Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible
A new life began with the communist hostel warden. Before he came, there had only been women in the hossel. The women searched for their mothers, their sisters or their stepmothers in the other women, and like sheep who on a rainy night were afraid of thunder and lightning, they came too close to one another and sometimes squeezed one another until they couldn’t breathe. Now we had a shepherd, who could sing. He gave us books and said: ‘Here, I’m giving you my best friend.’ One of his best friends was Chekhov. So he was not the only man we had. Other men came into our hossel with him: Dostoevsky, Gorky, Jack London, Tolstoy, Joyce, Sartre and one woman, Rosa Luxemburg. I didn’t know any of them before. Some women fetched books from him, which perhaps they didn’t read, but they loved these books as a child loves foreign stamps, they loved to have these books in their bags when they got on the bus to the radio valve factory.
When our communist hostel warden spoke to a woman, he always began his sentences with the word ‘Sugar’. When he spoke to several women at once, he said ‘Sugars’. ‘Sugars, go and sit down, I’ll be with you in a moment’, ‘Sugar, here’s a letter for you’. The women who loved him also began to address each other as ‘Sugar’ and ‘Sugars’. And so slowly the hossel divided into the women who said ‘Sugar’ and the women who didn’t say ‘Sugar’. When the women in the kitchen were cooking with the pots and pans, the pots and pans were also divided between the women who addressed one another as ‘Sugar’ and those who didn’t address one another as ‘Sugar’. After they’d ﬁnished cooking, those who said ‘Sugar’ to one another gave the pots to the women who also said ‘Sugar’ to them, and those who didn’t say ‘Sugar’ gave the pots to those who didn’t say ‘Sugar’. The women who said ‘Sugar’ found the evening. After the factory work they didn’t immediately go into the night any more. So the hossel divided once more into the women who had their evenings and the women who immediately leapt over the evening into the night. When these women went to bed, the audience was slowly making its way into the Hebbel Theatre, which was opposite our hossel. The others began to draw out their evenings. They bought records, and so Beethoven’s 9th Symphony came into the hossel and a hit song: ‘Junge, komm bald wieder’ – ‘Boy, come back soon’. In the hossel lounge the TV was on in the background, and they listened back to back without a break to the Beethoven and ‘Boy, come back soon’, as if, were they to remain without these sounds and voices for one second, the evening would disappear from their hands again. It was so loud that sometimes even our communist hostel warden shouted: ‘Donkeys, lie down! Donkeys, go to sleep!’ The women who didn’t say ‘Sugar’ did, however, use his new word ‘Donkey’ and now shouted from their rooms to the hossel salon: ‘Donkeys, lie down!’ We three girls also belonged to the donkeys. Even the morning bus, which took us to the factory, divided into two groups of women. The women who didn’t say ‘Sugar’ but ‘Donkeys, lie down!’ now sat down as a group at the front of the bus, and those who said ‘Sugar’ and were donkeys sat at the back of the bus. In the factory, however, everyone sat at their old place. Those who drew out their evenings and so stole something from the night often went to the toilet in the factory, the lens in front of their right eye. Behind the lens our right eye now looked even sleepier than our left. In the toilet room we went on buying cigarettes for ten pfennigs from the German women workers and went to the toilet with the cigarette. When we went to the toilet, we often forgot to take our lenses out of our right eye, so our cigarettes, which we smoked in the toilet, looked much bigger. We smoked inside and nodded off a little. However, Frau Missel, the forewoman, came and fetched us out of the toilet. So slowly, even in the factory, the women divided into those who slept in the toilet and those who didn’t sleep in the toilet.
At some point Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and ‘Boy, come back soon’ were no longer enough to draw out the evenings. The women who were donkeys now went out of the hossel. From that day on, the automatic light in the hallway of the house constantly went on and off and the hossel door opened and shut with a loud creak. We three youngest girls of the women’s hossel walked along the streets of Berlin to Zoo Station, to Aschinger, and there we had pea soup and no longer the horse meatballs from our snack bar next to the offended station. But we went on talking loudly when we passed our telephone box next to our offended railway station, so that our parents in Turkey could hear us. On some evenings, when we three girls came back late to our hossel room from Zoo-Aschinger and in the night filed our nails with a file, another woman, who was already in bed, threw her pillow at us and shouted at us: ‘You’ll end up whores!’ I went on practising my German sentences, which I didn’t understand, at the newspaper display case every morning, and replied to the pillow with newspaper headlines learned by heart:
THE GLOVES ARE OFF
LOOKING COSTS MORE
SOVIETS ARE ONLY ONLOOKERS
When we walked along the Berlin streets, I was astonished at how few men were to be seen on the streets, even in the evenings there were not many men to be seen. I was also astonished that the men whom I saw didn’t scratch themselves between the legs, like many Turkish men on Turkish streets. And some men carried the bags of the women they were walking beside and looked as if they were not married to these women, but to these bags.
They walked along the streets as if at that moment they were being ﬁlmed for TV. To me the streets and people were like a ﬁlm, but I didn’t have a part in this ﬁlm. I saw the people, but they didn’t see us. We were like the birds, who ﬂew somewhere and from time to time came down to earth, before ﬂying away again.
We had all come here only for a year, after a year we all wanted to go back. When we looked at ourselves in the mirror, no mother, no father, no sister walked past in the room behind us. In the mirror our mouths no
longer talked to a mother or sister. We no longer heard their voices, the whispering of their clothes, their laughter in front of the mirror, so we saw ourselves every day in the mirror as lonely people.
Once we had understood in the mirror that we were alone, everything was easier. So we three girls went to the Wienerwald restaurant on Ku’damm and ate half-chicken. Then I saw Christ. To warm up, we had gone into a church, and there for the ﬁrst time I saw Christ on the cross. In Istanbul, too, Christ was one of our prophets. I loved him as a child, but I had heard nothing of the cross, my grandmother had told me that as a baby Christ ﬂoated alone in a basket on a river. I also loved his mother Meryem. In the factory we went on smoking Stuyvesant in the toilet and falling asleep there, the forewoman, Frau Missel, fetched us out again, the faulty radio valves landed in the bin. When there were too many radio valves in the bin, we bought perfume, soap and creams from the men who came with suitcases during the factory breaks. We also signed documents, without knowing that these were encyclopedia subscriptions, the money was deducted from our monthly wage. We thought that the forewoman, Frau Missel, would be less angry because of the broken radio valves if we bought the things.
One day we three girls went into a pub for the ﬁrst time. It was snowing outside. Men were standing at the bar. The men asked in English: ‘Where are you from?’ Rezzan and I could speak some English, and Rezzan replied: ‘From the North Pole, we are Eskimos, our sledges are outside.’ When the other women came back to the hossel at night, they also brought back new addresses from Berlin with them: KaDeWe, Café Keese, Café Kranzler. So we three girls went to Café Keese. Telephone dance. There were telephones on the tables, one could invite men to dance. We sat down at two tables and phoned each other. ‘Hello, Mother, I’m your daughter, how are you?’ – ‘Oh, my child, how are you? What have you been eating?’ – ‘Meatballs, mother.’ Then a German man called us. ‘Dance?’ We replied with what we had learned from our communist hostel warden in the German lessons: ‘Remember me to my father.’ The next morning the women who had found their evenings and gone out of the hossel were told by the other women: ‘You are whores and go to other factory hossels, where Turkish men live, you spread the semen of these men on your bread and eat it.’ So once again the women’s hossel divided into the women who spread Turkish men’s semen on their bread and ate it, and the women who spread margarine on their bread and ate it.
But we didn’t know any Turkish men yet. We knew only our communist hostel warden. Soon, however, some women got to know quite a different side of Turkish men. The women came from the night shift, the men stood at the bus stop at night and struck the most beautiful woman in the face. It was dark, none of the women saw the men properly, they only heard their voices: ‘Whores, what are you doing here in the night?’ After that the communist hostel warden went to the bus stop every night and met the women who were coming from the night shift.
Then a man came into the hossel after all. One night outside the hossel door we found a man lying on the ground in the snow. His trouser buttons were undone, and he wasn’t wearing any underpants. He had peed himself. Upstairs the whole women’s hossel was asleep, and we three girls tried to help the man to his feet. He did stand up, but went to the middle of the road and sat down in the snow again. We thought the cars would run him over. So we brought the man into the hossel lounge, laid him on a couch and went to sleep. In the morning the man was still lying on the couch, asleep, smiling in his sleep, and a stiff penis stuck out of his trousers when the women switched on the light. ‘The three girls are rabid,’ said the women to one another, ‘we will go to factory boss Herschering.’ The Dove, the wife of our communist hostel warden, was supposed to translate their sentences for Schering. The communist hostel warden listened to them, then he spoke to the women who wanted to go to Herschering. For the ﬁrst time he began his sentences not with ‘Sugar’ or ‘Sugars’, but said: ‘Children.’ This word silenced the women. The communist hostel warden gathered us all in the hossel lounge, addressed some women now as ‘Children’, others as ‘Sugar’ or ‘Sugars’ and redistributed the women in the rooms. Now the children lived with children, sugars with sugars, donkeys with donkeys, whores with whores.
From The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar
Translated from the German by Martin Chalmers (Serpent’s Tail 2007)
Emine Sevgi Özdamar was born in Turkey and attended drama school in Istanbul. She has appeared in major theatrical productions in Germany and at Vienna, Avignon and Paris, as well as in films. She has directed and written plays and her other books include the novel Life is a Caravanserai. She lives in Berlin.
Martin Chalmers grew up in Glasgow and now lives in Berlin. He has translated many leading German-language authors into English, including Bertolt Brecht, Erich Fried, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Alexander Kluge, Hubert Fichte, and Elfriede Jelinek. In 2004 he was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize for The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945-59.