„For me, homewards only ever heads toward Germany“

Even before the Turkish referendum on 16 April 2017 there has been a debate on the German-Turkish relations. The same applies to the conduct of Turks living in Germany. The writer Feridun Zaimoglu revealed his thoughts on German and Turkish culture in the following speech in the context of the opening of the exhibition “Multicultural. Germany, a Country of Immigration” on 20 May 2016:

In the beginning, Deutschland was a word made of two syllables, which broke into two pieces: I lived among Deutsche, I lived in their Land. In a metal factory, my father soldered cages to bases to make freight containers for Deutsche Post. My mother was stuck doing piecework at Telefunken, shoving moulded parts into sockets. Contact with the German neighbours was verboten. But the German lady in the neighbouring garden didn’t let that bother her. She used to pass me and my sister pralines with advocaat centres through the hedge. Buzzing, we’d cavort about on the patch of grass in the back garden, giggling out Dankeschöns. On sunny days, the neighbour on the other side would lie motionless on his deckchair, he had long hair and a thick chinstrap beard; I would stare at him. One day he stared back, his eyelids lifted and he rolled his eyes towards me. I almost toppled over in terror. He showed me how to whistle through my nose, and we communicated almost exclusively through nose whistling. The caretaker called him an anarchist, a felon; they went off drinking together once a week. The owner of the pub always gave me a Knackwurst, the mustard brought tears to my eyes. He let me sweep the back courtyard and for my little bit of work I would receive a big pile of pennies. After a year I spoke like a little German lad, learning not to roll my Rs. The Turkish kids in the neighbourhood split up into bunches. Some wanted to stay foreign, parroting the words of their fathers. They praised and vaunted the land of their summer holidays, where they stuck out as Germans. The others wanted to escape from the workers’ barracks, but still stay true-blue Turks. I was considered the little dummy who always asked stupid questions. In sixth grade I met Mehmet, who went on about shame, scandal and seemliness. He pointed at my sister, who was wearing a sleeveless blouse with spaghetti straps. That’s haram! he growled. In the playground, the Turkish kids steered clear of me because I hadn’t defended my sister’s honour. They spread rumours about my depravity. The tailor Ali gave me a stern talking to: as long as he lives, he said, a Turk remains the avenger of his family; I was straying off the path, I shouldn’t let myself be dazzled by Germany. That’s odd, I thought, with Germans, things are always fun, but you guys admonish me for every little trifle. I avoided the company of the honour warriors, who guarded the innocence of their sisters like bloodhounds. Though it never kept them from slagging off other women by referring to their genitals all the time. The neighbourhood became a stage set of my homeland. The lads grew hustler beards, unbuttoned their shirts, let their crescent moon pendants dangle from their gold chains, glistening in the sun. I would sit in the bookstore and read poems by Ingeborg Bachmann. I didn’t care much for clan and custom. The ‘gangsters’ in my milieu were nothing but middle-class in their aspirations and acted tough just to hide it. I could do without their praise.

In eighth grade I flourished, I was the only one who had stepped out of his background; oddly, my school friends saw in me a brightly feathered Indian. When the sun shone, they would say: enjoy it, it’s just like back where you come from! At Carnival, I was supposed to dress up as a sultan with a turban, vest and harem pants. In ninth grade, Beate began to side with the RAF murderers. It was a question of German guilt, the fat cats were soft targets, they deserved being shot. I objected. Beate screamed at me: Butt out, stick to what you know. Our teacher murmured something like it’s a blessing not be German. It didn’t sound right. I wracked my brains and then said: Murder is murder, what else is there to say about it? I ended up sat in the headmaster’s office: Tread lightly, child, he said. You’re a foreigner here, you’re not dealing with your own kind. This country has taken you in as a guest, everything is different here. Listen in and keep quiet! The man was trying to make himself seem important, I didn’t take his words to heart.
One Sunday, years later, I ran into the anarchist, we greeted each other with a whistle of the nose. The bristles on his cheeks had grown grey, he had gone through two divorces, his wife had taken a right turn somewhere along the way and was now one of those respectable parlour-room Nazi. She was fighting against the biological invasion of the Southerners, against the miscegenation of the German people. The skinheads in my neighbourhood hated me just as much as they did the tough Turkish thugs. Some day we’ll pull down your mask, they yelled, then the little Achmet will come out! In my first semester studying medicine I was part of a Bible group. Karin’s grandmother came from Silesia, and had forbidden her granddaughter to mix with Muslims. As a sign of my good will, I was to accompany her to Bible study. The priest and I had heated theological discussions, Karin begged me to keep calm, otherwise, she said, she couldn’t give her heart away. I decided against boredom and fled toward freedom. In the coming years, a string of missionary sisters would ring my doorbell. For the leftists, I was a hopeless subject of the system. For the right-wingers, I was a foreign body. But I never identified myself, I never positioned myself on a spectrum or professed any loyalties. Life was stronger than any culture, than any fancy foreign word, any ‘ism’. The radicals gained force: they thumped on the doors of the mosques, and since they were turned away as sectarian crackpots, they gathered together in closed groups. A bearded zealot called me the spit of Satan. What was brewing here, what was I missing? Deutschland had long ago melded into one word for me, I had long ago become German. I continued to be accused of deception and dissimulation. In the cultural sector, I became a fount of culture. At dinner after one of my readings, a tipsy presenter said to me: the little big difference between you and us is that you are circumcised. Don’t forget that. Because we never will! Gosh, I thought, does it really all come down to a little flap of skin? I appeared as a figure of speech in various costumes, depending on what the viewer wanted to see in me: a Turk, a janissary, a Hun Muslim, a corrupter of the morals of women, a creature of a lower order. I met Turkish students who had covered themselves in armour to repel deleterious influences. They made a big show of their difference, their nature and being, their indestructible core. A patriotically minded young man asked me what for him was the crucial question: Don’t you want to be buried in the hallowed earth of the homeland, like all patriots? Nah, I said. Big-sounding words, words that are supposed to have some kind of permanence. The academics criticised my brutal conversion. They dubbed me a subservient spirit, an assimilated slave, a master of self-denial. Why did they make it so complicated? I didn’t live there, I lived here. The soul could be knocked into a malleable form by tradition, but ideas burned it out of the flesh. I wanted the prosperity of the beautiful word, a proper, recognisable life.

I will never know peace, I will continue to struggle with these things in years to come. My parents migrated, and returned home after 30 years. For me, homewards only ever heads toward Germany. My history is the history of a calm discovery of a homeland. I am not an exhibit in some ethnographic museum. I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, so I am blind to my background. I am my German foreground. Anybody who thinks they can peal themselves unscathed out of procedure and everyday life is clinging to a delusional idea: they will freeze into a breathing corpse. Born a foreigner, I grew into a German, in this, my no-longer foreign land.

© DHM / Wolfgang Siesing

Feridun Zaimoglu

Feridun Zaimoglu was born in 1964 in Bolu/Anatolia and spent the first two decades of his life in Munich, Berlin and Bonn, before he went to Kiel in 1985, where he studied Arts and Human Medicine. Turkey is the home country of his parents. For him, Feridun Zaimoglu, it is Germany though – and his hometown is Kiel. More on Feridun Zaimoglu under: http://www.feridun-zaimoglu.com/vita_fz.html