German Turks torn between old ways and integration


While a play sheds light on migrants’ plight, a best-selling book does not, writes Derek Scallyin Berlin

THE BALLROOM is a grand sight from another era. Colourful paper chains stretch across the stucco ceiling with the faded frescoes. The polished parquet floor is half-hidden under confetti and streamers.

A beautiful bride in white smiles at her two bridesmaids. Several suited men look on, each one nervous enough to be the groom.

One after another, they step out of their world to address the audience at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a theatre in the largely Turkish neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. In just two years, it has won national acclaim for its thought-provoking dramas on post-immigration themes.

In the ballroom, Dilek the bride describes the day she became a policewoman as the proudest moment in her life. Working actress Hülya laughs and cries at how her proud parents let her drug addict brother drag them all into massive debt. Berlin politician Özcan Mutlu regrets the price his family has paid for his career.

These are not actors but real Berliners talking about themselves. All were either born here to Turkish parents or moved here as children. Running through their stories is a common thread of disconnection to the Germany they’re supposed to call home.

“I’m jealous of people who have the feeling of being at home,” confesses Emel Zeynelabidin, a 49-year-old communications consultant who recalls the day she stumbled across a CD of Irish music.

“I was confronted with a longing that I couldn’t place, something that went on for months.”

She decided to head to Ireland and spent Christmas and new year 2003/2004 in Galway.

“After 40 years living in Germany, it was the first time I experienced the feeling of homeland,” she says.

With that, she begins a lively jig and soon the entire company has joined in. It’s a surreal, joyful moment in Class Reunion, a play that premiered three years ago to packed houses and is now back for a brief run before heading to New York.

This time around, the play is overshadowed by another revival. If it were a play, it would be called Good Migrant, Bad Migrant: An Integration Debate. No one knows when this piece premiered in Germany and, though the cast varies with each production, the conflict-laden script remains the same.

The story begins half a century ago, when West German companies recruited masses of Turkish and Italian men to ease West Germany’s crippling labour shortage. The name they were given – Gastarbeiteror “guestworkers” – revealed that neither employers nor employees expected it to be a permanent arrangement.

Segue to the present day, any German city has tower blocks of social welfare flats now home to three-generational families of migrant workers who never planned to stay in Germany but who now know nothing else.

Lives are lived in permanent fear and Islamic ignorance, so Germans are told, and every apartment balcony bears a satellite dish defiantly pointed away from the German society around them.

Germany’s regular debate on immigration and integration – or “Good Migrant, Bad Migrant” – has, this time around, been steered by Thilo Sarrazin. The former politician’s best-selling book Germany is Doing Itself Inhas sent Germany’s familiar story of failed integration in an unexpected direction.

Usually the final act involves migrants and Germans accusing each other of lacking the foresight to anticipate the consequences of the Gastarbeitermigration.

Germans blame Turks for failing to integrate, Turks accuse Germans of never wanting them to integrate, nor of making them feel welcome. Normally the drama concludes thus, in an unresolved vicious circle, and the curtain falls.

This time, however, the debate has taken on a raw tone, amid a wider, often populist European debate about its Muslim minorities.

Sarrazin has been cheered for suggesting that Muslims, because of their socialisation and religion, are incapable and unwilling to integrate into German society.

Worse, he suggests, their general disinterest in education is inherited by their many children with apparently negative consequences for their intelligence.

If smart Germans don’t start having more babies, Sarrazin argues in a calm, academic tone, Germany will eventually collapse under the weight of its idiot immigrant offspring.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of the politicians who rushed to condemn Sarrazin soon changed their tune when they noticed a groundswell of public support for his controversial views.

Leading the pack was Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer who announced last week that Germany didn’t need any more migrants from “alien cultures”.

It’s a worrying development, reflecting a high level of support for populist views in snap opinion polls.

Long-term surveys are more reliable of public opinion and they suggest more stable and moderate views, but it’s far from a happy picture.

Two-thirds (69 per cent) of migrants say they feel happy in Germany, according to a survey commissioned earlier this year by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

However, every second migrant says they don’t feel accepted by German society, a figure rising to 61 per cent among those with Turkish roots. One in four Turks feels utterly alien in Germany.

Back in the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, Class Reuniondirector Lukas Langhoff says his play, distilled from hours of interviews, has no connection with the integration debate raging outside.

“They are asking questions now that I thought we answered years ago,” he says.

For now, Berlin is a city with two competing plays. The integration debate resembles a tired pantomime played out by opportunistic politicians. Class Reunion, by comparison, holds more truth and wisdom than 10 integration debates.

Audiences are presented with the twin struggle millions of Turkish-Germans face every day: the expectation to conform to traditional Turkish family structures, and pressure to integrate into a wider, often hostile German society.

“I find it difficult to say I’m German even though I’ve had a German passport since I was 18,” confesses taxi driver Tuna Basgerdan to the audience.

“My friends ask me why I don’t see myself as German and I say, because you don’t see me as German.

“When customers in the cab ask me to tell them about Turkey, I tell them to look it up on the internet.”