by Matt Broomfield
Öcalan playwright: ‘How does a single man question all his previous beliefs?’
Debut play explores thought and psychology of Kurdish leader
A new play, ‘The Cell Without Night’, explores the experiences and political thought of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish liberation movement imprisoned since 1999 by the Turkish government. During his long detention, Öcalan has been held in conditions amounting to torture and condemned by international rights organisations and monitors. At the same time, he has developed a unique political philosophy based on principles of direct democracy, women’s autonomy, devolution and social ecology, known as ‘democratic confederalism.’
This remarkable process was the inspiration for the debut play of the Basque playwright Galder Irusta, entitled ‘La celda sin noche’ in the original Spanish. Written in 2019 and brought to the stage for the first time in 2022, the play is set within the four walls of Öcalan’s barren cell, but uses three actors to animate different aspects of the Kurdish leader’s thought in an exploration of political transformation amidst personal hardship and suffering.
Medya news spoke with Irusta, a young playwright and film director who has studied in Madrid, Rome and Amsterdam; directed, written, edited and produced over 55 independent short films; and recently received the prestigious La Caixa Fellowship to study film direction in the USA.
Irusta explained that like many people, he first became aware of Öcalan and the Kurdish issue with the outbreak of the revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). This developed into a fascination with Öcalan and the unique circumstances in which his political ideology evolved – which Irusta describes as “the most interesting political thought of the past decades… even more than saying that, it’s actually being put into practice in Syria and in Turkey. In Syria, this is despite the terrible civil war and the lack of resources. They are actually trying to do something.”
He also put his interest in the Kurdish issue in the context of his own background in the Basque region and its own struggle for autonomy from the Spanish state, saying: “In Europe we have lost something. Here in the Basque country, we are also coming out of an armed struggle which was fighting for an independent national state, but for the Basques, there is not an alternative horizon.”
Asked why he chose to write about Öcalan’s time in detention rather than the Rojava revolution, Irusta explained: “It was about his political thought, but also an emotional issue. To make this interesting to people who do not know about or haven’t cared about the Kurdish issue…
“For me it was really interesting to ask this question: how does a single man, completely isolated, suffering violation of human rights constantly, without any communication to the outside world, question all his previous beliefs and neither fully reject them nor dogmatically embrace them? Instead, he proposes something new, which embraces his old ideas but is new, and is a horizon of hope, of living together. I wondered, what happens inside someone to make that turn?”
In order to dramatise this process, Irusta explained, his play uses three characters each representing a different aspect of Öcalan’s personality – a fiery young male guerilla, a more intellectual middle-aged female character who also represents the influence of the women’s movement on Öcalan’s thought, and an elderly peasant who represents the personal and human in his character.
“People can connect to a certain character and then make a journey with this character,” Irusta explained. “For example, if people ask – what was all this armed struggle for? They can connect with the peasant, and make the journey with him.” This approach also enabled the playwright to explore tensions and contradictions in Öcalan’s situation and thought, as for example when the characters debate what messages and requests to communicate to the outside world.
‘The cell without night’ debuted in Costa Rica, and is being performed on the following dates:
– San Sebastián: 11 and 12 March 2023
– Bilbao: 15 March 2023
– Vitoria: 17 March 2023
Listen to the podcast above for the full interview.