Published in the autumn of 2020, Anna Prizkau’s debut collection, Fast Ein Neues Leben, explores the contested nature of home and the state of being ‘other’ or foreign through the lens of an unnamed narrator, the daughter of immigrants who move to Germany following an attempted coup in an unspecified ‘old country.’ It is an elliptical, non-chronological story of the narrator’s journey from young girl to young woman.
The houses were towering giants. They thrust so many stories up into the sky that I couldn’t see the highest ones. They were lying among the clouds. This part of the city was where Olcay, Samiha, Abdullah and Ali lived. It was the Turkish kids’ quarter. That’s what the non-Turkish people called it here in the first German city I ever lived in.
In front of these giants lay the playground where Ali, Abdullah, Olcay, Samiha and I became friends. In the afternoons, only the foreign kids were on the playground. The German children all went to after-school day care. You had to pay to join. The process was bureaucratic. Registration, countless forms – the foreign kids’ parents spoke foreign languages and didn’t get it. That’s how we ended up meeting on the playground, which was right near my school, in a different part of town where people stared at me and the Turkish kids like we were some rare and terrifying breed of wild animal. Although we heard different languages at home, we all lived in the same world. The world of Olcay, Samiha, Abdulla, Ali and me.
If you added their ages together, Samiha and Olcay were twenty-one. Olcay, the oldest, was eleven, and Samiha was a year younger. They lived on the seventh floor of one of the giants. It always smelled of cooking in the corridors. Of mothers from other countries. Mothers from other countries were always cooking. The corridor on Samiha’s and Olcay’s floor was an issue. Not because it smelled of food, but because of the lift. Samiha and Olcay hated that lift. They forbade me from ever using it. The stairs were okay, though. We always took the stairs.
This was back when I still believed in fairy tales. The lift was evil.
“People are killed in there. Afterwards, they just disappear.” Hardly a day went by without Olcay telling me that.
“A man lives in that lift. A Nazi. He kills Turkish people,” said Samiha.
My friends’ flat was opposite the evil lift, separated from it by a corridor that went on forever. Olcay’s and Samiha’s front door was mirrored in the old scratched lift doors. Every time those lift doors opened when we were still in the corridor, we’d run as fast as we could run back then, disappearing either into the stairwell or their flat.
It was like any other foreigner’s flat, but one thing was missing. A father. The flat had two main rooms. One was the living room, where turquoise Turkish eyes stared down at me from glass or knitted amulets. They looked at me in the same way those grey German eyes looked at me in my part of the city, where few immigrants lived. The second room belonged to my friends. On the wallpaper was a boy on a bike trying to ride up a hill. Always the same boy, always the same hill. He never made it.
My friends’ mother kept to the kitchen. According to Samiha and Olcay, she slept under the watchful Turkish eyes in the living room, yet I only ever saw her in the kitchen. Never once in any of the other rooms. She wore her veil inside, but more loosely fastened than when she was out on the street.
I didn’t understand how there could not be a father in this flat. I only knew one German girl at school who didn’t have one. All the foreign kids had fathers. I wanted to know what it was like, being one who didn’t have a father, but every time I so much as mentioned the word “dad”, Olcay would disappear to do his homework.
It was late summer, perhaps the end of August. Olcay, his sister and his mother had just that day come back from Turkey, and I wanted to visit them. I’d been at the open-air swimming pool all day, was sunburnt and wilting from the sting of the sun. I decided to take the evil lift up to their flat. I pushed the button to call it and then hid behind the letter boxes in the lobby:
thousands of people lived in that giant. I glanced into the lift when its doors slid open. No Nazi. It was empty, so I ran in. There were many buttons, all of them as round and as yellow as the acne that pitted the faces of the older kids at my school. I grimaced as I thought of this, and pressed the button for the seventh floor. It started rattling up, and my body rattled with it. The Nazi could come at any second; I expected him to get into the lift at every floor. The little screen showed which floor I was on: two, three, four. Still no one. Another three floors – I felt I was in some terrifying fairy tale – and then floor seven lit up. The door opened, and Olcay was standing there in the corridor. His severe eyes met mine, and in them I saw a rage I’d never seen there before.
He hit his fist against the doorframe and shouted, “You cheated”, and then he slammed the door to his flat shut behind him. I was still in the lift. With a quiet chime, the doors began to slide shut. I pushed through them with one large step, knocked and rang at the bell, but Olcay’s door didn’t open.
