What to write to a friend in prison?

‘Tu çawa yî?’ is how I always start my letters. How are you? Then: ‘Ez baş im’, I am fine. But then? What do you write to a friend who’s been spending the last 27 months of his life in a few square metres behind bars? I don’t even know if he can see the sun, and I am reluctant to ask.

We met on 12 November 2011 in Diyarbakir. I was in the city for a conference, but heard that on Saturday there would be a funeral of two PKK members. Since I had never attended such a funeral, I decided to leave the conference for a few hours and go. It started at a mosque, were several thousand people gathered. I was alone among slogan shouting, angry people. I talked to a few of them, but I wanted to talk to a more relaxed, less activist person too, if available. I looked around and saw a man with a kind face who gave the impression of being an outsider in a way. A journalist, it turned out – we somehow recognize each other. That’s how I met Turabi Kişin, reporter for Özgür Gündem.

Turabi Kişim
Turabi Kişin

Two days later, we met again. Coffee in the famous old inn of Diyarbakir, Hasanpaşa Han. He whispered and was constantly looking over his shoulder. He felt the state was after him. He didn’t want to go back to jail. He had been there in the nineties.

I went back to Istanbul, where I lived at the time. A month later, dozens of Kurdish journalists were arrested. I sent Turabi a message: ‘Are you okay?’ He was, he replied, but he didn’t expect he would be for much longer. When I was again in Diyarbakir in January 2012, I tried to call him. His phone was dead. At the office of Özgür Gündem they confirmed my fear: arrested. Just when he returned from a trip to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, at Ankara airport. Ever since he has been in jail, for political reasons and without conviction.

Some time later the editor in chief of Özgür Gündem, Hüseyin Aykol, told me that Turabi was imprisoned in Kandira, close to Istanbul. I sent him a letter. And from that very first letter on, I have been insecure about what to write. My life is a constant chain of travelling in Turkey and Kurdistan, and now and then to Holland. While he was in prison, I wrote my book and it was published.

The change of the seasons

Is it nice for a person behind bars to hear stories about the travels of a friend outside? Is it soothing to hear about the change of the seasons in the city where you lived before the state got you, or does it hurt to hear about the layer of snow that made Diyarbakir so magical back in December, and about life in the parks that started again now that spring has begun and the trees are freshly green? Does he like it when I tell him my parents came to visit me in Diyarbakir, that we rented a car and had a great trip through Diyarbakir, Mardin, Batman, Bitlis, Van and Siirt, or will it only make him homesick? Does it inspire him to hear about the stories I pursue and the book I wrote, or does it only confront him unnecessarily with our beloved profession that he cannot practise now?

I talked about this to a good friend in Istanbul, whose (elderly and sick) father is imprisoned over the KCK case in Istanbul. Being family she can visit him, but she writes to him as well. What does she write? She told me she often does something special to cheer dad up: postcards with happy images, or she sends a letter and adds a certain perfume so there is a change of smell in his prison life. I have sent postcards too, but adding perfume to a letter to somebody I don’t know that well, seems strange.

The people become midgets

I cannot visit prison, but I have often attended trial days. The first few times in the smaller court room in Silivri, and now in the huge new one. Turabi wrote to me about that new court room: ‘This time they are trying us in a new room that is as big as a soccer field.  You know that states try to dictate their greatness, power and indestructibility to the society and try to make them bow down. One of the best ways to do that is to build huge, magnificent buildings. Colosseums, palaces, castles, walls, dungeons, government buildings. All of them hold the message that the greatness of the state equals the littleness of the people. That is why they say: ‘There where the state grows, the people become midgets’.

I don’t know if you have ever been to a KCK court day, but the ritual is that when the defendants come in, they group together as close as possible to the visitors tribune, and the visitors stand by the fence that separates them from the defendants. A few gendarmes in between. Then the waving and shouting starts. ‘How are you?’, ‘I am fine, how are you, thank you for coming!’, and the like. So I stand there too. I wave, I shout a few things too. This ritual repeats itself before and after the lunch break, and at the end of the trial day.

When I stand there, I feel similar to when I write a letter. I feel awkward, I just don’t know what to say anymore after the first morning shouts. ‘Did you get my letter?’, ‘Yes I did, did you receive mine?’ What else? In the old court room defendants and visitors could come rather close to each other, but in the huge one the distance is so immense. I wave again, turn around insecurely and let other people who want to wave and shout take my place.

It’s about time Turabi and I have coffee again in Hasanpaşa Han.

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