Part 1/4

“I had a very happy childhood, with a lot of love. I belong to a Kurdish minority called Rea-Haq. It is not a religion but rather a thousand-year-old spiritual movement. We lived on top of the mountains, in village near Elbistan, Kurdistan in what is now Turkey. There were no roads, transportation was only by mule. We were surrounded by fields, fruit trees, sheep and horses. It was the natural life! About fifty families lived there, and for me that was the whole universe. I thought that behind the mountains there was nothing, that it was empty. 

The future over there was not like here. People lived from day to day. In the summer everyone worked in the fields and with the animals. And in the winter we spent our lives in the houses with stock of food, sharing stories and playing games. As there was a lot of snow, we dug tunnels between the houses. We were like mice in a maze (laughs)! It wasn’t always easy but there was a great solidarity and trust amongst everyone. For example, when mum cooked, she always prepared extra for a surprise guest, or for a family suffering from poverty.

As a baby, I used to faint a lot. Once when I was 6 years old, I fainted for so long that my parents thought I was dead. They even dug a grave and put me in a coffin. I had the feeling that I was travelling at very high speed. There were wonderful colours and sounds, shapes that formed and reformed endlessly. And the moment they lowered the coffin into the grave, I woke up and started screaming! After that, I had grown up. I couldn’t speak the language of adults, but I understood them. The people in the village thought I had something sacred. They gave their word “on Bayram’s head”.

I was much loved. I would bring people together. Where I was, there was always peace. When I was eight years old, we moved to the city. The population of the village had increased, there was not enough to eat. And I discovered that behind the mountains there were still mountains (laughs)! For a few years we lived in a gecekondu (a house “built overnight”) in Elbistan. The violence there was constant. It was the time of the military coup in 1980. There were attacks by revolutionaries against fascists, the police attacked the revolutionaries, entered the houses in the middle of the night and took away whoever they wanted. 

That’s when I experienced state violence for the first time. I was 12 years old, playing with friends, and the military took all the Kurdish boys. Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries were hiding among us and the military showed us pictures. When we said we didn’t know them, they beat us very hard. And in the end we said yes, I know them, and they beat us again saying that we were lying. They also beat up our parents in front of us. To see your father and mother on the ground, beaten with truncheons… That’s why later I chose to join the revolutionaries.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 2/4

“When I was 16, we moved to Istanbul. This city is magical, I fell in love with it! It never sleeps, it’s always busy doing business. There are no Sundays there! We were a family of 8 children and everyone had to work for us to survive. My father worked at the markets, my mother was busy cleaning and cooking from morning to night. The energy she put into it was huge. After school, I used to shine shoes or sell smits (sesame breads) on a huge tray that I carried on my head. We were waging this battle together, to provide for each other. We could adapt to any situation, but always stayed together. That was our greatest strength.

At school I was a very good student. One day after receiving distinctions, I was surrounded by young Turks at the school exit. They called me a shitty Kurd, an asshole, and that I stole their place. Another time, during a compulsory religion class, I revolted. I said that it was not my religion, that it was not my prophet. And the teacher beat me up in front of everyone. My pride was shattered. I used to see the weak being oppressed and belittled on a daily basis. And little by little I got involved in revolutionary movements to change the world.

We did everything secretly: exchanging information, books. If you got caught with these kind of texts, it was over for you. We had a secret place where we met. On the front door there was a sign saying: “If you don’t read, you don’t exist”. There were revolutionary books everywhere. The revolution was not carried by ignorant people, it was carried by thoughtful, educated people. I was reading a lot, writing poetry, political and philosophical essays. It gave me a different view of things. We were fighting to improve the lives of our parents and siblings. We were driven by this very important duty and it gave us enormous strength and confidence.

But being a revolutionary is not just about planting a flag. It’s about changing mentalities, pushing people to see things differently. In my mind there were no enemies. I always hoped that the police, the officials would see things differently. But for them, we were enemies. During the protests, I was always in the front rows. Nothing scared me. We used to shout slogans for freedom, for equality. And they replied by shooting us with real bullets. They were shooting to kill. And so many times I ended up fighting against fascists at the end of a protest. Once we were dispersed, they would form a pack and beat us up without mercy. I have scars all over my body.

We would make pacts of trust between revolutionaries, so as not to denounce comrades if one of us was caught.  But not everyone could withstand the pain. That’s how I got caught. They tortured me over ten times. They also wanted me to denounce my comrades. But I’d rather die. I’m a stubborn person! I’d insult them so that they’d beat me even harder and I’d lose consciousness. Sometimes they kept me there for days, I didn’t know if it was day or night. But that didn’t stop me from starting again. When you see the other is going towards evil, you can’t let it happen. The greatest evil is to do nothing.

One day, we were protesting in front of the Iraqi embassy against a massacre of Kurds. The cops started firing real bullets and I ran straight towards them. People were falling around me. I don’t know how, but I managed to get through the line of cops and then hid at a friend’s house. 3 people were killed and 64 injured on that day. That was my last protest. There was a warrant out for my arrest and the police came to our house. My father told me I had to leave. I wanted to continue the fight, but I didn’t want the family to get into trouble. So they gathered some money, and along with a cousin who was also active, we left. 

What I went through was nothing. Some Kurds have experienced terrible things; their whole family being massacred, burnt. But after that part of my life, it was as if I had killed a form of ignorance within me. I understood how terrible human beings can be, without any empathy, without any tolerance when some people try to imagine the world differently. I also understood that the State does not always seek the good of its population. So citizens must be ultra vigilant. Democracy is a very fragile structure. It barely holds onto anything.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 3/4

“So we set off into the unknown with 1500 dollars in our pockets and a train ticket to Italy. The journey was not easy. When we arrived in Milan, the police caught us and put us on a train back to Turkey. I thought to myself: if I go back, I’ll die. So when the train slowed down, we jumped out of the window and rolled like in the movies (laughs)! We walked to Lubjana and found a smuggler. He lead us through a wild forest for several days up to Italy. We were walk during the night and sleeping during to avoid being spotted. Finally, we managed to reach Switzerland. 

