Sophie Mujiri                                                                                                                                                                              # 7


Life is a Caravanserai and its Support – “The Prayer of Caravans”

(According to E.S. Ozdamar’s novel “Life is a Caravanserai”)


            Keywords: German-language Intercultural Literature; Relationship of the Turk Immigrant Character with German Culture and her Identity; Problem of Retaining One’s Own Language; Religion and Traditions, Western Values; Reflexion of Cultural and Political Conflicts of Oriental and European Turkey; Effect of Alienation Created by Distance Perspective and Humour.



The novel “Life is a Caravanserai” (1992) by the eminent representative of German intercultural literature – Emine Sevgi Ozdamar deals with the social realities, closely connected with the traditional and contemporary style of life and the ideas of getting over the bounds of Muslim customs which in the first place are connected with the question of woman’s self-determination. E.S. Ozdamar’s novels are of autobiographic character. These novels somehow sum up the experience of the author’s childhood, spent in Anatolia, Turkey and the life in a foreign country that she herself experienced while coming into contact with everyday life in Germany. In her first novel “Life is a Caravanserai” E.S. Ozdamar acquaints us with the hard life of Malatian women in Anatolia, beyond the Islamic coulisses of the Kemalist society. In the sixties many families of this most indigent region of Turkey, including E.S. Ozdamar herself, joined the ranks of migrants. That is the reason that the problems of poverty –stricken Turkish women who emigrated to Germany are not alien to E.S. Ozdamar, in the first place the struggle for establishing one’s identity. The author looks at the German society as a foreigner. Part of this society is not very favorably disposed towards the foreigners who had come to Germany in search for work. They consider them marginal subjects, a certain mixture of atavism and modernism (see Ozdamar 1992: 371-372, 380). On the other hand, E.S. Ozdamar’s Turk characters understand that their integration and identification with the German society or, on the contrary, their alienation and isolation determines the Germans’ attitude towards the Turks.

            The thematics of the very first book of E.S. Ozdamar (“Mother-Tongue”) is interwoven with the phenomenon of alienation and with the pain, caused by separating from one’s mother-tongue and cultural roots. These questions are still actual in the novel “Life is a Caravanserai”, though this time without any links with migration. The protagonist woman of the novel tells in the first person about her childhood, spent in Malatia, about the cultural and political conflicts between Oriental and European Turkey. E.S. Ozdamar wrote this novel on the 27th anniversary of her life and work in Germany. Its full title is: “Life is a Caravanserai. It has two doors. I went in through one door and went out of the other.” The author gave this title to her novel after she had seen two caravanserais in Turkey. A caravanserai is a building like a motel, though its ground floor is occupied by camels, not by cars, and its owners live on the first floor. The rooms in caravanserai do not have doors, this is a thing that is alien and quite unacceptable to Europeans. E.S. Ozdamar uses this doorless dwelling-place purposefully to describe the immigrants’ unstable, nomadic life, “of the life that is only an evanescent moment in the process of movement.” The doorless caravanserai is also a symbol of “a very small boundary between life and death,”… “Life and death are as close to each other, as eyes and eyebrows” (Ozdamar 1992:18-19). The girl-character of the novel tells us about the unstable character of life and death with naïve humour: “When my grandfather’s four wives were working in a stooping position in the field and rhythmically moved four moon-like posteriors, suddenly a bee noticed me, smelt the odor of my mother’s milk left in the corner of my lip, hurried towards me and was about to light on my lip, when my mother’s hand waved it away, but it managed to sting it. – Mother, help me, I’m burnt! – my mother cried out. All the four wives of my grandfather responded at once: - All the women whose husbands have been in the army for four years are burnt like that. My mother and I burst out sobbing so that the mountains changed their places, and I lost all my finger-nails. All the four wives of my grandfather again cried out in unison: - Fatma, that child of yours has some incurable disease. Take her, put her down on a newly-dug grave. If she cries, she’ll live, if not . . .  Allah gave her to us, and He himself will take her away . . .  “Where they put me, two tomb-stones were seen from there. One had an epitaph: - When leaving this world, I did not want to be either the owner of the caravanserai or of the bathhouse . . .  Hope and a beam of light were enough . . . And on the other was written:  . . .  He went to sleep in the evening and did not wake up, disappeared like the wind, both he himself and his name” (Ozdamar 1992: 11-13).

            The childhood of this character of the novel is a chain of endless moving from one half-built house to another, her life is like a caravanserai which is sometimes built, and sometimes razed to the ground. Therefore, neither the motherland nor its traditions are static or unshakeable concepts: “In Istanbul . . . men wearing melon-like hats and tail-coats, shouting “Long Live the Republic!” informed us that religion and state were two different things. They threw the Arabic print into the sea, brought Latin print by European airplanes, took off yashmaks from women, rotted minarets, and began dancing to the melodies of European music together with their wives” (Ozdamar 1992: 41).

