Somewhere in the noughties

So I was on Potsdamer Straße after boxing, sitting in a Moroccan shisha bar, smoking a water pipe and drinking a Turkish tea with a shot of lemon. Turks, Arabs, Germans, Africans walked by dragging their kids in tow. I had been sitting here for a couple of weeks now after boxing and I was gradually beginning to  see the same faces – locals from the the hood. I liked it here. There was a  bit of life on the streets. Funny I didn’t go to the east at all. Herbert was an Ossie. He and his girlfriend, all they did was hang out in is Prenzlauerberg and Mitte. I couldn’t stand the east personally.

From my table at the shisha bar I could see what was going on out front of the boxing club. There were always a couple guys hanging out on the street. Easy smoking cigarettes – a big athlete, at the same time a terrible chain smoker. The usual Turks, roaring and bellowing, competing in loudness with the Turks next door hawking fruits and vegetables. Sasha the Serb always complained these Turks at the gym were making a big commotion. It was true, especially when they sparred. They had to rabble and yell.

There was this one guy, a small Turk with his hair dyed down the middle, he was the loudest of them all. Then there was his brother, Fazıl. “Pronounced like Puzzle,” he had said. I talked to him after boxing once. “This kind of life that you see around here in Berlin, it’s just a modern form of slavery,” said Fazıl. “One day all the poor people are going to band together and make their own army. It’s just a matter of time.”

Fazıl, for his part, was looking forward to the time. He knew on which side he would be.

When they weren’t boxing they were hanging out on the street in their boxing gear drinking energy drinks, while other Turks came by to chat and just shoot the breeze. In the window were posters ofupcoming box matches. There were pictures of some of the professional boxers connected with the gym: Cengiz Koç and Oktay Urkal, 1996 Olympic silver medal winner, world champion, Marko Huck, “The Sandžak Bomber”. 

Another guy you saw round was Mirso from Novi Pazar, in the Sandžak. We started talking in the locker room. He said he was in better shape than I was. It was because of his job as a builder. It was harder work than what I did, writing and teaching. All I did was sit around all day. And then when Ramadan came around Mirso had to fast for a month, and lost ten kilos, just like that. 

I told Mirso that I had been to Novi Pazar two or three times, and he was just amazed – like why would you want to take your vacations in a shit-hole like that? At the same time, he was proud of his home-town. Didn’t I think that the girls from Novi Pazar were nice? “Very nice,“ he said, “but better not touch!” 

I ran into Mirso the week before and said I was going to go to Novi Pazar again in August and then I would spend some time in Sandžak, just kicking around. Mirso gave me his telephone number and told me to give him a call when I arrived as he would be down there in August as well. He would slaughter a sheep for me.

And then Mirso went to hang out outside with the other boxers, trading jokes and pushing each other around. Along came an old Russian with a poodle on a leash. The Russian barked at his poodle and Mirso and the  Turks started cracking jokes about the guy.

Then there was this Serbian woman from Vojvodina, Svetlana, who comes by with her little baby girl.  I thought initially that Svetlana was Easy’s wife, for some reason, but I got in a conversation with her and she said something like, “My future husband is coming up from Serbia”.

Svetlana, when you asked her where she is from, said “Vojvodina.” Like she couldn’t bring herself to say Serbia; people would start thinking negative things.

The Croatia vs. Germany match was scheduled to  take place in a couple hours. Svetlana from Vojvodina said she hoped  Croatia would win.

Oktay Urkal, the Olympic silver medal winner, said to Sasha, the Serb: “Big day today: Turkey going up against your country.”

“Croatia is not my country,”  Sasha gruffly replied. “We fought a war against those fags.”

Sitting in the shisha café and you could see that everyone  was keyed up for the big game today. Cars were driving by with German flags, one, two, sometimes four and one big flag on the roof. A couple of Germans with Germany arm bands, flags and Germany colors painted on their faces walked by. There was the odd Croatian flag.

At five thirty I paid up and left (seven euro for a shisha and a tea, as opposed to five euro in Neukölln). I walked down PotsdamerStraße, turned left on Goeben Straße and on the corner of Manteufel Straße arrived at Café Monaco, a Croatian café, one of the biggest Croatian cafes in Berlin, next to Café King downtown (the names of these Croatian locales: Café King, Monaco, Royal, Monte Carlo. Diament. Dig it.) 

