Diyarbakır Prison: Musealization as Resistance

Martin van Bruinessen

Diyarbakir Prison: The Ongoing Public Discourses

In April 2008, Diyarbakır Prison was included in the report, which was published inThe Times magazine entitled “The Ten Most Notorious Jails In The World”. The report introduces the history of the prison briefly by reminding the reader that Diyarbakir prison was “known throughout the Ottoman Empire as the home of harsh and feared sentences given to political prisoners or members of the enslaved Balkan region who dared to speak out against their rulers.” And what’s more, in contemporary Turkey, the prison has been known as the place where the prisoners carry out hunger strikes due to the routinized brutal torture handled by the officials. Lastly, the report refers to the events happened in mid 90’s in Diyarbakir prison, about which a UN study was published describing that “300 prisoners being dragged along the prison corridors where they were beaten with truncheons, iron bars, chains and clubs.”[1] Diyarbakir prison was the center of human rights violation and brutal torture, which were directed against the political prisoners most of whom were Kurdish/leftist revolutionaries especially active between 70’s and 2000’s in Turkey. Despite the recent improvements in prison conditions due to EU regulations in Turkey, Diyarbakir prison is still subject to much debate, and is frequently cited as the place where no regulation counts, in Agamben’s terms, exists in a “state of exception”.[2]

In 2009, Kurdish filmmaker Çayan Demirel prepared a documentary entitled “Diyarbakir Prison no: 5”. The documentary was based on the eyewitness accounts, which reveal the fascist policies conducted in the prison against the Kurdish inmate revolutionaries: “Prisoners who couldn’t learn 50 marches were exposed to various torture. The Turkification policy was at its peak in the prison.” Demirel acquired official permission to shoot some of the scenes of the documentary inside the prison cells, as he visualized the testimonies of 80 prisoners in the each cell they described. Demirel tells his experiences as follows: “In light of what prisoners told us, we see that thousands of kinds of torture were experienced in the prison. The conclusion I get from what we were told is that fascism reached its peak.” Consequently, Demirel puts forward the idea that the prison should be turned into a museum: “Turning such a torture place into a museum would mean that we would face up to our past.”[3]

Demirel’s documentary on Diyarbakir prison fueled an extensive debate on prison conditions, torture, human rights and the Kurdish independence movement. Yet, these topics were already subjected to various discussions in Turkey’s political life for more than a decade. What is significant and unique in the current debates is the newly founded relation of the “prison” to the concept of “museum” and “musealization”. In August 2009, the columnist Hasan Cemal declared the following: “What should be done is to convert Diyarbakir Prison into a museum called ‘Human Rights Museum’” while referring to Kurdish writer Orhan Miroğlu who explicates that the community should face its violent past in order to consolidate reconciliation in Turkey.[4] Later on, in September 2010, NGO’s in Diyarbakir has made a call for Diyarbakir prison to be converted into a museum, which would be named “Utanç Müzesi” (The Museum of Shame). According to the representatives of the NGO’s, turning the prison into a museum would be an ideal way to educate the next generations about the brutal effects of military coups.

Additionally, the representatives remind the statement that the prime minister Erdogan uttered in his public speech in Diyarbakir in September 2010 where he declared to close down the Diyarbakir Prison. What was striking in Erdogan’s speech was that he promised to build a new prison without mentioning the “musealization” of current one. Erdogan referred to the brutal tortures conducted in Diyarbakir prison during the time of the military coup at 1980 and said: “We don’t want to remember those days anymore”, hence he declared his will to replace the prison with a new one.[5] As a matter of fact, the representatives’ reaction was negative, and in their appointment with Erdogan, they requested the prison to be turned into a museum. According to the representatives, Erdogan’s initial reaction was positive. [6]

