Fifty years ago, when Turkish guest workers came to Germany and telephone calls were expensive, people recorded audio tapes and gave them to friends and acquaintances traveling to Turkey. On these tapes the guest workers talked about their lives, their jobs, and the factories they worked in; they described the cities they’d wound up in, and following all these narratives were lists of people they wanted to say hello to. In return, the relatives back home also recorded tapes, sometimes simply reusing the same ones, so that at the end of an item of news there were often remnants of the first message. Old people would play the long-necked lute and recite poetry, and there might be an urgent request to send some medication for a sick person. And there were a lot of mundane details: we heard Ismail’s son bought his father that piece of land next to Özgür’s sheep barn. Don’t you want to send your uncle enough money for us to buy that property out past the city maintenance shed—you know, up by the walnut trees? Comments like that were typical. Or people would pinch the tender cheeks of newborns to get them to cry so that the father, who wouldn’t see the child until summer, would at least be audibly introduced to the offspring conceived on his annual vacation. And also from afar, on the same tape, possibly on Side B, came the congratulations of the family and the assurance that the child was the spitting image of the father. But in all the excitement over the recording, and the shouting and celebrating of the others, all of whom were eager to say something, no one thought to mention the name of the child or even whether it was a boy or a girl. So the new father sat in his dormitory in Germany, listening to the tape over and over, and played it for his colleagues, who of course brought out their own tapes. At least that’s how the guest workers who were there at the very beginning tell it.
What happened to all those tapes? Who archives memories?
It was almost twenty years ago. A Sunday at 5:40 p.m. There I stood, looking out my window onto the street below. As always on Sunday at 5:40 p.m., when my father started out for his twelve-hour shift in the factory, it would be three minutes before I saw him riding down the street. This was the routine: at 5:40 my father would shut the apartment door behind him. He’d go down the stairs to the cellar, carry up his ancient bicycle, and put his workbag in the basket. Then he’d ride off. One right turn, one left turn. At 5:43 p.m. I’d see him. He didn’t know that at 5:40 p.m. on Sunday, when he went off to work that twelve-hour shift, I stood there waiting until I saw him. Then the moment would come. My father always rode so slowly I was scared he’d tip over. It’s like when he walks—you always think he’s going to fall. But it’s just that he executes his movements very deliberately. So he’d be pedaling smoothly along, sedately cycling out of my view, his back to me. With the scuffed-up black workbag in the rear basket, he’d go rattling around the corner. Around the corner of the historic houses in our street, one of the oldest and most beautiful in our city. There had never been any guest workers on this street. There’d never been any common laborers at all in the entire neighborhood. We were the flaw in the jewel of the city, where, after all, there was even a monument created by an artist. In the eyes of the inhabitants, we didn’t wear normal clothes, didn’t speak a normal language, and didn’t cook normal food. And the god we believed in, well, he wasn’t at all “usual for here,” as the locals put it. Not usual for here when you came from a “far-flung corner of the world.” But you saw the right way to live, believe, and speak when you walked out into our street. While the other families spent their Sundays preparing grilled feasts, the sons tinkering with the cars they’d received as graduation presents, and the daughters recovering from their Saturday-night dance parties, we were quiet the whole day, living with open doors so that the opening and shutting of them didn’t wake our father. The head of our household slept in the afternoon so that he could work at night, whereas the heads of the normal households snoozed off the remains of their Saturday-night insobriety. The only reason we had an apartment in this posh neighborhood at all, albeit in the un-poshest house and for a remarkably low rent, was that the son of our landlord was a member of the newly founded Green Party. And because his parents were humanitarians. That’s what they told us once when they came to dinner: “We’re humanitarians.” One time my father asked our landlord: “So, Erhard, you kill any Jews in the war?” And the landlord answered: “Hasan, I swear to you, I did not kill a single Jew.” My father said: “Erhard, I believe you, but somehow nobody’s ever willing to admit that they did.” Erhard said, “Yes, strange, isn’t it.” My father, playfully cuffing Erhard’s arm, said: “I tell you what would be strange—kill Jews in the war and then rent out your apartment cheap to Turks.” My father’s always been pretty good at that: asking a simple question without ruffling anyone’s feathers. Peace and harmony are my father’s favorite feelings. Huzur is the Turkish word. Whenever there was any arguing at home and things got loud, my father never cared about who was right. He’d simply stand up from his armchair and ask for huzur. Sometimes we laughed and said: “Papa, the only place there’s any huzur in this world is under the lid of a coffin.”