“Monaco is not my scene,” Soko had told me. “It’s just for construction workers.”

Darko, the Croatian box trainer from Issygym also said about Monaco: “Just a bunch of primitive Bosnians. Shouting and making noise.”

At the moment Monaco was hopping full of Croatian football fans. Everyone was wearing Croatian red and white checker-board šahovnica shirts, hats with the šahovnica, socks with the šahovnica. Inside Croatian football fans  were drinking Karlovačko beer and singing along with a Croatian singer on the TV during the pre-match warm up. Outside fans were sprawled out on chairs in front of two or three TV sets. Cars with German flags or Croatia flags drove by honking horns. Ever more Croatia fans streamed in from U-bahnhof York Straße. I took a pint of Karlovačko and sat outside on the terrace. The guys who worked here, all in orange Jägermeister T-shirts, put out more chairs, a swinging chair with cushions. A Croatian fan took the chair and sat down. “Ah, luxus!” he said.

The German and Croatian players filed out onto the pitch. Then the national anthems. The Croatian team with hands on breast sang the Croatian national anthem, Lijepa naša domovino, full of fervor. The Germans were as usual half-assed. Some of the Germans (Poldi) didn’t sing at all, in contrast to the patriotic Croatians. Here at Monaco everyone stood up for the anthem. Most of the kids in Croatian T-shirts on the terrace were born in Germany and they only knew the first strophe of Lijepa naša domovino and then they just stood there hand on breast. 

There were also a couple Germany fans here in the crowd, and some guys with cameras to catch the Croatian fan scene. One German behind me said they had to watch out if the Croatians won they would lay into the Germans.

“Don’t worry,” said a Croat. “We’ll lay into you only if we lose. And I’ll be the first one.”

Another fan called the German players fags. “Balak, du Schwul.” “Odonko du Schwul.

The fans sang songs and chanted the Croatian battle hymn: “U boj, u boj za narod svoj.” “To war, to war for your nation.”

Croatia scored the first goal and hell broke loose. The crowd of red and white checker-board shirted fans jumped to its feet, yelling with clenched firsts, while a guy standing next to me hurled his bottle of beer into the air, the half full bottle sailing up and landing on a window ledge under a window behind which a family of Turks watched warily  the Croatian madness.

Fireworks went off, there were flares, smoke bombs. Someone raised a pistol in the air and fired off a round of blanks.

“Go home, go home Germany!” the fans sang from within the café. 

Germany scored but Croatia returned the favor. And the fans went wild again. The guys sitting next to me jumped up and down on the swinging chairs. It was sheer madness there at Monaco when Croatia finally won the match. The crowd stormed out of the café onto the street waving flags and shouting, “U boj, u boy, za narod svoj!” shooting off fireworks, dancing, blocking traffic, while Turkish youths gathered on the fringes of the crowd watching the Croatians with amusement and wonder. Some cars managed to inch their way through the crowd. The fans banged on the windows, rocking the cars, pouring beer on the roof. A BVG bus tried to get through, the fans banging on the windows, the passengers looking out fearfully. A TV crew arrived and interviewed a couple of fans. I had seen enough. Standing on the S-bahn platform I could catch a glimpse of the scene. A police car arrived finally, but the crowd  continued to block the street. On the S-bahn platform a couple of Turks from the imbiss on the platform were watching the Croatians celebrate below. 

“I can’t believe it,” said a Turk. “Yesterday when the Turks wanted to celebrate at Bahnhof Zoo the cops came and broke everything up. But here the Croatians are allowed a completely flip out.”

Went to Kafana Banja Luka yesterday. Zoran gave me their flyer. It was a new Serbian bar in Neukölln. There I got in a conversation with Vukan, the owner, who had taken over the place from his parents. He was a student, born in Germany, who sometimes hung  out in Hollywood and other pseudo high-society Yugo clubs – places that were a bit dangerous during the war, owning to conflicting nationalist sentiments.

“There used to be more fights and knife fights in these places, but not any more,” said Vukan.

Sometimes they had live music at Kafana Banja Luka. Narodna as well as zabavna, narodna being what the older generation listened to, zabavna the younger.

