Former pro-Kurdish HDP leader pens book of poetry from behind bars

The jailed former co-chair of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Figen Yüksekdağ has penned a book of poems set be published on Sept. 1.

The 49-year-old is one the leading names in Turkey’s Kurdish political scene and has been behind bars over terrorism charges since Nov. 4, 2016, alongside her counterpart, Selahattin Demirtaş.

Coming from a conservative family in southern Turkey, Yüksekdağ spent most of her life in Turkey’s left-wing parties and organisations, before she was elected co-chair to the pro-Kurdish HDP in 2014.

Joining the ranks of politicians-turned-writers in prison like the prolific Demirtaş, who has penned three books in four years, Yüksekdağ wrote "Walls To Bring Down,” in the Kandıra Prison in northwestern Turkey.

Yüksekdağ is a woman of strong emotions, speaking “the language of her own heart,” as claimed by the foreword of her book.

“Figen is a dream wanderer, who never loses her spirit,” says Kurdish poet Suna Aras, in the text the book’s publisher provided to Ahval before its publication.

One of Yüksekdağ’s poems laments the death of 33 young people in Suruç, Şanlıurfa in 2015. The young activists, members of Yüksekdağ’s party before she joined the HDP, had gathered to take supplies to help rebuild a Syrian Kurdish town, Kobani, after it was liberated from a long occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS) and were killed in a suicide bombing by the fundamentalist group.

“Birds flew off me,” Yüksekdağ says in her poem about them. “Their red scarves tangled in my branches.”

In her poems about the victims of the Suruç bombing, clearly a subject dear to her heart, Yüksekdağ uses images of war and destruction, juxtaposed with hope and rebirth, with flowers and newly-fledged saplings.

Another one of her poems is dedicated to the women in the Kandıra Prison. Women, in Yüksekdağ’s imagination, are who take the old and the battered, and whisper new life into them. They heal love, that is crippled by patriarchal vulgarity, and plant rose bushes before they gather their skirts up to prepare for a fight.

Among the women Yüksekdağ dedicates this poem to is Gültan Kışanak, a Kurdish politician who served as mayor in Turkey’s biggest majority-Kurdish province Diyarbakır, and as co-chair in HDP’s sister parties Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and Democratic Regions Party (DBP).

Kışanak was arrested a few months before Yüksekdağ, and she also wrote a book while in prison. Hers is a non-fiction work - a collection of essays from women in Kurdish and left-wing politics in Turkey. Yüksekdağ has a piece in this book titled, “History does not like women who stop and stay silent at all.”

As a woman at the top level of left-wing Kurdish politics, Yüksekdağ lived the motto of refusing to stay silent.

“We believe in a peace that women will build,” she had said at a HDP event for World Peace Day 2014, exactly six years before her book is set to be published. Her conviction on charges of terrorist propaganda stem from similar speeches, one given at a HDP congress.

World Peace Day is celebrated on September 1 in Turkey, after the Warsaw Pact’s decision to commemorate the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939, kickstarting World War II. The United Nations celebrates the International Day of Peace on September 21.

For Peace Day activities this year, HDP is holding a socially distanced human chain as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to maintain an upward trajectory in Turkey, forcing stricter protective measures against it. The human chain will be the final demonstration in a months-long protest the party started after two of its deputies were stripped of their parliamentary status in June.

Thousands of HDP members are currently in prisons throughout Turkey, many awaiting trial, including more than 50 mayors, who were dismissed by government decrees and replaced by state-appointed officials.