We registered as refugees. My cousin was placed in Asnières and I was placed in Sion. We were not wanted there. People would change sidewalk when they saw me. At the shelter, we were treated worse than animals. The meals were disgusting, the social workers inhumane. But I didn’t speak French, I couldn’t do anything. So I locked myself up in my room for six months and pasted French words everywhere. I’d only leave my room for meals. Then I could organise the occupation of the cathedral, asking that our living conditions be respected. The revolution continued! We were in the newspapers, and they put us in a flat with a good budget to eat.

While I was waiting for my asylum application, I worked a lot in restaurants, in a factory etc. But I wanted to make a living differently. So one day I went to the Place de la Planta. The sky was looking at me, every pavement was staring at me straight in the eyes. I put down my easel and wrote: portraits, 5 francs. And path as an artist began. For five years I toured the whole of Switzerland with an easel and a stool. I would stumble upon a fair and stop to draw people. Sometimes there was no one there, sometimes there was a big queue. I was living a bit wild, but I was earning an honest living and I was entertaining people.

After 2 years I got my first eviction notice and over the next 3 years I got 6 more. But I resisted. There were many articles and petitions to save the “Kurdish artist”. The Valaisans wanted to keep me, I had the support of several politicians, including the State Councillor Bernard Comby. A senior civil servant would even warn me before the police arrived at my home. Then a journalist friend of mine, Jean Bonnard, would come to get me with food and books, and he’d hid me in a chalet in the middle of nowhere. I’d wait for 2-3 weeks for my lawyer, Serge S., to prepare the defence. Each time he managed to get the expulsion postponed.

Because of these worries, I started to take steps to go to Canada. But on 1 August 1992, the national holiday, I met my wife in Geneva! So I decided to settle here. At the beginning I was doing portraits on the lake shore, then after a few years I rented a small studio on the Rue de l’Ecole-de-médecine. It was very small but it was very famous! I did paintings, I organised poetry readings, storytelling, concerts… People loved it. There were sometimes 40-50 people, it was overflowing outside! I was very active back then! That was when I created the Association Genevoise des Artistes Populaires, of which Hans Erni was an honorary member.

One day, I was doing portraits on Quai Wilson and a man came to talk to me. I told him my story and he asked me to join his party. It was David Hiler, one of the fathers of the Verts in Geneva and future State Councillor. As I had projects for artists and for social cohesion, I ran for a seat. In 2007, I was the first Kurd elected to the City Council, and then re-elected in 2011. There were so many things: the office of equality, the charters of good conduct, the construction of the new MEG, etc. I was also part of the naturalisation commission. I had to meet the candidates and give my opinion. Me, the former refugee who was expelled! That’s Switzerland! 

At that time, I already had this café. At first it was a school and an art gallery. But with politics I didn’t have time to give classes. Gradually the café took over. And the price of being in politics was heavy. I hardly saw my family anymore. So in 2015 I decided to stop. It was a great experience. In Switzerland, there is a very beautiful participatory democracy. It is not perfect but it is better than many regimes I have known. You can debate very strongly with your political adversaries, but you don’t have to kill them. In Turkey that was the case. If there was a fascist in front of me and I didn’t defend myself, I was dead!”

(Plainpalais)

Part 4/4

“Now I spend my time drawing and I run this café. I’ve never stopped drawing since I was a child. I think I survived because of art. It’s like a shelter for me. When I draw, time stops. Whenever I have a question, I draw and the answer comes to me. After each drawing I feel like I’ve read an entire book. Art is not something to show off! It’s an in-depth study of the DNA of existence. When someone says he has THE truth, he is sick. The artist is the one who is constantly brushing up against truthS. And that’s why he always has one foot on this side, and one foot in the invisible. Truth is invisible to the naked eye, said Saint-Exupéry.

Today’s art world is sickening. I’ve been offered several times to do exhibitions in galleries, in Basel, in New York, in London. But I’ve always refused. I don’t want to sell to collectors either, and I’ve been offered large sums. I refuse the art business. In the name of wealth and power, we’ve abandoned our values behind us. And when people run after money, I run in the other direction. Because behind them they leave happiness and I pick it up and give it back to others (laughs)! 

With the coffee shop, I managed to create my universe in which I can make art and with which I earn my living. I take my inspiration from the stories of others. The other is me. Through others I can access parts of myself. And by meeting so many people, I’m able to progress in my art. I’m always drawing in my head, even when I’m serving a coffee or making a salad. I’m always between here and there. But the coffee shop also keeps me connected to everyday life. If I was only into art, maybe I’d be going crazy like some artists (laughs)!

When my father came to Switzerland, he said to me: “Do you see all these people, my son? They all suffer from loneliness. Be careful.” That stuck with me and I turned the coffee shop into a garden for the neighbourhood. There are people who live all alone and come here to find company and smiles. Some have been coming here for 20 years to have their coffee! Couples have formed, others have proposed here also. And everyone used to tell me “We feel like elsewhere here”. So I called it Ailleurs (elsewhere). Elsewhere is here (laughs)! The way you put the chairs, the coffee, you put something of yourself into it. When I serve coffee, I always do it with a lot of respect and love.

You see all the wild waterfalls in nature that gush out and make a lot of noise? As soon as they find the sea, they become peaceful. And the life of every human being is the same. For my whole life I’ve been searching for the truth and for this peace. At first I looked for it on the outside, through my battles and my political commitments. But once I broke the hard stone in my heart, a light starting flowing. The door to the heart can only be opened from the inside, never forget that. Now I’m happy all the time. I have a wonderful family, great friends. I receive love, I give love. I arrive in the morning happy, and I return home in the evening tired, and happy.”

(Plainpalais)

Meet Bayram in his Ailleurs Café, 47 Blvd Carl-Vogt, 1205 Genève
All drawings are his.

