Kreuzberg, Berlin’s Little Istanbul

We were on a tour to check out the street art and graffiti in Berlin, and our guide stopped in front of a apartment block.

“Can you make out the sign that it says on the block? I’ll give you a hint, there’s four word two in English two in German.”

“Life Uber Fresh Setl”, she pointed out after we looked at her puzzled for a tad too long. This is a graffiti crew based in Kreuzberg, and their grafitti is made up of beautiful words only.

“How long did they take to do this?”

“A few hours, they absailed down from the building and then make this piece and disappear. There may be alot of street art in Berlin, but its’s still illegal you know?” She winked at us.

The crew is was called the Uber Freak and as this trailer shows, they really risk life and limb for their craft.

I looked around me, and noted the number of sheer stalls as well as some very aggressive graffiti statements, “F$ck the poice, f$ck the system”, said the less artistic graffiti (not by the Uber Freaks) scribbled across a few floors in the adjacent building.

For some reason, te vibe of the district both typified my experience of Berlin but also stood apart for it in some way, it was disorientating experience.

Our guide continued, “Kreuzberg is home to a large Turkish-German population, and for many of the newer arrivals or first generation arrivals, news from home still matters. If you look at the antenna’s you can see that they all face one direction – that’s the direction of Ankara (the capital of Turkey).”

“Wait, does that mean that we are in a sort Little Istanbul?” I asked.

“Well…” she grimaced slightly, seeming to want to move on from a topic she absent-mindedly raised, “you could say that.”

Another person chimed in, “there’s a Turkish flag on the house.”

“What I really like about Kreuzberg, is that they are authentic and sincere. Support local, no big business. There are almost no fast food restaurants here, the locals chased the a Subway that tried to set up shop here away. There’s only one gusty attempt at ‘fastfoodification’ that still exists a MacDonalds, and even that one at the edge of Kreuzberg with cameras on every side.”

Observed the many cameras located outside the MacDonalds
I kept quiet and continued with the group, but my mind was piqued by the nugget that she revealed about Kreuzberg as Little Istanbul.

The district of Kruezberg stands in the middle of Berlin, on the west of the Spree and once bordered the Berlin Wall. It has two distinct divisions according to postcodes SO36, the most alternative of Berlin (not because of gentrification but because the place is resided by immigrants and people from the lowest economic and social classes) and SW61 the fancy, tourist-friendly extension of the city.

The Turkish presence within the geographical boundaries that define modern Germany dates back to the 16th century, when Turkish people people have been in Germany since the 16th century during the era of the Ottoman Empire. Saxon noblemen like Augustus II took Turkish women as mistresses and sired children who went on to become important notable individuals such as Frederick Augustus Rutowsky. Turks moved to Prussia to serve as mercenary soldiers under the Prussians. As trade between the Ottoman and Prussian Empires got established, more Turkish traders moved to Berlin and Prussians to Istanbul. Modern Turkish immigration sped up in the 1950s, as the end of World War II and the rebuilding of West Germany with fund from the Marshall Plan led to an economic miracle in Germany called the Wirtschaftswunder, the miracle on the Rhine.

Workers were needed and people from East Germany were the first pick to work in West Berlin. But the Berlin wall came up and all of a sudden labour from the east dried up.

To get more staff, the West German government signed an agreement with the Turkish government in 1961 to invite Turkish people to move to Germany to work as guest worker. These individuals were initially given short term visa, but employers later pressured the government to extend the length of their visas as it made no economic sense to lose these well trained staff. Few Turkish migrants planned to stay in Germany, most intended just as the German government did to work a few years, make some good money and go back. Immigration rules were relaxed in the 1970s and individuals working in Germany could bring their families over. Consequently more Turks moved over to Germany.Turkish people have added much flavour to a city like Berlin, a doner kebab is a Turkish German creation and is the most popular street food in Germany today (not bratwurst or pretzels for example).

