The very first time I read from my work to an audience, a well-dressed woman in the front row had a nosebleed, the blood was dripping onto her knees and splashing over the toes of her shoes, I jumped up, reached into my pocket and passed her a pack of Bordeaux-coloured paper tissues. She angrily left the room. I couldn’t understand. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d got the paper tissues from a street musician by way of thanks for a handful of change. After the reading the lady asked me to sign two books, then she explained that the indecency of my spoken language had made her feel unwell. My provocations, she said, would get me nowhere. A genuine writer would take no pride in making people bleed. A genuine writer writes stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. She appealed to me from the bottom of her heart to please give up writing. I stood by the book table, my head bowed in shame, silently watching the bubbles of carbon dioxide shoot up from the bottom of the bottle and burst.
I often found myself getting embroiled in unpleasantness. That woman would not be the last to accuse me of huge depravity. In the 1990s I set off on a reading tour with Kanak Sprak, a whole book I’d written in the underclass jargon of youngsters of Turkish origin, translating their Kanak lingo into my own artificial language. What was I trying to achieve? I was trying to set down hard edges, an outline with a toxic glow. Back then I used to look like a junkie with a silver set of works, performing in suits I’d bought in a shop in Kiel that sells used clothes by weight. Strangers would come up to me, whispering, on railway station platforms, at urinals, in beer halls and at grilled chicken kiosks. They thought I was a dealer, they insisted I should unzip my wheelie suitcase and reveal my wares. Quite a few times I had to run for it, because they wouldn’t believe I was just a writer.
I became the hero of German provincial towns. Most writers want to perform in big cities. A triumph in a provincial town requires hard struggle. I liked that. Sadly, lots of people didn’t like what I read to them. They asked why I was making such a fuss. They asked why they should care about young Turks in poverty-stricken tenements, ‘Kanaks’ kicking off. I talked about a phenomenon of the German language. They wanted to know why the sugar syrup poured over puff pastry vol-au-vents filled with crushed pistachios forms a thin film that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I frequently shut the book and talked with the audience about baking.
I started to think that most good people in Germany live in the small towns. It was unusual for a woman to get a nosebleed during a reading. I was seen as a poet from the provinces, as an entertainer specialising in extreme silliness. In those early years, as I travelled the land, I encountered critics who sat right at the end of the second to last row and asked the first question of the evening. They asked: “How authentic are you, Mr. Z?” They declared: “You can sit there wriggling and jiggling all you like, all that violent ghetto jive, we just don’t buy the idea that you’re some heavy from the mean backstreets.” Not that I’d ever made any such claim. But still they insisted that in my case, the character in the narrative must be viewed as an identical double of the narrator. I demurred, and they dismissed that as a swindler’s lie.
My origin was nothing to be proud of. The young men I’d portrayed in Kanak Sprak didn’t identify themselves in terms of their ethnic belonging. My audiences didn’t want to hear about that. I would spend the whole evening talking about my German life, but at the end of the day they asked me what I had to say, as a young Turk, about what was going on in my homeland. My refusal to change my subject was interpreted as cowardice. Wouldn’t it be more cowardly to let reality be stolen? What did I mean by that? Just because one’s Turkish parents had migrated, as guest workers, did that confer sufficient knowledge of whatever is going on in Turkey?
Most young people of the second and third generation from Turkish and Kurdish origins were living in their own parallel world. They knew nothing about the reality of authentic Turks and Kurds, though of course they wouldn’t admit this. The typical Turkish male in Berlin’s working-class districts was swathing himself in clunky gold, pumping iron for massive, compact arms, propping his forearm on the open window of his car, and tugging his upper lip with his index and middle fingers – why was he doing that? Because that’s what the rebels were doing in the Turkish soap operas. The experts were talking about the essential culture of foreign residents of Berlin. I was talking about the boastful posing of new Germanites who, in their German urban settings, were missing out on urbanisation.
An outraged student denounced me as a nasty piece of work because her words had failed to move me. To illustrate the warm-hearted Mediterranean mentality, she had described how the men greet one another by shaking hands while pressing the back of the other’s hand with their free hand. That led an authentic German in the audience to relate how the Anatolian peasant will chop off the head of his last chicken whenever he catches sight of a tourist. I couldn’t help giggling, so the student called me a heartless pig, she got a huge wave of applause, the organisers refused to go out to eat with me.
I often had to break off a reading because people in the audience were shouting at me. I was the hoodlum of the season. One time a long-haired dachshund actually bit through my shoe, the man whistled him off, my toes were throbbing all night. In a small town in southern Bavaria, somebody called out that I deserved a resounding thumping, while his terrier in a knitted coat tugged at my trouser leg. Another time, a man suddenly stood up in the middle of my reading. His voluminous red checkered handkerchief, folded two corners up, spilled from his breast pocket. He said that he holidayed twice a year in a distant country; that on one expedition there, he’d seen small vultures in the fields; that with my manner and my attitude, I reminded him of the aforementioned vultures.