Part 1/4

“I had a very happy childhood, with a lot of love. I belong to a Kurdish minority called Rea-Haq. It is not a religion but rather a thousand-year-old spiritual movement. We lived on top of the mountains, in village near Elbistan, Kurdistan in what is now Turkey. There were no roads, transportation was only by mule. We were surrounded by fields, fruit trees, sheep and horses. It was the natural life! About fifty families lived there, and for me that was the whole universe. I thought that behind the mountains there was nothing, that it was empty. 

The future over there was not like here. People lived from day to day. In the summer everyone worked in the fields and with the animals. And in the winter we spent our lives in the houses with stock of food, sharing stories and playing games. As there was a lot of snow, we dug tunnels between the houses. We were like mice in a maze (laughs)! It wasn’t always easy but there was a great solidarity and trust amongst everyone. For example, when mum cooked, she always prepared extra for a surprise guest, or for a family suffering from poverty.

As a baby, I used to faint a lot. Once when I was 6 years old, I fainted for so long that my parents thought I was dead. They even dug a grave and put me in a coffin. I had the feeling that I was travelling at very high speed. There were wonderful colours and sounds, shapes that formed and reformed endlessly. And the moment they lowered the coffin into the grave, I woke up and started screaming! After that, I had grown up. I couldn’t speak the language of adults, but I understood them. The people in the village thought I had something sacred. They gave their word “on Bayram’s head”.

I was much loved. I would bring people together. Where I was, there was always peace. When I was eight years old, we moved to the city. The population of the village had increased, there was not enough to eat. And I discovered that behind the mountains there were still mountains (laughs)! For a few years we lived in a gecekondu (a house “built overnight”) in Elbistan. The violence there was constant. It was the time of the military coup in 1980. There were attacks by revolutionaries against fascists, the police attacked the revolutionaries, entered the houses in the middle of the night and took away whoever they wanted. 

That’s when I experienced state violence for the first time. I was 12 years old, playing with friends, and the military took all the Kurdish boys. Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries were hiding among us and the military showed us pictures. When we said we didn’t know them, they beat us very hard. And in the end we said yes, I know them, and they beat us again saying that we were lying. They also beat up our parents in front of us. To see your father and mother on the ground, beaten with truncheons… That’s why later I chose to join the revolutionaries.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 2/4

“When I was 16, we moved to Istanbul. This city is magical, I fell in love with it! It never sleeps, it’s always busy doing business. There are no Sundays there! We were a family of 8 children and everyone had to work for us to survive. My father worked at the markets, my mother was busy cleaning and cooking from morning to night. The energy she put into it was huge. After school, I used to shine shoes or sell smits (sesame breads) on a huge tray that I carried on my head. We were waging this battle together, to provide for each other. We could adapt to any situation, but always stayed together. That was our greatest strength.

At school I was a very good student. One day after receiving distinctions, I was surrounded by young Turks at the school exit. They called me a shitty Kurd, an asshole, and that I stole their place. Another time, during a compulsory religion class, I revolted. I said that it was not my religion, that it was not my prophet. And the teacher beat me up in front of everyone. My pride was shattered. I used to see the weak being oppressed and belittled on a daily basis. And little by little I got involved in revolutionary movements to change the world.

We did everything secretly: exchanging information, books. If you got caught with these kind of texts, it was over for you. We had a secret place where we met. On the front door there was a sign saying: “If you don’t read, you don’t exist”. There were revolutionary books everywhere. The revolution was not carried by ignorant people, it was carried by thoughtful, educated people. I was reading a lot, writing poetry, political and philosophical essays. It gave me a different view of things. We were fighting to improve the lives of our parents and siblings. We were driven by this very important duty and it gave us enormous strength and confidence.

But being a revolutionary is not just about planting a flag. It’s about changing mentalities, pushing people to see things differently. In my mind there were no enemies. I always hoped that the police, the officials would see things differently. But for them, we were enemies. During the protests, I was always in the front rows. Nothing scared me. We used to shout slogans for freedom, for equality. And they replied by shooting us with real bullets. They were shooting to kill. And so many times I ended up fighting against fascists at the end of a protest. Once we were dispersed, they would form a pack and beat us up without mercy. I have scars all over my body.

We would make pacts of trust between revolutionaries, so as not to denounce comrades if one of us was caught.  But not everyone could withstand the pain. That’s how I got caught. They tortured me over ten times. They also wanted me to denounce my comrades. But I’d rather die. I’m a stubborn person! I’d insult them so that they’d beat me even harder and I’d lose consciousness. Sometimes they kept me there for days, I didn’t know if it was day or night. But that didn’t stop me from starting again. When you see the other is going towards evil, you can’t let it happen. The greatest evil is to do nothing.

One day, we were protesting in front of the Iraqi embassy against a massacre of Kurds. The cops started firing real bullets and I ran straight towards them. People were falling around me. I don’t know how, but I managed to get through the line of cops and then hid at a friend’s house. 3 people were killed and 64 injured on that day. That was my last protest. There was a warrant out for my arrest and the police came to our house. My father told me I had to leave. I wanted to continue the fight, but I didn’t want the family to get into trouble. So they gathered some money, and along with a cousin who was also active, we left. 

What I went through was nothing. Some Kurds have experienced terrible things; their whole family being massacred, burnt. But after that part of my life, it was as if I had killed a form of ignorance within me. I understood how terrible human beings can be, without any empathy, without any tolerance when some people try to imagine the world differently. I also understood that the State does not always seek the good of its population. So citizens must be ultra vigilant. Democracy is a very fragile structure. It barely holds onto anything.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 3/4

“So we set off into the unknown with 1500 dollars in our pockets and a train ticket to Italy. The journey was not easy. When we arrived in Milan, the police caught us and put us on a train back to Turkey. I thought to myself: if I go back, I’ll die. So when the train slowed down, we jumped out of the window and rolled like in the movies (laughs)! We walked to Lubjana and found a smuggler. He lead us through a wild forest for several days up to Italy. We were walk during the night and sleeping during to avoid being spotted. Finally, we managed to reach Switzerland. 

