Books The bus that helped me discover the world

Book Bus BUMPER, Moscow Hatice Akyün
The interior of a Book Bus | Photo (detail): ©
Photo (detail): © André Rival

Nothing has made a bigger difference in writer Hatice Akyün’s life than the Duisburg Book Bus. Now she has met its inventor. By Hatice Akyün

The summer of 1978 marks the first time I climb onto the bus that visits the mining settlement of Duisburg-Marxloh once a week. The bus stops near our house, stays for exactly one hour and leaves again. I get off the bus before it starts rolling. For this is not a normal bus. It’s a book bus. My book bus.

I learned my German in the streets of Marxloh. I don’t remember how, just that my father kept saying: “Go outside, play with the German children.” He said it in Turkish; we didn’t speak anything else at home. The first German word I remember is “brat”. I was pinching gooseberries from our neighbour Anni’s garden, and she saw me and called from the window: “You brat!” I had no idea what it meant.

I am nine years old when I climb on board the book bus for the first time. My German is good, as opposed to my parents’, who can’t even properly read and write in Turkish. Until then, all I’ve known are textbooks; I’ve never held a real book with stories in my hands. At home, there’s only the Quran on a small wooden shelf, next to a tear-off calendar with the prayer times.

Am I this small or is the bus this big? Three steps lead into its interior. Inside, a woman stands at a table. “By all means, come in,” she says, “the children’s books are back there.” I can’t think of a reply straight away. I stop in front of a bookshelf, tilt my head to the side and read the spines. What am I looking for, anyway? I pull out Grimms’ Fairytales, open the book, turn the pages and whisper to myself: “Once upon a time.” Then I put the book back onto the shelf.

“You can take it home,” the woman calls from the other end of the bus. She’s obviously been watching me. She’s wearing a light blue dress. Not as short as my German friends’ mothers do. Not as long as my mother’s dresses. “You’ll have to have your parents fill this in and sign it,” she says and pushes a little card into my hand. It says “Library Card” at the top, and below are lines for name, date of birth and address. The bottom reads, “Please always bring this card with you.”
My joy about my discovery is gone. How am I supposed to get my father to sign the card? I put it in my pocket and push the doors open in disappointment. Maybe, I think, my father won’t let me read anything else than the Quran.

I do what any nine-year-old girl might have done in this situation: I take a pen, sneak into the arbour in our garden, pull the card from my pocket, write “Hatice Akyün”, my date of birth and our address on it – and sign with my father’s name. His signature isn’t hard to forge. I once saw how he connected the letters R and A, his initials, with a whorl. I keep the card under my pillow for seven days. Every evening, I check whether my mother has found it while cleaning up.
I’m at the bus stop again the following Thursday. The woman on the bus is wearing a green dress. She smiles when I hand her the little card. That day, I take as many books with me as I can carry. At home, I hide them under my bed. In the evening, I pull out my flashlight and secretly read under the covers. My first book is called Arabian Nights. It contains stories about magnificent palaces and flying carpets, beautiful princesses and brave men. I dream of Scheherazade that night. She lives in a fairytale world that doesn’t exist quite that way. I know that. And even though I don’t yet understand the story of her ploy to escape death, there is a connection there. Maybe I feel so close to her because she is like me, with her long, black hair and her brown eyes. Maybe because she wears dresses like the women in our Anatolian village. Long and colourful, made from velvet.

My German friends often tell me that my family is strange. My dad came to Germany in 1969 to work in mining. When I was three years old, he brought me, my older sister and my mother over as well. We eat differently, we speak differently, and my mother wears a headscarf. The stories in the books reassure me. There are obviously girls out there who are even stranger than I am. I delve into new worlds. Book by book, story by story. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and the St. Clare’s books, twin sisters who live at a boarding school. I don’t know what a boarding school is, much less imagine that girls my age go riding after school. I have to go to Quran study after school. Reading becomes a window into a previously unknown world for me. With every new story, with every new book I carry home from the bus, I become more familiar with German. Sometimes my classmates laugh at how I talk to them. They speak Ruhr-area German and say “opna windo” and “closa doa”. In my new world, however, windows open and doors close.

Books evoke curiosity, and this curiosity turns into knowledge. As a child, I don’t understand that yet. My parents are illiterate. They can’t read me stories. Now every story shows me ways of life that aren’t right or wrong, they’re just different. Feelings like love and friendship are described in words I didn’t know before. I wonder how it is possible that there is a German language that even my German friends don’t use.

