What happens to a person when he discovers that his name isn't really his name? Names are a fundamental part of our identity: As children, we become conscious of ourselves by learning to say our name long before we start saying "I". Name-giving is a form of power: In the Biblical story of Genesis, Adam names all animals on Earth. A name is a unique identifier.
I, on the other hand, have two names. My first name was given to me at birth by my biological parents. My other name was given to me by my adoptive parents, who took me in and raised me.
A name can tell us a lot about a person. It hints at social origins and age. When I was born in 1976, "Alexander" happened to be a popular name in Germany. But my mother's Catholic relatives initially objected: The name did not have a Biblical connotation. My parents alleviated the family's concerns by adding the middle name "Mathias," a reference to one of Jesus' disciples. My name reveals my religious denomination.
A name is an identity. I have never been called by my birth name -- but does that make me a different person? The name given to me by my biological parents points towards the different life I could have led: a hypothetical biography, had my biological parents not put me up for adoption. Every day of my life would have been different if they had decided to raise me.
I am two people: The person I became, and the person I could have become. Sometimes, I wonder whether my hypothetical, alternative self lives somewhere in a parallel universe. Admittedly, this is a highly speculative and philosophical thought, but for decades it seemed more compelling to me than questions about my biological parents. They conceived me and named me, but I never felt a keen desire to find out more about them.
Now I do. Maybe I have become aware of the passing of time: The time that remains for a possible encounter with my biological parents is decreasing every day. They should be in the their mid- to late-60s now.
It was a big masquerade show
I grew up in Wiesoppenheim, a small village in southwestern Germany near the Rhine Valley. It's a tightly knit rural community: People are intimately familiar with the lives of their neighbors and community members. Names help to map out social networks, to establish kinship ties, to distinguish between old-timers and newcomers. Names matter.
I was an exception. It was abundantly clear that I wasn't my parents' biological child. They had left the village one morning and returned in the afternoon with an infant in the back seat of their car, so there was never any doubt how I came to Wiesoppenheim.
I found out that I had been adopted when I was three years old. Children can be extremely cruel to one another, and my parents later told me how much I cried during my first day in kindergarten. The other children immediately remarked that my parents were not really my parents. In the infantile pecking order, those with "real" parents counted more than the rest -- that is, more than I did.
I have no memories of that day. Indeed, I have no memories at all of being ridiculed because I was adopted. Everyone knew that I wasn't my parents' biological offspring. Still, everyone pretended that they were my natural parents. It was a big masquerade show. Adoption was simply declared off-limits for discussion, not because it was considered unseemly but because it would have forced discussions about my parents' infertile marriage. Maybe the rest of the village thought that they would make me uncomfortable by raising the issue. I think that they were uncomfortable, and preferred silence. And so a long silence ensued. I never talked about my adoptive heritage. It was almost like a social taboo, the contemporary equivalent of being born out of wedlock.
Years later I stumbled across the names of my biological parents. I was nine years old and hunting for hidden Christmas gifts. Underneath my parents' bed, I discovered an old folder with the adoption records. My biological parents' names did not sound German: Theirs were the names of Turkish guest workers.
I became a perfect little German
I was born in a Catholic hospital in Ludwigshafen, a nearby city on the Rhine. But I realized: I am Turkish! I was quite disturbed by my discovery. So my mother sat me down and told me my story: I was born two months early on December 28, 1976. My biological mother left me at the hospital shortly after childbirth. While the police went searching for her, I was sent to a nearby children's home, where my new parents first saw me several months later. They were hoping to adopt a child, and for reasons unknown to any of us, the head nurse thought that my black hair resembled my mother's black hair. It must have been love at first sight: All papers were quickly signed, and I was sent off with my new parents. I suspect that the seamless transition is one of the reasons why I never doubted my relationship with my adoptive parents, and why I developed an unshakeable faith in people. My doubts only came at a later age.
A nun at the children's home recounted fragments of my biographical background to my adoptive mother: My biological mother was supposed to marry a Turkish man, but had become pregnant from another man, possibly a German. Allegedly, that's why she left me in the hospital: She wanted to protect her reputation.
The nun didn't know anything about the Turkish man whom my biological mother was supposed to marry. But she had heard that the police had finally tracked her down, and that she had agreed to give me up for adoption. The name of her Turkish husband is mentioned in the documents, but they don't say anything about a possible extramarital affair. The only proof I have of the nun's story is the proof of plausibility: Why else would a woman abandon her newborn child in the hospital?
I am a Turkish child with a Turkish name. A name that I only carried for a few short weeks. I wonder what my adoptive parents called me during the first days of our time together, before they decided to name me Alexander. Did they simply say, "you"?