We registered as refugees. My cousin was placed in Asnières and I was placed in Sion. We were not wanted there. People would change sidewalk when they saw me. At the shelter, we were treated worse than animals. The meals were disgusting, the social workers inhumane. But I didn’t speak French, I couldn’t do anything. So I locked myself up in my room for six months and pasted French words everywhere. I’d only leave my room for meals. Then I could organise the occupation of the cathedral, asking that our living conditions be respected. The revolution continued! We were in the newspapers, and they put us in a flat with a good budget to eat.

While I was waiting for my asylum application, I worked a lot in restaurants, in a factory etc. But I wanted to make a living differently. So one day I went to the Place de la Planta. The sky was looking at me, every pavement was staring at me straight in the eyes. I put down my easel and wrote: portraits, 5 francs. And path as an artist began. For five years I toured the whole of Switzerland with an easel and a stool. I would stumble upon a fair and stop to draw people. Sometimes there was no one there, sometimes there was a big queue. I was living a bit wild, but I was earning an honest living and I was entertaining people.

After 2 years I got my first eviction notice and over the next 3 years I got 6 more. But I resisted. There were many articles and petitions to save the “Kurdish artist”. The Valaisans wanted to keep me, I had the support of several politicians, including the State Councillor Bernard Comby. A senior civil servant would even warn me before the police arrived at my home. Then a journalist friend of mine, Jean Bonnard, would come to get me with food and books, and he’d hid me in a chalet in the middle of nowhere. I’d wait for 2-3 weeks for my lawyer, Serge S., to prepare the defence. Each time he managed to get the expulsion postponed.

Because of these worries, I started to take steps to go to Canada. But on 1 August 1992, the national holiday, I met my wife in Geneva! So I decided to settle here. At the beginning I was doing portraits on the lake shore, then after a few years I rented a small studio on the Rue de l’Ecole-de-médecine. It was very small but it was very famous! I did paintings, I organised poetry readings, storytelling, concerts… People loved it. There were sometimes 40-50 people, it was overflowing outside! I was very active back then! That was when I created the Association Genevoise des Artistes Populaires, of which Hans Erni was an honorary member.

One day, I was doing portraits on Quai Wilson and a man came to talk to me. I told him my story and he asked me to join his party. It was David Hiler, one of the fathers of the Verts in Geneva and future State Councillor. As I had projects for artists and for social cohesion, I ran for a seat. In 2007, I was the first Kurd elected to the City Council, and then re-elected in 2011. There were so many things: the office of equality, the charters of good conduct, the construction of the new MEG, etc. I was also part of the naturalisation commission. I had to meet the candidates and give my opinion. Me, the former refugee who was expelled! That’s Switzerland! 

At that time, I already had this café. At first it was a school and an art gallery. But with politics I didn’t have time to give classes. Gradually the café took over. And the price of being in politics was heavy. I hardly saw my family anymore. So in 2015 I decided to stop. It was a great experience. In Switzerland, there is a very beautiful participatory democracy. It is not perfect but it is better than many regimes I have known. You can debate very strongly with your political adversaries, but you don’t have to kill them. In Turkey that was the case. If there was a fascist in front of me and I didn’t defend myself, I was dead!”

(Plainpalais)

Part 4/4

“Now I spend my time drawing and I run this café. I’ve never stopped drawing since I was a child. I think I survived because of art. It’s like a shelter for me. When I draw, time stops. Whenever I have a question, I draw and the answer comes to me. After each drawing I feel like I’ve read an entire book. Art is not something to show off! It’s an in-depth study of the DNA of existence. When someone says he has THE truth, he is sick. The artist is the one who is constantly brushing up against truthS. And that’s why he always has one foot on this side, and one foot in the invisible. Truth is invisible to the naked eye, said Saint-Exupéry.

Today’s art world is sickening. I’ve been offered several times to do exhibitions in galleries, in Basel, in New York, in London. But I’ve always refused. I don’t want to sell to collectors either, and I’ve been offered large sums. I refuse the art business. In the name of wealth and power, we’ve abandoned our values behind us. And when people run after money, I run in the other direction. Because behind them they leave happiness and I pick it up and give it back to others (laughs)! 

With the coffee shop, I managed to create my universe in which I can make art and with which I earn my living. I take my inspiration from the stories of others. The other is me. Through others I can access parts of myself. And by meeting so many people, I’m able to progress in my art. I’m always drawing in my head, even when I’m serving a coffee or making a salad. I’m always between here and there. But the coffee shop also keeps me connected to everyday life. If I was only into art, maybe I’d be going crazy like some artists (laughs)!

When my father came to Switzerland, he said to me: “Do you see all these people, my son? They all suffer from loneliness. Be careful.” That stuck with me and I turned the coffee shop into a garden for the neighbourhood. There are people who live all alone and come here to find company and smiles. Some have been coming here for 20 years to have their coffee! Couples have formed, others have proposed here also. And everyone used to tell me “We feel like elsewhere here”. So I called it Ailleurs (elsewhere). Elsewhere is here (laughs)! The way you put the chairs, the coffee, you put something of yourself into it. When I serve coffee, I always do it with a lot of respect and love.

You see all the wild waterfalls in nature that gush out and make a lot of noise? As soon as they find the sea, they become peaceful. And the life of every human being is the same. For my whole life I’ve been searching for the truth and for this peace. At first I looked for it on the outside, through my battles and my political commitments. But once I broke the hard stone in my heart, a light starting flowing. The door to the heart can only be opened from the inside, never forget that. Now I’m happy all the time. I have a wonderful family, great friends. I receive love, I give love. I arrive in the morning happy, and I return home in the evening tired, and happy.”

(Plainpalais)

Meet Bayram in his Ailleurs Café, 47 Blvd Carl-Vogt, 1205 Genève
All drawings are his.

