Dispatch from Turkey | The Labor of Living and Dying

A Dispatch from Turkey

Two letters. Both sent by women to their mothers; one to the prison, the other from the prison. The co-leader of Democratic Society Party and the MP of pro-Kurdish left alliance, Peoples’ Democracy Party, Leyla Güven is at the center of the traffic of letters. Güven was imprisoned for her social media posts and statements on Turkish state’s war in Afrin several months ago. Since last November, she has been on an indefinite hunger strike. Today (11 April) is her 155th day. She is in a critical condition at her home. Her daughter wrote a few months ago: “Married at the age of 16, Leyla Güven is a mother of two children. She was divorced in her early 30s, took care of her children on her own, and became engaged in social struggles…. In Konya, the largely conservative city located at the center of Anatolia, she saw the hardships faced by Kurdish people, who were displaced from their lands and villages, deprived of their means of living and work, and were sentenced to exile, like herself. Leyla is not just my mother; she is the mother of all her people.”


When she was in prison, Leyla Güven’s mother passed away. Her debilitating health condition did not allow her to participate in her mother’s funeral. She sent a letter from the prison:


“I could not be with you in your hard times, when you were suffering from enormous pain…. For a child, these are perhaps among the last duties, but I could not do it. Sadly, I also had received the news about my father’s death when I was in the Amed prison, dungeon. I recall how sad you were about this. Mother, you never conformed to the unjust. You were rebellious. You did not hesitate to say what you know as right and managed to overcome the prohibitions imposed on women. After I left the village, many people told me about you. There was wisdom in the way you stood. If they asked me what was hope, endurance, generosity, or wisdom, I would say “my mother.” I remember when my father got angry with our political views, he used to say “your children became communist.” When you say, “Hacı, do you know what is communism?” my father would become upset and leave us alone. You would speak to my father for hours…. You taught us how to be a human. The values we today struggle for are your values.


“Mother, one people is treated as non-existent. It is said, “either you will wear the cloth we cut for you, or you will be naked.” For years the Kurdish people have been resisting against this treatment…. Whenever we came together, we talked about it for hours. You would nevertheless be worried. And you were right, because we chose to speak and struggle. For all this, we were targeted and thousands of us got arrested. Yes, we got arrested, but some of us also paid with their lives. They became the target of lynches, their bodies were tied to the back of the armed vehicles, they were killed during their sleep at night. What the Kurds got as their share is “death,” not life. This is how geography becomes a destiny, mother… We live through a moment when millions of people identify Mr. Öcalan as our “will,” when many people put their bodies to death for his freedom. I am in hunger strike against his solitary confinement and for peace and freedom on this land. Mother, solitary confinement is a crime against humanity. War is a crime against humanity. I am in resistance against these. You taught us to be courageous, speak right, and resist against injustice. What you taught us is very precious, mother. You had suffered a lot like many other mothers of Kurdistan. But you did not complain a single day. Dear mother, I will continue to struggle in order to be worthy of your care.”


What unfolds in this death fast struggle is then the history of the Kurdish people, the generations of women, their experience, knowledge, and intuition passed from one to another, a memory embodied and communicated in words, gestures, and silence. It is the knowledge that is learned in daily life, the memory that travels across the “geography of destiny.” Being a woman, a mother, a daughter is at once a deeply personal and collective relationship. Death and life accumulate meaning in this sociality, in the singularity of this struggle.



Banu Bargu’s book Starve and Immolate is all too relevant for the current situation in Turkey. Many MPs, political activists, lawyers, journalists, academics, and students have been purged, imprisoned, or subject to different forms of repression. With Leyla Güven, 300 political prisoners are currently engaged in death fast struggle inside and outside of the prisons in Turkey and abroad to demand the “lifting of the condition of isolation on Mr Abdullah Öcalan,” which is “maintained in violation of international and national law and is an attack on the people of Turkey and their desire to live together in peace” (see the petition here).[i] Bargu’s book focuses on Turkish prisons, but its theoretical-political engagement is certainly global. Her conceptualization of “weaponization of life” (forging life into a weapon through bodily self-destruction) aims to capture an emergent modality of resistance. Where life as the life of “species” (population) has become the object of power, death has turned into the central site of resistance as the limit of this biopower. By focusing on the hunger strikes in Turkish prisons, Bargu offers a critique of Giorgio Agamben-inspired analyses of “bare life” on the one hand, and, thinks further the work of Allen Feldman and Achille Mbembe on necropolitics on the other. Challenging the approaches to the subject of biopower as passive and abject body, Bargu focuses on the insurgent prisoners’ “labor of dying.”


Here, I want to raise a few questions in order to think through Bargu’s intervention. My first question concerns the politics of weaponization of life. To put it simply, what is the kind of politics one might envision through Bargu’s concept of necroresistance? If necroresistance is articulated in opposition to biopower, does this weaponization of life have any positive political content other than this opposition? Or, is it mainly a reactive form of action that is empty in itself and that could be appropriated by any political or religious groups, say, communists, anarchists, jihadists, regardless of their specific political engagement? In countering the biopolitical conception of life, what is the possibility or capacity of necroresistance to create an alternative form of life and death beyond biopower, a different relationship of life and death, a different horizon of politics? Who or what would be then the subject of that politics?


