The closing words in the book Manifest der Vielen, in an essay by the journalist Hatice Akyün, are a Turkish saying. It translates as: Ask no one about their origin; they will reveal it in their stories.
But people do ask. It’s convenient; we think it helps us to understand others if we know where they’re coming from, so to speak. And perhaps it helps us to understand ourselves if we can define our own personal national identities. Certainly that’s what another journalist in the anthology recommends: Ekrem Senol is often asked where he’s from, and his answer is that he’s Turkish, even though he was born in Germany. He knows why he says it, he writes, and he can explain his reasoning if need be. “Think about your answer,” he writes, “and justify it for yourself, whichever way you decide. Your ego will thank you for it.”
So in this piece, I want to explore my own national and cultural identity – as a response to the Manifest der Vielen, if you like.
To explain more about myself than you may care to know, I come from the west London suburb of Ealing. The local council website lists places of worship for twenty-four religious denominations, from Ukrainian Orthodox to Hindu. In my class at primary school, I was the only child whose parents both came from England. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and our teachers took an open approach to all our different cultures, celebrating diversity in a way that was meant well but clearly passed down from colonial traditions – we celebrated Commonwealth Day on what used to be Empire Day, with all the children bringing in some item or other from their parents’ country of origin (except me and the Irish kids). We also celebrated the Hindu/Sikh festival of Diwali, although I suspect that was down to one particularly active mother.
Our religious education lessons taught us about all the major faiths – something I was amazed to find out doesn’t happen in Germany, where children get either Protestant or Catholic or no religious education at school. Personally, I’m an atheist in the fourth generation. I don’t believe that God exists, but I do believe very strongly that people should respect the beliefs of others.
With this in mind, I definitively reject the new interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich’s statement (made last year) that “the guiding culture in Germany is the Judaeo-Christian Occidental culture, not Islam.” And I can’t tell you on how many levels. First and foremost, I reject the idea that a state can even have a single Leitkultur or guiding culture. Go ahead, try and define culture. I wish you luck. And then try and find one culture that is core to everyone in Germany (or indeed any other nation). Secondly, calling Germany’s historical culture Judaeo-Christian is a farce and whitewashes centuries of anti-Semitism. And thirdly, nobody is claiming that Islam should be a guiding force in Germany. Just one faith among many. It’s here, it’s not going away, and there’s no good reason why Islam should not be on equal terms with other religions in Germany.
Which brings me to my own identity. Because here I am making demands of German politics and society. I’ve lived in Berlin for very nearly fifteen years now. I’m doubly disenfranchised – away from Britain for too long to vote any more, and not granted a ballot in Germany other than on the very lowest level, as an EU citizen. That means I can vote in local council elections and was once invited to take part in a referendum on parking zones in my local area.
I’ve lived almost my entire adult life here, since graduating. I have a German child; although she’s bilingual, her German is stronger than her English. Although she nominally has dual citizenship, she’ll have to decide on one nationality at the age of eighteen and she’s never lived in Britain. I read mostly German books. My friends are from all sorts of places but the largest national group among them is German. Recently, a British friend of mine adopted German nationality. It makes sense; and yet I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so myself.
And why? Because I spent my formative years in the UK. I grew up in a city plagued by IRA bombings, a city that celebrated ethnic diversity under Ken Livingstone’s GLC, a city where an army of homeless people slept in cardboard boxes while the financial sector grew and grew. Where subcultures blossomed and rents went up and up and up. When I left for Berlin in 1996, I was essentially an economic migrant. With me came the tail end of a tide of builders, many of whom got ripped off on the many building sites here where they worked cash-in-hand. Britain was just coming out of recession – and I had no desire to join the rat race. Plus I was in love.
Now there’s a new wave of young Brits over in Berlin, but I can’t relate to them. They came very much for the same reasons as I did – escaping from a grey economic situation with no interesting prospects to offer them to a more exciting, vibrant place. But there’s one major difference – they don’t speak German. They don’t have to. When I first moved here, even EU citizens had to prove an income in order to stay here. And in those days, that meant getting a job here. Which meant you had to learn a bit of German.
Now, EU citizens don’t have to prove their income to stay on – and you can work from anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection. As more and more English-speakers come, they build up their own cultures, opening cafés and shops and starting magazines and kindergartens and cabaret nights and – hey presto! There’s a whole infrastructure here. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. I just feel that many of these people are only really floating on the surface of the city, sampling the nightlife and the arts but not settling for good. And while that’s up to them and they’re free to move on to the next city at any time, it makes them different to me.
And why? Because Berlin is my home. It’s where I’ve chosen to live, because I love it and I have my friends and family here and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I want to grow old here. Reading the Manifest der Vielen made me slightly envious. Because while all of the authors are angry at German politics, particularly the constant demands for integration (read: assimilation), the anti-Islamism and the unfair nationality rulings, many of them still call themselves “new Germans”. I’d like to have that confidence, but I’m essentially a Brit who can very nearly “pass”.
I talked about the whole issue with one of my oldest German friends the other day. She laughed; she doesn’t think of me as English in particular, she said; I’m just me. But she has noticed over the years how I’ve got much more used to a few very German traits – actually arguing in public, talking openly about money, drinking until the early hours without vomiting. There are things I still can’t do – public nudity, refusing to apologise – but not many. And while I used to get a lot of subcultural kudos for coming from London, that allure has faded as I’ve been away for longer and there are now so many others here.
I’m aware that I’m in a very privileged position. I’m probably most Germans’ favourite kind of foreigner – I’m English, I’m white, I speak the language and pay my taxes here, I’ve made them a miniature German to help pay their pensions but I’m not overtaxing the welfare system by popping out any more offspring. I squirm when teachers praise me for bringing up my daughter bilingual but tell mothers from other countries to speak German at home. And I know it’s wrong of me to half-expect other English-speakers here to learn the language while insisting that language is a purely private matter, no matter what Erdogan or Merkel say.
But to end this essay, one thing I don’t feel conflicted about is my nationality; I’ve defined myself in Senol’s sense. Yes, I’m British. But I’m an individual with an atypical biography – and that nationality is only one of the many factors that make up my cultural identity. I hope that’s revealed in my stories.