Published On: 8 June 2022

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Part 1/4

“I had a very happy childhood, with a lot of love. I belong to a Kurdish minority called Rea-Haq. It is not a religion but rather a thousand-year-old spiritual movement. We lived on top of the mountains, in village near Elbistan, Kurdistan in what is now Turkey. There were no roads, transportation was only by mule. We were surrounded by fields, fruit trees, sheep and horses. It was the natural life! About fifty families lived there, and for me that was the whole universe. I thought that behind the mountains there was nothing, that it was empty. 

The future over there was not like here. People lived from day to day. In the summer everyone worked in the fields and with the animals. And in the winter we spent our lives in the houses with stock of food, sharing stories and playing games. As there was a lot of snow, we dug tunnels between the houses. We were like mice in a maze (laughs)! It wasn’t always easy but there was a great solidarity and trust amongst everyone. For example, when mum cooked, she always prepared extra for a surprise guest, or for a family suffering from poverty.

As a baby, I used to faint a lot. Once when I was 6 years old, I fainted for so long that my parents thought I was dead. They even dug a grave and put me in a coffin. I had the feeling that I was travelling at very high speed. There were wonderful colours and sounds, shapes that formed and reformed endlessly. And the moment they lowered the coffin into the grave, I woke up and started screaming! After that, I had grown up. I couldn’t speak the language of adults, but I understood them. The people in the village thought I had something sacred. They gave their word “on Bayram’s head”.

I was much loved. I would bring people together. Where I was, there was always peace. When I was eight years old, we moved to the city. The population of the village had increased, there was not enough to eat. And I discovered that behind the mountains there were still mountains (laughs)! For a few years we lived in a gecekondu (a house “built overnight”) in Elbistan. The violence there was constant. It was the time of the military coup in 1980. There were attacks by revolutionaries against fascists, the police attacked the revolutionaries, entered the houses in the middle of the night and took away whoever they wanted. 

That’s when I experienced state violence for the first time. I was 12 years old, playing with friends, and the military took all the Kurdish boys. Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries were hiding among us and the military showed us pictures. When we said we didn’t know them, they beat us very hard. And in the end we said yes, I know them, and they beat us again saying that we were lying. They also beat up our parents in front of us. To see your father and mother on the ground, beaten with truncheons… That’s why later I chose to join the revolutionaries.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 2/4

“When I was 16, we moved to Istanbul. This city is magical, I fell in love with it! It never sleeps, it’s always busy doing business. There are no Sundays there! We were a family of 8 children and everyone had to work for us to survive. My father worked at the markets, my mother was busy cleaning and cooking from morning to night. The energy she put into it was huge. After school, I used to shine shoes or sell smits (sesame breads) on a huge tray that I carried on my head. We were waging this battle together, to provide for each other. We could adapt to any situation, but always stayed together. That was our greatest strength.

At school I was a very good student. One day after receiving distinctions, I was surrounded by young Turks at the school exit. They called me a shitty Kurd, an asshole, and that I stole their place. Another time, during a compulsory religion class, I revolted. I said that it was not my religion, that it was not my prophet. And the teacher beat me up in front of everyone. My pride was shattered. I used to see the weak being oppressed and belittled on a daily basis. And little by little I got involved in revolutionary movements to change the world.

We did everything secretly: exchanging information, books. If you got caught with these kind of texts, it was over for you. We had a secret place where we met. On the front door there was a sign saying: “If you don’t read, you don’t exist”. There were revolutionary books everywhere. The revolution was not carried by ignorant people, it was carried by thoughtful, educated people. I was reading a lot, writing poetry, political and philosophical essays. It gave me a different view of things. We were fighting to improve the lives of our parents and siblings. We were driven by this very important duty and it gave us enormous strength and confidence.

But being a revolutionary is not just about planting a flag. It’s about changing mentalities, pushing people to see things differently. In my mind there were no enemies. I always hoped that the police, the officials would see things differently. But for them, we were enemies. During the protests, I was always in the front rows. Nothing scared me. We used to shout slogans for freedom, for equality. And they replied by shooting us with real bullets. They were shooting to kill. And so many times I ended up fighting against fascists at the end of a protest. Once we were dispersed, they would form a pack and beat us up without mercy. I have scars all over my body.

We would make pacts of trust between revolutionaries, so as not to denounce comrades if one of us was caught.  But not everyone could withstand the pain. That’s how I got caught. They tortured me over ten times. They also wanted me to denounce my comrades. But I’d rather die. I’m a stubborn person! I’d insult them so that they’d beat me even harder and I’d lose consciousness. Sometimes they kept me there for days, I didn’t know if it was day or night. But that didn’t stop me from starting again. When you see the other is going towards evil, you can’t let it happen. The greatest evil is to do nothing.

One day, we were protesting in front of the Iraqi embassy against a massacre of Kurds. The cops started firing real bullets and I ran straight towards them. People were falling around me. I don’t know how, but I managed to get through the line of cops and then hid at a friend’s house. 3 people were killed and 64 injured on that day. That was my last protest. There was a warrant out for my arrest and the police came to our house. My father told me I had to leave. I wanted to continue the fight, but I didn’t want the family to get into trouble. So they gathered some money, and along with a cousin who was also active, we left. 

What I went through was nothing. Some Kurds have experienced terrible things; their whole family being massacred, burnt. But after that part of my life, it was as if I had killed a form of ignorance within me. I understood how terrible human beings can be, without any empathy, without any tolerance when some people try to imagine the world differently. I also understood that the State does not always seek the good of its population. So citizens must be ultra vigilant. Democracy is a very fragile structure. It barely holds onto anything.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 3/4

“So we set off into the unknown with 1500 dollars in our pockets and a train ticket to Italy. The journey was not easy. When we arrived in Milan, the police caught us and put us on a train back to Turkey. I thought to myself: if I go back, I’ll die. So when the train slowed down, we jumped out of the window and rolled like in the movies (laughs)! We walked to Lubjana and found a smuggler. He lead us through a wild forest for several days up to Italy. We were walk during the night and sleeping during to avoid being spotted. Finally, we managed to reach Switzerland. 

