German, Turkish, German Turkish or Turkish German? New investigative video series passes the mic to ‘German Turks’

In 1961, the West German government signed a ‘recruitment agreement’ (Anwerbeabkommen) with its Turkish counterpart, paving the way for the migration of Turkish workers to the booming Federal Republic. Today, the vast majority of the three million men and women of Turkish heritage living in Germany can trace at least parts of their family history to this agreement. Although 57 years have passed, the (now reunified) Germany is still struggling to come to terms with such ethnic diversity.

‘German Turks’ and the question of national loyalty

Aside from long-standing patterns of exclusion linked to issues of race and class, Turkish ‘guest workers’ and their children are also adversely affected by the current downturn in diplomatic relations between the German and Turkish governments. The fact that a considerable number of them seemingly support President Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn has reignited debates as to whether they can ever be loyal to the Federal Republic.

Reflective of this concern with the national loyalties of the so-called ‘German Turks’ was the media campaign against football player Mesut Özil earlier this year, who subsequently resigned from the national football team citing racism and disrespect. (The moniker ‘German Turk’ – Deutschtürke – is the standard group designation employed in German public discourse. It has been criticised as indicative of the country’s failure to transcend an ethnicised conception of citizenship and belonging, however: semantically, it connotes the primacy of a Turkish identity, which is only qualified by the attribute of secondary Germanness.)1

Concrete lifeworlds

At the same time, such questions of ‘loyalty’, ‘identity’, and ‘belonging’ remain highly abstract. How the three million people grouped together as ‘German Turks’ actually understand their own experience – and the extent to which they conceive of themselves as German Turks, Turkish Germans, Turks, or Germans – is little explored.

A new investigative video series aims to redress this imbalance. Young journalist Hüdaverdi Güngör developed the YouTube series “For a Hookah with …” (Auf eine Shisha mit …), criss-crossing the territory of the Federal Republic and having conversations with predominantly young ‘German Turks’ of his own generation. The series is composed of 20 videos of roughly six to seven minutes in length; and it takes its name from the fact that Güngör and his interlocutors smoke a hookah at the end of each video.2

The encounter with a journalist

The communal pleasure of smoking a hookah is indicative of the video series’ greatest strength: the fact that journalist and interviewee meet on an equal footing. By contrast, the predominant encounter between journalists and people of Turkish descent is marked by striking power imbalances: usually, ‘German Turkish’ respondents are confronted by journalists with pre-set questions and assumptions to which they are supposed to react.

Staple concerns in this regard are inquiries that ask Muslims to distance themselves from terrorist attacks, that force men of Turkish descent into a defensive position about their alleged machismo, or that parse women’s statements for their stance on the headscarf. Muslim theologian Nimet Seker asserts:

“The majority of media requests I receive represents […] only the perspective of media makers themselves. They just want me to give them a soundbite for a piece they’ve already written, the thrust of which they’ve already picked. Like in a talk show, my soundbite is meant to fulfil a role in a larger stage play where the notion that it is actually my own questions and concerns that matter is a mere pretence.”3

In the words of one of Güngör’s conversation partners: “To have to explain yourself constantly diminishes your position in the context of the interaction. That means that if I […], as a woman who wears the headscarf, constantly need to explain why I’m wearing a headscarf, then I’m lower down on the ranks of the hierarchy […] than the one who demands this justification from me.”4

Owning the ‘German Turkish’ label

The For a Hookah with … video series manages to avoid this trap. While the meetings centre on questions of identity and belonging, it is Güngör’s interlocutors who set the tone and the content of the conversation. While they guide Güngör and the viewer through the neighbourhoods of their childhood, they reflect on their experiences.

Some of them proudly own the moniker ‘German Turk’: 21-year-old Dilem Kaya from Berlin appreciates her position at the confluence of different languages and traditions and wants to pass on her ‘German Turkish’ dual identity to her children.5 Umre Kizildeniz, 23, who grew up in a rural area in northern Bavaria asserts: “I have two home countries, I don’t have just one. Why should I limit myself? Just because Germany has a border and Turkey has a border I don’t have to decide.”6

Identifying as ‘Turkish’

Yet not everyone conceives of themselves as a ‘German Turk’ in this way. For instance, 21-year-old Berat Özkaynak from the small town of Ellwangen identifies immediately as Turkish, in line with his Turkish passport. Only any children he will have with his German fiancée Dilara will be ‘German Turks’, according to him. Yet he subsequently nuances this categorical self-description: “I don’t know whether I’m a German or a Turk. Germans say that I’m a Turk, [and] in Turkey I’m called a German.”7

Emrah Celik, a 30-year-old communication designer born and living in Cologne, echoes this sentiment: he sees himself as 60 per cent Turkish and 40 per cent German. Only the generation of his children will be able to move beyond a predominantly ‘Turkish’ (or ‘German’) identity, he asserts: “they don’t need this distinction any more. ‘Am I a Turk or a German?’ – maybe we shouldn’t ask this question anymore.”8

Despite their difficulties in pinning down their ‘national’ identity, Mr Özkaynak and Mr Celik appear to feel at home in their everyday surroundings. By contrast, Selim Sezgi, a 20-year-old student from Chemnitz – a town renowned for recent episodes of far-right rioting – not only identifies as a Turkish citizen, he also sees Turkey as his emotional home: in often glowingly nationalist terms, he describes his elation at travelling to Turkey – and the feeling of despondency and depression that sets in when the family returns to Chemnitz where they are routinely subjected to racist hostilities.9