Now and then the bar got really packed. The patrons would sit around smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking Johnny Walker – not usually rakija, because rakija was just for peasants. Usually there was no dancing, but when the people get drunk enough, then there was.

“The city of Banja Luka is famous for its women,” said Vukan. “Why is it that you never saw a fat woman in Banja Luka? Maybe it has something to do with the diet. People just didn’t eat fast food like in Germany.

“It’s beautiful in Banja Luka,” said Vukan. “We don’t have the sea, but we do have a river, and in the summer time everyone goes down to the river, sits around with their two litre bottles of beer and ten or so friends.

“In Banja Luuka there are Muslims as well. They are like the Turks and Arabs in Berlin. Many of them left, then came back to Banja Luka after the war.

“Banja Luka is different from Belgrade,” Vukan went on. “There are more of these gangster types in Belgrade. The “shooters”. Everyone packs guns in Belgrade and if you say the wrong word then all of a sudden people start wielding their weapons. You don’t get that in Banja Luka.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said.

We talked about the war. I said it was a mystery why the war broke out. There were obviously people behind the scenes – probably from abroad – pulling the strings. And the locals fell for it hook line and sinker because they are hot-heads and don’t think things through. 

“Yeah,” said Vukan, “but that is changing. People aren’t like they were in the past. Now they just want to get on with life. They want to work or study or whatever. The people are tired of endless wars; they want peace now.”

Vukan had Bosnian and Croatian friends, and sometimes they came to Kafana Banja Luka. It didn’t matter who you were there. But what he couldn’t understand was this hate for Serbs many carried in their hearts. 

“The Croatians – I mean, not the Croatians here, but the Croatians down there – they just hate the Serbs. And the Albanians as well. Here there aren’t any problems with Bosnians and Croatians.  I have friends who are Bosnian and Croatian. But with the Albanians it’s a different story, somehow.”

It was interesting that here in Berlin there were around as many Croatians as there were Serbs, but there were far more Croatian restaurants than there were Serb restaurants, even though Serb cuisine was good, if not better than Croatian cuisine.

“I can think of two or three Serbian restaurants in Berlin, but none of them advertise themselves as Serbian,” said Vukan. “But the Croatian restaurants advertise themselves as such and display Croatian flags and the šahovnica (the chessboard coat of arms). I myself have a Serbian flag out front. But I get a lot grief because of it sometimes. People  say it’s a provocation. But why is it not a provocation when they have a Croatian flag out front of a Croatian restaurant? I don’t get it.”

Here in Berlin the Serbian community was not like the Serbian communities in other cities elsewhere in Germany, in Frankfurt or Offenbach for instance, Vukan went on. In Berlin, in a city of practically four million people, there were between thirty and forty thousand Yugos, but no sense of community; there were Serbs who knew of no other Serbs. 

“I lost family, as well. Let me tell you that,” said Vukan.  “Two of my uncles were killed in the war. A mujahadin slit one of their throats. But I don’t bear a grudge. It’s time to move on. Fuck wars.” 

The Schöneberger Kiez is not the prettiest part of Berlin. In fact, it may be said to be downright ugly. The neighborhood is full of betting shops and all night köfte joints and kebap shops. On Kurfürsten Straße prostitutes ply their trade night and day. Sex shops stand next to pawnshops and Turkish supermarkets, where Turkish greengrocers stand outside hawking fruits and vegetables, singing the praises of their produce to passerby, crying out, “Strawberries, strawberries, one euro. Tasty, tasty strawberries. Ladies and gentlemen, only one euro….” This is the Schöneberg “ghetto” – as ghetto as it gets in Berlin.

Right in the thick of it, on Potsdamer Straße, just down from Bülow Straße S-Bahn station – what used  to be the old Turkish bazaar, is Isigym Boxsport Berlin e.V. , one of the most famous boxing clubs in Berlin, the hangout of such renown pros as Oktay Urkal  silver medal winner in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Cengiz Koç, and training ground of a new generation of Berlin boxers.

In the center of a hall the size of a small garage,  stands a boxing ring, where young neighborhood Turks, Arabs and Yugos – as well as the odd German – slug it out to the thumping beat of old school hip-hop and Turkish Black Sea folk music. The walls are hung with flags of at least two dozen nations, reflecting the multikulti flavor of the gym, where boxers from around the kiez and around the world came to train.  There are boxing posters of bygone fights and above the front desk black and white pictures of Izzet Mafratoğlu – otherwise known as ‘Easy’ – the owner of the gym, depicted, fists held high, in his boxing prime. Another photo shows Easy posed next to American boxing promoter Don King.

