About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Flavour of Words: What Happens When a Man Emigrates from His Language

    Persian Shop in Tel Aviv. Photo: Gundula Tegtmeyer Words stir up associations, feelings, they have a flavour. If one loses one’s mother tongue and writes in another this becomes especially clear, because the words are no longer a given.

    Every word, whether in the new or in the old language, is also the bearer of a story. The speaker, however, feels like a blind man wandering between two rivers. ‘Ab’, the Persian word for water. Today, after a forty-year absence from the Persian-speaking world, I would write it with two ‘a’s: ‘aab’. In Iran you often have to wait a long time for water, and the two a’s would reflect the level of expectation of the thirsty person. For language is always the language of the thirsty, if it does not want to become folklore. The German word for ‘thirst’ – ‘Durst’ – still has no foretaste for me, no consequences; in my Germany it rains too frequently for that. Right up until the mid-1960s it was not unusual for a stranger to knock on the door and ask for water. No one would have denied the stranger this request, out of respect for their own religious feelings. He received the water, usually in a blue bowl, which he, in turn out of respect for its contents, held with both hands and guided to his lips, after recalling aloud the Shiite martyrs. After all, these holy martyrs nearly died of thirst in the desert of Karbala, before they were slaughtered by the apostates.

    Water tap and blue bowl

    To this day I associate the word ‘aab’ with that blue bowl far more than with the water tap that stood, bare and lonely, in the midst of the interior courtyards, at the end of a pipe lay across the ground. The German word water, on the other hand, awakens in me the image of a rust-proof mixer tap from which water can be obtained at any time, as if this is a matter of course.

    ‘Nan’, the Persian word for bread, has even today – in the age of digitalisation – not lost its archaic, mystical value. Farmers in impoverished regions still speak of bread when they mean the evening meal. In the time of my childhood it was the Iranian flatbread that was meant: grilled, thin, and about 80 centimetres long. The child bought the bread and carried it home, like an exercise book in his hand. The grandmother always ordered one bread more than required. When the child returned from the baker’s he had to – as he was brought up to do – offer bread to every neighbour and acquaintance. It would be very rude to reject this offering. The neighbour stood still, tore off a corner of the bread, put it in his mouth, bowed his head and walked on. The grandmother swore by the bread, by the eaten bread. In the morning, when the child had to go to school, the grandmother would fetch the bread from yesterday, dry now, sprinkle it with water until it softened again, spread it with sheep’s cheese and roll it together; the child put it in his school bag next to the school books and exercise books. Nowadays in his German exile the child only buys Swedish crisp bread, anyway. You don’t have to dry this. It is always ready for use, like many things in the north, and entirely stripped of magic.

    Wolfgang. In Berlin, a few years ago, I was sitting with some Iranian friends. A Greek friend was also with us and his cousin, Nancy, who had just started learning German. A German friend arrived and was introduced to us both, to Nancy and me. When he held out his hand to the young Greek woman and said his name, she could only stammer: ‘Wolfgang, mustang, dinging’. Wolfgang, exit, entrance. The loud laughter of those present distracted her still further. This onomatopoeic distraction would no longer have happened to me. For me, Wolfgang is now just a name, and has no affinity with ‘dinging’ or ‘mustang’. Am I no longer able to see such things with the proverbial eyes of a stranger?

    ‘to remain / you need here / two lungs / for one breath, / one rootstock / for two clods of earth, / two shadows / for one sun, / one kiss for two hands.’

    The tempo of language

    I have been confronted with the German language for years now. Ever since that grey day at Frankfurt airport in November 1965 the tempo of the German language has been present to me in the hurried steps of passers-by. It took me many years, though, to understand that the tempo of this language is significantly slower than that of my language. Even today I have not entirely comprehended this change of tempo – not really, not physically – and speak German too quickly, which for this language is the equivalent of a rape. Since 1975, since I have been writing my poems in German, I feel like a guest and a prisoner of this language. A guest because this language took me in, as hospitably as it was able. A prisoner because it gave me the possibility of expressing myself: which is to say, to seek my freedom. Since then I am unable to leave the territory of the German language without leaving myself. An imprisonment that will – hopefully – last until the end of my life. Like every prisoner, from time to time I too peer through the bars of grammar at that realm without rules – the mother tongue. And this imprisonment too changes one’s point of view and broadens it at the same time. Nonetheless, the prisoner does not lose his own world, his old one; he preserves it, and in doing so he becomes a composite of two worlds, a citizen of the world with no window of his own: ‘a blind man, / two rivers. / no man grows old / in no man’s land; / here you only die. / the harried language of the exiled / knows no room / for proportions.’

