‘Merhaba, I’m here to give up my Turkish nationality’
published by De Groene Amsterdammer, The Netherlands
Illustrations by Charlotte van Hacht
On just another Tuesday evening, you turn on the television and get caught up in a football referee sitting in a barber chair with a writer. What they have in common is that they both have parents who are from Turkey. The referee is the only one in the Dutch premier league with a migration background and, among other things, they talk about the racism he has to deal with. ‘F-Turk this, f-Turk that’, people shout at him in stadiums. But they also speak about the Turkish Football Association, who have asked him to lead matches in the highest league there. The hairdressing writer says: ‘It’s a nice offer when I hear that even people here sometimes have trouble with where you’re from, I’d think: Serdar, what are you still doing here?’ After first saying something about his family and business here, the conversation quickly turns to something else. He didn’t accept the offer because he thinks he’s had all the opportunities in the Netherlands, looking at where he is now. ‘With that in mind, I don’t think it’s very decent to give the Netherlands and the Dutch Soccer Association the middle finger and say: thanks for all your investments and all the time and energy you have put in me, but I’m leaving now. It’s an obligation to do something back, to give something back.’
Your mother is a whore because she sunbathes on the balcony in her bathing suit, with your father next to her with a beer and she might just take some sips of that, or she has to fuck off to her own country. It depends on which fellow flat inhabitant you ask: the one with the headscarf or the one with a dog. How old are you, when your sister comes home in tears?
Another of those memories, specifically, of your seventh birthday, the day you were given a bike, the most expensive gift you ever received. And so you’d proudly gone outside, you wanted to show it off to the kids in the neighbourhood. The older boys in the surrounding flats had said two things when they had seen you and the bike. That the front fork had been assembled incorrectly by your father and that you were fake Turks.
The first was simple to check (it turned out to be the case, dad’s mistake), the confusion was caused by the second comment. Are you a fake Turk if you can’t assemble a bike without making a single mistake? Back home you’d asked mother: are we Turks? Or are we fake Turks because daddy couldn’t assemble the bike correctly in one go?
Not much later you’re playing soccer in front of the flat, as you often do, and the ball hits a neighbour’s parked car. Not even very hard. He sees it, approaches you and hits the boy who kicked the ball against his car and shouts: and now piss off to your own country, fucking Turks!
Identity can be broken up in three parts, French sociologist Nathalie Heinich writes in What our identity isn’t: self perception, self presentation and attribution. Or rather: the way someone sees themselves, the way someone presents themselves to the outside world and the way others see you. If those three correspond to one another, if others see you the way you see yourself and the way you present yourself, it’s completely clear and transparent. But who actually has that? It’s all very well to say you don’t belong to the country of your parents, is that actually the case, and will others be able to tell that you’ve given up a piece of paper?
In an interview with the newspaper NRC, Heinich says that if you lived in a small town a hundred years ago, where you kept on seeing the same people, where relationships barely changed and abroad was very far away, then you were hardly occupied with your identity. The crisis starts when you are faced with strangers and wonder what they think of you. You’ll start to compare yourself with others. ‘I suspect the constant comparing of yourself with others, on all fronts, might be one of the reasons for that permanent sense of crisis in terms of identity. I also write no identity without an identity crisis.’
In a newspaper, you read about some important imam who says homosexuality is an ‘evil’ which is a curse in Islam, words that are endorsed by the president and other nonsense, and you think: boy am I happy not to be a part of that shit country any more. But yeah…
If you read a mediocre column about it a few days later, by a writer from whom you should expect more, you think: mind your own business baldy!
The phone rings, it’s your grandfather from that shit country and he’s saying your grandmother would like to hear your voice. How it’s going, she wants to know and because she can’t hear the answer straight away, you speak louder and louder and then she takes over again: she says she’s missed you so, when will you be dropping by, that she’s going to give you lots of kisses and will smear some spit on you against the evil eye when you’re here, an inside joke that you’ve shared since you can remember, and you tell her how you’ve missed her so as well and calculate it’s been seven years since you last saw each other. She’s 85 now, 86? You’re not entirely sure, but when you ask about her health, she says: ‘Don’t worry, boy. I won’t die before seeing you here.’
