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Reading in German by Feridun Zaimoğlu. Image detail of original text, “Lügen / Gegenlügen” (2013) © Feridun Zaimoğlu. 

Lies / Counter-Lies

Feridun Zaimoğlu is an author and visual artist. He is considered one of most the important poets of contemporary German language. Among his central themes are the problems of second- and third-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany. His latest novel is Isabel (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014)

Feridun Zaimoğlu

On the evening before his first-born was to be circumcised, the young village headman issued an invitation to a coffee house out along the highway. He was joined by five men from the holiday complex. I was thought of as a three-quarter man: I came from abroad, had been tainted by sin, and exchanged my mother tongue for German. The priest’s intercession had put the headman in a lenient mood. We sat on low stools under a faded, red-checkered awning. The farmers talked about godlessness. They asked me what I thought about religion. I said: The Enlightenment is the opium of the indignant citizen of our age. They begged me to refrain from such slogans. I said: I believe in the one god who casts the wicked to the ground. Was I making fun of them, they asked, ridiculing them for their simplicity? Since people from the city were anathema to them, they believed I would not shy from any infamy. Twenty years ago a man with a doctor’s title in his name came to them, talking about prosperity and sparkling fountains, so they sold him their olive groves along the coast. Now their wives went cleaning in the houses of the fine lords and ladies. For nine hours hard work, they earned thirty euros. They had exchanged their land for air, spit, and glass beads, they were gently expropriated. They differentiated between the West at home and abroad. The bureaucrats, that godless brood, lived in the large cities of Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. In foreign European countries, reform heretics stirred up hatred against believers illuminated by the holiness of the scriptures. Should I then be a deceiver? I said nothing and listened to their stories. Two village elders listed the names of stupid Americans: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis. The imperium’s armies were repulsed in all the major wars of the last decades. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. On the screen, actors in uniform led the sick empire to victories. The old man with a thin moustache over the edges of his lips said: My grandson believes the imperial soldiers are invincible. He doesn’t want to know anything about the drone warriors’ cowardice. Then his older brother began to speak: he proved to be a man unable to break the habit of working out in the fields. He had also taken the money from the man with a doctor’s title in his name, but had bought farmland. Bread and earth smelt good, so he would resist to the end of his life, and never become urbanized. He wanted to talk to me, the German guest: Did people in the West keep their eyes shut? Did they really believe that the men from the East exuded the stench of the heathens? I didn’t understand him, what did he want me to tell him? These farmers often sat in front of the TV, their wives were soap opera addicts, and it was all they could do to keep their womenfolk under control. In every episode, an urbanite with shiny calves paced across her four-room apartment, she had money and power, she barked down her mother, child, and husband. The farmers’ wives stared at the screen, they were captivated by the false world in which a simple maid looked like a beauty queen. The old man pointed to the television set on a swivel arm attached to the wall. In the news, a European politician was quoted as criticizing the democracy deficit in the Orient. The minus-land of the East, shouted the old man, we can do what we want, it will never be enough! At his request, the owner turned the volume up. When the President spoke, the discussions gradually died away. He ranted and raved about foreign influence, collaborators at the borders, secret agents. Once the news was over, the owner pressed the mute button to turn the sound off. The village headman’s face was bathed in the TV’s flickering light. He was put together with those holding nationalist views, the men of the moral brigade, roaming through the streets on some days. They hated the libertarians, and the libertarians hated the homey and indigenous. No hippy child ever strayed into this village, where there was no place of amusement. The young village elder had been elected by the majority of farmers, both men and women. He had lived in the town, but had returned. He said to me: The students are copycats. They read badly written novels and life guides, they read two treatises by French philosophers. They read trash with a high proportion of foreign words. And then they believe they are invincible. They stay up late, drinking beer or wine, and couple with town girls. They are convinced they are better than me, and others like me. It makes me sick. The students suffer from exhaustion depression but call it the wild life.

I couldn’t contradict him in all the points he made, and it had never been his intention that they would lead to an argument. He mentioned the circumcision celebrations the next day: he would welcome everyone as god’s guest.

The next day, I sat with the shopkeeper in front of his shop at the fountain. He had worked for years at a shipbuilding yard in Hamburg, he showed me his shattered hands. We spoke German—no, that’s not true, I spoke German and he answered in Turkish. I asked him about the moral brigade. He explained: A pack of uncouth villagers deterring ill minds, protecting and saving; public health was their top priority. They had been told to leave me, the one who had become German, in peace. These villagers, the hot-tempered among them, suspected that I was infecting girls fervid for love. What did that mean? Whenever anyone from the towns visited, it always created a breeze stirring everything up. The lower and baser instincts surfaced, then the girls became feverish in bed and dreamt of movie heroes, unblemished and untainted. But once the girls had stolen a secret look at me, they lost all their desire for adventure. I wasn’t hurt by his words. I was a free fool from the West, spared by the supreme moral custodians. The shopkeeper and I talked about democracy. He said: We are told to go and vote. Then we read in the paper that we have voted for the wrong people. The West has doubts about whether we are democratically mature. And why? Because we don’t vote for those agreeable to the Europeans. Students occupy a park in Istanbul, the hired applauders of the old system acclaim them in the media, a stupid America barks at us. In Stuttgart, the police are beating people up; I saw a photo in the paper of an old man blinded by a water-cannon jet. Did any European country complain about Germany’s democratic deficit? If you are hypocritical, don’t be surprised you are called a hypocrite.

