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11/01/2011 05:20 PM

'Guest Worker' Anniversary Train

Revisiting the Reasons for Leaving Home

In the final two parts of a series following former Turkish guest workers on a train retracing their original journey to Germany, Yasemin Ergin learns what her parents and others were working so hard to achieve. As the trip ends, passengers also realize goodbyes remain as tough as they were 50 years ago.

In the first two parts of this series, read about how the staged nostalgia that accompanied the 50th anniversary trip left most participants cold, and how some of the guest workers didn't just find work, but true love in Germany.


One of the retirees would like to know if the helmets are real. The Serbian souvenir vendor nods and displays the various models arranged on his stand according to color and shape. "World War I, World War II, US Army," he says. Hanging right under the helmets is an impressive array of rosaries. "They look almost exactly like our prayer beads," observes one of our fellow travelers before asking whether a rosary has as many beads as a Muslim tasbih. The vendor doesn't understand the question.

We are strolling through the park of the Kalemegdan, an imposing former fortress dominating a hill in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The organizers of our train trip from Istanbul to Munich have arranged for a sightseeing visit to give us an impression of the city before getting back on the train and heading toward Zagreb, Croatia.

Some of the curious travelers remain in front of the fortress's moat, which holds some historical cannons and tanks. A few photographs are taken, and then they continue on up toward the citadel. From its walls, one can get a magnificent view of the Danube.

Battal Kizildere, an endearing though rather eccentric 78-year-old, says he's heard that "everything here" once belonged to the Ottomans. Then he asks me whether I consider it likely the Turks will ever take this beautiful city back. Imran Öztürk rolls his eyes in annoyance, and I laugh, though I'm not quite sure whether the question was meant as a joke.

I want to know where Öztürk's better half is. Since the start of the trip, I haven't seen the 73-year-old pensioner from Hamburg without his buddy Nedim Sekerli at his side. The inseperable duo have known each other for 35 years. Öztürk is a large, powerful man, and he always looks a little sad and lost whenever he isn't laughing at Nedim's jokes. "No idea," his says with a shrug of his shoulders. "The Serbs probably kidnapped him." Then he becomes pensive. "Strange, isn't it?" he says. "I've driven through this city so many times, but I've haven't stopped to look around a single time. We always only saw the streets."

The Balkans Will Never Be the Same

Almost everyone in the group has a similar story, including me. My family drove to Turkey every year on vacation, but this is the first time that I have stopped to visit a city in the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, the country was always the most tiresome part of these long, exhausting trips, and we hardly ever saw anything more of the countries we drove through than their expressways, highways and rest stops. The so-called autoput, otherwise known as Yugoslavia's Brotherhood and Unity Highway, was the longest of the many stages of the journey from northern Germany to southern Turkey. It was a seemingly endless drive over incessant potholes that kept my stomach turning. The maddeningly long period of time it took to get across the country alone made me imagine it to be an extremely frustrating place.

But then the political unrest in Serbia and Kosovo happened, and suddenly traveling through Yugoslavia no longer seemed like a good idea. In the summer of 1990, we took a plane to Turkey for the first time instead of the car. At the time, we didn't realize that the Balkans would never be the same again. The images of war and destruction in Yugoslavia that dominated the news in the following months and years were all the more shocking because, despite my misgivings, I still felt I had a connection to this country that was disintegrating under such bloody circumstances. Suddenly, I felt guilty about not taking a serious interest in Yugoslavia while it was still peaceful.

Back on the train, the mood is a bit more sedate than usual. Although Ferhat Dursunbek continues to make jokes that Imran Öztük and Nedim Sekerli react to with their usual sarcasm, there is a slight feeling of melancholy in the air. Many of the travelers look exhausted, and they are no longer as talkative as they have been over the last two days. They are now addressing me as "güzel Kizim" ("my beautiful daughter") rather than "Yasemin Hanim" ("Miss Yasemin").

'That's What We Worked So Hard For'

I'm chatting with Zeynep Yildirim, who first moved to Germany in 1988 after marrying a widowed guest worker. Her favorite place in her new home is Phantasialand Brühl, an amusement park close to where she lives. When I tell her I've never been there, she is stunned, as are some of the other fellow travelers who live near the western city of Cologne. While Croatia's harsh landscape passes by outside, Zeynep raves about the attractions at the amusement park, which she visits with her family twice a year.

Later in the afternoon, a small concert is held in the train's conference car. A singer hired for the trip by Turkey's national public broadcaster, TRT, accompanied by a musician playing a baglama, a type of Turkish lute, entertains the crowd with old folksongs. People dance to some of the pieces, but most of them are slow, doleful tunes. Many of the former guest workers sing along, and some of them wipe tears from their eyes. Even Imran Öztürk looks moved. Later, he tells me that for a while he was the head of a record label in Hamburg that distributed music by artists of a very particular type of music. The genre, which had its heyday in the mid-1970s, was called "Gurbet Türküleri," which translates to something like "songs for those living in a foreign land."