Easy calls himself  “the Boxing Godfather” or sometimes “the Pastor of Schöneberg.”  You can tell from his flattened nose that he has had a lot of fights behind him. He came to Germany when he was two, from the Black Sea coast of Turkey and has been here for  42 years. Having grown up in the Schöneberger kiez,  he went to work when he was ten at the Schöneberg bazaar, selling produce, working two days a week for ten marks a day. Easy started boxing at Schöneberger Boxfreunde, struck out a career for himself as an amateur boxer, boxing for the Bundeswehr for a stint and then around Berlin and Germany and internationally. He won a lot of medals, was Berlin champion, German champion. Altogether he had 240 amateur fights, and he is proud of his craft and his accomplishments. 

“It was great in Berlin then,” recalls Easy. “It was great in Germany.  Top clubs. And boxing was fun. For the boxers and for the public. Back then people liked to come and watch boxing. Personalities didn’t play a big role. Athletes were regarded as athletes.” 

After the fall of the Wall boxing went rapidly downhill in Berlin. It got to be all about politics. Former Ossi trainers got involved with the amateurs in the West, and from the amateurs they went right to the pros and took all the good people with them. There was nothing left in Berlin. 

“Now there are a lot of boxers from abroad and from West Germany because of money,” said Easy. “Whereas in the past Berlin had its own people.  Now it was all import-boxers.  From Cuba, a  lot from East Europe. They’re taken for a season under contract. In the past Berlin produced its own crop of boxers. Then after the fall of the Wall it all went to shit.”

Izzet doesn’t  know how long it will  take to build up the next generation of Berlin boxers, but it’s his vision. 

“We’re working on it. It would be a very big honour.”

However, says Easy, it’s an uphill battle. Why? Bad politics. Plus everyone is just out for his goal. Like the trainers paid for by the Sportbund, who see boxers they are interested in and boom they turn professional. And Berlin is left broke.

“Thirty or forty years ago it was more difficult to become Berlin champion than it is to become world champion today in the pros,” puts in Darko, a wiry, fifty-something Croatian trainer at Isigym, who boxed as an amateur for a Spandau club in the seventies . “Today what they put on with Valuev you can forget about it.  It’s a circus. Only money. It isn’t  sport.  Nowadays you can only be world champion if you have a hard punch. If you have a hard punch then you can take out the better man.  Before boxing had a whole different system of values. Now it’s a total circus. Only the second rate amateurs go pro. They only want money.”

One of the top Berlin amateurs, who later went pro, and who also trains at Isigym is Oktay Urkal. Urkal  was silver medal winner in Atlanta in ’96, after which he went professional for twelve years. His last fight was at 37,  two years ago  against Miguel Angel Cotto in Peurto Rico in front of 18,000 spectators. He lost but it was a good fight. A sharp dresser and a fixture at Isigym,  everyone knows Urkal, the “Ali from Kreuzberg”. 

“During the Olympics they asked me  ‘how well known are you?’” recalls Urkal. ‘As well known as Mohamed Ali in America, but in Kreuzberg,’  I said.”

Urkal was born in that part of Kreuzberg near S-bahnhof York Straße bordering Schöneberg. His father, an oil wrestler in Turkey, Urkal was one of six children. At ten he started boxing with his brothers at Schöneberg Boxfreunde on Belziger Straße, a legendary Berlin boxing club which not only produced the likes of Urkal, but controversial Italian German boxer Graciano Rocchigiani, not to mention Easy himself.

Now Easy was trying to turn out the next Urkal.

Most of the kids Easy works with come from the area. They are children from poor families, socially disadvantaged. Having said this Easy takes pains to point out the area isn’t technically speaking a ghetto. 