My second question concerns strategy. If Bargu is right to conceive necroresistance as a form of political expression, what does it mean to engage in death fast struggle at a moment when life has become so disposable, especially the lives of those people engaged in that struggle, say, the Kurdish lives in Turkey in an authoritarian neoliberal regime that has been waging war against them? What is the space of strategy opened up by necroresistance when the walls of silence and invisibility have been built to disappear those (dying) bodies? These questions do not mean to belittle the force or the meaning of death fast struggles. My point is rather that one needs to focus on not only necroresistance in itself, but on how that act connects to other fronts of social struggle, blocs of political power, and sites of resistance, which condition the strategic space of the weaponization of life. In other words, one needs to take seriously the life in and through which one engages in necroresistance; the expression, “to live is to resist” that has been voiced and embodied by generations of political activists engaged in hunger strike.[ii] There, we may also begin to think about the horizon of politics engaged by those activists.


In one of the most stimulating chapters of the book, “Contentions within Necropolitics,” Bargu cites her interlocutor who was engaged in death fast: “I have been in the struggle for 30 years. In the struggle people cannot make this calculation: where do I die, where do I survive, what if such and such happens to me. There are things that must happen; things that must be done. It is like that in life” (247). Another interlocutor said, “What is important is not that we live and die, but how we live and die. If you know how to live, death is never an end” (269). Indeed, many insurgent prisoners who undertake the labor of dying speak about their political lives, through which they situate and understand their action. In the book, we gather a little sense of the lives of these people beyond their engagement in necroresistance, of the political subjectivity that enables them to weaponize life. How have these actors become politicized and lived through in their years long activism? Through what experience have they become the insurgent political prisoner? What did they want and struggle for in their lives? What were the critical events for them? The self that undertakes self-destructive action is strangely absent in this comprehensive book. We meet them only through their death fast struggle, or after they became imprisoned. However, one fundamental way of challenging the passive and abject conception of the subject of biopolitics, in my view, would be precisely by giving a fuller and richer sense of life, by exploring the kind of sensibilities, experiences, and practices that constitute the subjectivity of those who engage in necroresistance. How might we think of Leyla Güven’s death fast if we do not consider the living memory and communication between the generations of Kurdish women and the broad social-historical milieu of the liberation struggle, of which this action is a part?


This life history inquiry does not need to follow an individualized, subjectivist method, or try to refashion a “coherent” political ideology that allegedly drives one’s life altogether. Anthropologists have recently focused on this study of forms of living and dying.[iii] What is at stake is an understanding of (political) life, with its passions, disappointments, and contradictions beyond its thin, narrowly conceived biological conception. Or, we may think with Maurice Merleau-Ponty who has written brilliant pages on political life and praxis, its contingency that unfolds at the crossroads of possibilities, in a dialectic of action and effect; the conjuncture, which becomes inscribed onto one’s body as the “flesh of history.” What is at stake is a world created not just by abstract ideals or values attributed to constitutions or institutions, but the social forms and practices of dying, living, and loving. Therein lies the meaning of communism.[iv]


An insurgent prisoner told Bargu, “Communist sacrifice needs to be desacralized and normalized. It is not heroism. It is like workers dying at the barricades of the Paris Commune…” (296) Another one said, “Death is one of the political strategies that could be employed, depending on the situation, conjunction, condition of struggle. It is nothing sacred or extraordinary. Guerilla-militant is a fighter. Inside the prison, this is the form of class warfare; no more extraordinary than distributing leaflet in the streets.” (305) I want to highlight the importance of these prosaic political practices that produce the milieu in which death fast struggles unfold. For all its rigorous theorization, and perhaps partly because of its too close focus on necroresistance in the prison, Bargu’s book does not explore much what the political organizations (extra-parliamentary left groups) do besides the specific prisons, in the streets, neighborhoods, and other urban and rural spaces beyond the prison and beyond necropolitical practices. For instance, DHKP-C (Cephe) which has been closely involved in death fast struggles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the period Bargu focuses on, is also known for its grassroots activities in certain shantytowns, running cultural centers, defending neighborhoods, and organizing local pedagogical programs.


Bargu’s analysis is perhaps most illuminating when it concerns the political divisions and conflicts around specific death fast struggles. The political effect of necroresistance largely hinges on the condition of public discussion and the ideological-political and material shifts that shape the language of contention. Thus, it is important to connect the specific prison space to the general political condition, to other social struggles. The same challenge stands today in Turkey. There is deafening silence about Leyla Güven’s and other political prisoners’ and activists’ death fast struggles/hunger strikes. The Turkish government refuses to recognize the ongoing struggle and the media, including the foreign media, is utterly indifferent or negligent. This seminar is then one way to make this ongoing struggle more visible and audible. Bargu’s brilliant book contributes to this effort by enabling this discussion.



[i] For more information: https://bianet.org/english/human-rights/204656-petition-launched-for-leyla-guven

[ii] Ulus Baker, “Ölüm Orucu—Notlar,” Birikim, 88, Ağustos 1996; see the film, 14 Tîrmeh (July), dir. Haşim Aydemir (2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANVR2NqL6JI

[iii] See, for instance, Veena Das and Clara Han eds. 2016. Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium. Berkeley: University of California Press; Didier Fassin. 2018. Life: A Critical User’s Manual. Cambridge: Polity Press

[iv] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 1969. Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem. Boston: Beacon