I often requested restraint. I requested accuracy. I was accused of cultural appropriation: as a Turk with a school certificate, did I have the right to write about Turks with no school certificate? The left-wing intellectuals were propagating round-the-clock linguistic cleansing. Anyone who used words other than ‘Migrant’ and ‘fellow citizen’ was a Nazi. ‘Migrant’ sounded like migraine, and when I said this at a public event I was called a German nationalist multiculturalist. I wasn’t this and I wasn’t that. I talked about career Kanaks, about women and men without qualities, about mediocre individuals very proud of their origins. At one adult education college, a half-full can of lager came flying out of the second to last row and hit me on the forehead. The wound soon healed. A few weeks later, a full thermos jug fell eight meters onto the top of my skull. I had a deep cut in my scalp, an ambulance was called to the Frankfurt Book Fair to take me to hospital. The doctor glued the skin of my scalp together, the police started an investigation, person or persons unknown, and later closed it.
Strangely, critics were now pressing me to admit, finally, that I’d arrived. Arrived where? In the world of publishing and reviewing, I wasn’t regarded as a literary writer, I was a social reporter who was glorifying chancers and sharks. But my subject was the healthy mental world of the mongrels. Nobody, after all, was so deeply and firmly rooted in one life-world that they couldn’t uproot themselves. I could go by many names, I could fake myself over and over, till nothing was left of my supposed authenticity. Tribe and custom were by no means more important than life.
These sorts of resounding phrases were met with suspicion, rightly. One Turkish woman said to me after a reading: ‘I don’t want to wash my colours out and get myself dyed different.’ Another woman in another town hacked furiously with her fork at her overcooked boiled potatoes and said: ‘I’m German, and you’ll always be Turkish, you can say all you like.’ I thought: the world stays foreign, no matter how sharply your eyes focus it. I was urged to try writing about normal love between normal people for a change. I said: ‘I don’t want to. I’d feel like spit in someone else’s mouth.’ [‘Someone else’s’ and ‘foreign’ are the same word in German: fremd. Tr.]
What was I writing about? I was writing about the twitching arms of wet shirts on the washing line of a lonely terrace. About summer clothes in the cupboard that suddenly fell off their hangers. About the first light of the day when you can tell a white thread from a black one. But I was also writing about melancholy rubber pimples on the back of a tailor’s glass cutting board. I was writing love letters for hot and bothered men with dark five o’clock shadow who’d developed a crush on the woman in the local bakery shop or a single mother from the run-down estate. I took five marks a page with a promised bonus of fifteen marks in case of success. But not once was a woman’s passionate love sparked by the letters. Word quickly got round, and this source of income dried up. Instead I was offered good money to concoct amusements for television, ‘Kanak comedy’ was on the rise, gag writers were desperately sought. I declined, not feeling this brand of clownery was for me. I was asked what I thought I might try next, as if it was like picking up the menu and choosing a dish costing slightly more than nothing.
Those who were posing the question of origin wanted solid forms. You might shatter into many fragments, you should just bear this disintegration. Why should you? Didn’t deformation threaten to end in degeneration? What was so bad about the longing for social stability? I was fleeing stinking certainty. For a moment, before everything curdled into identity, it was all a game, in the undefined first years of the century everything was beautifully unruly, people weren’t anxiously fixated on their holdings. Much was possible in cinema, music, literature, theatre.
The director Luc Perceval asked me to rewrite Shakespeare’s Othello, which I did with my good friend Günter Senkel, with whom I would go on to write many other plays besides. The gala premiere, launching the 2003 season at the Munich Kammerspiele after a prolonged closure of the theatre, turned into a huge scandal. The socialites, celebrities and beauties in the audience screamed themselves hoarse with revulsion, one fat man in the front row actually did have a nosebleed. What had so incensed them all? Caustic language, cutting words, stinging curses. The refined citizens of Venice turned up their noses at Othello, not because he presumed to live among whites as a dark-skinned man. He was a commander with a distinguished service record, the victor in numerous hard-fought battles. What was felt to be disgusting and offensive was that he loved a young girl half his age. She accepted this love gladly enough, but she fell to pieces under the influence of wicked whispering Iago. A drama of jealousy, a wild, obscene spectacle, murder and mayhem. I and my co-author had no intention of wheeling blathering monologue machines on stage. The conventional blacking up of white Othello was unnecessary, because the spectacle wasn’t the colour of his skin, the spectacle was the great age difference between the lovers. Shakespeare was cleverer than postmodernists, it would have been gross distortion to misunderstand the love story as a proxy for race war. Foreignness was the mother earth, was the fertile soil, was the layer which had to be carted off in order to get to the usable mineral deposit.