“No, not at all. There’s a lot of  blah, blah – but in essence, it’s not an area with a lot of street violence. Okay, it has a bad reputation. But you just have to understand the people. We’re just folks. Also the children. If you know where a kid’s from you know how to deal with him; then you don’t have problems. You can also have problems in a rich area. When two neighbors don’t get along then they also go at each other. You don’t have to brand this area as a ghetto; we aren’t  ghetto. There are all kinds of different people who live in this district.  Why a ghetto? Why isn’t a rich neighborhood a ghetto? Most criminality is situated rich areas where people bed down in villas. The folks here live completely normal lives. But they are branded as criminals. It’s not fair. Sure, you have to watch out a bit.”

“Unfortunately most of the kids who came to  boxing are kids that spend their time on the streets,” says Darko. “Tough kids. But we’re not looking for well-brought up kids. We’re looking for problem kids to groom and set straight.”

Isigym is not just for wayward youths, but also for grownup hobby boxers from all walks of life. 

“Doctors, lawyers, police officers, everyone feels at home in Isygym,” says Easy.  “It’s sport. It’s  therapy. People have to do sport. Doesn’t have to be boxing, but it it’s got to be some sport. Nice and successful people are always athletes.  Everyone who owns a business or whatever has something to do with sport. That’s a fact. And that is something I want to pass on to the kids.

“We don’t look down our noses at anyone here. We grew up in the  kiez and we have our roots in the kiez. We don’t care if someone’s poor or rich. Everyone’s the same. All people, it doesn’t matter what religion they have.  We have athletes from so many different countries. From so many different religions. The only thing that counts in this club is that everyone is equal. Everyone’s on the same level. That’s why people feel at home here. We don’t have any political conflicts here. None whatsoever. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. I’m a very well known personality, no matter where I go. A lot of people know me. I know how I have to market myself in society. 

“In fifty years people will say, I got it from Easy. Someone will take over from me. I’m sure of that. That’s the system. One of the kids who started with me will take over my job.   Of course I try to pass on everything that I came into contact with.  My one goal is to do better than the person who came before me…”

The rap music is thumping from the stereo, urging the boxers on as they pound the punching bags, giving out savage cries with each punch. Two men of south-east European extraction show up trying to cheap cell-phones – stolen? Who knows. The owner of a pawnshop strolls in and observes the boxers, while the Turkish greengrocers outside cry out the virtues of their produce: “Erdbeeren, Erdbeeren, Eine euro, Meine Damen und Herren, leckere Erdbeeren. Nur eine euro…” Isigym, it strikes me again and again is a street boxing gym, gritty, tough, a place for the street kids from the Schöneberg kiez to work out their aggressions, and – who knows – maybe achieve a bit of fame in the ring. 

Friday night Petrit, Herbert Podkowa, Herbert’s girlfriend, Jovan and I went to see Fanfare Ciocărlia at the Volksbühne. I didn’t think it was going to be that great at first because it was sitting only, and what’s the point of Gypsy music if you can’t dance? A couple numbers into the concert Petrit and I said, “Fuck it,” so we got up and started dancing in the aisles. More people came and joined in and by the end of the show the whole audience was standing up in their seats with their hands in the air. Then the band went into the lobby and started going round with a hat playing for baksheesh, Gypsy style, with bank notes plastered to their sweaty heads. It was the craziest party that the Volksbühne had ever seen very probably.

Afterwards we walked to a café on Greifswalder Straße, where we met with a Croatian painter named Lovro Artuković and a bunch of other Yugos, many of whom were featured in a famous painting by Lovro I will tell you about shortly.

Like many ex-Yugos in Berlin, Lovro Artuković didn’t plan to became a resident of this city. The Croatian artist – perhaps the country’s most famous living figurative painter – came to Berlin with the idea in mind of staying only a short while before moving on to New York. A short stay evolved into two years, three years…and he still hasn’t left. 

Lovro painted here, drew his subjects from the people he met: ex-Yugos, Germans, Italians, Americans, and then through a conversation in a bar, developed the idea for what would become his greatest masterpiece to date; his biggest, most ambitious painting yet – an historical painting inspired by a decisive event in the history of ex Yugoslavia – the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which effectively carved up Bosnia into Muslim and Croatian and Serbian entities.  Only, instead of the  three presidents, Tudjman, Izetbegović and Milošević seated at a table surrounded by their advisors and various UN and European Union observers, he painted his ex-Yugo friends from Berlin gathered round in a pizza joint. The title became “The Signing of the Declaration of Unification of Western Herzegovina and Popovo Polje with the Republic of Croatia” (or “Wer hat das Bier bestellt?”) – Who ordered the beer?