We registered as refugees. My cousin was placed in Asnières and I was placed in Sion. We were not wanted there. People would change sidewalk when they saw me. At the shelter, we were treated worse than animals. The meals were disgusting, the social workers inhumane. But I didn’t speak French, I couldn’t do anything. So I locked myself up in my room for six months and pasted French words everywhere. I’d only leave my room for meals. Then I could organise the occupation of the cathedral, asking that our living conditions be respected. The revolution continued! We were in the newspapers, and they put us in a flat with a good budget to eat.

While I was waiting for my asylum application, I worked a lot in restaurants, in a factory etc. But I wanted to make a living differently. So one day I went to the Place de la Planta. The sky was looking at me, every pavement was staring at me straight in the eyes. I put down my easel and wrote: portraits, 5 francs. And path as an artist began. For five years I toured the whole of Switzerland with an easel and a stool. I would stumble upon a fair and stop to draw people. Sometimes there was no one there, sometimes there was a big queue. I was living a bit wild, but I was earning an honest living and I was entertaining people.

After 2 years I got my first eviction notice and over the next 3 years I got 6 more. But I resisted. There were many articles and petitions to save the “Kurdish artist”. The Valaisans wanted to keep me, I had the support of several politicians, including the State Councillor Bernard Comby. A senior civil servant would even warn me before the police arrived at my home. Then a journalist friend of mine, Jean Bonnard, would come to get me with food and books, and he’d hid me in a chalet in the middle of nowhere. I’d wait for 2-3 weeks for my lawyer, Serge S., to prepare the defence. Each time he managed to get the expulsion postponed.

Because of these worries, I started to take steps to go to Canada. But on 1 August 1992, the national holiday, I met my wife in Geneva! So I decided to settle here. At the beginning I was doing portraits on the lake shore, then after a few years I rented a small studio on the Rue de l’Ecole-de-médecine. It was very small but it was very famous! I did paintings, I organised poetry readings, storytelling, concerts… People loved it. There were sometimes 40-50 people, it was overflowing outside! I was very active back then! That was when I created the Association Genevoise des Artistes Populaires, of which Hans Erni was an honorary member.

One day, I was doing portraits on Quai Wilson and a man came to talk to me. I told him my story and he asked me to join his party. It was David Hiler, one of the fathers of the Verts in Geneva and future State Councillor. As I had projects for artists and for social cohesion, I ran for a seat. In 2007, I was the first Kurd elected to the City Council, and then re-elected in 2011. There were so many things: the office of equality, the charters of good conduct, the construction of the new MEG, etc. I was also part of the naturalisation commission. I had to meet the candidates and give my opinion. Me, the former refugee who was expelled! That’s Switzerland! 

At that time, I already had this café. At first it was a school and an art gallery. But with politics I didn’t have time to give classes. Gradually the café took over. And the price of being in politics was heavy. I hardly saw my family anymore. So in 2015 I decided to stop. It was a great experience. In Switzerland, there is a very beautiful participatory democracy. It is not perfect but it is better than many regimes I have known. You can debate very strongly with your political adversaries, but you don’t have to kill them. In Turkey that was the case. If there was a fascist in front of me and I didn’t defend myself, I was dead!”

(Plainpalais)

Part 4/4

“Now I spend my time drawing and I run this café. I’ve never stopped drawing since I was a child. I think I survived because of art. It’s like a shelter for me. When I draw, time stops. Whenever I have a question, I draw and the answer comes to me. After each drawing I feel like I’ve read an entire book. Art is not something to show off! It’s an in-depth study of the DNA of existence. When someone says he has THE truth, he is sick. The artist is the one who is constantly brushing up against truthS. And that’s why he always has one foot on this side, and one foot in the invisible. Truth is invisible to the naked eye, said Saint-Exupéry.

Today’s art world is sickening. I’ve been offered several times to do exhibitions in galleries, in Basel, in New York, in London. But I’ve always refused. I don’t want to sell to collectors either, and I’ve been offered large sums. I refuse the art business. In the name of wealth and power, we’ve abandoned our values behind us. And when people run after money, I run in the other direction. Because behind them they leave happiness and I pick it up and give it back to others (laughs)! 

With the coffee shop, I managed to create my universe in which I can make art and with which I earn my living. I take my inspiration from the stories of others. The other is me. Through others I can access parts of myself. And by meeting so many people, I’m able to progress in my art. I’m always drawing in my head, even when I’m serving a coffee or making a salad. I’m always between here and there. But the coffee shop also keeps me connected to everyday life. If I was only into art, maybe I’d be going crazy like some artists (laughs)!

When my father came to Switzerland, he said to me: “Do you see all these people, my son? They all suffer from loneliness. Be careful.” That stuck with me and I turned the coffee shop into a garden for the neighbourhood. There are people who live all alone and come here to find company and smiles. Some have been coming here for 20 years to have their coffee! Couples have formed, others have proposed here also. And everyone used to tell me “We feel like elsewhere here”. So I called it Ailleurs (elsewhere). Elsewhere is here (laughs)! The way you put the chairs, the coffee, you put something of yourself into it. When I serve coffee, I always do it with a lot of respect and love.

You see all the wild waterfalls in nature that gush out and make a lot of noise? As soon as they find the sea, they become peaceful. And the life of every human being is the same. For my whole life I’ve been searching for the truth and for this peace. At first I looked for it on the outside, through my battles and my political commitments. But once I broke the hard stone in my heart, a light starting flowing. The door to the heart can only be opened from the inside, never forget that. Now I’m happy all the time. I have a wonderful family, great friends. I receive love, I give love. I arrive in the morning happy, and I return home in the evening tired, and happy.”

(Plainpalais)

Meet Bayram in his Ailleurs Café, 47 Blvd Carl-Vogt, 1205 Genève
All drawings are his.

