The Knowledge Holder Doesn't Choke on Cleverness

Words Without Borders has run a fascinating excerpt from a book by Turkish-German author Feridun Zaimoglu, entitled "Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft." "Koppstoff" means "head material," and can refer both to the Muslim headscarf and the thoughts that pass through one's head. The rest of the title has been translated as "The Knowledge Holder Doesn't Choke on Cleverness."

The book is the second in a series: The first contained the thoughts and feelings of 24 male Turkish narrators. This book purports to transmit the voices of 26 Turkish women living in Germany, each prefaced by an author's explanation of where this particular voice comes from--although as the introduction at WWB points out, the work's ethnographic framework cuts both ways, seeming to bolster verisimilitude but also injecting the suspicion that these voices have been crafted by the author. In any case, the work's accomplishment is that it sounds very fresh and very true.

Here's a bit of the thoughts of Necla Hanim, "a 63-year-old cleaning woman:"

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.


As you can see, the book is written in a way that mixes Turkish and fluent but ungrammatical German ("Almanya" is the Arabic--and I guess Turkish--word for Germany; "Scheytan" must mean devil). The English translators have done a great job of maintaining this very alive, very expressive language.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.