While the earliest migration in the 16th century seemed to have turned out well, the most recent migration of Turks to Germany has been tension filled. Xenphobia reared its ugly head immediately after German reunification when questions on the fate of the Turks in Germany brought out the best and worst of the people in the newly formed country. German citizenship was not a given for these people, at the beginning of the new Germany in 1990, these individuals had to have at least one German parent before they could obtain German citizenship. Legal changes later allowed these people to apply to be German but, they had to give up their Turkish citizenship. One of the most emblematic examples of Berliner attitude during the partition of the city was that of the construction of a treehouse next to the Berlin Wall (Baumbaus an der Mauer) by Osman Kalin, a resident of the Kreuzberg district. His attitude typified what it was to be a Berliner and a Kreuzberger even if he wasn’t ethinically a German.

Tensions still remain however due to issues of racism, discrimination and integration. Footballer Mesut Ozil, a global star and a 2014 World Cup winner with Germany recently retired from international football citing discrimination and racism from the German football association, ending his announcement with a damning tweet that, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” He is you would imagine not the only individual who has suffered something like this.

Ozil and another fellow star were recently caught up in controversy over an appearance next to the Turkish President Recap Erdogan in the run up to a major constitutional referndum in Turkey in 2017 after a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016 (around 500 people were killed in total and 16,000 people were detained after the coup and 48,000 civil servants suspended. 131 media outlets were shut down). Turkish politics allows overseas voting, and Erdogan had gone around Europe canvassing for support and the popular mood in Germany was a negative one against Erdogan (even among those with ties to Turkey there is a clash between Erdogan supporters and opponents).

Kruezberg stands not just as the place for an authentic alternative experience in Berlin but also a standing site of (what could be) the defining question of the early 21st century – can you be both Turkish and German at the same time?

A few paragraphs above I described Osman Kalin, an ethnic-Turk German who exemplified the Berlin spirit. Within this example lies, in my view, the heart of the debate on integration and multiculturalism in the Western world – does your ethnicity determine your identity?

There are different answers to that question, and different societies are partial to different answers. It is perhaps the height of hubris to assume that one answer is the more morally correct one, since the opinions of a society are shaped by their history. In the Anglophone world (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand), the unequivocal mainstream position is that the ethnicity of a person adds to their identity and enriches society, hence the concept of the melting pot or salad bowl. In the Francophone world (led by France) the overarching position is that identity is not an ethnic one but a cultural, your identity as a Frenchmen is not how different you are, but how similar you are. Do you behave like French people, do you have the same special and cultural mores as the rest of society? Even if you may not, do you accept the dominant societal thinking? This difference in world view explains (I believe) why US-based comedian Trevor Noah was caught in the controversy of claiming the World Cup winning French national team as African and recieved support from a anglophone writers and viewers but was condemned by the French Ambassador and a substantial amount of French people, including the players themselves.

That Trevor Noah’s observation of the African ancestry of the French players is used as an argument against diversity by extreme right-wing groups in France shows that the same fact can be perceieved in very different ways – the same fact can be used to bolster different arguments based on one’s view of the world. But arguments are lost on the fringes, it is the larger majority, the soft left and right, who are more reasonable and who’s views should be heard. Human migration is a constant throughout history. What determines the success and failure of immigration seems to be how well a group of people are able to establish and blend in with the society they join. A comprehensive book was written by Lee Khoon Choy telling the different fortunes of the Chinese diaspora in southeast Asia. In some societies, they became essentially part of the fabric, in others they emerged as aliens and yet these Chinese immigrants all came from similar southern-Chinese provinces.

The argument will not end, and its clear (to me at least) what the issues are. Onky the future will tell how this defining questiom will be answered, i do wonder what history sould declare of our times.

I carried on walking, fascinated by Kreuzberg, so much a microcosm of Berlin yet also different in a way.

I decided to stop thinking and just enjoy the walk.


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