Part 1/4

“I had a very happy childhood, with a lot of love. I belong to a Kurdish minority called Rea-Haq. It is not a religion but rather a thousand-year-old spiritual movement. We lived on top of the mountains, in village near Elbistan, Kurdistan in what is now Turkey. There were no roads, transportation was only by mule. We were surrounded by fields, fruit trees, sheep and horses. It was the natural life! About fifty families lived there, and for me that was the whole universe. I thought that behind the mountains there was nothing, that it was empty. 

The future over there was not like here. People lived from day to day. In the summer everyone worked in the fields and with the animals. And in the winter we spent our lives in the houses with stock of food, sharing stories and playing games. As there was a lot of snow, we dug tunnels between the houses. We were like mice in a maze (laughs)! It wasn’t always easy but there was a great solidarity and trust amongst everyone. For example, when mum cooked, she always prepared extra for a surprise guest, or for a family suffering from poverty.

As a baby, I used to faint a lot. Once when I was 6 years old, I fainted for so long that my parents thought I was dead. They even dug a grave and put me in a coffin. I had the feeling that I was travelling at very high speed. There were wonderful colours and sounds, shapes that formed and reformed endlessly. And the moment they lowered the coffin into the grave, I woke up and started screaming! After that, I had grown up. I couldn’t speak the language of adults, but I understood them. The people in the village thought I had something sacred. They gave their word “on Bayram’s head”.

I was much loved. I would bring people together. Where I was, there was always peace. When I was eight years old, we moved to the city. The population of the village had increased, there was not enough to eat. And I discovered that behind the mountains there were still mountains (laughs)! For a few years we lived in a gecekondu (a house “built overnight”) in Elbistan. The violence there was constant. It was the time of the military coup in 1980. There were attacks by revolutionaries against fascists, the police attacked the revolutionaries, entered the houses in the middle of the night and took away whoever they wanted. 

That’s when I experienced state violence for the first time. I was 12 years old, playing with friends, and the military took all the Kurdish boys. Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries were hiding among us and the military showed us pictures. When we said we didn’t know them, they beat us very hard. And in the end we said yes, I know them, and they beat us again saying that we were lying. They also beat up our parents in front of us. To see your father and mother on the ground, beaten with truncheons… That’s why later I chose to join the revolutionaries.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 2/4

“When I was 16, we moved to Istanbul. This city is magical, I fell in love with it! It never sleeps, it’s always busy doing business. There are no Sundays there! We were a family of 8 children and everyone had to work for us to survive. My father worked at the markets, my mother was busy cleaning and cooking from morning to night. The energy she put into it was huge. After school, I used to shine shoes or sell smits (sesame breads) on a huge tray that I carried on my head. We were waging this battle together, to provide for each other. We could adapt to any situation, but always stayed together. That was our greatest strength.

At school I was a very good student. One day after receiving distinctions, I was surrounded by young Turks at the school exit. They called me a shitty Kurd, an asshole, and that I stole their place. Another time, during a compulsory religion class, I revolted. I said that it was not my religion, that it was not my prophet. And the teacher beat me up in front of everyone. My pride was shattered. I used to see the weak being oppressed and belittled on a daily basis. And little by little I got involved in revolutionary movements to change the world.

We did everything secretly: exchanging information, books. If you got caught with these kind of texts, it was over for you. We had a secret place where we met. On the front door there was a sign saying: “If you don’t read, you don’t exist”. There were revolutionary books everywhere. The revolution was not carried by ignorant people, it was carried by thoughtful, educated people. I was reading a lot, writing poetry, political and philosophical essays. It gave me a different view of things. We were fighting to improve the lives of our parents and siblings. We were driven by this very important duty and it gave us enormous strength and confidence.

But being a revolutionary is not just about planting a flag. It’s about changing mentalities, pushing people to see things differently. In my mind there were no enemies. I always hoped that the police, the officials would see things differently. But for them, we were enemies. During the protests, I was always in the front rows. Nothing scared me. We used to shout slogans for freedom, for equality. And they replied by shooting us with real bullets. They were shooting to kill. And so many times I ended up fighting against fascists at the end of a protest. Once we were dispersed, they would form a pack and beat us up without mercy. I have scars all over my body.

We would make pacts of trust between revolutionaries, so as not to denounce comrades if one of us was caught.  But not everyone could withstand the pain. That’s how I got caught. They tortured me over ten times. They also wanted me to denounce my comrades. But I’d rather die. I’m a stubborn person! I’d insult them so that they’d beat me even harder and I’d lose consciousness. Sometimes they kept me there for days, I didn’t know if it was day or night. But that didn’t stop me from starting again. When you see the other is going towards evil, you can’t let it happen. The greatest evil is to do nothing.

One day, we were protesting in front of the Iraqi embassy against a massacre of Kurds. The cops started firing real bullets and I ran straight towards them. People were falling around me. I don’t know how, but I managed to get through the line of cops and then hid at a friend’s house. 3 people were killed and 64 injured on that day. That was my last protest. There was a warrant out for my arrest and the police came to our house. My father told me I had to leave. I wanted to continue the fight, but I didn’t want the family to get into trouble. So they gathered some money, and along with a cousin who was also active, we left. 

What I went through was nothing. Some Kurds have experienced terrible things; their whole family being massacred, burnt. But after that part of my life, it was as if I had killed a form of ignorance within me. I understood how terrible human beings can be, without any empathy, without any tolerance when some people try to imagine the world differently. I also understood that the State does not always seek the good of its population. So citizens must be ultra vigilant. Democracy is a very fragile structure. It barely holds onto anything.”

(Plainpalais)

Part 3/4

“So we set off into the unknown with 1500 dollars in our pockets and a train ticket to Italy. The journey was not easy. When we arrived in Milan, the police caught us and put us on a train back to Turkey. I thought to myself: if I go back, I’ll die. So when the train slowed down, we jumped out of the window and rolled like in the movies (laughs)! We walked to Lubjana and found a smuggler. He lead us through a wild forest for several days up to Italy. We were walk during the night and sleeping during to avoid being spotted. Finally, we managed to reach Switzerland. 