The painting, an impressive five meters by three meters affair, was interesting for the theme, the setting and Artuković’s  playful historical allusion. While the painting was inspired by the signing of the Dayton Agreement, in actual fact it illustrated a fictive event: the accession of Herzegovina, the Croatian part of Bosnia, into Croatia. One of the figures in the background of Artuković’s painting could clearly be seen redrawing a map sketched on chalk on a blackboard serving as a restaurant menu in the back of the painting, rendering Herzegovina a part of Croatia. 

This never happened. For this reason when the painting was exhibited in Zagreb for the first time, it was a bit of a sensation. People, wary of the sensitive politics of the former Yugoslavia, didn’t know what to think. 

“I started the whole story with the idea of doing some crazy shit,” said Artuković. “Let’s do something that sounds completely incorrect from  a political correctness point of view; it’s an absolute faux-pas.”

Artuković intended the painting as something of a joke. “It’s a kind of painting that mocks all kinds of divisions and redrawings of borders,” he said. “The whole thing is a parody, a mockery of politicians and the whole situation. They (the participants) see the whole venture as an opportunity to turn their frustration about the war into something funny.”

Somehow a film maker Iser Mirković heard about plans for  Lovro’s painting and decided to make a documentary about the making of the painting and the stories of the ex-Yugos involved. The film focused on three figures, Ero, Mime and Misho, all in their way refugees from the war in the former Yugoslavia and emblematic of the kind of people from the Balkans who ended up in Berlin during the nineties. They were different from the Gastarbeiter generation of Yugos, who came to Berlin seeking a factory job and a better way of life. They were young, westernized and traumatized by war. And unlike the Yugos who came to Berlin in the 70s,  Ero, Mime, Misho and their group were engaged in the culture scene of Berlin.

“I wouldn’t for anything exchange the beginning of the 90’s in Berlin when the Wall was gone and the two cities merged into one,” says Misho. “I wouldn’t change it for any other city at that time. No way. I thank God for being lucky enough to experience that here.”

Ero ended up on Oranien Straße when he first came to Berlin. “When I arrived here I came by bus. I ended up in Kreuzberg, right smack into this Oriental mood. Oranien Straße was our main street in the 90’s. There were Turkish shops where we bought things from back home. The homosexual scene was very prominent here, rockers, punk rockers, Turks. I had a half-Mohican in 1988 and I almost got trashed for it in Croatia. Then you come here and it’s completely normal.”

Lovro himself found in Berlin an ideal city to realize his artistic vision. “I’m an outsider here,” he said. “And that feeling of fending for myself is really nice. The first thing I got was absolute peace.” “What’s good in Berlin for me is the amount of destinies that are basically very similar to my own. An immense number of people who come from everywhere make up a scene which is unbelievably livley.”

These people – Ero, Mime, Misho and their crowd – constituted a curious subculture, which has now become part of the history of Berlin in the nineties. They were all drawn to the alternative flair of Berlin, hung out in Kreuzberg and Prenzlauerberg in bars like the Arcanoa, where like-minded young ex-Yugos congregated regardless of ethnic distinctions at a time when the former Yugoslavia was involved in a fierce civil war and Croats, Muslims and Serbs were killing each other. They put on Balkan parties and drank away their sorrows.

Nosh, a now defunct restaurant in Prenzlauerberg, became their principle hangout. This was Ero’s locale. Guests started frequenting the place, among other reasons, for the wild Balkan nights, called “Ciganska Posla” “Gypsy business”.

“People wanted that wild Balkan feeling,” recalled Mime. “There was all kinds of stuff. Dancing on tables and under the tables. It was crazy. Music, women, cheap cigarettes and booze”.

Now Lovro, Ero, Mime and Misho have become more or less Berliners. After spending many years of toying with the idea of going back, they were now fairly resigned to the prospect of staying in Berlin. Lovro had a big exhibition in Zagreb. His big painting was sold to a Croatian collector, now it will be exhibited in Berlin. 

Sitting there on Greifswalder Straße after the Ciocărlia show, I spoke with  Misho about Lovro’s painting. He had been in Croatia for the exhibition of  the work and said it  was causing a great stir there. 

