Kurdish activist Mahmut Kardaş recently ended a 44-day ‘death fast’ staged to protest his detention in a Turkish prison. Kardaş was handed a life sentence on the basis of an anonymous report, without evidence of his involvement in the events in question – a feud 16 years ago between his family and Turkish government-appointed ‘village guards’, which left dead on both sides and the Kardaş home burned down.
His niece, prominent writer Meral Şimşek, also ended a fast which she had been staging in solidarity with her uncle. Şimşek herself fled terror charges in Turkey, with prosecutors even citing her poetry and science fiction stories as evidence of a terror plot, in a surreal and nightmarish procedure which speaks volumes to the paranoia of the contemporary Turkish state.
Hunger strikes and ‘death fasts’ have long been a crucial tactic for Kurdish political prisoners, following in the steps of the Irish and South African liberation movements. (Indeed, as expert Denis O’Hearn told me in a recent interview, methods of repression and isolation developed in Northern Ireland’s notorious H-Block provided a direct model for and influence on Turkey’s no less notorious network of F-Type prisons.)
Certainly, the hunger strike is an act of despair, a protest carried out by those who have no resources with which to protest, save only their own bodies. As one researcher has written with reference to hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay, “it may seem peculiar, perhaps even contradictory, that in a severe circumstance of political detention, one’s body under constant surveillance and various practices of deprivation and degradation, that one voluntarily decides to further intensify the severity of one’s incarceration, intensifying life as a living death, and denying oneself sustenance.”
But it’s precisely for this reason that the theorist Giorgo Agamben conceptualises the hunger strike as a form of political protest, through which people the repressive nation-state seeks to reduce to a condition of what he calls ‘bare life’ are able to reclaim their agency and strike back at the authorities which seek to void their existence of meaning and purpose.
Agamben argues the capitalist nation-state achieves hegemony through the necessary and permanent exclusion of certain populations, voiding them of political agency and leaving them to live what he calls the “barren life”. The liberal state proscribes certain limits to its violence, only to suspend them in these ‘exceptional’ cases, which then become the new ordinary. He writes: “The rule, suspending itself, gives rise to the exception”, and whole populations are left to suffer under a permanent and increasingly global ‘state of emergency’.
In this light, the hunger strike might seem to mark the bitter acceptance of a ‘barren’ existence, the last cry of a life denied as it is voided altogether. And certainly the Kurds, for so long formally written out of existence under authoritarian states throughout the Middle East, have long reckoned with their status as a paradigmatically barren, excluded non-people.
But Agamben’s account has also been criticised for denying agency to these subaltern, excluded populations. And as in Kardaş’s hunger strike, or the 2020 wave of hunger strikes which helped to win temporary visitation rights for Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan following years of isolation, these strikes do not occur as desperate, individual acts, but are rather united through national and international solidarity. The unity of bodies spread far through space and time have enabled the barren body in revolt to reclaim power outside itself, uniting the Kurdish struggle across borders and through the years since the Kurdish political movement announced itself with a series of famous hunger strikes in Amed (Diyarbakır) prison. Through their willing acceptance of their barren status, Kurdish hunger strikers paradoxically reaffirm their political subjectivity and agency.
And thus, through the living death of a hunger strike, Kurdish political prisoners fiercely reaffirm their commitment to life: ‘There are those who love life so much they are willing to die for it’, as a famous slogan from the Amed prison resistance runs. Kardaş remains imprisoned, and Şimşek exiled. But they, like thousands of other political prisoners in Turkey, remain united through a resilient spirit that cannot be excluded from life.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.