Sevgi Emine Özdamar

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Written and spoken word (drama, linguistic criticism, novel, prose, short story)
Middle East, Europe, Western
Turkey, Germany
Ankara, Berlin, Bursa, Düsseldorf, Istanbul
created on:
May 27, 2003
last changed on:
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Sevgi Emine Özdamar
Sevgi Emine Özdamar


´I turned my tongue to German and was suddenly happy´

Born in Malatya in Turkey in 1946, Emine Sevgi Özdamar is an actress and director who for the last twenty years has been writing prize-winning prose and dramas not in her mother tongue but in German. She was a foreign worker in West Berlin, learnt acting in Istanbul, went on stage in East Berlin and has since appeared in many productions, some of international standing, and in several German films. Besides having written three plays, she has also written two collections of short stories. For her two novels Life is a Caravanserai with two Doors, through one of which I came, and through one of which I left and The Bridge of the Golden Horn she has received among other awards the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize (1991), the International Book of the Year Prize of the Times Literary Supplement (1994) and the Chamisso Prize (1999) and lives in Düsseldorf and Berlin.
´What are you doing in Germany?´ asked the girl. ´I am a word-gatherer.´ (Mother Tongue)

´One must betray one´s fatherland and go to another place to be at two places at the same time,´ says Emine Sevgi Özdamar, pleased to quote the French film director Godard. ´Through such a change of place, one´s own history becomes larger and more magical. And as Can Yücel says, literature is a search for identity. The search for identity is different in a foreign land to in one homeland,´ according to the author, director and actress in an interview (Buchjournal 2/2001) on the occasion of the Salon du livre in Paris.

Since the publication of her first collection of short tales Mother Tongue in 1990, Emine Özdamar has continually recreated her Turkish homeland in another land and shown her new and alien home, Germany, the broken mirror of an immigrant using its own language. Already in Mother Tongue she points out that one´s relationship to one´s homeland and tradition must be painstakingly reviewed if it is not to be lost. ´In my own language, tongue means language. A tongue has no bones and can turn in any direction. I sit with my tongue turned in this city Berlin. Negro cafe, Arab customers, stools too high, feet wobbling. An old croissant sits wearily in a plate. I at once hand bakshish out, as the waiter should not be ashamed. If only I knew where I lost my mother tongue.´ But the tale of the tongue goes on, since even the mother tongue has been blunted. The path to it leads through her grandfather´s tongue embalmed in Arabic signs dropped during Atatürk´s reforms.

The ´I´ in the tale falls in love with the Arab man of letters Ibni Abdullah, who gives her more intimate knowledge of the tongue of ´holy´ love, the tongue of the Koran. Thanks to her grandfather´s tongue, Arabic, which had been spoken and written in Turkey before Atatürk´s reforms, she manages to reconstruct her origins. Emine Sevgi Özdamar also tells us about a peasant who comes from a very poor but easily understood village to exotic Germany. She herself becomes a German-speaker, and the villager a road-sweeper. A peasant population is swallowed by the service sector of West German cities, and even Ophelia steps from her own stage to become a cleaning woman in a German theatre.

For her tales and novels Emine Özdamar often uses parts of her own past. Born in Malatya in 1946 she first came to (West) Berlin in 1965 and worked in a factory. In 1967 she went back to Istanbul and till 1970 trained as an actress and was given her first professional roles. In 1976 she went to the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in East Berlin, where she worked with Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff. With Besson´s Brecht production The Caucasian Chalk Circle she went from 1978 to 79 to Paris and Avignon. From 1979 to 1984 she was employed as an actress in the Bochum Schauspielhaus under the management of Claus Peymann. This theatre commissioned her first play Karagöz in Alemania which was then directed by her personally. The macabre cabaret elements are meant to show that behind the ´poor man´ there is a genuine tale. Since the 90s she has been writing in German too.