On a Thursday you set out to the city where you usually go to work at not an entirely different time than usual. You’ve had breakfast already, brushed your teeth, cuddled the kids, walked to the train and it isn’t until that moment you’re morning goes different than usual. At the station you quickly walk into the town hall where you have your passport picture taken in a cabin there for that purpose, after which you go to the platform, where you’re just in time to catch the sprinter train to the big city. There you catch the tram to the Museumplein, where you arrive nearly an hour early.
And so you drink a cup of black coffee in the Cobra Café, and another, and then you see on your phone that a colleague who is kind enough to accompany you, is nearly there. He jokingly starts off about the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – wasn’t that in an embassy or consulate as well? This also plays a part: your profession is under attack there and colleagues are disappearing behind bars because of publications, and here too there are hotlines to report the unwell, as happened with you. That’s also why you’re avoiding the country.
You check the contents of the large envelope in your bag again and check all the boxes in your mind – passport: check, ID: check, declaration from the population register as proof that you are also a Dutch citizen and actually live here: check, evidence you have postponement of compulsory military service: check, passport pictures: check.
And then you walk to the intercom at the gate, and you calmly press the bell, because beforehand you used Google translate to figure out how to say this again exactly. ‘Merhaba’, you say, ‘I’m here to give up my Turkish nationality.’
Not long ago you interviewed someone who after you turned of your tape recorder spoke of how she’d had enough about that ‘condition migrante’, how that seeps into future generations and you really wanted to say that you had had enough of this as well, for as long as you’ve been thinking about things like this, but it’s just not in your nature to do so and so you had nodded, more and more fanatically, yes exactly, uprooting, searching for an identity, no more unrest you’ve felt your entire life, that being different, looking for who you really are, those different cultures, not really being a part of anything or something and clearly choosing the country your parents came to as guests and mostly not wanting to pass all this on to your children. It isn’t an official term in psychiatry for nothing, the condition migrante. A quick search produces sentences such as ‘a permanent state of despair is the consequence’ and ‘youths from the second and third generation have to prevent getting caught between two cultures. Migrant children are faced with the task to create something new from two cultures.’
‘You could blame everything, always rely upon feelings of deprivation, which is often the case, but you could also think that this is just part of being a migrant, straighten your back and choose the Netherlands,’ said the person who has really thought this through. And contrary to some other countries, you can at least give up your second passport.
Why you were fake Turks? Because you didn’t believe in a single god, and so there wasn’t any fasting and no kissing of hands during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. There was no satellite TV on your apartment building, even though father didn’t speak Dutch and mother only spoke it a little. She didn’t only work in a cookie factory, she went to school on the side, had a drink, smoked tobacco, and when it was very warm she sat in her bathing suit on the balcony while you were playing in a bath tub. That’s why she was a whore, a mother wearing a hijab said, to your eight-year-old sister.
After having completed her studies, mother had found a job outside of the factory and the worries about money would finally come to an end. It was a temporary contract, but who cared? The first week everyone was excited, she was the first immigrant within the organisation. Until after a week or so, when mother started telling them about her daily life. About your also Turkish father. Huh, wait. She had a Turkish husband? But she studied? Had her husband allowed it? Ah, suddenly her Dutch wasn’t good enough. After that year her contract wasn’t renewed, the director said honestly that colleagues didn’t want her to keep working there because of her Dutch. The well-educated woman could go back to the assembly line and to the people who looked like her.
It was all much simpler than you’d thought: you go to the embassy’s website, make an appointment and make sure you have the required papers. That’s it. No fuss. You’d been postponing it for so long for nothing, until you were more or less forced by the approaching deadline of having to join the army, or you would have to go through life a deserter.