These virtuous men were armed with good arguments. Out of politeness, I did not venture to contradict them. Why did foreign powers appear as negative protagonists in their pugnacious speeches? They would argue: Because we are protesting against our misrepresentation. In Germany, functionaries in Turkish associations were accused, often quite justifiably, of feeling permanently insulted. Every criticism simply bounced off them. They suspected that journalists and politicians were using destabilization tactics. In fact, the Orient experts in Germany proved to have significant gaps in their knowledge. They were not objective, and made no secret of their aversion toward the Islamic faith. Despotism was not invented by sinister Turks, Persians, and Arabs. And yet: the loss of ease and comfort among the people of the Middle East was largely their own doing. For far too long, they had deluded themselves into believing in their strengths, despite the decline. The West was the stone idol at which the sanctimonious and visionaries in the East threw stones.

The shopkeeper and I peered silently towards the stone house where the villagers were streaming. The child was circumcised in the front yard. We were brought plates of rice and chickpeas. After the meal, I took the plates back, thanked the headman, and wished god’s blessings on his house. The old men poked their walking sticks into the wet earth, the women cracked pumpkin seeds and let the shells fall onto the ground. The freshly circumcised young boy lay in bed and stared ahead. Men and women were constantly coming up to the edge of the bed and pushing an envelope with money under the pillow. To prevent the child hurting himself, his mother had taken off the gold coins that were stitched onto the pillow. The young boy’s circumcision was a nice custom, the farmers laughed, no alcohol was served. Later, under the coffee house awning, the old man told me: The boy’s foreskin was buried together with a coxcomb in a small hole in the ground. Energy would be directed to the sore, healing organ. A magical ritual, an archaic act. Using their bare hands, the child’s mother and aunts tore open the earth beneath a sickly sycamore tree, they puffed their breath over the covered hole. The women in the village were the custom’s keepers. The headman has asked them not to do it, he kept to the pure faith, to the teachings of the messengers. Hadn’t the prophets been sent to stamp out witchcraft? In times past, the old man said, the herb-wives blew on knots in the first light of dawn, they tied knots and blew, and because their withered hearts beat faster and because their will was powerful, the cursed woman or man really did suffer a misfortune. An old farmer in the last decade of his life, he would be careful of the circumcised boy’s mother. He began every day with a prayer invoking god’s protection, as no creature could break god’s power. He led me to the sickly sycamore, pointed at the hunchbacked earth, trod on it. The skin should decay, he cried, the tradition witches should be cursed.

His hatred fed on many sources. A true believer had to call on god, blasphemous magic was a great sin. A priest could only aid and abet a good deed. If he stepped between the lord and creation, he sinned against the commandment of worshipping the one and only god. In a theocracy, the prattle of the clerics became the law. The faithful saw tradition as the worst defilement of faith. But throughout the ages men have always been preoccupied with power, and keeping their power. In traditional ancestral law, male will is very close to mania. In Germany, a young man shot his sister in the middle of the street. A scorned lover, third generation ethnic Kurdish, stabbed his former girlfriend two dozen times. A rejected suitor in Afghanistan threw acid into the young woman’s face. An African girl, nothing more than a kid, had her clitoris and outer labia cut out without anesthetic. What was the common denominator of these cases? Rat men competing with each other. Murderers and psychopaths stabbing, injuring, and mutilating. They acted in the spirit of male honor, the most important word of the reprobate subject. They said: We are pure, you are depraved. Who were “they”? Europeans, Christians, Crusaders. This bunch of troublemakers approved of murder in the name of tradition. Orientalism described an Orient that never existed as a totality. The murderers and psychopaths, the bigots and fanatics—they drew a picture of “Occidentals” that failed to include reality. Anyone who renounced thinking politically had to hold up virtue and morals. Those entangled in delusions fought against corrosive erosion in an impure milieu. On both sides, the warriors kept an eye out for the enemy. The Islamic countries were swarming with occidentalists who often talked of how Westerners never washed themselves after a large bowel movement. These men were downgraded by despots, tyrants, and soldiers of the occupying power. Their land and property was taken from them, their houses destroyed, their lives ruined. And so they sought comfort in superstition, in idealizing magic.

The headman gave me a tract by a modern mystic as a gift. I read the first two chapters, slammed the book shut; annoyed, I put it back on the shelf. The holy man recommended ointments and cold compresses for world-weariness. In the presence of men, women should be unobtrusive. Essentially, the mystic was a closet disciplinarian, he produced a list of rules of conduct. I felt dispirited, and reached out for the first volume of a work entitled: Vestiges of the Defeated. I gave myself up to the book, forgot the world, forgot the foreskin and cockscomb. My worries vanished, because I understood: The battle was still going on, there was no end in sight.

Translated from the German by Andrew Boreham.