Concretization and Remembrance

Diyarbakir Prison is a public space where the “public” in it connotes a dual understanding. On the one hand there are (ex)-prisoners who are subjected to extreme tones of violence during the time they were sentenced, Orhan Miroğlu being one of them. Secondly, the non-prisoners who did not witness the atrocities in the prison yet maintain their despair towards the happenings, are included in the “public” dimension oriented around the debates. These two groups share similar emotions of trauma, pain, loss, suffering and despair, which result out of the tortures and are related to the violent repression of Kurdish/leftist revolutionarism. In this respect, Karen Till reminds: “In societies that have experienced violence, individuals return to particular places to revisit difficult feelings of loss, grief, guilt and anger.” And what’s more, during their visits to particular places, Till notes that “people describe these places as having a distinct presence, one that is material, sensual, spiritual and psychic, yet also structured by social space.” The distinct presence of Diyarbakir Prison is manifest in the statements of the NGO representatives, Hasan Cemal’s call including Miroglu’s insights and Demirel’s acquisition to create a movie out of the real premises of the prison in order to identify the very “presence” of the space of prison. Besides, in the case of Diyarbakir prison, this “distinct presence” is accompanied and fulfilled by the request to convert the prison into a “museum” which only then will pave the way for the prison to maintain a distinctive status in virtue of which the individuals belonging to the public of loss and trauma will find the chance to revisit those places.

The atrocities committed in Diyarbakir prison will be “remembered”; the way to remembrance will be provided by the act of “musealization” since musealization brings about a form of concretization of particular traumas, which took place in the particular era and space of Diyarbakir prison, in other words, as Rhitman suggests, it brings along a “concretization of history”.[7] In relation to the particular possible effects of concretization, I also refer to Crapanzano’s understanding of the “performative nature of commemoration”. Crapanzano notes that by the act of commemorializing, one suggests a certain permanence to the past events, which eventually provides the past a certain governance over the present and the future.[8] In this context, musealization which is the demand for concretization of the remembrance is an intimate demand of the individuals who ontologically have built close relationships with the prison space, and who strives after the ambition to see that this space is acknowledged and recognized by the political/governmental will, together with the other individuals of the public who are neutral or dismissive of the atrocities committed in Diyarbakir prison. At this juncture, Till reveals, “places become part of us, even when held in common, through the intimate relationships individuals and groups have with them.”[9]

Musealize! One Can Mourn, One Can Remember

In this regard, the endeavor to musealize Diyarbakir prison does not consist only of an intention to commemorate, but it inhabits the very activism for the “official” recognition of the atrocities by the Turkish Republic, which is the perpetrator itself. Till’s argument can be extended with the introduction of the concept of “mourning”.  The reason why the public attributes a distinct presence to Diyarbakir prison is because there was an interdiction of mourning[10] committed at the hands of the perpetrator, since many deaths and tortures were kept secret, the mourning could not take place. At this point, Demirel’s documentary is a revolutionary step towards exposing the very spaces of death, hence providing the public with the chance to mourn. Yet it was only a movie, which could bring the spaces of death with the medium of film footage, and nothing more. Musealization of Diyarbakir Prison will pave the way for the public to perform an “actual touch” to the spaces of death. Musealization, beyond simply commemoration, occupies a crucial position with its humanist intervention, that is, enabling mourning, which is stated by Till in other words as the following: “Often the generations that come afterwards understand these places as material evidence of unspoken pain, in Caruth’s (1996) words, crying wounds that demand justice. Being in the presence of a place that was important in the lives of loved ones may help individuals work through feelings of incompleteness – spectral traces that are passed through generations.”[11] On the other hand, within this activism against the interdiction of mourning, a museum, which will be founded on the prison of Diyarbakir, will supposedly convey its visitors the feeling of liminality as the whole experience of the museum will pertain to a ritualized status, which is explicated by Duncan as a

release from practical daily life and concentration on other thoughts and feelings.[12]

