“My mother taught me not only to rebel but to fight”

Throughout her life Sakine would develop a deep knowledge and understanding of both Kurdistan (and Turkey) and Europe and their peoples, cultures, identities.

To mark the anniversary of the murder, on 9 January 2013, of Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez, ANF publishes an extract from the autobiography of Sakine Cansiz, ‘My Whole Life was a Struggle’, published by Pluto Press and translated by Janet Biehl.

In this chapter, Sakine tells of her first time in Europe, Germany, in 1973. She traveled there with her father. As it happened, throughout her life Sakine would develop a deep knowledge and understanding of both Kurdistan (and Turkey) and Europe and their peoples, cultures, identities.

My mother taught me not only to rebel but to fight

That year [1973] my father decided to take my big brother and me to Germany. I didn’t want to leave school. I’d finish secondary school and wanted to continue my studies. I was interested in becoming a nurse and wanted to go to Health School. I didn’t know much about boarding schools, but in our extended family there were girls who attended schools with attached dormitories. The daughter of an uncle on my mother’s side attended the Girls Vocational School in Elazığ, and the daughter of a paternal uncle went to school in Akçadağ. I thought that would be better. And at the time I wanted to be far away, because I thought it would make my mother love me more.

My youngest sisters were the twins. They had the same names as my friends in grade school: Feride and Nesibe. Their upbringing was difficult. My mother always said, “Now that I can handle one, Allah has given me two!” She complained about it to Allah. But I secretly rejoiced that the twins were there. During my mother’s pregnancy, when she would scold me and express irritation that I was a girl, I said: “Well, I hope two more [girls] are coming!” I had no idea that twins were on the way—I just meant, I wanted to have many sisters. When the twins were born, I was delighted... It was as if God had heard my prayer. But of course it wasn’t easy to raise the two of them, and it was sometimes onerous for me.

Normally I took care of Nesibe, while my mother handled Feride. Together we changed their diapers and fed them their mush. The neighbors took to calling Nesibe “Sakine’s daughter.” Feride was blond, while Nesibe was darker. They were fraternal twins. Just after their birth, my mother had an appendectomy, which didn’t make things easier for me. I had to manage the whole household, take care of the twins, and be responsible for the rest of the family. Even at a young age, I had to learn to do every possible task.

At the time we were seven siblings. I was the oldest daughter. Besides my big brother, the others were all younger than me and had to be looked after. I did the laundry, prepared the food, baked the bread, did the shopping, and performed all the other chores, but somehow my mother was never satisfied. The neighbour women would hold me up as a model for their own daughters, with all my household industriousness despite my youth, but in the eyes of my own mother, I could never do right. She was a very prickly woman.

But then, with my father being away, leaving her alone with so many children, it wasn’t easy for her. The burden, in fact, overwhelmed her. She presided over the family with the words and the rules that she knew and understood. She is the person in my life who most influenced me, so I’ll explain much more about her. Even as she taught me rebellion, she also taught me to struggle. I owe her a great deal.

But my father finally persuaded my brother and me to go with him to Berlin. It was the first time I’d ever left Dersim, my family, and my mother, Zeynep. The farther we traveled from home, the more homesick I became. I was filled with sorrow and cried sometimes.

The first city I saw after Dersim was Elazığ. But the bus didn’t stop there—it continued on to Istanbul. Along the way I could see things only during the rest stops, because we traveled a lot of the journey during the night. The bus trip itself was torture. The whole trip was horrible, and I threw up. My father and my brother were used to such trips. In Kovancılar and Elazığ, I could see the label “MHP” on signs and rocks. Both places were known for being home to fascists, and the label was like a confirmation. I also saw “MHP” and “AP” in Kayseri, Yozgat, and Bolu—but I hardly ever saw “CHP.”

Finally we reached Istanbul. It was huge. The Bosporus bridge was still being built that year and wasn’t quite finished. It was enormous and very long, and it excited me. We had relatives in Istanbul, but we stayed at a hotel. Our plane tickets were bound up with my father’s ticket, so we had to be absolutely sure not to miss the flight. One of the owners of Turkish Airlines was Fahri Baba, a close friend of my father. My father had called him and arranged the booking. I was curious about him—in my imagination he was a powerful businessman. Later in Berlin I got to know him, and he was really a lovable, awe-inspiring man.

I stepped onto an airplane for the first time. It was superb—I couldn’t get enough of diving through the clouds. It was like jumping into a giant pile of cotton. I saw many new and interesting things, but nothing seemed strange. I acclimated myself by watching my father and my brother. I even understood the menus that were handed to us right away.