“The people are confused,” said Misho. “They don’t know what to think…I am convinced this painting will be remembered by history. I am convinced we will be remembered by history.”

For many people who come to Berlin from abroad the city has traditionally been a kind of underground theme park, a film and an adventure with its own curious glamour – a glamour based largely on Berlin of the nineties when the Wall had just fallen, East Berlin was new, unexplored territory, a city of ruins, empty cellars, large abandoned factory spaces taken over by squatters, punks, ravers in search of atmospheric venues for techno parties and punk concerts. Berlin had a gritty, post-communist vibe; the city was alive with experimental energy.

Now along comes the new face of West Berlin: Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Wedding, Moabit, Schöneberg, — west Berlin immigrant quarters, the new future of Berlin: immigrant Berlin. The Berlin of the kanake –  the immigrant, in English you’d say ‘dago’, ‘spick’, ‘wog’, ‘nigger’. These underrepresented immigrants bring to Berlin their Oriental music, their late night kebab shops,  their 24 hour spätkauf and nargil lounges, their enigmatic Kulturverein social clubs where you can sit till dawn playing dominos, their flashy, souped-up cars, Oriental belly-dancing, Islam, rakija and turbo-folk, burek, shisha bars, immigrant discos, street music. Berlin is gradually becoming hip to its old West Berlin working class, immigrant districts, which it seems might  be a good thing. Yesterday Oranienburger Straße, now Oranien Straße, yesterday Prenzlauerallee now Sonnenallee. 

Thankfully this new Berlin has its photographic documenters, as well,  in the form of three Yugo photographers, Nino Nihad Pušija, Alen Hebilović and Robert Sokol – two Bosnians and one Croatian from Berlin, Neukölln who are currently busy making photographic portraits of this new Berlin.

It’s worth pointing out when considering the work of these three photographers, that something  happened in the nineties when Berlin was this crazy East-West straddling city – namely the war in Yugoslavia, which resulted in many ex-Yugo refugees ending up in Berlin. Some of them were illiterate peasants from villages. Others were educated intellectuals from big towns like Zenica, Banja Luka and Sarajevo. Some were Gypsies, others gadjos. They lived in camps around Berlin with Arabs, Africans, Kurds who were all escaping wars back home. Germany wanted them for a time, but when the war was over they tried to send them back. By hook or by crook many stayed. Some of those who stayed were artists.

Alen Heblilović is a photographer in his mid thirties who comes from Prijedor in Bosnia, was interned in the Serb concentration camp Trnopelje during the war, somehow managed to escape thanks to western NGO intervention and ended up with his family in a refugee in Brandenburg outside of Berlin. 

“It was a bad time,” recalls Hebilović. “The GDR was not yet dead; it was a little bit after the Wall fell, in 1993. You can imagine how it was for people coming from Bosnia. We came from a culture where we were always on the street. And now here I am in Brandenburg, where at six no one is on the street aside from faschos, a couple of punks and police.”

Alen met a therapist who worked with the refugees who invited him to Berlin. Technically, Alen was “geduldet”, tolerated by Germany, but not allowed to work here and unable to travel outside of a thirty kilometer radius of the refugee camp. But Alen fled to Berlin, had the keys to a flat and was given some cash by his therapist friend. He entered into the Yugo expat scene in Berlin centered around the Arcanoa, a Kreuzberg punk club, where Bosnian DJ Robert Soko was DJing Yugo punk and new wave, and would later go on to great success with his Balkan Beats gigs at the Mudd Club and later Lido.

“Robert was organizing these small parties in Arcanoa. And they were really alternative, before they became Gypsy style and Balkan pur. He played a lot of punk, ska and new wave,” recalls Alen.

Alen busied himself with photography, which he had picked up in Bosnia and then met fellow Bosnian photographer Nino Pušija, who he collaborated with on an exhibition at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, entitled “Duldung”, “Toleration”, the legal definition under which Alen and his fellow refugees were living in Germany.

“Take photographs of what you know,” said Nino.

Nino, meanwhile, had been working in Berlin for several years doing some war reporting in Sarajevo, narrowly escaping being conscripted into the army.