Among these discussions regarding the musealization of Diyarbakir Prison which this paper defines as an activism for mourning, the notions of “forgetting” and “remembering” was introduced once again after a striking statement released to the press by the Turkish government. According to the statement, a project was undertaken to close down and extinguish Diyarbakir Prison and to construct an “education complex” in its very place, which would consist of primary and high schools and would worth 27 million liras.[13] As a response, various representatives of NGO’s objected to this project and insisted on their request to convert the prison into a museum, rather than an education complex. And what’s more, they demanded an apology from the Turkish state for the atrocities committed in the prison since.[14] The moment, when the state decides to undertake the project of an educational complex on the space of the prison of Diyarbakir, indicates the activation of a “forgetting” mechanism. Connerton defines a type of forgetting which he defines as “constitutive in the formation of a new identity” where “forgetting then becomes part of the process by which newly shared memories are constructed because a new set of memories are frequently accompanied by a set of tacitly shared silences.”[15] It is significant that the government defends the project of educational complex with reference to the “Kurdish opening”, the democratic steps taken toward the oppressed Kurdish community. Following Connerton, one can suggest that the governments’ project reveals itself as an endeavor for forgetting the atrocities accompanied with the foundation an education complex, which would be constitutive in the formation of a new identity. Yet, this identity formation inhabits an act of assimilation since the new identity, which will rise on the ashes of Diyarbakir prison, is not Kurdish but Turkish identity in accordance with the official Turkish education system. At this point, once again the concept of “museum” comes up on the stage as an agent for resistance. The defenders of the cause of the prison’s musealization resist the will of the perpetrator to activate the mechanism of “forgetting” by means of the dictation of the official Turkish identity on the ruins of Diyarbakir Prison, which is the very place of Kurdish/leftist resistance and the container of the tragedy of a failed attempt for revolution and independence. Once again, the concept of museum’s activist power is observed when it is manifested against the will of the perpetrator who is willing to assimilate in virtue of triggering a mechanism of forgetting.

Musealize With Dialogy

As opposed to the perpetrator’s will toward forgetting, the defenders of the Diyarbakir Prison-Museum cause insist to remember. They resist, with the means of the concept of “museum” to continue remembering and as mentioned in previous paragraphs, to make the next generations remember. Here the crucial link is to be explored in the relationship between commemoration and education. The emphasis on “next generation” proves that according to the activists, a particular kind of educative mechanism is necessary which would be carried out by the museum. White draws attention to this relation when he says; “one of the issues that emerges repeatedly around memorial sites and discourses of remembrance is the tension between honoring the dead and educating—a tension often articulated in terms of binaries such as memorial-museum, commemoration–education, emotion–reason, and sacred–profane.” Besides, White exemplifies the concomitance of the two relations with an example from Germany: “During the planning for the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, for example, conflict arose when the German minister of culture asserted that the memorial should ‘‘be as pedagogically inclined as possible, a center for learning and research, not just contemplation.”[16] Currently, there is no debate on how Diyarbakir Prison-Museum should look like since the discussion is still disputed around the possibility of converting the prison into a museum; the content of which the museum’s educative purpose consists is not yet debated. Thus one cannot say whether Diyarbakir Prison-museum will be “a center of learning and research” or not. Nonetheless, one should not attempt to undertake an educational/research project via Diyarbakir Prison-Museum. The museum should be invoking dialogy instead of functioning merely as educative.

In the light of the previous discussions regarding the issue of mourning, instrumentalizing a museum like Diyarbakir Prison in accordance with educational/research purposes at the hands of a particular authority would function as some kind of a betrayal of the loss. Diyarbakir Prison-Museum should activate remembering and memory in the individuals who will engage to a close interaction with the museum. Additionally, due to this interaction, as Crapanzano indicates, “not only do monuments and memorials inspire memory but they influence the way memories are recalled and recounted.”[17] The museum is an important-performative site of orienting individuals’ ideas, perceptions and even it configures memories, refreshes those or provides people with particular remembrances; although on the other hand, museum’s educational/research function would only aim to dictate a particular kind of educational/research purpose on the individuals. Contrarily, without ant pedagogicalinterventions, Diyarbakir museum should become a more libertarian space where a whole history of loss is displayed without any kind of educational message, linguistically speaking, a final sign, which conveys a transcendental meaning and which would attribute that particular meaning to what is displayed in the museum, the signifier. The museum as a signifier should enter into a dialogue with the individuals, an interaction liberated from any political/state-level/authoritarian/educational/research purposes and ends, as illustrated by Crapanzano in the following statement with reference to White’s reflections on the monuments and memorials: “… Monuments and memorials … are ‘sites of interaction’, in which each interaction ‘yields distinct interpretations that emerge in the dialogic interplay among diverse forms of knowledge, textual genres, voices and interests.’”[18] In this respect, “dialogy”, the Bakhtinian linguistic notion employed to display the interactions and the existences of different social speech types in a given text,[19] should be favored over “pedagogy” in order to liberate the museum from the implementation of any authoritative set of disciplinary practices of a particular group of people.