I spoke of the new souls and of the new German wilderness, I was seen as overwrought, overheated, as uncouth and moth-eaten. I knew: I’m not styled and tempered, my heart rejoiced when I thought that with a little quick wit one can get further and further. I met people who were stranger than me. One man, after a reading in the eastern outskirts of Berlin, showed me the underside of a gingerbread cookie. He had scratched into the wafer a cross with wobbly hooks on its four ends: a swastika. Another time, a pub landlady fell in love with me for a brief hour, she fell back out of love as soon as I explained that she was confusing me with a writer of cat-based fiction she idolised. Organisers booked me because they hoped to gain legitimacy by attracting a new audience, people with little or no education, foreigners in the land of culture. Indeed, there were dramatic scenes, not always, but more often than cultural event organisers were used to. A lovelorn gaming arcade owner stabbed himself in the chest. The woman he was whimpering at in pain wished he’d drop dead and left the room. I was judged responsible for the man’s overwrought state, I’d been reading from my novel about love, which one woman in the audience had said was really a novel about hate.
But what was happening in contemporary literature? Very little was happening, because it was failing to include the present. There was unrest in the cities of the west, there were uprisings in the outskirts, there were fanatics demonstrating nasty enthusiasms. In German books, on the other hand, little of the world was to be found, around the turn of the millennium the writers were writing primers full of bland fables, the word of the hour was inwardness. They all told their small, well-formed stories, all took pride in their uniqueness, whether west German, east German, or migrant, they found themselves and their own lives unbelievably interesting. But I had no wish to suffocate under the shroud of identity. I was in love with the imprecise world. I hated self-scrutiny. What I was seeing: the misery of the poor.
To the critics I was always in the wrong. When I wrote the family epic of the Seven Towers neighbourhood in Istanbul, they said I shouldn’t be nailing my heart to the land of my fathers. When I wrote a novel about Luther in powerfully hammering German, I was said to be angling for a prize for best integrated fellow citizen. When I wrote a novel about a Rhineland citizen on the skids, they said I’d set out to write a completely foreigner-free book. But it was always about German and Germany, it was about German nosebleeds, about the blood that shot out of noses because the violence of the words made bodies quake. And it was always about the incomprehensible, about the enigmatic, about the dense fog we got lost in. That was a legacy of German Romanticism, I was glad to inherit that gloom and that unreason. In a small town in the west of Germany, a professor shouted at me: ‘Genius, or genitalia, one or the other, not both. It’s clear enough that you’re all lower body!’ He denounced me as an enemy of the Enlightenment because I’d cited the Modernist poets Georg Trakl, Stefan George and Gottfried Benn. He thought I was wearing a mask, like all the Moslems. There it came again. I talked about literature. They talked about my supposed essential nature. I said: Right here, right now! They shouted: Baklava and cevapcici! I said: Festival of colours. They said: Folklore. I said: We have to urbanise ourselves in the cities. They talked about my self-hatred, and how I’d over-stretched myself in over-assimilating. But I’d torn no muscles.
I read in a library in Berlin’s bourgeois-bohemian quarter, Kreuzberg, and afterwards furious activists attacked me over a swinish passage in the book. Strangely, what really riled them was that I didn’t roll my Rs. I reminded them that the Friesians in far north Germany had stopped rolling their Rs in order not to attract unwanted attention. But I also reminded them that the Franconians of northern Bavaria flutter their tongues almost like Russians. The activists felt I was ribbing them. I looked around for the organiser, hoping for back-up. He was hiding behind the tattered, filthy, heavy woollen curtain hanging from a metal pole over the door. If I’d highlighted my original uniqueness, if I‘d identified myself by speaking in sentimental aphorisms, they’d have proclaimed me their pal and a man of honour.
Should I speak of a disability, my inability to believe in the purifying power of a cultural community? Minoritarian pride was repulsive to me. The individualism that expresses a loner’s cold intelligence was repulsive to me. I read in two bookstores and a cultural workshop centre in Berlin, to polite applause, I travelled on to a small town in the east. On the train a woman recognised me, she introduced herself as the Persian daughter of a Persian mother and a Persian father. Good, I thought, she knows where she belongs. I didn’t grin maliciously, I didn’t mock, I stayed serious, but she still got in a rage, she said loudly: ‘The Jews had it coming because they thought they were German. You’ve got it coming. You stir up a lot of wind with words. Look in the mirror. The face that looks out at you doesn’t lie. I’m staying true to my country.’ There it came again, the impermissible comparison. Indeed, I’ve often heard that the Turks, Kurds, Arabs and other population groups in Germany are the Jews of today, threatened with extermination if they allow their natural, in-born power of resistance to be broken down.