On coming to Germany at the age of 18 in 1965 she was unable to speak a single word of German. In The Bridge of the Golden Horn (1998) she describes how she learnt German as a factory worker by listening to the sounds of words and reading the captions of newspapers. This book received the Chamisso Prize in 1999 and is partly a novel and partly an autobiography. ´I knew no word of German and learnt the sentences like learning I can´t get no satisfaction by singing without knowledge of English.´ On handing her the Chamisso Prize in 1999, Sigrid Löffler said in his Laudatio: ´Emine Özdamar has immigrated into and settled down in the German language. She has westernised her Turkish mother tongue and orientalised her German, enriching it with Turkish patterns of thought and speech.´

´Tongue does not only mean language to me but above all something to do with warmth,´ says Emine Özdamar - also something to do with the warmth of her granny, who was unable to read and write and whose tales she listened to with her parents at the edge of her bed. The actress also suffered from the other side of the Turkish tongue, the tongue of coups d´état and censorship. ´I became unhappy in the Turkish tongue,´ she admitted in her speech of thanks for the Chamisso Prize. In Istanbul at the start of the 70s she was helped by Brecht´s words, so in dreaming at the time of being able to work with a pupil of his she went to East Berlin to Benno Besson at the Volksbühne. ´I turned my tongue to German and was suddenly happy - there at the theatre, where one is touched by tragedy and at the same time promised a Utopia.´ (ibid)

With a Utopia in mind she had come to Germany in search of drama. She firstly took lodgings in a hostel known to its lodgers as Wonaym (Hoe Still) opposite the Hebbel Theater and went every day to a factory. The Bridge of the Golden Horn takes the reader into Berlin in the 60s, where foreign workers moved daily between factories and hostels.

´We spent the first weeks between hoestilldoor, Hertiedoor, busdoor, radiolampfactorydoor, factorytoiletdoor, hoestilldoor and factorygreenirontable. One day, after finding at Hertie all they had looked for, having learned to say bread, having noted their busstop´s right name - after first having noted the name as busstop - the women switched the television in the hoestillsaloon on. The television had been standing there from the start. ´We´ll just have a look at what there is on it,´ a woman said. From that day on, many of the women in the hoestillsaloon spent the evening looking at figureiceskating on television. On having come back from the radiolampfactory to the hoestill, they pulled their nighties on, cooked in the kitchen potatoes, macaroni, chips and eggs. The sound of boiling water and panhissing mingled with their thin and thick voices, and everything rose in the kitchenair high, their words, their miens, their various dialects, with knifeshine in their hands and on their bodies, waiting for the mutual cookingutensils and pans, with the kitchenwater nervously running, and in the plates a foreign spittle.´

The ´I´ person overcomes factoryboredom and hoestillweariness with the help of the ´communist hoestillleader´, a herdsmansinger. ´With him came into our womenhoestill other men: Dostoyevsky, Gorki, Jack London, Tolstoy, Joyce, Sartre and a woman, Rosa Luxembourg.´ In this novel biography, which opens up a timepanorama between Berlin, Paris, Istanbul and Kurdish Hakari, there comes back the thrill of the social and cultural revolution in which the protagonist follows her own social, political and sexual liberation. Even before returning to Istanbul she loses her ´diamond´ to the Spanish student Jordi and gets pregnant from a ´limping socialist´. As if that were too little for a novel, Emine Özdamar takes us in the second part of her freedomfling with a dramatroop into Turkish delight and delirium, where the next coup d´état is always just around the corner, and through Kurdish mountainvillages to the Marmarasea.

Already in her first novel Life is a Caravanserai with two Doors, through one of which I came, and through one of which I left (1992) she reflects on the military: The novel´s ´I´ person is still in the womb but follows with interest events in the traincarriage and smells greatcoats: ´The coats reek of 90 000 dead soldiers and of soldiers due to die and are hanging on hooks. A soldier says: Make room for the pregnant woman.´ This novel too is a rug woven from many minutely observed tales as not an autobiography but a try at capturing the world of her childhood, now in the process of vanishing.