            The girl is looking for a reliable support in life, and finds it quite unexpectedly: while praying on the graves in the cemetery, her grandmother uttered Arabic letters, unknown to the girl, which arranged themselves in a row. This is a prayer: Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim.[1] While praying Grandmother held her hands up as if she had two small water-melons-in them, and the Arabic words uttered by her, followed each other like caravans of camels, . . . a small caravan of camels found its place on my tongue as well – I said the prayer together with Granny . . . Now we already had two caravans. . . Granny’s big camels taught my small ones . . . to walk” (Ozdamar 1992: 55). The girl was to repeat the prayer of  “the caravan” constantly: when she entered the house, stepping with her right foot, while bathing when she poured the first water over her head, before eating, while dressing and undressing, from sunrise till the appearance of the moon, etc. (Ozdamar 1992:56). This prayer turned for the girl into the indicator of the way of life a human being has passed. The girl characterizes two categories of people in Kemalist Turkey according to the manner they pronounce Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim: “Some uttered the prayer in a low voice, others-loudly. Those who uttered Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim in a low voice were angry with those who pronounced it loudly. “They throw ashes into our eyes and do bad things easier. As for those who prayed loudly, they said angrily: “why are they praying in such low voices? What comes from one’s heart must be said loudly” (Ozdamar 1992: 56). E.S. Ozdamar accentuates the moral uniting force of religion when she makes the girl, the character of the novel, say how the prayer said in a low voice, and in a loud voice too helped her: “This prayer first helped me in the 8th grade when I silently wrote it at the top of the test-paper in biology” . . .  The teacher was touched and “gave me a good grade”. A second time, the prayer said loudly helped the girl. When the girl was going to Paris her friends gave her the address of an Algerian student who lived there, but she did not find him in the hostel. That night the concierge’s wife gave her shelter, but while she was sleeping, the woman’s husband turned up . . .  The frightened girl said Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim loudly. This Muslim man must have known that prayer well too. The Muslim man rose to his feet at once and repeated: Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim. The concierge came up to the sleeping girl a second time, the girl said: Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim again, the concierge repeated the prayer again. They repeated it many times till the man’s wife woke up. In the morning the Algerian student came and before his girl-friend arrived he offered the 18-year old girl to have sex together, in answer to this she again uttered Bismillâhirrahmanirrahim loudly. The student understood that the girl was a Muslim and left her alone (Ozdamar 1992: 57-58).

            The life of the protagonist girl develops at the border of two quite different worlds. One of her feet is in the oriental world, in her childhood, the other – in Germany. Her main support in both of them is the Arabic type, prayer and her language. The girl, the character of the “Caravanserai” suffers from having lost the main source of the Turkish identity – the Arabic type, in the period of Kemalism and it being replaced by the Latin one. The nostalgia for the Arabic type and the language is felt in E.S. Ozdamar’s collection of stories “The Mother-Tongue”. She uses a woman’s body as a metaphor of the Arabic language, the body that was abused and from where the Arabic words were torn out. Only being beside the Arabic type returns life, freedom and sexuality to the woman who was a captive of the Latin language: “The written texts lay on the carpet, I also lay down beside them. The texts spoke to one another in different voices incessantly and awakened a dormant beast in my body. I closed my eyes lest the voice of love should take my eyesight” (Ozdamar 1990: 50). The teacher of the Arabic language locks the woman protagonist of “The Mother-Tongue” in an empty room for forty days and nights together with Arabic figures. This calls up associations of Moses’, Christ’s and Halveti’s[2] 40 days-long retirement and fasting. The followers of Suffism lock themselves in a small, simply furnished room in the midst of a stormy life of a city of their own accord where they spend the whole time praying and self-flagellating, and perform the suffistic sacred rite of “zikr”. At this time the believers repeat the name of god and saints, accompanying this rite with a rhythmic movement of their heads or bodies. The little girl, the character of “The Caravanserai” reaches this stage of retirement and martyrdom at the unconscious age of innocence.

            The language perceived in a close connection with religion has turned into a certain specimen of an experiment where the author’s archaic, oriental manner of narration takes a solid and steady form of the structure of the German language. E.S. Ozdamar’s works are a mixture of reality, myth and a fairy-tale and remind us of the story of “A Thousand and One Night”. The grandfather who takes the girl to Istanbul tells a tale to soldiers during three days and three nights. At the same time the tale is told by the beard grown on his cheeks, which begins to knit a carpet. The soldiers interested in the grandfather’s tale light steels to see the colors on the fairy-tale carpet better (Ozdamar 1992: 42, 47). Stories, depicting the relations of the European and oriental Turkey, of villages and towns, can be seen on the carpet, Americans, as the Turks see them, are presented on it, the Americans that supply their children with the milk of a doubtful  quality, foodstuffs and comic books in exchange for oil (Ozdamar 1992: 27, 37-47, 52-54): “The ones who said prayers loudly . . .  forgot the slogans of equality and freedom, invited vampires from a distant continent who had chewing-gum in their mouths and pails in their hands. Germans, English, French, Italians, all of them were running with their pails . . . The war of oil-pails broke out . . . Bismarck took all precious stones to Berlin from the city of Pergamum, and oil from Baghdad” (Ozdamar 1992: 39,43).