Musealize! Defeat Barbarism

“The first museum in the modern sense of the word was founded in France by the Convention of July 27, 1793. The origin of the modern museum is thus linked to the development of the guillotine” is what Bataille beautifully drew attention.[20] Similarly, one cannot conceive of a Diyarbakir Prison-Museum without deaths and tortures. Adorno mentions Valery who argues that, in museums, art becomes an mere instrument of education and information as “Venus becomes a document.”[21] Hence, Adorno concludes that for Valery, museum is a place of barbarism.[22] Similarly, Benjamin states in his theses, “there is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[23] Although Diyarbakir Prison-museum is not an “art” museum in which objects of art will be displayed, it still fits into Valery’s and Benjamin’s reflections in some way since one way or another, the prison cells will be treated as “documents” which shed light to a particular barbarism committed by the Turkish Republic against Kurdish/leftist revolutionaries. Yet in the context that we’re dealing with, unlike Valery who suggests that objects and a particular past with them are put into death in museums,[24] museum serves to an after-life purpose in Proust’s understanding since for him, “it is only the death of the work of art in the museum which brings it to life.”[25] Here, in the case of Diyarbakir prison, the concept of museum assumes a revolutionary character; not by working through art objects as Adorno’s discussion is oriented around, but by providing an after-life to the death and torture. The victims resists the perpetrator by means of musealizing Diyarbakir prison and finally engage to an act of proper mourning. Musealization is revolutionary only to the extent that it does not apply educational/research purposes and concentrates on activating a dialogy between the objects and the audiences in the museum of Diyarbakir prison. Only then the documents of barbarism can be subjected to a counter-performative action directed against the very founders of those barbarism, the government, or the political will, which still intends to activate the forgettingmechanisms and identity constitution in accordance with the official Turkish identity. Musealization is a queer act; it uses the very tool of barbarism to defeat it.

Between Deleuze and Derrida: Further Suggestions

Despite the museum’s revolutionary propositions underscored throughout this paper, the act to “musealize” can be subjected to a critical discussion by the application of Deleuzian theory of becoming and Derrida’s understanding of “pure forgiveness”, which will be a matter of deeper investigation for the purposes of another lengthy article. The question remains, will Orhan Miroglu or other former prisoners of Diyarbakir prison be ever forgiving the atrocities committed against them? Today, Diyarbakir prison-museum activism is debated in the media, independent of its content. What will the museum look like? With which objects the museum will be designed? Current discussions are focused on the possibility of founding a museum, yet the whole content of the possible museum is unintelligible. Indeed, according to Derrida, in order to achieve pure forgiveness, forgiveness should stay in the margins of the unintelligible. Forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, should have no “meaning”; forgiveness has to stand in the margins of the unintelligible.[26] Besides, Derrida describes the “purity” of forgiveness as “forgiveness without power: Unconditional but without sovereignty.”[27] The calls for the state to apologize for the deaths in Diyarbakir and the requests for the conversion of the prison into a museum both take into account the role of the perpetrator in the process of musealization and forgiveness. Is it possible to achieve reconciliation in virtue of the act of musealization? And what is the role of musealization to pave the way for forgiveness?