We registered as refugees. My cousin was placed in Asnières and I was placed in Sion. We were not wanted there. People would change sidewalk when they saw me. At the shelter, we were treated worse than animals. The meals were disgusting, the social workers inhumane. But I didn’t speak French, I couldn’t do anything. So I locked myself up in my room for six months and pasted French words everywhere. I’d only leave my room for meals. Then I could organise the occupation of the cathedral, asking that our living conditions be respected. The revolution continued! We were in the newspapers, and they put us in a flat with a good budget to eat.

While I was waiting for my asylum application, I worked a lot in restaurants, in a factory etc. But I wanted to make a living differently. So one day I went to the Place de la Planta. The sky was looking at me, every pavement was staring at me straight in the eyes. I put down my easel and wrote: portraits, 5 francs. And path as an artist began. For five years I toured the whole of Switzerland with an easel and a stool. I would stumble upon a fair and stop to draw people. Sometimes there was no one there, sometimes there was a big queue. I was living a bit wild, but I was earning an honest living and I was entertaining people.

After 2 years I got my first eviction notice and over the next 3 years I got 6 more. But I resisted. There were many articles and petitions to save the “Kurdish artist”. The Valaisans wanted to keep me, I had the support of several politicians, including the State Councillor Bernard Comby. A senior civil servant would even warn me before the police arrived at my home. Then a journalist friend of mine, Jean Bonnard, would come to get me with food and books, and he’d hid me in a chalet in the middle of nowhere. I’d wait for 2-3 weeks for my lawyer, Serge S., to prepare the defence. Each time he managed to get the expulsion postponed.

Because of these worries, I started to take steps to go to Canada. But on 1 August 1992, the national holiday, I met my wife in Geneva! So I decided to settle here. At the beginning I was doing portraits on the lake shore, then after a few years I rented a small studio on the Rue de l’Ecole-de-médecine. It was very small but it was very famous! I did paintings, I organised poetry readings, storytelling, concerts… People loved it. There were sometimes 40-50 people, it was overflowing outside! I was very active back then! That was when I created the Association Genevoise des Artistes Populaires, of which Hans Erni was an honorary member.

One day, I was doing portraits on Quai Wilson and a man came to talk to me. I told him my story and he asked me to join his party. It was David Hiler, one of the fathers of the Verts in Geneva and future State Councillor. As I had projects for artists and for social cohesion, I ran for a seat. In 2007, I was the first Kurd elected to the City Council, and then re-elected in 2011. There were so many things: the office of equality, the charters of good conduct, the construction of the new MEG, etc. I was also part of the naturalisation commission. I had to meet the candidates and give my opinion. Me, the former refugee who was expelled! That’s Switzerland! 

At that time, I already had this café. At first it was a school and an art gallery. But with politics I didn’t have time to give classes. Gradually the café took over. And the price of being in politics was heavy. I hardly saw my family anymore. So in 2015 I decided to stop. It was a great experience. In Switzerland, there is a very beautiful participatory democracy. It is not perfect but it is better than many regimes I have known. You can debate very strongly with your political adversaries, but you don’t have to kill them. In Turkey that was the case. If there was a fascist in front of me and I didn’t defend myself, I was dead!”

(Plainpalais)

Part 4/4

“Now I spend my time drawing and I run this café. I’ve never stopped drawing since I was a child. I think I survived because of art. It’s like a shelter for me. When I draw, time stops. Whenever I have a question, I draw and the answer comes to me. After each drawing I feel like I’ve read an entire book. Art is not something to show off! It’s an in-depth study of the DNA of existence. When someone says he has THE truth, he is sick. The artist is the one who is constantly brushing up against truthS. And that’s why he always has one foot on this side, and one foot in the invisible. Truth is invisible to the naked eye, said Saint-Exupéry.

Today’s art world is sickening. I’ve been offered several times to do exhibitions in galleries, in Basel, in New York, in London. But I’ve always refused. I don’t want to sell to collectors either, and I’ve been offered large sums. I refuse the art business. In the name of wealth and power, we’ve abandoned our values behind us. And when people run after money, I run in the other direction. Because behind them they leave happiness and I pick it up and give it back to others (laughs)! 

With the coffee shop, I managed to create my universe in which I can make art and with which I earn my living. I take my inspiration from the stories of others. The other is me. Through others I can access parts of myself. And by meeting so many people, I’m able to progress in my art. I’m always drawing in my head, even when I’m serving a coffee or making a salad. I’m always between here and there. But the coffee shop also keeps me connected to everyday life. If I was only into art, maybe I’d be going crazy like some artists (laughs)!

When my father came to Switzerland, he said to me: “Do you see all these people, my son? They all suffer from loneliness. Be careful.” That stuck with me and I turned the coffee shop into a garden for the neighbourhood. There are people who live all alone and come here to find company and smiles. Some have been coming here for 20 years to have their coffee! Couples have formed, others have proposed here also. And everyone used to tell me “We feel like elsewhere here”. So I called it Ailleurs (elsewhere). Elsewhere is here (laughs)! The way you put the chairs, the coffee, you put something of yourself into it. When I serve coffee, I always do it with a lot of respect and love.

You see all the wild waterfalls in nature that gush out and make a lot of noise? As soon as they find the sea, they become peaceful. And the life of every human being is the same. For my whole life I’ve been searching for the truth and for this peace. At first I looked for it on the outside, through my battles and my political commitments. But once I broke the hard stone in my heart, a light starting flowing. The door to the heart can only be opened from the inside, never forget that. Now I’m happy all the time. I have a wonderful family, great friends. I receive love, I give love. I arrive in the morning happy, and I return home in the evening tired, and happy.”

(Plainpalais)

Meet Bayram in his Ailleurs Café, 47 Blvd Carl-Vogt, 1205 Genève
All drawings are his.

Published On: 8 June 2022