Likewise in her last book of tales The Yard in the Mirror, Emine Sevgi Özdamar journeys into her past. She depicts the universe living in a kitchenmirror, tells us about her parents´ deaths, about life in West and East Berlin and takes us by plane with folk weeping and accompanying the coffins of their relations to Turkey. Yet in these prose works there is also pleasure, and Emine Özdamar is as happy in citing Heine as in citing Godard. ´You clouds above, O bear me forth / To some far place, no matter where.´ And to whomsoever is willing to be borne forth with her, Emine Özdamar presents the universe of her manifold tales unrolling like a magic carpet.

Author: Gabriele Stiller-Kern


Born on 10th August, 1946, in Malatya in Turkey, Emine Sevgi Özdamar spent her childhood at various places there. Since her father was often bankrupt as a building contractor, her family moved from the countryside to Istanbul, then to Bursa and finally to Ankara. Already at the age of 12 she stood onstage with her first acting role in Molière´s A Burgher as a Noble. After two years of working in a Berlin factory from 1965 to 1967 she went to drama school in Istanbul and had her first professional roles as Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss´ Marat-Sade and as Widow Begbick in Brecht´s Man is Man.

In 1976 she came back to Germany as a trainee at the Volksbühne, where she worked as a director´s assistant and also as an actress with the Brecht-pupil Benno Besson. With his production of Caucasian Chalk Circle she went to Paris and Avignon from 1978 to 1979, then till 1984 she was hired by Claus Peymann at the Bochum Schauspielhaus and appeared in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin under various directors. In 1982 she was commissioned by the Bochum Schauspielhaus to write her first drama Karagöz in Alemania. At the same time she began to appear in her first film roles, as in Hark Böhm´s Yasemin, Doris Dörrie´s Happy Birthday, Turk and in Journey into the Night directed by Matti Geschoneck.

Her first set of tales Mother Tongue appeared in 1990. The English translation was chosen as being one of the ´Best Books of Fiction published in 1994 in America´ (Publisher´s Weekly). In 1991 she wrote her second play Keloglan in Alemania, the reconciliation of Swine and Lamb. For her first novel Life is a Caravanserai with two Doors, through one of which I came, and through one of which I left (1992) she received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1991, the Walter Hasenclever Prize in 1993, the New York Grant of the German Literature Fund in 1995, and the International Book of the Year Award from the London Times Literary Supplement in 1994. Her second novel The Bridge of the Golden Horn appeared in 1998 and won for her the Adalbert von Chamisso Prize and the Prize of LiteraTour North in 1999. In 2001 there appeared her third drama Noahi, a Noah´s ark tale within the framework of the project Myths for Children, and her third set of tales The Yard in the Mirror.


Zürih günlü?ü

Published Written,
Ece Ayhan´?n makruplar?: Istanbul

Strange Stars Turn to Earth

Published Written,

The Yard in the Mirror

Published Written,


Published Written,

The Bridge of the Golden Horn

Published Written,

Life is a Caravanserai with two Doors, through one of which I came, and through one of which I left

Published Written,

Keloglan in Alemania, the Reconciliation of Swine and Lamb

Published Written,

Mother Tongue

Published Written,

Karagöz in Alemania

Published Written,


Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize (1991)
Walter-Hasenclever Prize, Aachen (1993)
New York Scholarship of the Literaturfonds Darmstadt (1995)
Adelbert von Chamisso Prize (1999)
Künstlerinnenpreis NRW, an award initiated by the local cultural office for female artists of Nordrhein-Westfalen (2001)
Prize "Stadtschreiberin von Bergen-Enkheim" (2003)
Kleist Prize (2004)
Fontane Prize (2009)
Carl Zuckmayer Medal (2010)


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Rethinking Europe

Debates, lectures, concerts, readings

(26 March 98 - 24 January 99)