Derrida’s arguments on the conditions of pure forgiveness which proceeds with the exclusion of power relations seems to be complemented by Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of becoming-minor. In the case of Diyarbakir prison, to musealize is to become-minor, which is “to seek to connect with the neglected movements in the social body” and “to jostle the reins of the majority identity in order to investigate new possibilities, new ways of becoming…”[28] Yet, although musealization may come to mean becoming-minor, the concept of museum itself inhabits a problematic in the light of Deleuzian philosophy of becoming. There is always the following danger for a museum: a museum is usually “is”, it never “becomes”. The museum refers to a set of static objects, not in terms of its motionlessness but since it refers to a particular “sign”, a fixed meaning attached to the set of objects exhibited, a transcendental sign as mentioned above. When you go see an archeology museum, you are supposed to bear the discipline of archeology in mind, or in Ashmolean, you are directed and expected to witness the stages of art history from the first floor with Ancient civilizations to the top floor of Modern art. Contrarily, Deleuze favors the notion of “becoming” as opposed to “being” which denotes a fixed, stable entity. A Deleuzian approach toward museums would suggest that museum does not consist of a fixed, stable “being”, contrarily, “all ‘beings’ are just relatively stable moments in a flow of becoming-life.”[29] Besides, within this constant flux of becoming, Deleuze asks with reference to literature: “The question then is never simply ‘What can a work do?’ but always ‘What can it do for you/me/us?’”[30] Musealization is not simply the act to commemorate through particular kind of aestheticization, it is to be able to create a machinic assemblage out of the museum which is capable of producing effects on the audience[31] similar to what Crapanzo mentions as the “performative” nature of a memorial. For Deleuze, “a machinic becoming makes a connection with what is not itself in order to transform and maximise itself.”[32]

Diyarbakir prison should be musealized in the light of Deleuzian ethics of machinic-becoming in accordance with sustaining the conditions a “dialogic” environment while escaping the possibility to convert the prison into a museum with a fixed meaning and a final sign with a particular educational/research, pedagogical, nationalist, assimilationist, coercive approach aiming to forget. Only then the possibility to achieve forgiveness can arise. Musalization should seek to attempt an anti-fascist way of life out of barbarism, the only victory that Kurdish/leftist revolutionaries will gain in this queer performance.


Adorno, Theodor W. 1996 [1953]. “Valéry Proust Museum.” In Prisms, pp. 175-85. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Agamben, Giorgio, (2005). State of Exception. University of Chicago Press

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “The Dialogic Imagination”. ed. Michael Holquist. trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press. Austin. 1981

Bataille, Georges. 1986. Museum. October 36 (Spring): 24-25.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.

Buchanan, Ian & Marks, John (eds). Deleuze and Literature. 2000. Edinburgh University Press

Colebrook, Claire. “Gilles Deleuze”. Routledge. London & New York. 2002

Connerton, Paul. 2008. Seven types of forgetting. Memory Studies 1(1): 59–71.p.63

Crapanzano, Vincent. 2004. “Remembrance.” In his Imaginative horizons: an essay in literary-philosophical anthropology, pp. 148-177. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

David Kazanjian and Marc Nichanian, Between Genocide and Catastrophe,” inLoss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Duncan, Carol. 1995. “The Art Museum as Ritual,” in her Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, pp. 7-20. Oxford: Routledge

Jacques Derrida. ”On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness”, New York: Routledge, 2003

Rithman-Augustin. 2004. “The Monument in the Main City Square: Constructing and Erasing Memory in Contemporary Croatia.” In Balkan Identities: Nation and Memory. Edited by Maria Todorova, pp. 180-196. London : Hurst.

Till, Karen. 2008. Artistic and Activist Memory-Work: Approaching Place-Based Practice. Memory Studies 1 (1): 95-109

Todd May. “Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction”. Cambridge University Press. New York.2005

White, Geoffrey M. 2004. National subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor.American Ethnologist 31(3): 293-310.

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