Nûdem Durak: 19 Years of Prison for Singing in Kurdish

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Turkey remains one of the most oppressive regimes towards its minorities, especially its Kurdish population. The Kurds make up over 18% of Turkey’s 85 million citizens, yet face systemic state oppression, violence, and injustices. Turkey has long been accused by international organizations and human rights groups of engaging in culturicide and linguicide against the Kurds, especially in the area of art and music.

Turkey’s ongoing oppression of Kurdish culture and identity has been an issue of deep, festering wounds and conflict within the country. The Kurds, since the inception of the Turkish state with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, have been denied basic rights, labelled as “mountain Turks” and characterized as backward, primitive, and feudal. From the early 1920’s the Kurdish culture and language was systemically repressed, but the heavy handedness of the regime reached an all-time high in the 1980s when the very word ‘Kurd’ was banned and made illegal and punishable by fines and prison sentences. Singers such as the dengbêj were fined per Kurdish word sung. Many artists, scholars, and writers were imprisoned for years on end.

Turkey is not a safe place to be a Kurd. It is even more dangerous when you are a Kurdish artist, academic, writer, filmmaker, or musician. Any and all forms of representation of Kurdish identity is bound to attract state repression, with at best prison sentences and at worst out right extrajudicial executions and murders.

Nûdem Durak, a Kurdish singer from Turkey’s Kurdish southeastern Şırnak province is one such musician whose life has been forever altered by the anti-Kurdish brutality of the Turkish regime. Before her arrest in 2015, Nûdem was teaching Kurdish folk songs to children in her community. However, the Turkish regime considered Nûdem’s singing in her mother tongue as dangerous and contradictory to the state’s approach towards minorities. Imprisoned in 2015, Nûdem was charged with the ambiguous crime of supporting ‘terrorism’ with her music. Since her imprisonment she has experiencing a range of health issues including suffering from Graves’ Disease and worsening osteoporosis.

Initially when she was imprisoned in April 2015, Nûdem was charged and sentenced to 10.5 years in prison for “promoting Kurdish propaganda”. However, by July of 2016, her sentence was increased to 19 years without any further explanations, charges, or convictions. The Turkish state retains the means and capacity to arbitrarily increase sentences without warning or due judicial processes as a deterrence to other Kurdish artists or musicians from expressing themselves in their native language.

Nûdem is currently in her 8th year of imprisonment in the E Type Closed Prison in Mardin. Her scheduled release date is September of 2034. In a recent interview with Nûdem’s mother, Hatice Durak stated that her daughter had done “nothing other than singing. She was arrested for singing in Kurdish… I haven’t seen my daughter for two years. People from my family went to visit her but were not allowed to do so.” The worsening of Nûdem’s health, the psychological conditions of being imprisoned unjustly and for such an extended period of time would undoubtedly break a lesser person. But Nûdem has spoken repeatedly and openly of her ongoing commitment to stand strong against the regime’s oppression of Kurdish identity, language, and music. Her resilience can only be viewed as a revolution in itself and the embodiment of the Kurdish slogan “Berxwedan Jîyan e” (Resistance is Life).

Nûdem is not the only Kurdish musician suffering a prison sentence for the crime of being Kurdish and singing in her native tongue. Many other Kurdish artists have also been imprisoned. Heja Turk, another Kurdish musician from Mardin was arrested in 2016 and served 9 months in prison for the same vague crime that Nûdem was charged with. Heja was forced to flee Turkey to avoid further imprisonment. In June of 2018, the Kurdish singer Saide İnanç, who is known by the stage name of Hozan Canê was arrested and sentenced soon after to a year in prison for the alleged crime of being a supporter of the PKK, and insulting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Atatürk.

The Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan was forced to cancel all her concerts due to threats of imprisonment from the regime. In March this year the German-Kurdish musician, Ali Baran was also arrested at the Airport following his return to Istanbul to work on his latest album. In the same month Ciya Senses, a singer from the Kurdish music group Koma Gulen Xerzan was also suddenly arrested. Back in January this year, Gencay Morkoç and Yusuf Keleş, two musicians from the group Hevra were detained after playing in a concert organized by the HDP Youth Council. There are many, many other examples of such arbitrary arrests and unjust imprisonments against Kurdish artists and musicians.

There are many more singers and artists who have been arrested and detained, some for days, others weeks and months, others for years. All have been charged with the exact same ambiguous crime of supporting terrorism. In reality, their only crime has been to exist in a state of oppression and violence as Kurds and for daring to have the courage to speak, sing, pain and dance with the colors of their Kurdish identity.

Even Turkish singers and artists are not safe from the regime’s brutality. In 2021, the singer Omar Souleyman was arrested. Another singer, Gulsen was imprisoned for a joke made during a concert she held.

In anticipation of the power of Kurdish voters in the lead up to the May Turkish elections, a large number of Kurdish journalists, politicians, lawyers, and artists were arrested. Some estimated that hundreds were arrested. Many are still in prison awaiting further hearings or sentencing. The use of arbitrary arrests without reason or notice continues to foster an atmosphere of fear and terror across Turkish society. For this reason, international awareness, campaigns and condemnation of such arrests is essential to retain focus on Turkey’s ongoing human rights violations.

A number of international campaigns have been launched to demand the release of Nûdem. The first campaign for Nûdem’s release was launched in Germany back in 2016 titled “Song for Nûdem Durak”, with the campaign still active here. In 2020, another initiative, The ‘Free Nûdem Durak’ campaign was launched, with people across almost 20 countries participating including in Italy, United States, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Tunisia, South Africa, Morocco, Guatemala, Senegal, Chile, Corsica, Algeria, Nigeria and Denmark.

In 2022, an international campaign was launched which involved prominent people including Noam Chomsky, musicians Peter Banrial and Roger Waters, actress Maxine Peake, American actors Mark Ruffalo and John Cusack, British film director Ken Loach, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, and well known Black activist Angela Davis.

In a more recent campaign a letter with the signature of 47 prominent international activists, academics, musicians, and artists including Arundhati Roy, Alice Walker, Annie Ernaux, actors Juliette Binoche and Miriam Margolyes, film-makers Ken Loach and Carmen Castillo, musicians Bryan Adams and Peter Gabriel, and former football player Eric Cantona have joined the campaign.

While these campaigns have been powerful symbols of collective and international solidarity and condemnation of Turkey’s brutality towards Kurdish artists and musicians, they have done little to change Nûdem’s physical conditions or her prison sentence. Yet she has expressed her profound gratitude for these campaigns and calls for international musicians and artists to stand in solidarity with all imprisoned artists.

Pablo Picasso once said that “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.” As Picasso speaks of the resilience and the incessant passion of the artist to paint with whatever means available to them even when incarcerated, so too are musicians like Nûdem continuing to sing and make music even in prison. In 2022, Roger Waters sent a signed guitar to Nûdem after the one her mother had bought her by selling her ring had been smashed by prison guards. Nûdem never received the signed guitar. Today, while still in prison and suffering from progressively worsening health conditions that could permanently affect her voice and vocal cords, Nûdem continues to sing with a broken guitar and a wavering but steady voice.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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