You can buy off the Turkish conscription for a few thousand euro’s, the amount has been changed quite a bit in the past years, but you won’t stand for paying even a euro for the military of a country you’ve never really felt being yours. It was a formality, but the closer the date came, the more you were overcome by this mixed feeling you couldn’t explain.
Is it because the formal ties with the country your parents were born stop here, for your children and the generations after them? Or because it’s simply who you are: someone with a dual nationality. And maybe that’s not something to walk away from?
A woman who is kinder than you’d feared – you’ve heard the stories of tirades because of ‘treason’ – asks for all your documents in the embassy, enters some things into the computer, has you pay 8,55 euro’s and says you’ll receive an email once it’s taken care off. It could take a month or three, she says ever so friendly.
You walk out of the embassy and the first thing you do is call your parents. Mother starts to cheer, father says not to cheer too soon. You’ll be put through the mill first to check your credentials that will necessitate you staying Turkish, such as a court case or a tax debt. You yourself are less happy and relieved than you’d expected.
In the car a good friend calls and when you hang up after only a short conversation your girlfriend says: ‘Do you know that you speak differently with friends than you do with colleagues?’ She says it inadvertently, she means nothing by it, it’s just an observation. You immediately think of the movie Sorry to Bother You. In it a black man starts a job as a telemarketer, in which only a few people want to speak to him when he calls them. He’s only successful when he follows the advice of an experienced and equally black colleague: use your white voice.
The honest answer is: no, you’re not aware of that, but you know she is right. A few days later she suddenly says, when you’re talking about the baby in her belly, that she’s thought about what it is that’s different, but with friends you speak more plainly and loudly and faster. ‘As if you don’t have to think about what you’re saying and how you’re talking. And you use words you wouldn’t use in a work-related context.’ You know what she means: swear words and street language.
You know she’s right, although you don’t acknowledge when it happens and you feel ashamed because you realise code switching is a part of you, but it wasn’t meant to be apparent to others. But yeah, try and keep something a secret from her.
You don’t want another invitation to vote for a country thousands of kilometres away, where an authoritarian leader is in power and democracy is collapsing and freedom of press is a farce
Then you start laughing about someone in your neighbourhood who earlier didn’t so much as glance at you, and when she did you saw something of contempt for that obsolete street thug who drinks half litres of beer with his friends in the hood. That guy she frequently sees leave with his boxing gloves and his tattoos. Until she heard from a friend of a friend that you have the job you have, at an intellectual and elite weekly magazine, and suddenly there has to be a chat during every coincidental encounter, because, interesting, what is it you’re working on exactly at the moment?
And if you think about it, and are really honest, you are different when you’re with friends. Not because your colleagues wouldn’t accept you otherwise, or your friends wouldn’t, but it just happens.
What is the case: at work you’re about the only one with a migration background, in the neighbourhood you live in you and your girlfriend are also about the only ones, while the parents of your best friends are mainly from the classic migratory countries and the former colonies.
When the linguist Einar Haugen, among other things professor at Harvard, introduced the term code switching in 1954, it was mainly to indicate the effortless switching of multi-lingual’s between different languages. Now, the term stands for a wider pallet of communication tools, non-verbal ones as well, that are mainly used by people with migration backgrounds. The way they talk, how they talk, how they move.
In his recently published and rightly praised book My uncountable identities, Sinan Cankaya describes his walk from the bakery to his home in Amsterdam-West. You could also say: he describes what code switching looks like in practice. A few boys have just told him they can hear he isn’t originally from that neighbourhood. His way of speaking is too ‘tata’, too Dutch, and the boys start laughing. On the way to his apartment, Cankaya passes older Moroccan men he greets back in Arabic, but with a Turkish-Dutch accent. ‘In potential, flexible, multiple identities free us’, Cankaya writes. ‘We play with identity, redesign ourselves, depending on who we have facing us, and of course by how we are defined. In theory, we are creative life artists. Why do I then, in practice, feel so displaced?’
Because four months have passed and you haven’t received an email, mother takes apart the embassy’s website and discovers you can check for yourself how your case is going. Logging in works and you think it says you no longer have the Turkish nationality, but just to be sure you have your parents read the text. It turns out to be correct; all you need to do is make an appointment to hand in the Turkish passport and ID you still have.
