Günter Wallraff, Lowest of the Low | Notes

Lowest of the Low (‘Ganz unten’ in the original, ‘En Alttakiler’ in Turkish) is Günter Wallraff’s undercover participatory journalism book where he disguises himself as a Turkish migrant and attempts at experiencing the daily lives of these migrants in Germany. It was published in 1985, translated to Turkish too -that’s how I read after a recommendation from a friend. It is apparent that the book had caused debates and had a considerable impact when it was first published. It seems to have become popular in the 80s in Turkey too, but it was a forgotten book as of today, or maybe I just never encountered it in another text or in a bookstore.

It’s not the only sensational work Wallraff published. Even though I haven’t read the other ones, there are some other journeys he took throughout his life starting with working in a tabloid newspaper or lately wearing blackface to act as a Somali. With his work, he is criticized both from the right (as expected) but also from the left about his methodology being racist. Even though I admired his way of working, there are also some disturbing aspects of his methods, maybe mainly not putting his own identity on the table in his personal observations. One main question for me is about the will to present his own experience instead of building close relationships with people whom he wants to represent and strengthening their voices. He tries it from time to time in the book where he transmits the dialogues without intervention. Nevertheless, Lowest of the Low was an impressive book for me.

Wallraff disguises himself as Ali and builds a story around the challenge of not being able to speak Turkish. In his story, he is the son of a Turkish father who leaves him at a young age and a Greek mother. He grows up in Piraeus with his mom. When others ask him to speak a little bit of Greek, he gives examples from his early courses about Ancient Greek, Odyssey in particular. Despite being 43 years old, he does some physical training and acts as if he is around 25-30 years old. He thinks that he sees the other face of society by his experience.

I don’t aim to summarize or transfer the disgraceful experiences he was exposed to during his life as Ali. He narrates all these in the book in a way that I cannot even cover even a gist of it. Instead, I just want to note jobs and the places he worked at just to remember and go back in the future maybe.

As first steps, he repairs the barn of a mansion in Cologne, works at a farm in Lower Saxony, next to Grohnde Nuclear Power Plant. He goes to a football match between Germany and Turkey in Berlin, 1983 and to a meeting of CSU in Passau where Franz Josef Strauss also joins. He even pretends that he’s a follower of the Turkish nationalist movement and Türkeş which leads to him having an autograph from Strauss.

After working some time at McDonalds, he critically examines the work culture of the company which might look pretty ordinary (in a negative sense) today but was surprising for him back in the 80s. After the service sector, he starts to work in construction sites, without papers (GBI, WTB, DIMA), and as a subcontracted labourer.

Ali tries hard to be baptized, meets with several priests who reject his will to convert to Christianity. Only towards the end, one migrant priest accepts his request. He even tries his luck with Sannyasins, followers of Bhagwan, but of course, he is ridiculed and rejected there as well. An infobox among the pages redirected me to an interview that Bhagwan gave to Der Spiegel in 1985 where he had some terrifying appraisal of Hitler. That wasn’t mentioned in Wild Wild Country, or maybe I missed it. This religious side story ends with Ali discovering the funeral services in order to send his corpse back to his country after his death. What he documents is an early account of necropolitics.

I found out that going step by step with every other experience will be hard for me. I couldn’t even cover the majority of the book. Let me take a short note about the drug trials he attends, the factory near Hamburg that produces brake pads by processing asbestos, his long-lasting knot at Thyssen, his dear boss Adler and Würgassen nuclear power plant.

Throughout the book, Wallraff refers to numerous occasions that tarnish one’s physical health and self-esteem. Even though I read some critics who argue that what the author cares about at the end is his personal gains after these projects he did, when I think solely about the book, I found Wallraff’s effort and position positive and solidarity. As I understand, his conclusion is a puzzled one. How did these people tolerate all this misery?