‘I can say that I’m German but no one is going to accept it’

And then there are those who, like 18-year old Xalo, see themselves as German and as part of one German people (Volk).  However, this self-definition is quickly followed both by an emphasis on the importance of his ancestors’ cultural traditions, and by a (painful) recognition that his Germanness is questioned by others – a fact that is evident from his experiences of racial profiling by police and of everyday discrimination.10

Similarly, while her mother “never fully arrived” in Germany, 23-year-old Tuğba Bakırcı from Cologne feels distant from Turkey. She also stresses her political activism in Germany and calls upon fellow children of Turkish immigrants to become involved in German politics. Later in the conversation, however, she concedes that “I can only be what society sees in me. I can say a lot of things – I can say that I’m German but no one is ever going to accept it; I’m also not perceived that way.”11

Discrimination in education

Despite the different positionings of Güngör’s conversation partners in matters of identity – as well as their diversity in terms of gender, social class and family background, educational and professional careers, and political opinions – a number of common concerns emerge.

Many respondents stress the significance of the school system. Those whose educational journeys were more successful frequently highlight the importance of unconditional parental support in the face of diverse odds. A large number of Güngör’s interlocutors also emphasise the continued salience of ethnic and racial discrimination in schools – emanating less from fellow pupils than from teachers.

This resonates with findings from scientific studies identifying the German school system as more inequitable than the educational sectors of other OECD countries: schools tend to amplify social and economic status differentials, placing the burden on parents’ ability to deploy economic and social capital.12 Other findings highlight that teachers tend to award lower grades to children with ‘foreign’ rather than ‘German’ names – even if they submit the same assignment.13

The importance of neighbourhood life

A second issue that continuously resurfaces is linked to residential segregation. Many respondents highlight the existence of ethnic divides between different neighbourhoods. Areas inhabited mostly be immigrants and their descendants are often marked by higher levels of insecurity and suffer from worse service provision. While some interlocutors nevertheless feel at home in majority ‘Turkish’ areas, others call for greater efforts to achieve social mixing.

Many interviewees strongly identify with their neighbourhoods and their hometowns; often, this even eclipses their ‘German’ or ‘Turkish’ national identity in importance. Hence, many of them struggle against outside ascriptions and stereotyping, which have a negative impact on their life prospects. They seek to combat the idea – frequently propagated by those who have never visited – that their borough is a ‘no-go area’.

Internal rifts and pressures

A number of Güngör’s conversation partners also highlight difficulties they face within ‘German Turkish’ settings. This is an issue addressed above all by interviewees who are themselves seen as minorities in the Turkish context.

Sinem Aktas, a 21-year-old from Dortmund, recounts how at school her position as the child of Alevi parents was at times difficult among her fellow pupils of Sunni Turkish heritage. Some girls accused her of being too liberal and of being hostile to Islam – even though, as Ms Aktas notes, it was in fact these girls who partied the hardest, flouting all rules of modesty routinely associated with Islam.14

Dilan Coktas is a 25-year-old student from Duisburg, born to a Christian Assyrian mother and a Muslim Kurdish father, brought together by communist political convictions. Her family fled Turkey in the late 1990s due to ethnic and political repression. Even in Germany, Ms Coktas experienced the tensions between Turkish, Kurdish, and Assyrian communities. The young woman notes that in the diaspora all of them tend to hold on even more steadfastly and emotionally to ‘their’ traditions, further solidifying ethnic and religious cleavages.15

Interviewees’ politics

Thus, politics looms large in many interviewees’ lives. Yet even here, some of them pull off surprisingly hybrid combinations. Umre Kizildeniz, for instance, is a former activist of the UETD (Union of European-Turkish Democrats), which he himself defines as a “lobby” for the AKP government. This has not prevented him, however, from joining the volunteer fire department of his local village – a monoethnic bastion of German traditionalism, beer festivals, and pork sausages.16

Others take a less ecumenical approach. 42-year-old Mustafa Esmer serves as the Secretary General of the Turan association – an organisation committed to a pan-Turkic ultranationalism. Esmer asserts that, growing up in Germany, he became aware that many of his friends sought to deny their Turkish identity: for instance, in order not to be rejected by bouncers tasked with preventing ‘Turkish’ youth from entering nightclubs, they routinely sought to pass themselves off as Spaniards or Italians.

“That fucked me up: that people disavow themselves in order to meet girls”, Esmer asserts. He took the opposite route, instead consciously emphasising his Turkishness and taking pride in it; a stance he compares to the struggle for African-American liberation in the United States.17

Finding one’s place

Other interviewees took a different route to come to terms with their complicated position in German society. For instance, one young man has purchased an expensive luxury car (that is, actually, beyond his financial means).18 Erkan Sahin, a 36-year-old from Hamburg, theorises that German Turks’ penchant for such status symbols is linked to the appeal of a from-rags-to-riches narrative: ‘guest workers’ initially occupied the lowest ranks of the social hierarchy; Mr Sahin himself grew up in impoverished, run-down apartment blocks without showers or hot water. In this context, owning an expensive BMW or Mercedes car signals personal achievement.19

It is, in part, this desire for recognition that fuels a turn to Turkish nationalism and to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. An Alevi interlocutor, who disapproves of the current Turkish leader’s politics, asserts that Erdoğan’s appeal is linked to the fact that many of his supporters “feel betrayed by the German state. And I totally get that. But at the same time, just because I feel betrayed I don’t have to go there [to Erdoğan].”20

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