Imagine, if you will, being put on trial for publishing poems and stories extolling the values of human rights and equality — or rotting in prison as you wait to be tried, but being denied books and newspapers for two years, cut off from the world.
Imagine a judge hands down a sentence of 15 months in prison for your social media posts that criticize your government’s poor human rights record. Or imagine you live in a country where journalists and writers are in hiding, in danger of being arrested, tortured and murdered by the incoming government, as is the case in Afghanistan today.
Those of us living comfortably in western countries can ignore such harsh realities elsewhere, but they exist nonetheless. NGOs like PEN International, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are the guardians of the rights we take for granted.
Poet-writer Meral Şimşek, a Kurdish PEN member who lives in Diyarbakir, Turkey, will be in court this Tuesday, October 5. According to PEN, she is facing up to 15 years in prison on the charge of “membership of a terrorist organization” and up to seven-and-a-half-years on the charge of “making terrorist propaganda.”
In a separate case, Şimşek faces an additional five years in prison on the charge of “entering a restricted military area” after she fled to Greece earlier this year and was pushed back to Turkey. The hearing will take place on November 16.
In an email to me Sunday, Meral Şimşek, who is the mother of two sons aged 15 and 17, seemed alarmed at the possibility that she could receive a harsh sentence for her creative work. “I was chosen as a target just because I am a Kurd speaking the truth in this country,” she insists. “I’ve been tortured and threatened by law enforcement before, and I’ve been targeted once again for exposing them — there is no other explanation for being judged by awards and literary works.
“I have no predictions about what will happen on October 5th, because I’ve been unfairly judged for about a year now. I just hope this injustice will end and I can return to my normal life.”
by Meral Şimşek
Your body is the cool highlands of my plundered country
It’s not blood oozing from your chest
The milky white of your skin suckles the faith
Ah Ekin, what would barbarians know?
they don’t know
While their dirty saliva is flowing
You will be the hope to the light of day
So softly as the deltas of your face stretch
Your sleeping eyes stride through tomorrow
You are the red garden rose of postponed calendars
Believe, your faith will grow
On the lips of our little girls
They will speak in unison
O my country, we bless you
Our body is our anger
Let those barbarians know, shame means giving up
Your naked body is our resistance
Bedenin ki yağmalanmış ülkemin serin yaylalarıdır
Göğsünden sızan kan değildir
İnancı emzirir teninin süt beyazı
Ah Ekin, ne bilsin barbarlar
Kirli salyaları akarken
Sen umut olursun gün ışığına
Yüzünün deltaları uzanırken öyle usul
Yarını arşınlar uyuyan gözlerin
Sen ki ertelenmiş takvimlerin kızıl bahçe gülü
İnan boy verecek inancın
Körpe kızlarımızın dudaklarında
Dillenecekler hep bir ağızdan
Biz kutsayanız seni ey ülkem
Bilsinler o barbarlar, utanç pes etmektir
Çıplak bedenin direncimizdir
Meral Şimşek is presently banned from traveling outside Turkey, but continues to write, adding to her prolific body of work available in Turkish. “My fifth book will be out soon,” she explained in an email, “a collection of my short stories. I also have a work of poetry and a novel ready to go to press.”
According to PEN, Meral Şimşek is the prize-winning author of three poetry books – Mülteci Düşler (Refugee Dreams), Ateşe Bulut Yağdıran (Clouds on Fire) and İncir Karası (Black Fig). Her novel Nar Lekesi (Pomegranate Stain), published in 2017, tells the story of Şimşek’s family and sheds light on the plight of Kurdish people in Turkey in the 1990s. She became a member of Kurdish PEN in June 2020. She also works as an editor and frequently publishes poems and articles.
On December 9, 2020, anti-terror police detained Meral Şimşek in Malatya province, Eastern Turkey. She was released the following day pending trial and placed under a travel ban. In January 2021, the Malatya 2nd High Criminal Court formally charged her with “membership of a terrorist organization” under Article 314/2 of Turkey’s Penal Code, and “making terrorist propaganda”under Article 7/2 of Anti-Terror Law No. 3713. The indictment notably mentions Şimşek’s short story Arzela, featured in the anthology Kurdistan + 100 from Comma Press, in which twelve contemporary Kurdish writers imagine a country they could call their own by the year 2046. The anthology was awarded a flagship PEN Translates Awards from English PEN in 2021.
Kurds comprise the world’s largest ethnic group, an estimated 40 million people, who remain without their own country, living predominantly in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. As the editors of Kurdistan + 100, Orsola Casagrande and Mustafa Gundogdu note, “Throughout the 20th century (and so far in the 21st), the Kurds have been betrayed, suppressed, stripped of their basic rights (from citizenship to the freedom to speak their own language) and had their political aspirations crushed at every turn.”
You can help PEN Int’l protest Turkey’s case against Meral Şimşek here, demanding an end to government persecution.
I Was a Woman
By Meral Şimşek
My anger started in the pages of the Torah
I’ve fallen in layers
from the verses of the Bible
I blew the Quran
In the question of my childhood
The braid of my hair was driven from Jerusalem to the Kaaba
My children were shot at the foot of my sadness
In a different color every century
From your religions to your gods
Crucified the white of my milk
I’m blessed in the sum of the misconceptions
I was shot while being blessed
my smile was stoned to death
However, in the invocation of my fingers, with an undated creation
The talisman of existence has incarnated
I died with what I created
I was a woman
I was multitude
I was not
Tevrat’ın sayfalarında başladı öfkem
Katre katre döküldüm
Ta çocukluğumun sorgusunda
Kudüs’ten Kâbe’ye sürüldü saçlarımın örgüsü
Hüznümün eteklerinde vuruldu çocuklarım
Her yüzyılda başka bir renkte
Çarmıha gerildi sütümün beyazı
Kutsandım yanılgılar toplamında
Oysa parmaklarımın zikrinde tarihsiz bir yaratımla
Gövde buldu var oluşun tılsımı
Var ettiğimle öldüm
Translated by Burhan Sözmez, PEN International
In Turkey, in addition to supporting freedom for Meral Şimşek and writer-lawyer Nurcan Kaya, PEN International is actively campaigning on behalf of imprisoned writer and opposition politician Selahattin Demirtaş, publisher and human rights defender Osman Kavala, and reporter and poet Nedim Türfent. PEN will issue new statements/calls to action on behalf of all three in the coming days.