Who could fail to understand the anger against the state? The underclass Aryans go hunting foreign tribals, and the defenders of the constitution shred incriminating files. Until the swamp of sympathisers in the intelligence agencies, in the police, in the army is drained, no one will believe a word the state says. There’s this on the one hand, there’s that on the other. One could despair – one mustn’t.
Of course, in every sector there is a splendid blossoming. Residents whose parents came from abroad are writing and scripting, they’re counting and planning, they’re healing and repairing. They want nothing to do with the useless customs of the peasantry. They aren’t receptive to effusive bombast. These are sober workers in their chosen professions. They aren’t satisfied with the materials they found to hand. They are no friends of the collective which almost always sees improvement measures as treason. But neither do they believe in adopting the plumage of the local middle class so as to come over as especially well integrated. I call that misassimilation.
This country has its Turkish Turk-haters, I call them poster Kanaks, they need professional help. Every new season, the usual immigrant enemies of immigrants let themselves be harnessed up to do service for a bit of money and fame, till everyone tires of them. The real question is: what do the foreigners mean in their own country? What do they mean in the country where they’ve made themselves at home? They can’t let themselves be judged by the older residents. They can’t be so daft as to lose it when someone asks out of curiosity where they come from. If the blood rushes to your head when someone mispronounces your tricky surname, you should vent your vapours someplace else. In the culture sectors and the multicultural bureaux, one comes across all too many humourless would-be educators of the human race. I flee them, for they’re on a mission, they’ve a calling as missionaries to the majority. They also don’t want to think about another important question: how come the diaspora is mostly right-wing? What’s behind the bizarre bond between somebody of the third generation and their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin? What should one make of the exorbitant attachment to cultural heritage from the traditional homeland? Are they suffering because of the scattering, are they wasting away because they live beyond the bounds of the ancient sacred clod? This sentimentality lines the pockets of autocrats in many imagined homelands, alas. Currency billions flow because millions dream of the idyll in their particular Promised Land.
I won’t eat baklava, for the same reason I won’t eat cheesecake: it’s addictive, it makes you fat and greasy. After one reading which went fairly well, the polite organisers invited me out for a meal. I ordered aubergines stuffed with mincemeat, the dish was comically called ‘Slit Belly’. I bit into bitter fibres and almost raw meat, I stared at the watery sauce swimming with many fatty globules staring at me. After the fourth mouthful I admitted defeat. The young waitress asked why, I apologised and said that unfortunately the food was inedible. Two minutes later a small, powerfully built Turk with the air of a boxer was standing at the table wanting to know why I’d insulted his fiancée. A misunderstanding. No misunderstanding, he insisted. His future bride’s mother was in the kitchen, she was a damn good cook, as he knew from personal experience, and if I was going to diss the aubergines, my belly was going to be slit open, an Alsatian dog stuffed inside, and sewed up again. The boxer Turk was dragged away by his dim-witted fiancée. Everyone round the table was quiet. The many fatty globules had at least doubled in number.
I’d have liked to throttle the boxer Turk with the waitress’s pinny. The polite organisers requested a situation report. I didn’t understand, they’d seen and heard the whole thing. They demanded a culturalist interpretation, the organiser felt his feelings had been hurt, there had to be a reason. I said, ‘Nah, the guy’s got an arse for a head.’ An embarrassed silence ensued. The waitress made a point of leaving my plate when she cleared the table. I didn’t order dessert, and then I was the only one who didn’t get a complimentary digestif at the end. I refused to engage in a staring contest with the boxer Turk, who was sitting at the side table by the door. What had happened? The organisers and a couple of people who’d been in the audience insisted on continuing the conversation in the hotel bar. Wasn’t I over-simplifying? After all, Turkish women and Turkish men belonged to the same culture as me. I said: ‘Nah, idiocy is international.’ It was all to no avail, after a short while I left them to it.
Constant dismissal has been my teacher. It’s not like I’m trying to be everyone’s darling. What dismays me? It’s that the fluffiness and banality, the wee-wishy-washiness and nappy-whiteness of the way life is imagined, inside many bubbles in our culture here, isn’t the way life is, not outside the bubbles, not in the world. Of course, what I’m saying could be dismissed as a privileged hooligan’s bitching. A story on paper is a story on paper. In real reality I ask myself: where are we headed? There will be ruptures and fights. Some will choose unconditional self-preservation, others self-deception. Many a sick-minded wretch will dream of smiting his designated foe. One must shield oneself more and more from the false influences and from the friendly whisperers, it’s best to rely on one’s wits. More experiments in culture would be nice. Experimental ways of living, not just among people of foreign origin, would be nice. If actual factual reality could be seen as just a special form of true reality, that would be nice. Here in our country much more remains possible.
Translated from the transcript of an address by Feridun Zaimoglu to the Kulturfestival Merhaba Heimat, a Turkish-German cultural festival held in Dortmund on 4 November 2021.