Less strident, more empathetic, please!

"I'm from here. Stop asking!" is the title of a recently published book in German by journalist Ferda Ataman. It contains quite a lot of appeals, summarises the latest debates on migration – and ignores the problems faced by an open society. By Canan Topcu

By Canan Topçu

Since childhood, Ferda Ataman has been frequently confronted by strangers asking her "Where do you come from?" She is now voicing an appeal to those who are "exclusively German without a migration background" to stop asking people questions about their origins.

Ataman wants her book to be understood as a contribution to the debate – not "by a migrant but by a citizen who is worried about her country. A concerned citizen, so to speak." In two sections, each divided into five chapters, she deals with German society and today's migration policy and debates. In the first part she informs readers about five alleged misunderstandings in this country of immigration.

Clarifying five misunderstandings

Ataman sees the first of these as being that immigration is only desirable if it "benefits us", and that migrants are expected to be grateful. The title of the first chapter makes it clear what she thinks of this: "Migrants don't owe Germany anything. On the contrary."

The second misunderstanding is based on the assumption that only those who are descended from Germans can be "German".  Ataman says it's time to distance ourselves from the nationalist/ethnic notion of what it means to be German.

Cover of Ferda Atamanʹs "Hoert auf zu fragen! Ich bin von hier!" (published in German by S. Fischer)
Die Journalistin Ferda Ataman ist Tochter türkischer Einwanderer, wurde in Deutschland geboren und gehört zu den selbstbewussten Nachkommen von Arbeitsmigranten; diese Generation will als Teil dieser Gesellschaft wahrgenommen werden.

A further misunderstanding she sees is that "integration" is not quite clearly defined with a single goal in mind, but is rather understood to imply some sort of obligation on the part of immigrants.

Ataman summarises the fourth misunderstanding as follows: migration is regarded as a "state of emergency" and conceived of as a problem, even though Europe has always been "a Mecca for the mobile".

The fifth misunderstanding arises from the fact that the actual cause of the problems in Germanyʹs immigration society is not being taken seriously: namely, the political shift to the right and the associated threat to democracy.

A plea for a new definition of being German

Using examples – mostly based on current events and debates – Ataman refutes what she considers to be the prevailing notions in the majority society about how migrants are supposed to behave and what is threatening Germany.

The author doesn't seem to mind that she, too, is sitting in judgement on others, over-generalising and making only the one side responsible for every problem.

"We are not interested in successful integration. We're talking above all about disintegration," she writes. Apart from the fact that it is not clear who is meant by "we", this statement is simply incorrect.

The fact that migration is not a new phenomenon is surely perfectly clear by now to all those who really want to know. That the open society needs a paradigm shift and a new "we", and that this "we" should be "without nationalist/ethnic ballast" is likewise not really new.

Much of what Ataman describes, laments, analyses and proposes sounds familiar. Particularly in recent years, a number of articles have been appeared in the media and books have been published that deal with the migration debates in a far more nuanced manner.

Empowerment for "Mihigrus" – people with a migration background

The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Ataman was born in Germany and is one of the many self-confident descendants of migrant workers, a generation that is desperate to be recognised as part of German society. Ataman made a name for herself as the columnist for Spiegel magazine who so angered the German Federal Minister of the Interior that he cancelled his participation in an integration conference.

The journalist went on to become the spokesperson for the debate, taking charge of framing the demands of "Mihigrus", the term she uses in her book to refer to people with a so-called migration background. She wants "Mihigrus" to be understood as an "affectionate" appellation.

It is not immediately obvious, on the other hand, how all the other terms she has coined are meant to be taken – such as "Exclusive German", "Standard German", "Root German", "Homoallemanen" and "Original Member of the People". And how should "Germans on Probation" and "Trial Germans" be understood?

Humour not immediately obvious

Is this wordplay meant to be witty? If so, then it is not readily recognisable as such, even though Ataman emphasises in the introduction how important it is to her that the dispute should not be conducted acrimoniously. Ataman's humour works when she speaks, but not really when written down.

Gauging from the reactions to the book so far, Ataman's cheeky tone, her demanding nature appeal above all to "Mihigrus", particularly those who are familiar with the discourse and share the author's opinions. It is precisely these readers who feel confirmed in their positions by what Ataman writes, so the book is certainly helpful in terms of empowering Mihigrus.

But will her proposals for a constructive discourse on migration reach those who do not believe in an open society? Probably not – due to the author's brash nature and demanding attitude. Who wants to be told in an insolent tone what his or her attitude should be towards migration and an open society? The book is therefore not exactly helpful in changing the minds of people opposed to immigration and those who want to see restrictive migration policies implemented.

Empathy for the perspective of "Mihigrus" is by contrast aroused by another book that came out simultaneously with Ataman's polemic: "I am Ozlem". Dilek Gungor, likewise a daughter of Turkish migrant workers, chose the literary form for pursuing the question of origins.

The author has her first-person narrator look back at her childhood and youth in her search for answers to questions that others ask her, but which above all she asks herself – including questions regarding her origins. Ozlem takes stock without accusations, without reproach. She tells of how her typecasting by others has influenced her (self-)perception, her thinking and her behaviour.

Empathy for a change in perspective

Gungor tells her story in quiet tones, giving the reader insights into the memories and thoughts of the novel's main character. And that is precisely why she manages to arouse empathy – something that is rarely spoken of in the discourse on migration. And yet, empathy is essential for a change in perspective and the ability to understand people with hybrid identities.

Gungor has written a book that speaks to everyone in this society. And Ataman? On one of the last pages of her book we read: "I am writing this polemic because I have the impression that the many decision-makers are not responding properly to the pressure from the right." A noble motive. Nevertheless, before writing, Ataman should have looked more closely at the question of whether humour, irony and exaggeration are suitable stylistic devices for a book that seeks to draw attention to the pressure from the right and to stand up to the critics of an open society.

Canan Topcu

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor