Armando Rodrigues de Sá arrived at Cologne train station in 1964. He left as the millionth “guest workers” into German history. On that day he was given a moped and quickly forgotten. He died of cancer in his home village in Portugal without anyone telling him that he could have applied for sick pay in Germany and perhaps received better treatment. A significant story for dealing with the labor migrants of the post-war period.
Even more forgotten than this man is the two-millionth “guest worker” who received a portable television, at least that’s what Gün Tank says, continuing the irony of the “mobile” welcome gifts. Her literary debut “The Optimists. A Novel of Our Mothers” supplements what has hitherto not been forthcoming in the narrative of Germany’s economic upswing: the book is about women who came to Germany as migrant workers from Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Italy to feed her family who stayed behind at home.
Men and German women are about as important in Tank’s novel as the more than 706,000 women workers who came to Germany between 1960 and 1973 are in German history. So not particularly important. A brief look at Tank’s marginal figures is worthwhile, however, because one learns that not only does German history have its blind spots, but also that the one-dimensional idea of emancipation as a linear development from “unfree” via step-by-step liberation to permanent equality is limited view is owed.
They fight for fair pay, more dignified housing and German lessons
The character Nour, a Kurd who grew up in Istanbul, has intellectual discussions with her father about belief and non-belief. He explains women’s sexual self-determination, which then sounds like this: If she doesn’t enjoy it, it’s up to the man, who even more has to learn – not exactly the image that the West has of Islamic fathers and daughters. Although this picture needs an update anyway, just like the book “Let’s Talk About Sex, Habibi” by Mohamed Amjahid.
The fact that the women in the Upper Palatinate wore headscarves while Nour, who arrived there in 1972, wore miniskirts that she had sewn herself, brought simple distinctions to collapse once and for all. Emancipation, it seems, is developing rather like a tide, depending on the tug-of-war of liberal and conservative forces. And the question is how well you can judge this ups and downs by just looking at clothes superficially. The clothing may be an indication, as Tank’s story goes on to show: while the husband of Nour’s only German friend Birgit handed in the notice of termination at the porcelain factory on her behalf and “takes on her household responsibilities” because she no longer “carries out her family obligations”. neglect, Nour leads the self-confident “guest workers” on their first strike. There will be many more to come and that’s what Tank’s book is really about.
Tank, who has been involved with the issue as moderator and co-curator of an exhibition about migrant women workers, has spoken to many of the first generation. Their stories flow together in an exemplary manner in the story of Nour, about whose life Tank reports in two narrative strands: looking back at her eldest daughter Gabriele Su and from the point of view of 22-year-old Nour, who is traveling in Istanbul, in a figurative sense a political one. Inspired by a young porcelain maker, i.e. a worker in the porcelain factory, from the 1920s, she is committed to fair pay, more dignified housing and German lessons for immigrants. At her side: Mercedes and Tülay, her roommates at the time. In the course of history, Tülay also becomes a comrade in the true sense of the word, who reads Marx and represents female workers. From the first strike in the porcelain factory, the story moves from strike to strike almost as quickly as work on an assembly line: piecework. The high point is a strike in Neuss, which actually happened.
Without ever being properly mentioned in later gender pay gap discussions, female migrant workers in Germany achieved the abolition of the so-called low-wage group during the “wildcat strikes” in 1973. Women, regardless of whether they were German or newcomers, generally received 40 percent less than men for the same work because they considered it an extra income, despite the fact that many of them supported whole families.
For all the harshness of the reality she tells, Tank’s tone remains cheerful. Nour and her daughter Su live up to the title of the book in their attitude. Actually everyone else too. They are surrounded by good people, lovely men with bushy eyebrows and funny twinkling eyes, but especially by good friends with whom they share their lives.
It starts with the urine samples for pregnancy tests when they enter Germany, and continues with shared beds, apartments, jobs, worries and their political commitment. The girlfriends replace husbands and distant relatives. Every low point is overcome, Nour’s life rushes by and the narrow debut is already finished. One would like and should hear more stories like this, hopefully the author will write them soon.