From Istanbul to Berlin: Stations on the Road to a Transcultural/translational Literature

By Seyhan, Azade | German Politics and Society, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

From Istanbul to Berlin: Stations on the Road to a Transcultural/translational Literature


Seyhan, Azade, German Politics and Society


   kimi insan otlarin kimi insan baliklarin cesidini bilir
                                            ben ayriliklarin
   kimi insan ezbere sayar yildizlarin adini
                                            ben hasretlerin....
   (some know the varieties of grass, others those of fish/I know those
      of separation
   some know the names of stars by heart/I those of longings).
   From Nazim Hikmet's Otobiografi (Autobiography), written on 11
      September 1961 in East Berlin
   In der Wuste meines Herzens und meiner Gedanken--im
   Exil
   warte ich noch.
   (In the desert of my heart and my thoughts
   in exile
   I still wait).
   From Aras Oren's Privatexil (Private Exile), Berlin, 1977

Belying its humble beginnings as a forgettable medieval town of merchants, today's Berlin is a repeat capital city and a stunning metropolis, where individuals and groups of myriad cultural, ethnic, and national origins search for identifiers of their various pasts. One of the most critically analyzed, aestheticized, reinterpreted, and contested urban landscapes, Berlin has become a colossal screen, where so many of its transient, temporary, long-term, and permanent residents project the fears, desires, and memories they carry around on the real streets. It is by now a truism that the concept of the city, where crucial social changes, global drifts, and exploitation of human labor are spatially concentrated and emancipatory visions are ubiquitously inscribed upon the landscape, is a defining category of modernism. The narrated city is not composed of concrete and steel, nor is it viewed through rain or shine; rather it is constituted in moments of time and history that have already departed. One of the most narrated and photographed cities of modern times, Berlin emerges, in its cultural and literary representations, as a phantom, a ghost whose corporeal absence becomes the presence of the past. In his much acclaimed Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, Brian Ladd calls Berlin "a haunted city." Most Berliners, he believes, would like to forget the ghosts of Berlin's past, whose lives ended in violence and destruction. But they constantly have to justify their desire to forget to their fellow citizens who are adamant about remembering. "The calls for remembrance--and the calls for silence and forgetting," Ladd notes, "make all silence and all forgetting impossible, and they also make remembrance difficult." (1) Ghosts of Berlin reflects on the many responses to sites, buildings, ruins, and empty spaces that serve as archives of Berlin memories. It is an extended meditation on the complex intertwining of history, memory, architecture, and apparitions of national identity that implicitly and explicitly perform an ongoing discourse of the city that has become an endless source of fascination and contemplation for writers and artists.

For the many displaced and transplanted contemporary writers living in diasporas of the Western world, a metropolis such as Berlin often becomes a desired object of affiliation, for it represents a territory to which no essentialist national interest can lay claim. Those who have left their homelands for reasons of political persecution, ethnic exclusion, or economic hardship are often involved in a troubled relationship with both their home and host countries. The homeland may represent a traumatic past that the exile wishes to leave behind, but the host country robs that essential solace of being at home, of belonging to and participating in a community of common culture. Many writers in exile, by their own account, have found a new home in language and writing, even though they acknowledge the need to reflect on the constructed and imagined nature of these homes. In Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie observes that many expatriate writers write to reclaim some unforgettable loss but need to be aware that geographical and historical distances prevent a full recovery and can only "create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.

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