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Kurdish-German Journalist Makes Light Of Hate Mail In Spoken Word Act


This is Audie Cornish, and all week on this program, I've been talking with Muslims living in Western Europe about their faith, about how they're perceived and about their sense of belonging. Today, I'm in Berlin. Of the nearly 4 million Muslims living in Germany, just under half are from Turkey.

A large number were guest workers who came to help rebuild Germany after World War II and never left. Those same workers were never allowed citizenship. And Germany has spent the last decade trying to integrate them and their children. Thirty-eight-year-old Mely Kiyak is the daughter of guest workers. She's a columnist, and I went to meet her at her sunny flat in Berlin.


CORNISH: Nice to meet you.

KIYAK: Nice to meet you. Welcome.

CORNISH: Kiyak writes about politics for the influential newspaper Die Zeit in a column called "Kiyak's German Lessons." And she says the language Germans use to talk about Muslims, or most immigrants, frankly, is telling.

KIYAK: In Germany, we always talk about a special group of people. Although they are Germans, we still say they are - in Germany, we call it Auslaender, the foreigner. Although these people have a German passport, they are still the Auslaender. We do not really use this term when we mean Italian people or Spanish people, but we specially use this term for people from - coming from Turkey or the Arabic countries. They cannot really reach the status of being a normal German just because of this term.

CORNISH: How long do you have to be in Germany before you're not considered an Auslaender?

KIYAK: Until you die (laughter).

CORNISH: Even if your family has been here one or two generations? Is that how Germans still think of people with migrant backgrounds?

KIYAK: Yes, of course. So even me as a journalist, if I say we don't have a good taxation situation, then the reaction is you think that the taxation system in Turkey is better than ours? People always put things right in relation to the country they think I am from. This is a permanent reaction from my first text until now. I never get another reaction to what I wrote.

CORNISH: Like any other journalist, Mely Kiyak gets hate mail. But thanks to her Kurdish name, she gets messages with an Islamophobic bend. She's not even Muslim. These messages have taken an even darker turn with the violence of ISIS in the news.

KIYAK: They call, very much on detail, how they want to kill me with the knife, how he wants to use the knife on my intimate organs. People write really crazy things.

CORNISH: She soon found that other writers with so-called migrant backgrounds were getting these racist and violent messages. And so they decided to turn the hate mail into poetry and make the public, specifically, a hate poetry night where they read the most heinous messages out loud.


KIYAK: (Speaking German) Rechnerisch stammen fuenfzig Prozent aller Tuerken von diesen Huren.


CORNISH: That's a bit of Kiyak on stage reading from a letter that says half of Turks are born from whores. She and her fellow writers are sitting around a table with funny props scattered about - hats, confetti. The audience, usually a sold-out crowd of a few hundred people a night, isn't sure what's going to happen.

KIYAK: The first reaction is shock, and then it start to get funny. And then they know they are allowed to laugh. And after the laugh, after two, three, four, five hours of hate, hate, hate, people get really tired of reading it. And then they understand we do get it every day, and we are tired, too. And I think it makes so much more sense just to read the letters than write 200 articles about the daily racism in the society.

CORNISH: What are your hopes for Germany and its evolution when it comes to integration?

KIYAK: I really believe that things will change, because I know hate is always louder than love. But I believe that it is in each new generation able to give back the love or the will to understand the other person.

CORNISH: Well, Mely Kiyak, thank you so much for talking with us. Danke.

KIYAK: Bitte (laughter).

CORNISH: Columnist Mely Kiyak - she writes for Die Zeit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 17, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous headline incorrectly characterized Mely Kiyak as a Muslim German.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.