Out there is a world that is foreign to me, a world I can approach through language. This world attracts me immensely. I’m at the bus stop every Thursday now, usually before the bus even gets there. I’m almost always the first one on. Behind me, there are other children, Turkish men and women who barely speak German, because Marxloh is an migrant neighbourhood. They often hold grey envelopes in their hands, letters from the authorities they don’t understand. The people from the bus are kind enough to translate. My parents never come because I translate their letters for them. I interpret at the doctor’s and at the department store. For the migrant workers, the bus becomes a social advisory service on wheels. The employees become interpreters and social workers, mediating wherever they can.

I’m a grown-up by the time I confess to my father that I forged his signature in order to get a library card. He laughs when I tell him.

The bus, the books, the woman in the dress. Suddenly the memories are back, even though it happened almost 40 years ago. A television appearance leads me back to the book bus. On 30 November 2015, I am a talk show guest on 3sat, a public special interest broadcaster, at 11.10pm on a Monday. Who’s going to watch at that hour?

The host is a bit too impressed with my “remarkable German”. I feel like a show pony that is being paraded around the integration arena as a shining example of model assimilation into society. On the show, I talk about the book bus, how I discovered it as a child and how it shaped my sensibility for the German language. It’s nothing new; I have told this story many times before. In interviews, in my books. But this time, I receive an e-mail afterwards.

“You mentioned your encounter with books on the Duisburg Book Bus. I was deeply touched by that, for very personal reasons. In the seventies, I was a civil servant at the Federal Ministry of Education and initiated and funded the mobile library in Duisburg as a model project. Seeing your career now, and having been able to contribute a little bit to it, fills me with great joy. It’s good to see an investment do some good every once in a while. Kind regards from Erhard Schulte, now 77 years old.”

My childhood, our mining settlement, the bus – many images pop up again immediately. Who is this man whose idea has contributed to the fact that I’m able to work as a writer today, that German feels like my mother tongue? I have to meet him, and reply.

Six weeks later, I wait at the bus stop in Duisburg where the bus will arrive any moment. It still exists. And the bus stop is only a few hundred metres from where I used to get on. The shops from back then, the two-storey miners’ houses with their neat front yards, all of that is gone, just like the miners. The only thing that hasn’t changed are the smoking chimneys, the panorama of sky and blast furnaces.

I left Duisburg in my early thirties, around the turn of the millennium. It wasn’t that I just had to get out of there, it wasn’t the monotony. It was that there weren’t enough opportunities on offer for an entire life, that Duisburg only permitted a narrowness that is suffocating once you’ve seen the whole wide world.

“Hello, Ms Akyün.” I turn around. Erhard Schulte is very tall and has a friendly face with a short, well-groomed moustache similar to my father’s. He is modestly dressed, dark cloth trousers, dark green pullover, a scarf draped loosely around his neck, the way older men like to wear them. I hug him as if we were meeting again after many years.

“Isn’t the great mosque around here somewhere?” he asks. Great and splendid, it sits in the former mining settlement like something out of Arabian Nights, as if it had fallen directly from the sky. The “Miracle of Marxloh”, people call it. A miracle, because it was built in 2008 without any demonstrations, without any charged public meetings. Schulte has never been inside and I offer to show him around. So there he stands, in his socks, in the middle of the prayer room, curious, interested, alert. Just like I did that first time on the book bus. “The mosque isn’t just a house of prayer, it’s also a meeting place,” I explain. “Like the bus was.” He smiles. I tell him that the mosque I went to as a child was housed in a run-down apartment block. That we sat in a bare room for hours that was usually cold because the coal stove was hardly ever on. That I learned the Arabic letters but still didn’t understand the Quran.

We walk back to the bus stop. Marxloh was a prosperous commercial district in the late fifties, Mr Schulte tells me. It was called “Little America” because of its many fur boutiques und jewellers. The steel and coal industry was flourishing. Many migrant workers came, first the Italians, then the Spanish, the Greeks and eventually the Turks.

Today, Marxloh is called “Wedding Mecca”. Bridal fashion and gold shops, wedding photographers and hairdressers line Weseler Straße, not far from the bus stop. They belong to the children and grandchildren of Turkish migrant workers. You might think they were unable come up with anything better than clinging to their home country’s traditions in Germany. But you’d be wrong. They offer a service right where there is demand. Turkish supermarkets, bakeries and snack bars characterise the new image of Marxloh. Only a Sparkasse bank branch interrupts the scenery. When I lived here, the supermarket’s name was Schätzlein, the butchers were called Schmieding and Dicksen, the bakeries Weicht and Gierbert. There was the Damschen Dance Hall and the Hansa-Krug. We bought our flowers at Blumen Krüger.

