Two Worlds: European Identity and the Poetry of Nevfel Cumart

Published October 03, 2017 by Peter Garry

Back in 1997, as I began my post-graduate studies, I was introduced to the German-Turkish poet Nevfel Cumart. Of Turkish descent, born in former West Germany, he wrote out of personal experience, of what it was like to grow up as the son of Turkish emigrant in post-war Europe. Despite having been born in Germany, being of Turkish origin meant that he did not ascribe to most people's view of what it meant to be German.

The simplicity of the language, coupled with the complexity of the ideas in poems such as Über die Heimat 1 and 2 and Zwei Welten brilliantly portray the changes to Europe and European identity in post-World War II Western Europe. Moreover, Cumart's words capture the effect of such profound change on Europe's citizens, old and new.

Thousands of so-called Gastarbeiter came to Germany from South Europe. They came in vast numbers from Greece, Italian, Spain and Turkey. The choice of the term, Gastarbeiter or Guest workers, denoted from the beginning, a sense of alienation, of belonging elsewhere, of being temporary.

In the poem Über die Heimat 1 Cumart tells us Germany and Europe would always remain a foreign place to his father's generation. Not wanting to die in Germany, his father decides to return to Turkey.

"mein vater kehrt in die türkei zurück

er möchte nicht

in der fremde sterben"

Like his father, Cumart, also, does not want to die in a strange place, "auch ich möchte nicht in der fremde sterben". Therefore, he decides to stay in Germany, "und entschließe mich in bamberg* zu bleiben". The concept of feeling at home, of belonging in Europe would remain unattainable to his father.

Alienation and exclusion, due to our exclusionary ideas regarding identity, is a common theme in many of Cumart's poems. The very German concept of Heimat, a feeling of being at home, is linked to the past and past conceptions of European identity and belonging. In his poem Über die Heimat 2, Cumart is regularly asked if he too wants to go home. The implication again being that he is different and does not belong.

"sie fragen mich,

ob ich nicht wieder

zurückkehren will

in die heimat"

Cumart asked himself, if it is possible return home to a place from which one has not originated.

"ich frage mich

ob es ein

zurück gibt in ein land

in dem es kein

beginn gab"

Having read these poems, I began to question for the first time, what it must be like to have been born and to have grown up in a place, where people continually infer that I am different and therefore do not belong. Cumart's poetry and that of Franco Biondi and Jose Oliver made me begin to question the parameters we use to define and maintain our European identity.

During the last decades of the last century and the first decade of this century, political and geographical Europe continued to expand and evolve. The entry of countries like Poland and Slovakia and later the Baltic States would significantly enlarge the European Community. However, despite this political, economic and geographical growth, our concept of Identity remained firmly rigid. The European identity often did not include people from non-Christian or Judaic backgrounds. Despite the significant number of Muslims living in Europe, Islam remained on the periphery of Europe, geographically and politically. It served as a concept against which we could define ourselves and what it meant to be European.

As a student of German language and literature, I had read a lot about the Holocaust and had often visited Holocaust sites in Germany. Having completed my post-graduate studies, I started work. Working provided me with the disposable income I needed to allow me to pursue my other great interest, travel. As I began to travel more, both in Eastern and Western Europe, I became more aware of the legacy of the Holocaust, not just for European Jewry, but Europe as a whole. European countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania were, for the most part, mono-cultural as a result of the Holocaust. The rich tapestry of pre-war Jewish life was gone and in many cases not even a memory of it remained. The first step on what Karl Schleunes referred to as "the twisted road to Auschwitz" began with the othering and alienation of European Jewry. The more I thought I knew about the Holocaust, the less I realised I knew. This self-realisation was my key motivation for enrolling in a course 'Teaching the Holocaust'. This course of study as well as deepening my knowledge of the Holocaust, also brought me to Israel where I would study at Yad Vashem and hear first hand accounts from many Holocaust survivors.

I had hoped that my study visits to Israel would enhance my knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, what I did not know was that visiting Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage for Jews, Muslims and Christians, would, like Pandora's Box, open and throw out so many questions that I was unable to answer. I had gone to Israel believing I would return with the answers, and to a large extent I did, but the trip also made me want to look not only at the differences, but also the similarities between the three monotheistic religions, their shared spaces and histories. I returned home and began to read and attend debates and lectures on Judaism, Islam and Christianity in Europe.

It was by chance that I heard about the course Bridging the Great Divide at the Woolf Institute. The course challenged me to examine what I thought I knew about the growth and evolution of the three monotheistic religions. It also developed my understanding of not only the three religions, but also of the dangers of an exclusionary history and identity. If we are to be truly European, we must seek to understand the diverse, yet often similar religious backgrounds of all of our citizens.

Furthermore, the course sufficiently inspired me to enrol in a second online course, Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe at the Woolf Institute. I continue to learn more about the origins of many of our contemporary perceptions of the other.

The line 'way leads on to way' from Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken' often comes to mind when I look back and reflect on how I have arrived at a certain point or juncture in my life. I started learning German when I was 12. It introduced me not only to a new language, but a new country, culture and way of thinking, which in turn has made me question not only my own national identity, but also our supposedly shared European identity. This journey began when I was 12, I am not quite sure when or where it will end, but I am very grateful for what I have learned so far.

Peter Garry is a PhD student at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Trinity College, Dublin and has completed both the Bridging the Great Divide and Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe online courses with the Woolf Institute.

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