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from the November 2009 issue

The Knowledge Holder Doesn’t Choke on Cleverness

Feridun Zaimoğlu's Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft (1998) presents the fictionalized voices of twenty-six women of Turkish heritage living in Germany. "Koppstoff," which when translated literally means "head material," refers not only to the headscarf worn on the heads of many Muslim women, but also to what is going on in their heads—their thoughts, perspectives and inner lives. ındeed, the book seems to offer readers information "straight from the source." Zaimoğlu claims to have interviewed all of the women, and frames their stories with brief introductions in the style of ethnographic reportage. Yet these introductions often undermine any clear-cut notion of authenticity. ın several cases, for example, Zaimoğlu indicates that he has translated conversations or letter exchanges from Turkish into German; statements such as these highlight Zaimoğlu's role as mediator and make it unclear to what extent he has altered or shaped information to create a cohesive whole. Zaimoğlu nevertheless resists any neat categorization of Muslim women, by presenting a diverse range of voices, from domestic workers to white-collar professionals, from political activists to prostitutes. Such depictions complicate notions of a homogenous Turkish community in Germany, and undermine essentialist depictions of cultural identity.

Zaimoğlu's unique use of language is central to this project, as language is shown to both impose fixed identities as well as resist categorization. The statement of Necla Hanım, a sixty-three-year-old cleaning woman, serves as a particularly striking example. ındelibly marked by labels of class, age and ethnicity, Necla Hanım's resistance to categorization resides in her very use of the German language. She utilizes it as a tool to express exactly what she means, rather than being limited by its formal rules. This is significant, in that she works as a cleaning woman in a German high school, and is thus within a German institution, but nevertheless remains separate from this community. In her statement, she contrasts what those at the school think they know about her with what she knows to be true about them. She quite literally "has dirt on them": in cleaning up after them, she is also intimate with their dirty secrets and is familiar with their cold falsity. She sees all and says nothing; her status as a cleaning woman obscures her personal identity, rendering her invisible to those around her while she observes them from within.

While Necla Hanım's resistance to categorization must first be read on a very individual level, her statement also works in conjunction with the other twenty-five voices in Koppstoff to promote an alternative understanding of belonging, inviting the formation of a potentially more diverse, inclusive sense of community based on pride, resistance and respect.

Necla Hanım, 63, Cleaning Lady

A reading in a high school. Necla Hanım mops the floor. She wishes me good luck on my way to the reading room. A few hours later, I happen to run into her on the way out. She is just being picked up by her daughter. They invite me to their home for tea and Kurabiye. There I tell her that it would be an honor to hear from her.

Nothing to report, no finger to lift, to let water flow, the way that they flowed, and if they flow into other beds, to leave riverbed to God, who engraves waterways like lines in the dry dirt and puts tangles into our heads, so that we become false, because then our clever head cripples from so much free vision and naked vision and unveiled vision. Mouth-shut-keeping is my usual course of things, with "shutyourmouth" I was reprimanded, and I stayed out of things, I didn't help myself to anything, out of my flesh I made a grunt worker, who is good at clean-making: plunge mop into water, wring mop free of shoe dirt, lay mop around handled broom, drag mop across floors. The dirt sticks to the wet mop, akıllı oğlum, and only because a piece of rag soaked with clear water and because rag piece no thing do except to come over dirt, the apparent and the hidden, like a Scheytan.

Güzel oğlum, bunu anlaman lazım, everything that you do, you do in a sign and the sign appears to others as your very particular sign, which they bind to you and your words and your shutmouth. At the end they've got you figured out, they say about you what they see as the sign, and most of the time their dislike is the sign. Just listen to them talk about me: She's a simple woman, she's a very diligent worker, she understands a little German, you just have to speak slowly to her. All their not nice claims about me, and ı am the witness of my picture, of the picture of me, that you can display in a museum like all those wildly scribbled works of art, because after all, it's the sign of the museum, to freeze, unmoving, so that the things can't escape out of the dead air. ı understand their eyes exactly, ı know all about their figuring me out: the fat uniformed cleaning lady, who does exactly as she's told: Don't use more than two capfuls of cleaning solution in the half full water bucket; so she did understand that after all; we can't really complain about our Turk. My sign is completely frozen. Even if other German women's smocks are colorful, ı'm the flowered auntie. Güzel oğlum, bunlar ıslah olmazlar. But we say, when we're together in a nice group amongst ourselves: ı have so and so much Almanya on my back, so and so many tons of Almanya dragging me down, and ı'll never be able to lose that weight: this is the lot of everyone, what you take from the hand into your mouth, what you eat of your lot, and this lot turns your cells into listless gummy animals, into Scheytanstuff in god-created soul, that turns more and more into a filth-feeder. We eat dirt and it has never tasted good to us.

Gentle and hot-blood, dumb and ballsy, beautiful and animal, lion and lout—they are all friendly here, they are siblings and brothers- and sisters-in-law and they bellow: what to do together, but what? But when you throw them into a kettle, they are sure not going to want to cook together into a good porridge, that ı can tell you.

The accomplice pressed to the heart is an injustice, and it doesn't matter if you're a mommy or an old carcass, you can't make your horror suit him: the bourgeois-bachelor. Cigarette-butt cold, just like all these crushed out sigaras, cigarette-butt cold is how they meet each other, and you see these fake-heart greetings, and you see those with a grudge drinking their peace-beer and loudly ripping their mouths over unfunny things, and you hear that they plead with everyone and all those in their circle of friends. Then ı want to go and say: addle-headed child from a good home, don't you at least see your mirror image in the rain puddle? Who taught child's heart cruelty? How were you lured to the poison dish?

If man is granted hearing, he pauses, listens. Then it's up to him to know, and with time he knows that thunder rumbles and that a rock is a body made of much stone and that in the city there are gates to be entered or to be exited.

And still, in their eyes, I'm a village hag, the bumbling witch, who pours lead and reads strange explanations out of cold clumps. I'm nothing exciting, and the mistakes that they make are their mistakes. This is what they think: the cleaning lady, when she opens her mouth, she stinks of morality. She should really lose a few pounds, she should dress better and hang those floral prints back on the clothes rack forever. She should stop listening to her husband, even though, with increasing age, it's the man who listens more and more to his wife. I'm almost sixty—why should I powder my face or smear my lips with red? My husband likes me the way I am, and he doesn't touch any other skin but mine. What these people discard as finished is not finished. They're just assaulted by boredom, and the matter becomes stuff to be put away, and it's this putting away that betrays them. Because they always want to be considered new and untouched, yet they age and grope with feverish fingers. Güzel Oğlum, bunlar üst perdeden konuşur, ben bunların gözünde paçası düşüğün tekiyim, and the reason that I know about these hate-heaps and keep quiet, without bristling into a cat's hunched back, without standing up against it, is a good one: the knowledge-holder reads safety and the shadows of the scream from all kinds of lips and makes his mouth into a silent grotto. The knowledge-holder doesn't choke on cleverness, he thinks that the signs that get tacked onto others like medals, are actually curse and damnation. And so I too just feed on a few crumbs of knowledge and I don't want to curse and I don't want to damn. My stomach is wrinkled around my belly button like the foot of an old elephant. My tongue doesn't fit in these times. And so I put on my flowered smock and scrub the floor and still I'm not the picture and the picture of others.

From Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft, published 1998 by Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2009 by Kristin Dickinson, Priscilla Layne, and Robin Ellis. All rights reserved.

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