            The protagonist woman’s naivety and ideology gradually undergoes a change in the novel “The Bridge of the Golden Horn”. The author describes this change against the background of changing the oriental life by the European environment. The issue of sexuality is presented as one of the important intercultural phenomena of the novel. The author presents eroticism as a model of overcoming the severe Turkish-Muslim dogmas and barriers. If at the beginning of the “Caravanserai” the girl tries to save herself from physical violence by a loud prayer, in the middle part of the same novel she already looks at the beauty of the prostitute, seen in the bath-house, and her ability to live in luxury with envious eyes: “Having entered the bath-house we unfastened our yashmaks, stepped on the marble flooded with water with our kilometer-long hair and breasts and stomachs, weighing kilograms . . . Women rubbed each other’s bodies with a special silk cloth . . . Some felt faint with heat, hurried to a cool spot and brought themselves to sense by smelling lemons or eating and drinking the food and drink they had brought . . . It was like this that we were stealing another nice day from the angel of fate when a beautiful woman entered the bath-house. The naked flesh of the women in the bathhouse stiffened. Only their mouths remained open from which a chorus of humming was heard: “A prostitute has come” . . . Two bath-house attendants bathed the prostitute, lying in the middle of the marble, thoroughly. The women, sitting around, did not take their eyes off the prostitute. When the prostitute finished bathing the women’s group followed her, she got into the carriage without the yashmak, and when the carriage started, it splashed all the dirt of the street, at the on-looker women in yashmaks. I made an oath to myself to like that prostitute woman one fine day” (Ozdamar 1992: 50-52). The young Turkish woman tries to free herself from the captivity of the conservative Islamic ideological stereotypes and starts a fight against the traditional sexual morality, also against stifling sexual instincts and desires. A lady of the Turkish origin, an immigrant in Germany, E.S.Ozdomar, who should be the symbol and metaphor of her nation and motherland, in her novels creates images of women who have betrayed traditional Muslim customs. E.S.Ozdamar studies the question of the relationship of sexes and the place of a Muslim woman in Turkish and German societies. In the society whose customs make women obey men, in the contemporary society women protest against their unjust fate. Owing to this, they are considered to be immoral or mad. Not a single character of Ozdamar’s works looks like a traditionally dressed and “swathed” in yashmak Muslim lady who is an obedient wife of a tyrant husband. Ozdamar does not want to erase the past and the traditional from memory, she wants their constructive integration into the present. She is not afraid of opposing the European myth of neither “alien” nor oriental stereotypes. She creates real and complicated characters who are formed by both eastern and western worlds.

            The main character of the novel tries to retain her identity, language and religion. She is a patriot of her motherland, but at the same time she accepts and acknowledges western values and democratic principles. She aspires to realizing her dreams, though not in her motherland; she wants her dreams to come true in the free world of the west.



  1. Chiellino 2000: Chiellino C. Interkulturelle Literatur in Deutschland. Verlag J.B. Metzler. Stuttgart, Weimar, 2000.

  2. Koran 2006: Koran. G Lobjhanidze’s translation. “Caucasian House”, 2006           .

  3. Kreutzer 1996: Kreutzer L. Eigensinn und Geschichte. Überlegungen zu einer Literaturwissenschaft? Methoden-und Theoriediskussion in den Literatur-wissenschaften. Stuttgart-Weimar, 1996.

  4. Mecklenburg 1990: Mecklenburg N. Über kurturelle und poetische Alteritât. Kultur-und literaturtheoretische Grundprobleme einerkurturellen Germanistik. In: Krusche D. Vierlacher A. (Hrsg). Hermeneutik der Fremde, München, 1990.

  5. Ozdamar 1992: Ozdamar E.S. Das leben isteine Karawanserei, hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein, aus der anderen ging ich raus. Roman. Köln, 1992.

  6. Ozdamar 1998: Ozdamar E.S. Mutterzunge.  Erzählungen. Köln, 1998.

[1] The first opening sura of the Koran: “In the name of Allah, merciful benefactor, praise to Allah, the Lord benefactor of the worlds, merciful, the judge on the Judgment Day we obey only you and ask for help only you. Be our leader and show us the way, the way of those whom you gave your benediction, not the way of those whom you rebuked and not those who have lost their way” (Koran 2006: 105).

[2] (Chalwati in Arabic) – a Suffist order, founded by Pir Umar Halveti. In spite of the fact that Ataturk banned the centers of dervishes in 1925, there are three branches of Halveti in present-day Turkey. See



Volume 4, Issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature