Interview series with Turkish political refugees (3): Author Meral Simsek: “I feel like a wounded child.”
Meral Simsek: All her writing, the literary activities she attended, and her author talks were used to indict her. The Turkish state accused her of being a member of an armed terrorist organization and conducting propaganda on their behalf based on her literary work. She was pushed back to Turkey across the Maritsa river when she attempted to seek asylum in Greece. PEN Berlin succeeded in moving author Simsek to a safe location in Germany two days before her trial. She currently resides in Berlin as a political refugee.
In this interview series, we will be compiling the stories of people who left Turkey for various countries across the world as political refugees, exploring their lives before and after their migration. We will talk about the significant breaking points of their lives as Turkish citizens who were forced to migrate as political refugees.
Rachel Hebun Ozdemir and Kurdish PEN and PEN Berlin member, poet, and author Meral Simsek discuss her story.
Meral Simsek is the author of the books “Pomegranate Stain,” “Refugee Dreams,” “Fig Black,” “Clouding the Fire,” and “Arzela.” Simsek is the recipient of many literary awards. Recently, she was awarded the Theodor Kramer Prize for writers in exile and resistance.
What was the most important breaking point of your life and when did it take place?
The words I use to describe that moment are still: you had left, and I had given the first piece of myself to a rootless existence.
One of your works, your short story collection “Arzela,” was the subject of a trial in January 2021 and was mentioned in the indictment. What exactly was the Turkish government accusing you of?
It was not limited to “Arzela.”* Just about everything I wrote was used as part of a trial. In fact, even beyond my writing, the awards I received, and the literary activities or author talks I attended were brought forth as criminal elements. The Turkish state accused me of being a member of an armed organization and propagandizing on their behalf based solely on my literary work.
In June 2021, you made your way to Greece to seek asylum, yet you were pushed back. Can you talk a little about your experience?
Unfortunately, when you are confronted with a regime that wants to destroy you, you are sometimes left with no recourse but to flee your homeland so that you can continue to struggle against them. I left for Greece with this thought in mind, yet was subjected to abuse at the hands of the Greek police. I was assaulted and treated violently, exactly as I had been in Turkey, and was ultimately thrown back into the waters of the Maritsa to die. I don’t know how I did it, but I succeeded in staying alive. Perhaps resistance becomes a permanent feature of a person after enough time.
In mid-July 2022, PEN Berlin was successful in its attempt to transfer you to a safe location in Germany a mere two days before the date of your trial. What happened in that process?
All the PEN chapters around the world, Amnesty International, Human Rights Foundation, and many other civil society organizations persisted for months in calling for the charges against me to be dropped. Their mutual consensus was that an indictment based solely on my writing was sufficient proof of my innocence.
However, the Turkish courts cared little for any of this, and instead pressed new charges against me. In this regard, PEN Berlin made use of our legal rights and finally helped relocate me to Germany. Besides, shortly after my arrival in Germany, I was sentenced to approximately two years as a result of one of the ongoing trials.
Can you talk a little about your new life as a political refugee? If we look back at the first step you took into this new life, what did you feel, what kinds of emotions did you experience?
I feel like a wounded child who has just opened her eyes to the world. Your entire life seems to be at a distance, and you start to learn everything anew, beginning with how to speak. Everything and everyone is foreign. A new language, a new climate.
Even people’s facial expressions are unfamiliar. Smells, colors, everything. In short, your entire life has been taken from you. As for what I first felt, it was a sharp pain caught in my throat. That pain has refused to cease for months, and I do not know if it will ever pass, but I do know that it increases exponentially each day. Of course, I have not given up, but I am caught in a flurry of conflicting emotions.
What were the first stages of life like in this country you now live in as an immigrant? What sorts of problems did you encounter with regard to culture? Have you been able to adapt to your new country?
Like I said, I am still but a wounded child. The first factor tying one to life is language, and I have fallen into the depths of a language I do not speak. I am in the painstaking process of learning German. I might have learnt the language far more quickly under other circumstances, but I think that the mood I find myself in protests any new language.
Despite this, I am trying. I have not experienced any distinct cultural issues. In part due to the books we read, we know the lifestyles of many people across the globe. And so, the crux of the matter is being able to see from the same perspective as them, and I think I have succeeded in this to a certain extent.
I do not know by which standard to measure adaptation, but it is clear to me that I continue to suffer though I persist in smiling.
What do you do nowadays, how do you keep busy? What are the difficulties surrounding building a new life for oneself?
I know I am repeating myself, but the serious complication is language. My mother tongue was already taken from me once and I thus had to grow up speaking another language. And now, I must learn yet another. The resulting aches and pangs are no less painful than being robbed of my mother tongue. Because you think to yourself, I do not have a state and no matter where I go, I must learn their language to stay alive. I cannot pretend that the anxiety of “what language will I be forced to learn next” does not exist. It does, but the language issue is not the only problem. Housing poses is just as much a cause for concern as the language barrier.
Firstly, there is a significant housing crisis in Berlin and nearly everyone like me who is new to the city spends months homeless or in transition between multiple places.
Besides all this, I have not found the words to articulate the ache of leaving behind your homeland, your loved ones, your family, your children, your story.
As a poet and author who creates symbols of a future in which being a Kurd without oppression is a possibility, what sorts of criticisms do you receive with regard to your work?
The biggest criticism I have received to date is that I do not write in my mother language. Almost all of what I write is the story of the Kurd, but I write in the language to which I was assimilated — Turkish. I am, of course, trying to write in my mother tongue. I mean, one of the reasons I am standing trial is my emphasis on the importance of one’s mother tongue, but I am not the root of this issue. This is a long and deep topic of debate.
What do you see when you look back at Turkey? What sort of country were you imagining, did your perspective on your home country change after all you’ve been through?
First and foremost, my dream has always been to see a free Kurdistan as the natural result of the right of self-determination. I do, of course, wish for the Turkish public to live with freedom and democracy, as well. That being said, for conditions to change in Turkey, many peoples, the Kurds to begin with, need to be liberated. In this regard, my faith in people and my hopes for that future retain their vigor.
I hope that one day we will end bloodshed for good. Because if the Turkish state in its current structure and system remains, we will continue to bear witness to blood and killing. Besides, the formation of the Turkish state was based on a project of eradicating those who were not of itself.
I know this; despite our sufferings now and in the past, we will continue to sing our own song and to struggle to beautify life. Here, I have come to understand that the struggle is not constrained by geography — it is only that the importance of one’s soul tie to the struggle increases in importance. As such, I believe that one day, all together, we will absolutely succeed. With all my love and greetings, firstly to the motherland and then to all the resistors of the world…
*Simsek is referring to her story “Arzela,” which is part of a selection of short stories in the UK and which gave its name to Simsek’s book.
**Human Rights Foundation is an association founded in Turkey on July 17, 1986 by 98 human rights defenders from various professional groups, including the relatives of those both under arrest or sentenced, writers and journalists, physicians, lawyers, architects, engineers, and academics.
*Rachel Hebun Ozdemir
Trans woman journalist in exile with an International Press Card. Author, political refugee, conscientious objector, antiwar activist. Journalist since 2005 in Turkey. Focuses on stories of people, wars, conflicts, intelligence, diplomacy, human rights, the climate crisis, migration. Left Turkey following the constitutional amendment referendum in 2017 and had to migrate to Germany. Tried for TCK 318. Has four published books. Presents special reports, documentary content, interviews, and news from earth on YouTube.