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Breaking the Mold

Jane PaulickAugust 12, 2004

Turkey's bid for EU membership might still be a touch-and-go issue, but a look at Germany’s cultural mainstream shows that the country’s Turkish community has never been more visible.

Türkgünü Festival in Berlin attracts tens of thousands every year

It was some 40 years ago that the first Gastarbeiter, or foreign guest workers, began arriving in Germany to help rebuild the country's economy in the years after World War II. Decades on, a new generation of creative talent has come of age and found its voice -- and it definitely doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as "Turkish."

When Türkgünü, Europe's largest festival of Turkish culture, took place in Berlin for the third time last May, the high profile guests at the landmark Brandenburger Tor included charismatic Turkish parliamentarian and Green Party member Cem Özdemir; and last year's Turkish winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, Sertab Erener, along with the country's 2004 entry, the high-spirited Ska band Athena, provided the entertainment.

Streetwear from Istanbul

Chances were that quite a few of the 100,000 visitors enjoying the show were wearing Mavi jeans. Traditionally, Turkey's image is rarely associated with cutting-edge fashion, but the Mavi chain has become a household name in recent years, with the likes of Cher and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell among the label's famous fans. Outside Turkey, Germany is one of its key markets.

Mavi Jeans Logo der türkischen Jeans-Manufaktur
Cher and Geri Halliwell like to squeeze their cheeks between Mavi jeans.

Now an international success story, Mavi grew from humble beginnings. Set up as a small textiles company in Istanbul in 1971, in 2001 it ranked 10th in ACNielsen's "Well-Known Brands" survey.

Serdar Mazmanoglu from Europe's Mavi headquarters in Dietzenbach, Germany, told DW-WORLD that fashion is a growth export area in Turkey right now. "There's a real sense of opportunity at the moment," he said. "A number of companies are helping the industry forge ahead and Mavi is one of them."

Resisting the stereotypes

On their way to Mavi's flagship store in the capital's hip Mitte district, Berlin's trend-setters are likely to pass several cinemas still showing Fatih Akin's award-winning film Head-On. This year's surprise hit at the Berlin Film Festival, it scooped top honors and secured Germany its first Golden Bear since 1986. Although the film does explore specifically Turkish issues, Akin has always insisted he's a German director who makes German films.

Berlin-based film director Neco Çelik echoes his feelings. "I don't always want to be described as 'the Turkish film director Neco Çelik'," he told DW-WORLD. "Turkish issues aren't the main focus of my films."

Sibel Kekilli auf der Berlinale
Actress Sibel Kekilli won multiple critics prizes for her riveting role in "Head On."Image: AP

Head-On star Sibel Kekilli couldn't agree more. Shortly after being named best actress at the last Berlin Film Festival, she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily: "In Germany, Turks can only ever play Turks, and then it's always the same old clichés, the same old subjects."

Nonetheless, films like Alltag (Daily Life), a love-story set in the badlands of Berlin's Turkish district Kreuzberg, prompted The New York Times to describe Çelik as "the Spike Lee of Germany." He admits the U.S. is sometimes a bigger influence than his Turkish roots, and like many other second-generation Turks, he's wary of ideology. First and foremost, he's determined to resist being stereotyped.

Life in the 'hood

Neco Celik
Neco CelikImage: 36pictures

"We try and steer clear of too much dogma," said Çelik (photo) emphatically. "At home we were always respectful to our parents, but on the streets we were completely different people. We could play all the games."

Born in Berlin in 1972, Çelik grew up in the milieu he depicts in his films. His latest, Urban Guerillas, proves that as a former gang member and graffiti artist himself, no one can capture the world of underground Turkish hip hop and urban alienation better than he can.

He also works in Kreuzberg as a social worker with young people, and says he's more interested in the dynamics of day-to-day life in the 'hood than in the broader principle of ethnic divides. He sees the evolution of a second-generation migrant identity as a natural progression.

"Our parents came from villages, they were uneducated," he explained. "We took what we feel we wanted and needed from the religion and the culture they gave us. We've grown up to do different jobs to what our parents did -- and, inevitably, some of us have chosen creative careers."

A generation of chameleons

Kenan Kolat of the Turkish Association in Berlin-Brandenburg is equally reluctant to talk in terms of an increased Turkish presence in Germany's cultural landscape.

"It's an outdated cliché to talk in terms of 'German' culture and 'Turkish' culture," he told DW-WORLD. "People are far more mobile these days, and in this age of globalization it's very common to see cultures merge."

Film still from "Urban Guerillas"Image: 36pictures

Germany's cultural critics might be busy hailing the emergence of an exciting migrant scene that's supposedly shaking up the country's stagnant cultural life, but many within the Turkish community resent being reminded of their minority status. "The second generation was born and raised here and they therefore take an active part in Germany's cultural life," insisted Kolat. "It's simply a very normal development."

If this generation has a literary spokesman, it has to be Feridun Zaimoglu. His latest book, 12 Gramm Glück (Twelve Grams of Happiness), is a collection of short stories told from the perspective of a narrator straddling two cultures. He first made his name with a compilation of interviews with young Turkish kids whose slang and speech patterns Zaimoglu dubbed "Kanak Sprak," also the name of that book. The term gave a name to Turkish ghetto culture, and the hybrid existence of Germany's "Kanaksters," second-generation Turks who live outside the German mainstream.

But others refuse to speak in terms of either assimilation or marginalization. "It doesn't matter what you want to call us," said Neco Çelik. "We're chameleons, we fit in wherever we need to."