By Marcos da Rocha Carvalho

June 29, 2001

[Editor’s note: a revised version of this article also appeared in the Washington City Paper, Vol. 21, No. 35, Aug. 31 — Sept. 6, 2001]

If Embassy Row is a part of your daily commute, than political protest is a part of your daily routine. If most Americans seem apathetic to national affairs (check out the last presidential election’s turn out), international concerns seem even farther from our minds. DC residents, however, get a constant schooling on global affairs. Our city is an open canvas to the rest of the globe’s concerns. After all, the ripples created by the policy made here are felt worldwide.

The Cell of Atonement located in Sheridan Circle, strategically placed across from the Turkish ambassador’s residence, adds a new dab of paint to that canvas. Although not intended as a piece of political art, it calls to mind Hélio Oticica’s 1968 installation piece Favela, where the artist recreated a typical Rio de Janeiro hillside slum house as slap in the face of the gallery-going elite of that city. The Cell is an actual recreation of a Turkish prison cell (sans bathroom), measuring 6′ in height by 8′ in width with a painted window through which light comes in but keeps the prisoner from looking outside. A credit to the success of the Cell’s impact, much like that of Oiticica’s piece, is that someone resides in the cell at all times. The difference is that this Cell is a vigil for four Kurdish prisoners in Turkey.

America has its share of cause celebre prisoners, Mumia Abu-Jamal and the AIM leader Leonard Peltier figure prominently in the media. Europe, although often eager to adopt our prisoners, has her own in Leyla Zana. Considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience together with her three colleagues Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak, Leyla is currently imprisoned in Turkey.

After serving three years in Turkish parliament Leyla Zana was accused and imprisoned for making what the Turkish government dubbed “separatist speeches”. The Cell was erected on the 7th anniversary of her imprisonment, she is the first Kurdish woman to be elected to Turkish parliament and in many ways represents the struggles of the Kurdish people. Turkish Kurds are not allowed to teach, publish or broadcast in their language or express their culture, rights these four prisoners were lobbying for in the Turkish parliament.

Leyla Zana may not be a common household name in the U.S., but she is no stranger to Congress where our own delegate Norton co-signed a letter alongside 152 representative in Congress to urge President Clinton to take immediate action in her behalf. A letter which expressed outrage specifically over the fact that one of the crimes she is charged with stemmed from her appearance in Washington, before the Helsinki Commission of the United States Congress, at the Congress’s invitation no less. In Europe she enjoys the support of dignitaries such as the First Lady of France, and was the recipient of the Sakharov Peace Prize by the European Parliament for struggling nonviolently for democratic change.

The Cell has become a rallying point for Kurds including refugees and asylum seekers passing through DC, and for traditional Kurdish musicians to showcase their folk music rich in protest. Although many people honk in support, flash victory signs and sometimes make tea and food donations, it also gets its share of negative reactions. The Kalorama Residents Association’s leadership would like to see the Cell gone from Sheridan Circle. Other reactions include obscenities, ethnic epitaphs and appeals for Muslim unity (although mostly Sunni Muslim, Kurds enjoy a great diversity of faiths).

Kurds take turns at the vigil, sometimes putting up with threats and curious but drunk P Street club goers, sometimes spending time with their compatriots speaking in Kurdish. Leyla Zana admitted to one crime she was charged with, that of speaking the Kurdish language. Navaho boys and girls were at one point severely and often brutally punished for doing the same in their state-sponsored schools. Navaho later became the basis for American code in WWII, being one of America’s most effective strategic weapons in the Pacific theater.

Kani Xulam, the Cell’s creator, and his colleagues at the American Kurdish Information Network would like to raise America’s awareness not only about prisoner’s plight but also would like our officials to re-examine the U.S./Turkey relationship. Turkey, a modern, secular democracy, is currently vying for EU membership. It is also and a great recipient of U.S. foreign aide and a member of NATO. It’s strategic position between the Middle East and Eastern Europe has served the U.S. and it’s allies in various military campaigns, most recently including the enforcement of Iraq’s no fly-zone. Although all of this fits nicely within the framework of what American policy should consider an ally, it ignores the fact that Turkey’s greatest obstacle to EU membership is that it is charged with numerous, human rights abuses including the infamous distinction of having the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world.

The Cell of Atonement is a living, breathing protest, a bond with a distant land, a DC monument in its own right. For those who sit in the Cell, it is a place of reflection, an opportunity to express what cannot be said publicly in Turkey, and an umbilical chord home. The soul residing inside is as real as the woman who wants the world to notice the injustice committed by her captors, not just against her but against all her people.