposes the masculine germs he possesses, by cowardly submitting to the king. The macho intelligence finds itself without a way out, consuming the woman’s body, monopolising her freedom, her wisdom, her identity. Thus, while enriching itself and consolidating the foundations of its power through women, patriarchy transforms them into empty shells and destroys them.

Throughout the millennia of legend, patriarchal intelligence works again and again with the same mechanism, perpetuating the destruction of woman, non-gendered life, nature.

The contemporary story of Shahmeran is far from the romantic story of love and betrayal. On the contrary, it offers us a sociological reading of current society models, where patriarchy is present with all its tricks. This relevant legend takes on all its strength and deep meaning from its present-day nature.

In Mesopotamian lands, the legend of Shahmeran still finds a great symbolic echo today: “one day, these chimerical creatures, non-gendered snake-humans, will rise to the surface of the earth, and Shahmeran will be avenged…”.

Zehra Doğan

Êşa Şahmeran (Şahmeran’s pain) – On bundle scarf, felt pen, acrylic. 114 x 151 cm. 2016, Mardin Prison. (Photo by


This creative project, whose starting point is the legend of Shahmeran, will be carried out with a collective approach. The artist will integrate women and queers from the Kurdistan neighbourhoods, her family and friends. Thus, women/queers from the academic artistic field will carry out a collective work with those who come from the popular space, whose creations are never considered as art, precisely because they are popular. This working method will allow the pooling of knowledge and know-how of each person, but also of experiences and collective creativity.

The macho, elitist and stereotypical conception of art will thus be questioned and analysed.

The stories resulting from this collective work will also give rise to a collection of short stories about the contemporary world.

This work, written around the man of today, defined as “father”, “brother”, “companion”, “lover”, actor of the current system that exploits women, will provide food for thought for the plastic creations.

New stories/representations of Shahmeran, of his sharing, of his anihilation, will be recreated and told.

Different media (textile, carpet, paper), materials (natural and organic paints and pigments, embroideries) with the use of different operating techniques will be used in these creations.

The collective approach will guide the creation and lead to the choice of significant materials, adapted formats and experiments.

A dozen works will probably be selected at the end of the process.

English translation by Lucie Bourges