Two days later, I saw Samiha at the pool. She didn’t say a word. She was sitting at the edge of the pool, her dark feet in the water. I sat down next to her.
“Hello,” I said, quietly.
Samiha didn’t reply.
“How was Turkey?” I said, making it louder than my “hello”.
She didn’t speak, jumped into the water instead. Her brother wouldn’t speak to me, either. Four days long at the pool, it was as though I was invisible to them both.
On the fifth day at the pool, I saw Abdullah and Ali, the other playground friends. They asked why the Turkish kids were being so strange. They always called Olcay and Samiha the Turkish kids, and they themselves were the Arab boys. I said I didn’t know, my eyes swimming with forced crocodile tears.
“You must have done something,” Ali said. “Did you say something bad about their mother?” He was snarling, and also had something of a crocodile about him.
“No!” It came out loud; I was shouting. What had I done? It was the lift. I knew that must’ve been it, but didn’t want to tell them. My betrayal had brought Samiha’s and Olcay’s own to light: their lift story had been no more than a childish tale. It wasn’t my fault.
I was banished and excluded from the friendship with Olcay and Samiha for days, weeks, months – for four years. I’d grown too big for swinging and climbing at the playground. I made friends with the German kids, who were too old now for after-school day care. I was rarely in the Turkish kids’ quarter with its giants. Abdullah and Ali didn’t like playing with girls anymore. Or perhaps they still wanted to play with girls, but it was a different kind of playing, a game that involved hands and bodies, and I wasn’t ready.
It was late summer again, and just like last time, I was sunburnt and wilting from the sting of the sun. I was waiting at the tram stop when I saw Samiha. She had swollen eyes, her eyelids looked painted red. She was crying. Samiha didn’t recognise me at first. I said hello, and then she realised who I was and said my name.
“Do you have a tissue?” she asked, without saying hello back.
I dug around for one in my rucksack. “What happened? How are you?”
“We’re going back to Antalya.”
“My mother…” Samiha’s voice broke. Her tears prevented her from speaking.
“Is she sick?”
Samiha hid her narrow face, which was dark and now also red, behind the tissue.
“She hates it here. She’s hated it since my father left.”
“Is he in Antalya, too?”
Samiha appeared from behind the tissue. Like four years earlier, she didn’t speak. But her eyes said yes.
I pressed myself into Samiha’s thin arms, but the hug felt so contrived that my former friend extracted herself as fast as she could. She shook herself.
“He hated it here, too. And then he hated us for it.”
“Your father doesn’t hate you. You can’t hate your own family,” I said.
Samiha opened her mouth for a second, but once again, no words came out. Or maybe she said something and I missed it. I heard only a loud, sharp squealing as the tram pulled up. Samiha’s tram would take her back to the Turkish kids’ quarter. She jumped up from the tram stop seat and said a hasty goodbye. It was like we’d never been friends up on the seventh floor of the giant, as if she hadn’t just cried right here at the tram stop.
And then she was on the tram. I didn’t look away. The doors slid shut in front of her with a littleding. Samiha stared angrily through me. She knew I finally understood. The way she looked at me through the tram doors mirrored the way her brother had looked at me four years ago on the seventh floor, the lift doors between us. And it mirrored the way Samiha and Olcay had seen their father on the seventh floor. Perhaps the last time they’d ever seen him. I knew that now, as the tram with Samiha on it rattled towards the Turkish kid’s quarter.
A scene played out in my head. Perhaps it was only a fantasy, but it felt true and very real. It took place in Olcay’s and Samiha’s giant. The two of them were standing at the threshold of their apartment with their mother, and their father stood in the open lift. The doors slid shut, and he was gone. There’d never been a Nazi who killed Turkish people and made them disappear. There was only a Turkish man who disappeared. But he was still alive and he lived very far away. A place he’d moved to after failing to make a new life in the new country.
The shame cut through me now like the blade of a knife. My face burned. It was my fault, after all. I’d taken Samiha’s and Olcay’s fairy tale away from them.
From “Der Mann im Fahrstuhl” in Fast Ein Neues Leben, (Almost a New Life), Friedenauer Presse (Matthes & Seitz Berlin), 2020.