Scene: Friday afternoon on Sonnenallee, otherwise known as the “Gaza Strip”. I am sitting at a table outside an Arabic baklava joint, drinking a thin coffee out of a paper cup. The sidewalk is hopping with Arabs come from all over to do their shopping at Arabic supermarkets and greengrocers and I am waiting for one the street’s most colorful characters – the man known as Ali Sonnenallee.
Ali Sonnenallee is a German Muslim convert internet preacher, in general man-about-Sonnenallee. My friend Mehmet Martin, also a Muslim convert with an ear for esoteric mystics preaching one love – told me I simply had to meet him.
“You’re not going to be bringing trouble to Ali, are you?” said Ali Sonnenallee’s neighbor when he heard I was looking for him.
I said I meant Ali Sonnenallee no harm; I was just an American journalist.
“American, eh? You can’t do anything about it,” the man said, as though consoling me for an incurable disease. “In the eyes of Allah we are all one.”
The neighbor pointed Ali Sonnenallee out as he came our way, dressed head to toe in flowing, white Islamic garb, a prayer cap on his head, long white beard. He salaamed Arabs on the street right and left.
Ali Sonnenallee, who is in his late sixties and made his money as a haberdashery salesman, comes from a small jerkwater town near Kassel and came to Berlin when he was 19.
Since 2003 he has been living in this apartment, overlooking a dim courtyard. He explained that prior to his conversion to Islam twelve years ago he had had drug problems, numerous addictions, popped pills, drank large quantities of alcohol, but had always been “in search of a light”.
A Turkish friend had brought him to a mosque, where Ali felt “a powerful radiance”. But he didn’t want to make a hasty decision. Becoming Muslim was not a thing you could rush into.
Eventually, however, after Ali had mulled it over enough, he felt that the time was right. He wandered into a mosque on a side street off of Sonnenallee. Someone asked if they could assist Ali.
Ali said, “I was looking for something. I was searching for a light. And I found this light in your mosque. And I know now that I have found what I was looking for. And I know that I want to be a Muslim.”
He changed his name from Michael to Ali and started making internet videos under the name of “Ali Sonnenallee” sparked by a gut reaction against Salafist preacher and Muslim convert, Pierre Vogel and his “hate sermons”.
So far he has made around thirty videos on such subjects as “the position of women in Islam”, “the lost children of Islam”, and homophobia in Islam.
It is Ali Sonnenallee’s opinion that Islam has to be reformed. The Catholic Church has confronted its position on homosexuality, and Ali Sonnenallee maintains that Muslims have to do with the same thing.
“We mustn’t change the Qur’an, but we have to bring Islam to the 21st century,” says Ali. “It occurs to me that those people who spread hate for people who choose to live their lives differently, they use the tools of the Kufr (the unbelievers). You drive Toyota cars, use machine guns from Germany and scream ‘All infidels must die!’ It’s totally schizophrenic and it’s a contradiction in terms.”
With regards to the position of women in Islam, Ali acknowledges the right of Muslims to the segregation of the sexes during prayer. He also respects the right of Muslim women to wear the head covering.
“My mother also wore a headscarf when I was a child,” says Ali Sonnenallee. “And so it’s not so unheard of for us. And also the burka. The nuns also have burkas. That’s what is so ridiculous. The Germans are getting in a tizzy – you just have to take a look at the nuns! That’s also a burka!”
I asked Ali Sonnenallee about how he liked living there in the thick of things, right where Sonnenallee was the craziest.
He told me about the new arrivals from the Middle East, particularly the young people, who sometimes seemed overly keen to adopt Western consumer culture.
“Consume, consume, consume!” said Ali Sonnenallee. “This satedness! Even refugee children, so young, and when you walk by them they have an Apple cell phone in their hands.”
Ali Sonnenallee has also seen how young refugee men changed in Germany. Set loose from the protective structure of their families, they gave themselves over to bad habits and temptations which didn’t exist in where they were from back home, drinking alcohol and doing haram things.
“Back home they had a family,” says Ali Sonnenallee. “They had something to latch on to. They watched out for each other. And then these young people come here and they look at how the Germans deal with everything, and they regard this as normal. That’s the bad thing, and what is so terrible. This eagerness to fit in.”
About TV shows like 4 Blocks and Dogs of Berlin, which presume show the reality of the Arabic milieu on Sonenallee, but only paint a clichéd picture of Sonnenallee with its dodgy clan structures, Ali doesn’t put much stock.
“It’s not the Sonnenallee that I know,” he says.
But Ali does venture to tell me that the way businesses operate on Sonnenallee is often less than transparent.
“All these shisha bars and tea lounges operate all with Strohmänner – front-men,” says Ali Sonnenallee. “The chamber of commerce and industry has certain requirements and restraints, and if you are not recognized and don’t have a right to permanent residence you can’t be self-employed. The Arabs have the capital, and then there comes along a German friend, they pay him a couple thousand euro, and then he goes to the chamber of commerce and industry and says, ‘I want to open up a shop.’ Voila. It’s easy, but in the background are the other ones.”
Although Ali Sonnenallee has found his niche in Neukölln, he is considering leaving for somewhere “quieter”. Maybe he will go back to the place where he was born in west Germany. Either that or go to live on a farm with friends in Holland, and – were it not for his three cats – he would consider moving to Turkey, where he finds the Turks to be friendlier than the more “closed” Turks in Berlin.
Before we take leave of each other, Ali Sonnenallee presses a book into my hands. It is entitled “Sodom”, and is about the role of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. A similar expose has to be done about Islam, says Ali Sonnenallee.
Together we walk up Sonnenallee in the direction of Hermannplatz. Everyone knows Ali Sonnenallee, and out on the street they greet him as we pass them by, seated at café terraces smoking water-pipes or poised at their shawarma spits. But what do these people really think about him, Ali Sonnenallee? Ali has to ask himself sometimes.
“Everyone knows me,” says Ali Sonnenallee. “My videos are watched as far away as India. I’m really proud of this. I can walk down Sonnenallee etc. etc. etc. And everyone calls out to me, “Ali!” But I’m sorry. When I close the door, I am alone again.”