The German-Turkish Author Ismet Elci

A Subway across the Kurdish Steppes

Fleeing eastern Turkey, living as a foreigner and asylum seeker in a strange land … for award-winning author Ismet Elci, this is more than just the stuff of which novels are made; it is also his own personal experience. Volker Kaminski spoke to the author in Berlin

Author Ismet Elci (photo: private)
"Writing was like therapy for me," says Elci. "It was me who told myself to write down my family's experiences"

​​Ismet Elci is an angry man. He criticises the situation for migrants in Germany, as he feels the state doesn't do enough for them. He is enraged at certain politicians currently misusing the subject of violence among young people of non-German origin for electioneering purposes. Which makes the light, at times almost arch tone underlying his latest short story collection, "Der rosarote Fahrstuhl" (The Pink Elevator), all the more surprising.

Elci is a talented narrator, telling gripping stories of optimists whose hearts are in the right place, who never give up, even in the most worrying of situations.

A new existence in Germany

Elci was born in East Anatolia/Turkey in 1964, and came to Berlin with his father at the age of 16. The situation in the East of Turkey deteriorated into near civil war during the late 1970s, robbing his father of his livelihood. He had to feed a family with 17 children under one roof.

But while his father managed to build a new existence in Germany, young Ismet had difficulties. He argued with his father, a strict Muslim, moved out, worked in a factory and learned German at night school. It was during this difficult period that he started writing.

"Writing was like therapy for me," says Elci. "It was me who told myself to write down my family's experiences. It took two or three years before I got it right for the first time."

The story of his own family and father

He was inspired by the films of the Kurdish director Yilmaz Güney, above all "Sürü/The Herd" from 1977, which made a lasting impression on the young writer. Elci recognised his own father's story, and started to write down his eventful life story.

His novel "Sinan ohne Land" (Sinan with no Land) was made into a three-part television mini-series (ZDF, 1989). At that time, Elci was also working as a film and stage actor, but carried on writing and publishing, mainly stories about his family. He has now published a total of six books, and has directed several films for which he also wrote the screenplays.

But Elci only mentions all these achievements in passing during the interview. He doesn't seem at all like a typical high-flyer, talking about new plans and already eyeing his next project. He says it's more important for him to spend time with his family nowadays, his wife and children. Elci doesn't even mention the prizes his writing has won – including the ARD film award "Civis" in 1989 and the "Adelbert von Chamisso Promotional Award" in 1993.

The political impedes upon the private

​​Yet despite his past successes, Elci seems like a man who bears the weight of the world's many problems on his shoulders. He keeps coming back to his worries about the political situation during the interview. He is particularly concerned about the oppression of the Kurds in Turkey, but his experiences as a foreigner in German society are another cross to bear.

The starkly poignant subjects his novels and short stories deal with – difficult migrant lives, flight from East Anatolia, awaiting asylum in a strange world, political feuds between Turks and Kurds – are not just literary material for him. Elci really feels for people in these dramatic situations, and that shines through in his writing.

Yet his stories come across as anything but accusatory or melancholy. Elci explains his attitude is "always think positive, even in times of catastrophe." And he learned to think like that in Germany, he says. His texts orbit around social deprivation, difficult problems to be solved by his heroes, and the narrator shows the ways out of sheer hopeless situations, without ever glossing over the facts.

Surreal and utopian elements

In the story "Stille Rose" (Silent Rose), the protagonist Ömer can't afford an urgent operation for his deaf wife. But he sets out on a break-neck journey to Germany to earn the money for her treatment. "Die Sonne wartet" (The Sun is Waiting) tells the story of a young law student arrested in Turkey over a petty offence, who starts a new career as a resourceful kebab seller in Berlin.

Occasionally, Elci's texts break out of reality, touching upon the surreal and utopian. In the story "U-Bahnhof Rihan" (Rihan Subway Station), the narrator's five-year-old daughter wishes for a subway line to shorten the long journey over land. The underground line really is built, defying all the bureaucratic hurdles, and people can travel to and fro far beneath the Kurdish steppes.

One wishes that Elci might find that same lightness of being in his own life, and above all that he never gives up his calling as a storyteller.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2008

Ismet Elci, "Der rosarote Fahrstuhl", Schiler-Verlag Berlin, 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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