I’d stand at the window and watch my father riding his rickety bike around the corner and simply could not picture him working alongside those big machines, high as a man, and diligently seeing to it that the hair-thin copper wires were properly coated. How on earth could my father stomach this dull, tedious work and the droning din of the machinery? At night I’d lie tensed-up in my bed and concentrate on sending him good thoughts. I’d repeat, Keep going, keep going, keep going, until I fell asleep. In the mornings, when I woke up around five, I’d look at the clock and think: Almost finished, Papa. All you have to do now is clock out. Take a quick shower. Now get on your bike. Don’t fall over, Papa. Keep pedaling. Not long now. At 6:15 a.m. I’d go to the window and wait until my father reached the corner and precariously, but still somehow elegantly, rounded it without falling over. Against the backdrop of the rising sun and brightly colored, low-hanging clouds, he came riding to me. Three minutes later I’d hear my father coming up the stairs. We’d done it! Once again we’d finished a night in which my father completed his hated twelve-hour Sunday shift, after a week of his usual night shift; sort of the crowning touch, while God and the world rested. As always when my father came home, the first thing he did was look in on his children. He opened doors and replaced covers that had slipped off in the night. I got back into bed and by the time my father looked in on me, I’d have already gone back to sleep. At 7:15 my father made another round through his children’s rooms and woke each of them in the way that particular child wanted. With one, he had to enter the room several times and stroke the child’s cheek. With the other, all he had to do was open the door and the child would call out, “I’m already awake, Papa.” In the hour he had before getting his children ready, he’d warmed up the milk and made sandwiches for school. And always, always, it was peaceful and harmonious. Huzur. He’d have the radio set on the station that was the children’s current favorite. A calm, even-tempered person who waited until he’d said good-bye to his children at 7:50 before dropping into bed. Perfumed with the scent of chemicals from his factory, we went to school. Father’s work stuck to our skin and hair. My aunt once said that whenever a person got near our house they were met by the smell of freshly lacquered copper wire.
My father marked time with this life. Year after year, he lived through it. We’d ask him, “Papa, is your job hard?” My father would laugh and sometimes he’d say, “Yes, my job is even harder than Chancellor Kohl’s.” Or he’d say the opposite: “My job is very easy, and I love it.” Then we’d get mad and say: “That can’t be. You have to decide. You can’t give one answer sometimes and then a different one other times!” And my father would smile with his amused, Ben Kingsley face and say: “You choose. My job is exactly what you want it to be.” His answer always left us unsatisfied. Sometimes we’d tell him that we’d been asked what his profession was, and my father would say: “Tell them your papa is a factory worker.” We weren’t happy with this answer: “Papa, working is an activity—not a profession!” “Well,” he countered, “then say that I don’t have a profession—I just work.” “But as what?” we yelled back, angry and out of patience. “WHAT do you DO?” “The worker does his work,” he’d say, and then, “End of discussion.” And when my father said “end of discussion,” it really was finished. He wouldn’t say another word on the subject.
One day we caught our father filling out some form or other and writing “Machine Operator” in the box marked “Occupation.” A sibling said: “Wow, Papa, that sounds cool! Can we say that too—’Machine Operator’? “ “Yes, of course,” said my father. The sibling dared to take it a step further: “So is it ‘Machine Operator’ or ‘Engineer for Machine Operation’?” My father answered tersely: “No. No engineer. I’m a worker. I take it back—I won’t allow you to say ‘Machine Operator.’ End of discussion!” But the sibling was evidently ashamed to tell his class the truth about his father’s lowly occupation. The teacher called and said: “Herr Kiyak, today in school your child said, ‘My father is the director of a factory.'” At the lunch table, our parents doubled over with laughter when my father told us about his phone call with the teacher. Only we children couldn’t laugh. How humiliating! The story would most likely get around. When the meal was finished, my father took his adolescent child in his arms and said: “You have to be proud and always hold your head up high and say loud and clear, ‘My father is a worker.'” Caressing the child, he continued: “Now, do you promise you won’t be ashamed of me anymore?” The child promised to try. “I’ll do my best, Papa,” the child said, and cried.
One day, out of the blue and in the middle of the week, my uncle on my mother’s side and his wife came to our house. They stayed on the stairwell landing, peering up, while we all stood waiting in the doorway, curious. My father said: “What a surprise! I hope you bring good tidings!”
My uncle, who had driven two hours to deliver the message in person, looked at him sadly and said, “We bring good tidings.” Which was nonsense, of course, because they were bringing my father the saddest of all possible news. My father, trembling, already knew what was coming and started to cry even before my uncle spoke. My father hung limp in my uncle’s arms, wailing in his quiet, hoarse voice, and we all cried with him because it hurt us to see him in such pain. His face wore the expression of a sheep in its minute of death, when it realizes it is about to be slaughtered. So great was the panic in his eyes. My mother told the youngest child to go to him: “It’s all right, just walk up to Father and touch him.” But the youngest child was afraid of the way Father was acting, so we gave the child a push and, hesitantly, he went and put his hand on Father’s sweater, and slowly, Father came out of his shock. The child asked, “Why are you crying?” My father straightened up and, clutching his abdomen , took a deep breath and whimpered: “Because my papa he’s dead, child. Do you understand? I had a papa too.”
“Because my papa he’s dead,” my father had said in German. We watched how our father dealt with the death of his father. For weeks he lived in desperation. He’d be crying, then try to collect himself only to be overwhelmed by the next sob. His warm hands would clasp our necks and we’d be pulled to him. Sometimes two children at once. We felt very sorry for him but knew we couldn’t comfort him because he couldn’t be comforted. In those weeks of mourning, the television and the radio remained silent. Again and again, my father tried and failed to get a call through to my grandfather’s village. Since he’d used up all his leave, he couldn’t go to Turkey. But they’d already washed and buried my grandfather anyway, the same day he died. They could have waited two days at most, but my father was in no condition to organize anything. So finally he just sat in his armchair and stared ahead, lost in thought. After forty days, as is our tradition, we turned the radio back on, with the volume low. The mourners have to be brought back into the land of the living. Before there was radio, songs were sung and stories were told. Life began again.
That same year, I traveled with my father to the village where my grandfather was buried. It was spring and the villagers let my father and my cousins and me walk up the hill first. We children and adolescents held my father’s hands and walked with him. My cousin Melek kept describing the same moment: “Believe me, Uncle, he was never alone, not for a second. We stayed with him till the end. His sons and daughters were all with him. In the last days he wanted to be moved from the soft mattress to the hard clay bench in the entryway, where it was cooler. We carried him there and he wanted to drink ayran. We watered down the yogurt and he drank it and said thank you. Then he said: ‘Remember me to my two sons in Germany. In my heart I am with them.’” I couldn’t tell whether my father was listening. We walked through the mulberry grove and could see even from a distance the mound of fresh earth which was higher than all the others because the sheep hadn’t yet trampled it down. At some point my father shook off all the children’s hands, though five-year-old Memo, who we called Monkey, kept grabbing for his hand until we pulled him away from my father. We let my father walk ahead. He walked like an old man and, yes, of course he was crying, and slowly he climbed up the hill with the three trees, and we walked, also crying, naturally, behind him. He went to his father’s grave, knelt down, and pressed his face against the mound of earth. Then he rubbed the sandy earth between the fingers of one hand, while the other he drew repeatedly across his chest. I watched what was happening and was very shaken. I thought we’d already experienced the worst moments of Father’s mourning. When I turned around, I saw that my uncle, the terrible Ismo, and his wife, Naciye, and several other villagers were slowly following us. A troop of sad people who came to accompany poor Hasan, who had gone off to peddle his labor in the gurbet, a foreign, faraway land, and therefore could not be with his father as he was dying. Later, one of the grownups said: “They think it’s worth going abroad to work until they lie on the graves of their fathers and regret it.” But first the group approached the grave mound very slowly, and one of them laid a hand on my father’s shoulder and said gently: “You have to pull yourself together. How do you expect to teach the children that death is a part of life?”
And I remember something else. It was one of us children that finally broke the spell mourning had cast by asking, “Papa, what do you inherit?” My father looked puzzled. He answered, “I inherit the past.” “And what else?” the child persisted, “no gold watch?” “Oh yes, I also inherit a gold watch.” “So where is the watch?” “It’s here,” said my father, rapping himself on the chest. “But how can you tell the time?” asked the child, and running to the clock radio, indicated the numbers and asked: “Papa, what time is it? What does your gold watch say?” Father answered: “The watch inside has no numbers, it has only memories.” Sometimes my father can be poetic without meaning to be. The hands of the heart-watch have ticked past another memory. I know all too well what my father’s financial situation is. I’m afraid that’s all I’ll be inheriting too: a gold watch.
Excerpt from Herr Kiyak dachte, jetzt fängt der schöne Teil des Lebens an by Mely Kiyak. By arrangement with S.Fischer Verlag. Translation © 2014 by Rebecca Heier. All rights reserved.