Finally the bus arrives. It is a converted city bus, painted white and blue like in the old days, but it seems much smaller. And there are no steps anymore because it is now barrier-free. I check in the children’s corner whether the old books are still there. I find St. Clare’s. The font in the new books is more modern, the pages are made from stronger paper, and the colour on the cover isn’t as washed out as I remember. “Now a motion picture”, the jacket says in colourful letters. My child-like excitement is long gone and has given way to disillusionment. The legend of the past, of me soaking up everything between two book covers, makes way for the realisation that reading behaviour has obviously moved with the times: While the bus and I used to set off into foreign worlds, questions arising inside me page after page and having to look for the answers myself, the new book bus also delivers any number of answers in the form of CDs, DVDs and tablets.

The book bus costs the city of Duisburg about 100,000 Euros per year. It calls in at 34 stops from Tuesday to Friday, all located near schools. About 35,000 books were borrowed last year. But how many minds were broadened, how much enthusiasm for new things was inspired, is something no statistic can tell you.

I offer to buy Mr Schulte lunch. The Turkish snack stall belongs to a former schoolmate. The shop is going well and offers a large selection, including kebab, of course. Amused, Mr Schulte watches how my language, demeanour and volume change as I order our food in Turkish. Then he shows me a photograph. He stands in the Ministry’s garden, in his early thirties, dark tie, the sleeves of a white shirt rolled up, a pipe in his hand – back then, many in the Bonn Republic smoked them, not least in order to look more respectable. Eating adana kebab and ayran, I hear the story of how he brought the book bus to Duisburg.

In the summer of 1969, he sits in his office in Bonn. He is the section assistant for Continuing Education at the Federal Ministry of Education, it’s a time of new beginnings. Comprehensive schools emerge, including the ensuing ideological debate that carries over into the present. General school for those who are going to do physical labour, secondary school for those who pay attention in class and grammar school for tomorrow’s bosses – many people believe these views to be outdated. Everywhere, universities are expanding their capacities, universities of applied sciences are established, second-chance education is intended to open the doors to a better future for children from poor backgrounds. The sky above the Ruhr isn’t blue yet, but the steel and coal crises herald the end of the classical Industrial Age. And thus the states like to reach for the federal money pots. In return, the federal government wants more influence, including with regards to educational services.

Schulte tells me he has often struggled to come to grips with his country and its past. Like the time he travelled to Spain as a youth and met a girl at the beach who told him: “I don’t want to have anything to do with Germans.” It was a bitter experience. He believes that we need to condense our knowledge of history in order for a moral consciousness to arise. “The uneducated can be seduced,” he says. In his opinion, the encounter with the foreign in one’s own country is always the first step towards tolerance.

Back then, book buses had already existed in many states for some time, though rarely outside of cities. In 1971, Schulte prevails with his “mobile library” project: a bus that rolls through German districts. For three years, it travels across Germany, bringing education to places where there isn’t much else. Then the project is due to end. Erhard Schulte receives the instruction to auction off the bus and pay the proceeds back into the federal budget. “But I had something different in mind. I wanted to send it to Marxloh.” He has never been to Marxloh, but even then, the suburb was known for the many Turkish migrant workers who lived there with their families. His colleagues at the Ministry joke that Schulte is in charge of the cumbersome. But such gibes only motivate him. And he prevails: In 1974, the ministry puts 400,000 Deutsche Mark towards the project. Three years later, the city decides to take on the expenses.

The fact that Schulte gets the bus funded at all is down to a coincidence. The responsible civil servant at the Ministry of Finance had been waiting for a taxi in Munich once, Schulte explains, when a book bus stopped next to him. People streamed onto the bus. The civil servant took that as a good sign. “Planning,” Schulte says, “often depended on such coincidences back then.”
I hope there are still many Schultes around today. In a few years’ time, when the children of those who are coming here now start speaking German and essentially have become a part of us, we will understand just how important the Schultes are for this country.

The current Duisburg bus is 19 years old and will probably fall apart soon. The cash-strapped city has finally ordered a new one. Just like I did, children will have the chance to get their hands on books in the future as well. Without the first book bus, my life might have taken a different turn. Without it, I wouldn’t have learned to immerse myself in books, to make an effort. I owe it to many coincidences that the bus suddenly stood in my street – but I mainly owe it to Erhard Schulte.