Shortly before we arrive in Zagreb, there is a slide show on the same issue. Mehmet Ünal, a photographer who documented the lives of Turkish guest workers in Germany between 1977 and 2010, presents the travelers with an overview of his work. The photographs from the early years show assembly-line workers, welders and miners. The images start to become more varied beginning in the 1990s, showing vendors, business people and policewomen. One of the pensioners leans toward me and says: "Do you see? That is what we worked so hard for -- so that our children would have a chance to choose their jobs for themselves -- just like you."

Politicizing the Anniversary

"But we're in Austria," mumbles an elegantly dressed and visibly annoyed woman in the audience before taking a sip from her champagne glass. Indeed, it would seem that nobody informed Bekir Bozday, Turkey's deputy prime minister, that Salzburg doesn't belong to Germany. For almost an hour, Bozday has been speaking in the ballroom of Salzburg's Gwandhaus about the history of Turkish guest workers in Germany and about German-Turkish relations in general. He doesn't even mention Austria in his speech.

The event is being hosted by the Turkish consulate general, and the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic is the cause for celebration. The passengers on the special train from Istanbul to Munich look tired. Likewise, it's questionable whether Minister Bozdag is really interested in their history. In his speech, he keeps mentioning Istanbul's Haydarpasa Train Station -- but that lies on the Asian side of the city. The one that the guest workers left from 50 years ago, and the same one we started our current journey from, is called the Sirkeci Train Station.

The last leg of the train trip is hectic. Security officers clog the passageways because, on top of all the Turkish parliamentarians, German Integration Commissioner Maria Böhmer has also boarded the train.

Arriving 'Back Home'

Selected pensioners are supposed to introduce themselves to journalists in the conference car. Each of the contemporary witnesses has about a minute to tell their stories, a life in 60 seconds. Hasibe Altun and Kadriye Pamuk, two shy women in their early 70s wearing headscarves, hardly provide more than their names, where they're from and how many children and grandchildren they have. Filiz Taskin, an elegant woman with a lilac-colored felt hat, emphasizes that she came to Germany in 1964 out of a sense of adventure rather than for money. Ömer Yildirim, who came to Germany in that same year, thanks the politicians in attendance for having "not forgotten" the guest workers. Fehmi Atar speaks proudly of his three children, all of whom are university graduates.

The ministers smile benevolently, and I suddenly sense a strange mix of wanting to both claim these people for my own and protect them. Over the last five days, they have grown close to my heart -- their stories are so intimately connected with my own.

Then it becomes official. Integration Commissioner Böhmer wishes the guest workers "once again a warm welcome in Germany," a prelude to praising herself and the German government's integration policies. In keeping with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's position, Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag once again takes advantage of the opportunity to accuse Germany of trying to force Turks to assimilate. In the meantime, the contemporary witnesses nibble on nuts. Even with a rough, on-the-fly translation, they have a hard time following the discussion.

I take a seat near Imran Öztürk and Nedim Sekerli, the two old buddies from Hamburg who are traveling together. They are unimpressed by all the activity, but in a terrific mood. Nedim says he is happy "to be back home" and that, in the end, home is wherever your family is. When I ask them whether it will be hard to say goodbye to the other travelers in the group, Imran shakes his head and says: "They were all too chatty for me. And feel free to quote me exactly on that." Both of them quake with laughter, and the pensioners at the surrounding tables laugh too.

The train arrives on Platform 11 in Munich's train station, just like it did 50 years ago. What did the arrival feel like back then, back when this country was completely foreign and unknown to the arriving Turks?

A Nostalgic Farewell

Hüseyin Haldan, who is traveling with his wife, Ayten, describes how he kissed the ground when he first arrived in Germany. He no longer knows exactly whether it was out of excitement or respect -- or simply because he was happy to have finally arrived. But, he adds, "I would do exactly the same thing today."

A red carpet has been unrolled at Munich's train station, and young women are handing out orange juice and Turkish tea. A Balkan band is playing right on the platform, and Turkish music is playing on a stage in the transverse hall. Small sacks with fresh fruit are distributed, just as they were 50 years ago. Bozdag, the Turkish deputy prime minister, is allowed to deliver his speech on German-Turkish relations for what feels like the third time. Although it isn't any better this time, at least the setting and occasion are correct. There are pretzels and baklava. At the end, some of the old men stand up and dance, particularly 78-year-old Battal Kizildere, the oldest person on the trip.

I meet Imran along the side of the stage. He says he's looking for Nedim because he wants to give him a sack of fruit. Nedim is always so absent-minded, he explains, and perhaps he didn't see the fruit. But then he admits that the reception has touched him deeply, much more than he had expected.

In the evening, the Turkish percussion artist Burhan Öcal performs a small concert in the hotel lobby. Some of the people who were on the trip are now in tracksuits instead of the more formal suits they've been wearing over the last five days. They all appear relieved and relaxed, though there also seems to be a bit of nostalgia. People exchange phone numbers and take their final photographs with each other.

Battal Kizildere, the 78-year-old, approaches me. He wants me to write down my address so that he can send me a package of apricots the next time he returns to his hometown of Malatya. He says they're the best ones in the world. I have to swallow hard, but then I take the pen and write it down for him.

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