The plane had to land and refuel in Sofia. I was in a Communist country! In history class I’d paid attention to the subject of Bulgaria because it had a socialist regime. I was curious, but we made only a stopover. What were people and human relations like here? I tried to see a difference. But only the police looked different—Turkish police stirred up very different feelings in me.

Germany was huge. We flew over Stuttgart and Frankfurt to Berlin. My father explained to us about East Berlin. He said the city had been divided, and a wall built down the middle. I’d already heard in school about the distinctive regime in East Germany. Of course, it would be something else to see it in reality, but we only flew over it.

We landed in Berlin and took a taxi to Johanniterstrasse 10, where we passed though a big gateway. We drove past a lot of buildings, then finally reached a rather isolated two- story house. My first thought was that the house was remote and simple. I didn’t like it when a house had too many apartments. My father said this was the only apartment he could find. In Germany it was considered unhealthy for many people to live too close together. It wasn’t permitted. The three of us would live in an apartment intended for one. It had a living room, a small hallway, a kitchen, and a bathroom.

Why had my father brought me and my brother here? To a place that he himself called “the country of infidels” and that he didn’t even like because work conditions were tough and his family was far away? We both had had to leave school. My father had no intention of letting us work. I was fourteen, and my brother was seventeen.

My father and my brother had an interesting relationship My brother was the oldest siblings and in my father’s absence the head of the household. That gave him a certain autonomy that my mother didn’t really accept. At home he had a special status. He was very orderly, his clothes always clean and ironed. Sometimes he changed clothes two or three times a day. No sock or shirt of his was ever dirty—otherwise all hell broke loose. He was the last to get up in the morning, and then he was served breakfast. He never filled his water glass himself, even when the pitcher was right next to him. He usually didn’t like the food and normally ate out. It caused my mother grief, and but she also reproached him: “You go out to the restaurant and eat dirty soup, but you won’t eat the clean food at home. But then, what can one expect from progeny like you?” She thought him an ungrateful son.

My mother was a very good cook. I couldn’t understand my brother’s habits. In the summertime he went to Istanbul, Antalya, or Ankara, where my father sent him extra money, but he pestered my mother to send him more money, or he’d go into debt and ask my father again. My brother’s debts were always cleared when my father came home for his vacation. He told my brother to “fear Allah!” but he never got angry. My brother had his own principles, which he followed in his own special way, regardless of where he stayed. Even my mother had no power to change him. My father was very tolerant of him, considering him not only a son but a friend. He thought highly of him and was proud of having such a tall son, even when he was young. At first the people around us, even the German neighbors, didn’t believe we were my father’s children. We were both very tall for our age. My father was young, fit, and vigorous.

He was an open man and treated everyone like a friend. Most people in Dersim kept to their own kind, but not him. He had friends from Sivas, Kayseri, Istanbul, and Kars. People from different places came to visit him. He had German, African, and Libyan friends. Because he was warm and guileless, they loved him. At the same time he was close to his family. In Germany I got to know my father better and loved him all the more.

In his thoughts and feelings he was actually always with us. His frequent trips home, his songs and poems, his pieces of advice—everything flowed from his love for us. He made a cassette “Advice for my children” that was very touching when we listened to it. He wanted to show us what is right in life, step by step. We held on to this cassette for a very long time. I wish I had it with me now and could listen to it. Advice giving is a feature of Zoroastrianism—it’s an expression of closeness. The cassette contained criticisms and warnings. In a certain way we were my father’s world. He was different from other fathers. Many fathers didn’t come home for years. Even though they were married at home, they married again in Germany. Alcohol, gambling, and affairs with other women were common, which threw domestic life into turmoil and destroyed whole families. In Dersim many men were known to have married German women. Many even brought the new wife back home on vacation. That created bad blood. Some married rich German women out of calculation, to be able to inherit from them.

Everyone knew my father didn’t behave this way with women. He enjoyed the great trust in the neighborhood. Sometimes when men had something to do elsewhere, they’d leave their wives in my father’s custody.

Normally my father was with us or else he told us where he’d be. If he had to work long hours or be somewhere else, he would call. He’d even put the people he was traveling with on the phone. He avoided doing anything that could shake our trust in him. That was his way of being, which rubbed off on us. By comparison, my brother was a bit more cunning. Sometimes he cheated, but he’d be caught right away. Considering my father’s behavior, it was hard to lie to him. It isn’t easy to lie to someone with such a pure heart. You’d soon admit to everything.