I officially received my new name in August 1977 when I was baptized in the Catholic faith. Since then, I have been Alexander Mathias. My name was a gift: Handed to me in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. My baptism washed me of my Islamic origins.
I became a perfect little German. German parents, a German name, embedded into the traditional culture of my little village. My skin was slightly darker than my friends', but that never seemed to matter. During all those years in school, nobody ever mentioned it to me. That, too, is part of a social taboo: When my parents and I are standing next to each other, the differences between our complexions is undeniable.
My parents placed great emphasis on education from an early age, and I quickly learned to love the German language. At night, my parents read me stories or taught me to sing children's songs. My grandmother taught me the Lord's Prayer. On weekends, we visited nearby castles, churches and monasteries. We hiked in the thick German forests. Before I entered school I could already read. In school, I loved to write. My parents' nurturing probably helped immensely, but I must have had a natural affinity as well.
"It falls back onto us"
I wonder whether my biological parents would have been able to nurture me in a similar way. I don't know how well they spoke German -- perhaps their language skills were limited.
My adoptive parents made it clear that they expected good grades from me. My mother was afraid that trouble at school would be seen as evidence of the negative consequences of adoption. "It falls back onto us," she would say defensively. So my childhood wasn't always carefree. Bad grades meant a bad mood at home, coupled with my mother's self-doubts. Self-doubt is a challenge for many parents, but it might weigh especially heavily on parents who have adopted children. My mother was counseled against adopting, and thus felt a constant need to prove that love and education could trump genetic dispositions.
In the trench warfare between nature and nurture, growing up -- and raising a child -- quickly becomes an exercise in self-examination. It's stressful.
Perhaps this is why my mother cherished our nightly reading sessions: She could forget about community norms and expectations and simply be proud of her son, who listened to her stories until he fell into a slumber. I wonder what stories my biological parents might have read to me.
In high school, I was taught about Western history: about the great defense mounted against the Ottoman army at Vienna. About the fall of Constantinople. It was us against them, Occident against Orient, Christianity against Islam. Had I grown up in a Turkish community, my perspective might have been reversed. Identity formation always includes a process of othering, of demarcating oneself from those who are different. But what if one's identity has two sides?
When I went to university, I intensely studied Islamic culture and religion. My two doctoral dissertations -- in theology and in linguistics -- address the relationship between Islam and the West. I never saw my academic work as an explicit attempt to process my biographical story, but I never forgot about it either. When I moved to Istanbul and Ankara to do research, I told myself: This is where I come from. This is the land of my forefathers. I wondered whether the immersion in Turkish culture would unearth genetically coded character traits that had not blossomed in Germany. I didn't notice anything.
One of my good friends is Turkish. We both live in Berlin, we go to the same gym, we socialize. His biography gives my a glimpse of the life that could have been. A glimpse into a parallel world: His parents were guest workers too, had four children, a large extended family, with an entrepreneurial spirit that is evident in many migrant communities. The whole family is involved in the small business.
My friend's name is Fatih Yığıtuşağı. He was named after Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the conquerer of Constantinople. A possible translation of the last name Yığıtuşağı is "son of a brave warrior." You can't get more Ottoman than that.
Did they ever think about me?
My birth name is Firat. It's a reference to the river Euphrates. Together with its twin, the river Tigris, it has always played a large role in the myths of Orient and Occident. As a boy's name, Firat references the power of the life-giving river. My friend Fatih says that the name is especially common in the region around Gaziantep, in the southeast of Anatolia, where his family comes from. Maybe my parents came from there as well. Maybe our grandparents knew each other. Unlikely, but not impossible.
Firat is neither a very common name, nor does it carry overtly religious connotations. Was my biological mother no devout Muslim? Did she act in the spirit of some tradition when she selected my name? Was perhaps my grandfather's name Firat?
My Turkish surname is much less exciting than Yığıtuşağı's. Mine is Kaya, which is the Turkish equivalent of Smith or Johnson. It's incredibly common, which would complicate the search for my biological parents.
But why should I suddenly become interested in them? I have no good answer except to say: I am interested. I am keen to hear their version of my story. I once entered my mother's husband's name into a search engine, which returned one result: A newspaper article referenced a man -- in roughly the right age bracket -- who received a ticket for driving too slowly on the highway in Southern Germany. His name is Veysil Kaya. My biological mother's name is Hera (which I found out by looking through my adoption documents). Is the slow driver my father? I don't know, but I am keen to find out.
I wonder whether Veysil and Hera ever think about the life they could have had if they had decided to raise me. Did they ever think about me? About me, Firat, whose name is Alexander?
Translated from German, this article originally appeared in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
Crossposted from The European.