Loud laughter greets Osman Engin. Small wonder; entertaining audiences with his satirical stories is a walkover for the humorist. The most common symptom: laughing till your sides ache. This evening in the auditorium of the Lagerhaus culture centre in Bremen is no exception. The mood of his listeners resounds during the reading, often in response to the satirist himself. Barely concealing a grin, he wipes the tears from his eyes, takes a deep breath, and continues reading:
'First, dear uncle Ömer, you have to stop bragging in the village about how you smuggle two shepherds over the Persian border every month. Especially not around guys in western clothes. They could be EU commissioners! The EU doesn’t want any common borders with Iran or Syria! You’d be better off telling the commissioners that you smuggle kangaroo herders from our Australian neighbours and sushi herders from our Japanese neighbours!'
Thus Engin tries to explain the European Union to his uncle Ömer in his satire 'What the EU Wants' – and ultimately that Turkey will one day be an EU member state. Over a hundred listeners are 'eavesdropping' on Engin’s explanations in the Lagerhaus. The reading lasts two hours, after which many find their cheeks cramped from laughing.
'I’m a bit ironic'
After the reading, the satirist finds time to chat about his books. He wipes the sweat from his brow and laughs genially. It is apparent that chatting after performances is no heavy burden for him. He has been publishing these satires for 25 years. He began writing at the age of ten. By age twelve he had written his first romantic novel, and at fifteen he was working on Westerns.
'I think I love satire because I’m a bit ironic myself. My friends say they never know when I’m being serious and when I’m having fun. And as a child, I read everything by Aziz Nesin,' says Osman Engin. The legendary Turkish satirist, Nesin, who died in 1995, is his role model. Engin is following in his footsteps. Nesin parodied Turkish society in his satires, and his critique of Islam earned him many enemies.
Between 1983 and 2003, Osman Engin wrote satirical short stories every month for the city magazine Bremer ('The Bremener)', after which he switched to the Hamburg magazine Oxmox. He has already published twelve books. Kanaken-Gandhi is so far the most successful and will soon be made into a film. His newest book, A Turkish Christmas, came out last year.
Getting to grips with German-Turk relations
The Bremener, who graduated in 1989 in social studies, hopes through his satires to makes the reader aware of injustices in society. He wants to provoke reflection. At the same time, he wants to tackle the issue of German-Turkish relations. 'The Germans would call it holding up a mirror,' he says, sipping his cappuccino.
A Bavarian school principal briefly drummed up a certain notoriety for Engin. In 1999, the latter was invited to do a reading at a school in Geretsried, near Munich. 'The school principal forbade the reading – on ‘pedagogical’ grounds,' says Engin, grinning. The students protested and both Turkish and German media reported on the incident. In particular, an article in the Berlin Tageszeitung earned him unexpected but welcome publicity. 'The principal probably found my humour to be a bit over the line,' concludes the satirist.
Turkish daily life, and everyday racism
'So far only a few people have complained about my satires,' says Engin. It almost sounds like an apology. The Bremener would like to make people scratch their heads when he points out the absurd side of day to day life. In his 46 years, he has seen quite a lot of things himself. He does not flatter himself in his books, either. His background as an immigrant plays no small role in his fiction.
There is his protagonist Osman, who as family patriarch does nothing and walks all over his family members. There is the usual everyday racism, shown in all its glory in the arbitrary acts of officials and bureaucrats. There are the Turkish rituals, such as the sometimes onerous family visits, well known to many Turkish readers. It is hard to tell if the author is caricaturing himself, or if he mixes in his own experiences, or if he is describing the life of a friend under a pseudonym. 'It is up to the readers to unravel it,' he muses.
Satire as a role model
Last year, Engin recieved the ARD Media prize for his satire I am the Pope. This is an important acknowledgment of his work. His satire, according to the jury, 'makes fun of everyday prejudices and clichés.' He wonders, admittedly, what Germany’s Turkish population thinks of his literary work.
'At my readings I meet a lot of Turks,' he says. 'And they’re pleased to see that us Turks in Germany are writing.' Engin believes that German-Turkish writers like Feridun Zaimoglu, Akif Prinicci, Emini Sevgi Özdamar, and even his own writing, can serve as role models for Turkish youth in Germany. These authors prove that German Turks can make it into the literary establishment. 'The best recognition of my satires is the laughter of my audience,' grins the Bremener.