The colleague who had been kind enough to go with you before, does the same now. It’s a formality, within five minutes your back outside. ‘How do you feel now?’ he asks. ‘I can imagine it must be very strange giving up a nationality.’
A while later you run into an acquaintance who’s talking to someone you don’t know and you’re not really sure whether you’re relieved or not. When you tell them what you’ve just done, the stranger almost cheers: ‘Congratulations, now you’re really a part of us.’ Despite only seeing him for the first time, you don’t suspect there are bad intentions behind that remark. Because when you tell some fifteen colleagues during a Zoom meeting not much later that you’re ‘no longer a Turk’, there’s spontaneous applause. For laughs, you don’t take heed, until the colleague who had accompanied you to the embassy calls you right after the meeting and somewhat embarrassedly asks whether you didn’t find that unpleasant.
When people see you walking on the street, they don’t think you’re Dutch. Moreover: they see a Turk and not someone who has struggled (and probably will go on to struggle) with his heritage his entire life and who not only was born here due to a concurrence of events, but also consciously chose this country.
There’s a broad fantasy, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in The lies that bind us, in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we chose to be. But identities without claims are not much good, the philosopher believes. ‘Identities only function because they, as soon as they get us into their grip, control us by speaking to us like an inner voice; and also because others appeal to us once they see who they think we are. You might not need to worry about the guises your identities have taken on, but you can’t simply refuse them; they’re not only yours. You have to work together with those in and outside of the appointed group to reformulate them in order for them to suit you better; and you can only do that collective work if you acknowledge the results serve others too.’
You don’t only do this out of loyalty to the Netherlands. You, opposed to the referee sitting on the barber chair with a writer who’s a hairdresser on television, don’t have to repay anyone, or at least no more or less than whoever. You have no debts to repay. Because you are a Dutchman and you aren’t more or less of one than you were before you checked Google Translate on the tram just to be sure how to precisely say you came to give up your Turkish nationality.
If we’re talking about the gratitude of migrants, it’s almost always about socio-economic reasons. ‘Otherwise you’d be living in some kind of farmers village and had nothing else.’ Sure, the Netherlands is one of the best countries to live in. But if you’d been born and raised in Turkey, you wouldn’t have lived in a clay hut. You could even say most of your family in Turkey has had a better life than you all here in the Netherlands. They never belonged to the lowest class there, no one had a hernia due to factory work and no one became unfit for work because a part of the longs was removed.
There have been moments you felt Turkish and sometimes there still are
The truth is: you don’t know whether you might’ve had a better life in a material sense than if you had been born and raised in Turkey. All your cousins completed a university degree there or are still working on it. You have no further family in the Netherlands. Sometimes you think: at least they have each other. You might say they belong to the middle class like you, and the odd one even higher. In general, you share the same values, just like a considerable amount of the population.
And to be honest it’s taken quite a while before you realised this. You looked down on Turks a little, went along with the frame which prevails here. ‘Turkie Turkie isn’t stupid, Turkie Turkie diaper on innit.’ It was a joke, a joke of which there were many, always to the effect of: those Turks are stupid or those Turks dirty. It makes you think of the words of James Baldwin: ‘You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.’
And of course it’s not just a shit country, although you’d rather not be associated with a considerable amount of the population there either. There have been moments you felt Turkish and sometimes there still are. When you have dinner and raki with friends whose parents are from there too, you sing the songs you know from your childhood at the top of your lungs. The lyrics are often so poetic you only broadly understand what they’re about. Also, you feel a strange kind of kinship with Turkish Dutch people who you think are also part of the progressives.
But you don’t want another invitation to vote for a country thousands of kilometres away, where an authoritarian leader is in power and democracy is collapsing and freedom of press is a farce, you don’t want another call to service, you don’t want to be approached about the country where your parents happen to have been born and where you will only go as a tourist. So grandmother can smear some spit on you again.