Mehdi Zana with children

“I had been in jail for 18 months before I was taken to court. While I was waiting to be called into the courtroom I asked to go to the lavatory because I wanted to see my face in the mirror. I stood staring into the glass, amazed by the change. It is me, yet it is not me. My face is emaciated and four teeth have been broken by my guards. My skin is pockmarked by the vermin. I look like a wild man. A prison is a place where one’s corrections are corrected and an effort is being taken to tame the prisoner. There may be cases in which the prisoners are not criminals. But, let it be any cause, a prisoner should not be attacked wildly by the guards. It is also a social crime. One can get detailed information about this from this source. And then, there are all the changes I don’t see but which I feel,a tightness in my lungs, pain in my spine, and worse than everything else, the absences of memory.”

Born in 1940, in Silvan, a small town near Diyarbakir, the “capital” of Turkish Kurdistan, Mehdi Zana has spent more than 15 years of his life in prison: one year in 1967, three from 1971-1974, eleven from 1980-1991, and again almost a year and a half in 1994-1995. Quite enough time beyond bars to change any man. Mehdi Zana has been a man of action for most of his life. Despite having almost no formal education, Mehdi Zana became a member of the leadership of the Turkish Workers Party (T.I.P), then of Ozgurluk Yolu (Kurdistan Socialist Party). He was elected mayor of Diyarbekir in 1977.

 Like many victims of political repression, Mehdi Zana can say that Turkish prisons were where the greatest part of his education was conducted. Indeed, by his own account, his experiences behind bars made him a writer. Since being freed from his third sentence in 1991, he has published five books. “Bekle Diyarbekir” (Wait for me, Diyarbekir); “Vahsetin Gurlugu” (The day of barbary); “Evina Dile min” (My heart’s beloved) “Sevgili Leyla” (To dear Leyla) “ Zelal, Yeniden dogus” (Clarity).

Journey through an extraordinary hell

From 24 september 1980, the day when he was jailed for the longest period of time, Mehdi Zana went through hell along with thousands of other imprisoned Turks and Kurds. It is this “Journey through an extraordinary hell” that Mehdi Zana recounts al length. Although some of the more shocking details have been censored by the French translator, Mehdi Zana’s account of his periods of imprisonment make harrowing reading. “Even God cannot save you now”, the sadistic soldiers who were his torturers told him as they hung him by his arms before administering electric shocks to his genitals and anus: “They were not trying to kill us, they were trying to take us to the absolute extremes of torture to break us. They wanted to  destablise us until we are ready to accept anything, to sign anything. As they tortured us they played music to drown out the noise — unless they were torturing one of their victims with special care in which case they would stop the music — so that all of us we could hear him screaming”.

Mehdi Zana tells how as many as 40 detainees were sometimes packed in one cell measuring less than two metres by two metres, where they would be forced to spend the entire night  squeezed up against each other like living sardines. At around 2am the guards would open the door, pull a few prisoners out and ask them: “Are you Turk or Kurd?”. Those who failed to describe themselves as Turks were beaten until they fainted. There are other accounts of prisoners forced to drink water mixed with detergent, scaldings with hot tea poured over sensitive parts of the body, savagings by specially trained dogs and even immersion in tubs full of excrement. It is not difficult to understand why some prisoners went on hunger strike, while others went crazy. Sometimes their feelings of despair drove them to kill themselves.

 Mehdi Zana’s books are essential reading for anyone trying to understand the present escalation of violence in Turkey.

However, unless some enterprising Western publisher is prepared to publish a true translation of his works, taken from the Turkish original, much may be lost. At present none of Mehdi Zana’s five books is available in English, while in French only a resume of the author’s first two books is available, published by Kendal Nezan of the Kurdish Institute in Paris under the title “La Prison N°5”.

 “It is time to write for history, to tell the truth”, says Mehdi Zana; “I will write about the Kurdish political parties, about my party”. However Mehdi Zana is not only interested in writing his “Diary from Hell”. He also plans to write several novels and he has already started work on the first one, “Silvan’s Bazar”. Through personal accounts of some of the merchants of the bazar of Silvan, their clients, and villagers of the neighbourhood, Mehdi Zana will aim to present a 30-year story of Kurdistan from 1940, when he was born, through to 1970, the period which shaped his own political ideas ans beliefs. He will incorporate memories of his formative years with recollections of Sheikh Said’s revolt (1925) and of stories passed down to him by his father. Writing a novel is not like writing memories, observes the author, although he has plenty of material and memories to work with. It is a difficult challenge but one which is being undertaken with enthusiasm by Mehdi Zana, a man born to political life but deprived of the opportunity to play his part.

While Mehdi Zana sits at his desk fighting with the problems of litterary composition, his wife, Leyla, is also struggling to get the first major litterary work of her life onto paper. She is working on her autobiography which will include details of the 11 years she spent raising her children alone, while Mehdi was in prison. In 1980 Mehdi Zana was sentenced to 35 years in prison, where he eventually spent the next 10 years. “I was just 20 years old. I had a small son and I was tregnant. For the first year after his arrest, I did not stop crying” (see leyla Zana’s interview…)

But this time it is Leyla, rather than Mehdi, who is composing  her thought from a prison cell. While Mehdi was a prisoner, his wife was discovering the world of politics. She became the first Kurdish woman ever to be elected to the Turkish parliament, but she became disillusioned with the role and was later sentenced to 14 years for her pains.  Mehdi is at least free but Leyla is behind bars. However a short selection of letters published in French under the title “Letters from jail”  clearly reveal that Leyla Zana has lost none of her sense of moral outrage during her time behind bars. “Shimon Peres”, says Leyla, said it was not possible to live with the hate of 2 million Palestinian people. How then has Turkey coped for so long with the hatred of 15 million Kurds”?

(The Middle East magazine, May 1996)