Turkey in Berlin

Anti-war rally posters. Hermannplatz, March 2016.

You might as well be in Istanbul. So thick is Berlin’s Turkish cultural overlay, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was nothing separating the Bosphorous from east Germany. In spite of its critics, Berlin’s decidedly Middle Eastern public sphere helps ward off what would otherwise be a more provincial, poverty stricken city still struggling to overcome the legacy of Communism, and the Nazi era.

However, that doesn’t mean that Berlin is necessarily affluent, either. Culturally yes, as a consequence of immigration. Financially, no, despite the federal government’s return to the German capital from Bonn, in 1999.

Like many other major cities in the western half of the country, Berlin is home to a large and not so wealthy Turkish community, descended from the wave of guest workers first brought in to rebuild the country in the early 1960s.

Berlin being what it is, of course, naturally, it would also come to serve as a place of refuge for Turkish dissidents,and left-wingers, fleeing decades of military dictatorship, and, more recently, the growing authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and tgw renewal the country’s internal conflict with its Kurdish community. The lead photograph in this article, advertising a pro-Kurdish demo, and the flyer and following translation below, are archetypal testimonies of their presence.



Poor Turkey

At 5 in the morning, the muezzin issues the call to prayer. The warm wind carries his melody over the roofs of the old city, into every room, every ear. Still to wipe the sleep from his eyes, a man awakens and contemplates his earlier awakening. It fills his heart with calm and prudence. He makes his ablutions, lays out the prayer rug, folds his hands and makes his blessing: Bismillahi rahmani raheem.

This man voted for the AKP. Five hours earlier he was to be found in Taksim Square. One of tens of thousands, chanting with their arms in the air in defiance. Many waved flags back and forth, they danced, they sang, they called for revenge and death. There were women among them, some of them were students, who wasted no time in taking out their phones to film the whole orgy and share it with their friends. Suddenly, a smaller, screened group emerged. They carried long poles, on the end of which burned a life-sized doll. In the faces of many there, you could see ecstatic rapture or romantic enlightenment. At least, the eyes lit up more and the grins were wider.

Amazed, the man thinks that these images mirror those in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine. He thinks that it is not the Turkey that had been created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was opened up to the West and which afforded opportunities to different ethnic groups. It is no longer the Turkey where friends would laugh together in cafes, worry free, without being denounced by the owner. It is also no longer the Turkey where great singers, actors, poets and artists thrive. He thinks that it is now a country where science and culture have suffocated for decades, where no ideas take seed, where no culture takes hold, because he knows that dissenters have been “eradicated” for years; jurists, journalists, publishers, poets and teachers have been locked up without trial, simply because they jarred with what the government thinks.They broke no laws, but the convictions of their other values were sufficient to get them a life sentence or a lynching by the mob. It’s simple, he thinks: “If you’re not with them, you’re automatically against them.”

What really upsets him though, is the aversion he already felt as a child to “Turkish culture”. However, he really means the everyday life led by his neighbours and acquaintances. Later, his friends, and so on. He constantly had the impression that beneath their words and values, they conceal a ruthlessness that can only be expected of vicious creatures. An uncompromising stance in their belief, with barricades put up against anything that is categorically different. He specifically believes that this manifests itself in the Turkish youth, which in turn leads to willing violence.

No one drives as recklessly as a Turk. No one beats their children or wives as often as a Turk. He thinks that the coup was just a crazy catalyst where they can live out their vile tendencies, but even more so. Our tradition, he continues, makes no provision for this, based as it is on Islam; but real Islam is a very social and tolerant religion, where the protection of the weak and compassion for those who are suffering is all-important. Those who run through the streets, like a rampaging horde, calling for more deaths have nothing in common with men of faith. They are brain-dead and heartless retaliators who merely dig the grave that our country will be pushed into within the coming decades.

Hopefully, the Turkish people will be given a new lease on life and renewed faith though.

He wants to hear the call of the muezzin. No matter where he finds himself. His arching vocals give him strength and reaffirms his belief that there are powers bigger and better than him. He wants a Turkey back that is more colourful, lively and friendly. A Turkey where hospitality is not an empty husk. He wants to see laughing women in the street, who acknowledge their femininity and are proud of it. However, above all, he wants a Turkey where people give greater importance to differing ideas.


Translated from the German by Samuel Morgan. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.