    Almost compulsively the prisoner draws comparisons between the two languages – and in such moments he hates himself. The separable verbs – which do not exist in Persian – compel the listener to wait for the end of the sentence in order to understand its meaning. Is this the origin of the proverbial politeness for which Germans are renowned outside their country? An Iranian will immediately butt in; will frequently interrupt his interlocutor, for Persian grammar decrees that the verb should always come second in a sentence, immediately after the noun. Or does the behaviour of the Iranian listener have more to do with democratic customs, which for political reasons have never flourished very long in Iran? I, at least, often catch myself thinking differently in Persian than in German. Dialogical thinking in German contrasts with monological musings in Persian. The logic of the German language versus the mysticism of Persian?

    In school we learned, under threat of corporal punishment, never to use the word I, but only ever we: pluralis modestiae. The German I, however, comes blustering along and fills the room. The German I seldom uses the familiar du form of address, and if he does, he does so according to precise rules. These rules are not only indicators of social conventions; they often also betray the arrogance that seeks to conceal itself behind them. Persian tends more towards the familiar form of address and even allows for a form that is somewhere between the familiar and the formal, one that the grammar will just about tolerate, and which is widespread in society. At the same time Persian permits a form that addresses the interlocutor in the third person singular, a form that disappeared in German around the time of the enlightenment. Should one at this point jump to the frequent conclusion that the country and the language I still refer to as mine have not undergone enlightenment? Is this supposed deficit of enlightenment not counterbalanced by Iranian mysticism? That movement which, taking Islam as its starting point, seeks the personal path to god and to his beauty?

    The verbal boundary of reason

    After I started writing my poems in German my fellow countrymen came to me and asked why I was writing my poems in this ‘ugly’ language and not in our beautiful mother tongue? I would put on a record, poems by Rilke and moiré, with the voice of the unforgettable Oskar Werner. Even if my guests didn’t know a word of German they were electrified by the force of this language. But where does this blind love of the mother tongue come from? How can someone who knows no other language claim that his mother tongue is beautiful? In a foreign language you can catch up on everything, except for childhood, the sounds of childhood, which offer a sense of security. A sense of security that will be decisive in later years – also and especially linguistically; for the verbal boundary of reason is quickly reached in a foreign language. Today, still, when I am wakened abruptly, the first word that escapes my mouth is in Persian. Just as Persian is, for me, the language of whispers, still, even if my lover is German and doesn’t know a word of Persian. This too is a concession to childhood and the mother tongue that was whispered to me.

    Persian saunters about, needs more time and space. German takes aim with the verb straight at the target. An Iranian ‘carries hunger’, in times of need; a German ‘hungers’. Persian is coy and often beats about the bush: ‘sardchane’, which is actually just ‘the cold room’, for the direct, perhaps too direct German word ‘Leichenhaus’ – a ‘corpse house’, a mortuary.

    Today it is still the case that Persian leaps about with me more freely, more wildly. German demands a certain order, even discipline, also from its guests; for right from the first sentence I have to take the grammar into consideration – not when I speak Persian. Persian seizes me in its grasp; I grasp at German. Each of these languages exerts its compulsion over me. German commands me to be precise and focussed, as if it were permanently short of time. Persian allows me time on its roads, to capture images and reproduce them, even if they would not have passed the test of absolute necessity. Each gives me a different realm of freedom: German the verbal realm of action, Persian the extended realm of slang, of idiom, for the difference between the Persian of the stage and the Persian of the street is a hundred times greater than in German.

    In every language one returns home or one moves away – away from home. One day I would like to return home in Persian. Until then, however, I move away, in German. But towards what is my guest language, carrying me towards a freedom, sketched by it and by me that is independent of a country. This movement and its goal are my only possessions in the German language; and these I will defend tooth and nail, despite grammatical and phonetic obstacles.
    born in Tehran in 1947, has lived in Munich since 1965 and writes in German. From 2000 to 2002 he was the president of the German PEN centre. His most recent publication is the collection of short stories Der Engel und die Taube [The Angel and the Dove], C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2008

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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