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  • Aras Ören’s What Does Niyazi Want in Naunyn Street. A Partial Translation with a Translator’s Introduction
  • Yasemin Yildiz

How do you tell a story that has not been told before and for which there is no clear blueprint? The story of postwar labor migration to West Germany was supposed to be one of arrival, temporary stay, and departure, with an impact on the country’s economy but none on its society or culture. Yet, in the very year in which the recruitment of “guest workers” was officially stopped—that is, when even the story of “arrival” was supposed to end— Aras Ören published a book that told of staying and settling as a new condition, one marked by both distance and connection, conflict and utopian solidarity. Was will Niyazi in der Naunynstraße (1973) became Ören’s literary breakthrough as well as the very first Turkish-German literary text to reach a wider audience in Germany.1 This book-length epic poem received so much interest because, at a time when the trope of the mute guest worker was already taking shape, it turned labor migrants from ciphers into subjects with varied desires and motivations worth probing. Ören’s poem, however, went well beyond giving voice to guest workers—a significant move in itself, to be sure—and instead offered contemporary German literature an entirely new model for retelling place, history, memory, and language altered by migration, both for migrants and non-migrants alike.

In its generic form, Was will Niyazi takes inspiration from the great modernist Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet’s “epic novel in verse,” Memleketimden İnsan Manzaraları (Human Landscapes from My Country)—itself in turn inspired by Russian literature—but it trains its eye on the local scale rather than the national. Written in free verse, Was will Niyazi depicts the then-present-day inhabitants of Naunyn Street in the West Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg, located in close proximity to the wall. Although his name appears in the title, Turkish guest worker Niyazi Gümüşkiliç is only one figure among many whom the poem follows in their day-to-day life as it sketches the neighbors’ visible and invisible connections to each other. From the pensive German widow Frau Kutzer to the entrepreneurial Turkish male guest worker [End Page 659] Ali, from the troubled German working-class man Klaus Feck to the Turkish female guest worker Halime, who is a single mother, the text moves across nationalities and genders to give a multiperspectival view of the evolving neighborhood. Treating neither Turkish nor German residents as homogeneous, the poem uses them instead to delve into a variety of histories, memories, experiences, dreams, and hopes. In this manner, it provides both a diversified perspective on working-class lives as well as an account of settlement in process. This interest in heterogeneous perspectives manifests itself on a formal level: moving repeatedly between omniscient narration, direct address to the reader, distinct focalizations, and internal monologues, the poem is animated by frequent narrative shifts.

Despite its clear political investment in working-class life and its critique of inequality under capitalism, Was will Niyazi does not venture into the workplace but rather stays in the neighborhood.2 For example, in its opening the poem introduces Niyazi as he heads to work, but as soon as he departs the street shifts its focus to Frau Kutzer in her apartment. This anchoring in a particular residential street constitutes one of Ören’s key innovations. It underscores the poem’s preoccupation with settlement and highlights the local as the crucial arena for experiencing and understanding it. Even as the poem does not venture much past Naunyn Street in the present, however, it is filled with historical and cultural references to broader Berlin history and topography, which arrive via its inhabitants’ reminiscences and reflections. Was will Niyazi features both well-known institutions such as the Hotel Adlon and the Café Bauer and characteristic elements of the city’s urban landscape such as the infamous courtyards of run-down tenement buildings and the familiar sight of iron water pumps set into sidewalks; it refers to major industry like Borsig and Preussag as well as to...


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pp. 659-674
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