Nino recalls coming to Berlin shortly after the outbreak of war in Bosnia. “Everything was close to me,” says Nino. “I lived in East Berlin, where the busses were the same as ours.  And so were the streetcars. They were manufactured in Czechoslovakia. So a lot was very close to me, and at the same time I had the West. It was perfect. I had it all in one city, like in Sarajevo, actually. Only there it is Occident and Orient and here it was East and West Block. And here it was perfect for a photographer and someone who is a documentary photographer, simply to live here.  And then I decided definitively to live here. Okay, I also fell in love.”

Nino and Alen began working together, taking as their themes the Bosnian Roma in the refugee camps of Brandenburg and Berlin. In the exhibit “Duldung”, the Roma are shown in their daily situations, watching TV, playing music, drinking, loving, celebrating at weddings and mourning at funerals. 

“This theme was important,” said Nino, “first of all to show the Germans what these people were like, that they also had video recorders at home.  There were prejudices, especially from people from East Germany. Because people thought that we had it worse than the east Germany, but it was exactly the other way around. We had everything and they had nothing. Only that we had war and needed protection.” 

Nino did some social-educative work in Brandenburg, schooling east Germans about their new refugee neighbors in order to prevent neo-Nazi incidents. 

The stories Nino told through his photographs were often very difficult and traumatic. “It was very sad,  very difficult,” says Nino. “You come to a family on a visit and they are traumatized. Maybe the woman has been raped. And they don’t speak to you. The men are frustrated because they can’t  be down there. They have lost family, someone has been killed… And you sit there with these people for an hour and they tell you their stories, and they are crying and you are crying and you drink a schnapps and then you cry some more. And then you leave this refugee home, or this house, or this camp, or container, and you had such a head and you have to look for something else.”

For a break from the heavy stories of the Bosnian Roma refugees, Nino took other photographs of Berlin queers and drag queens. 

“And that was a very nice thing after these traumatized stories to drink with these queer people,” says Nino. “And that was like a therapy for me during this war time.”

Alen, meanwhile, had moved from taking photographs of Bosnian Roma to taking pictures of young Ausländer criminals. 

“At that time I was also very criminal. And that’s how my latest series developed: criminal youth. Foreign youth.”

Alen got into contact with his subjects, who you can see in his photographs posing with knives or themselves cut up with knife scars, through his contact with drugs, having worked as dealer in Germany and Holland.

“I did that for a year until I got paranoid,” says Alen. “Even when I went out on the street in the morning and there was this old lady with her poodle, I thought she was an undercover cop. I was so messed up in my head, I  said, I’m quitting this. And at that time I stopped taking pictures for a long while.  I never had a camera with me. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t taking pictures. I was taking pictures with my head. Because I’m convinced that the best pictures you can’t take. They stay in your head all the while.”

Alen got his photographs only after close contact with his subjects, gaining their trust over a lengthy period, sometimes of up to ten years. 

“I’m the kind of  photographer that deals with subjects over a long period of time,” says Alen.  “I’m not like the kind of photographer you can find today who quickly takes a photograph and quickly produces it. I go very deeply into my material. And that’s why it takes a lot of time.” 

Alen’s portraits were very direct and sometimes shocking. Each picture told a story of which one could often only fathom. They were pictures of the street of street people, and as such they had an immediacy which was often lacking in much of contemporary German photography, which often appears cool and staged. 

“The problem is that Germans are very cerebral,” says Alen. “Also artists. They think theoretically. There are very few people that react emotionally.”

Robert Sokol is a Croatian photographer born and raised in Berlin, Neukölln, who got to know both Alen and Nino in a photo school Nino founded in the nineties. Lately he has come up with his own series of photographs dealing with the daily life of Neukölln. One of his focal points is Hasenheide park, near to where he lives, and which he captured during one of the park’s annual Rummelfeste amusement parks in May. His subjects are mainly Turks and Arabs.

“You have the feeling you are in, I have no idea, in Baghdad or somewhere,” says Robert, describing his Neukölln photos.

Robert also laments the current state of photography in this Berlin with its slick, stylized veneer, lacking in the immediacy of his own photographs of Neukölln’s street life.

“These people are all trained photographers who are doing various projects because they have to and they are pressured into making photographs,” says Robert. “I walk through the streets where I grew up and take a photo with a  certain spontaneity, if the mood takes me. I take a photo of a piece of life, something you can’t stage. I’m not saying anything against staged photos, but I want to capture the moment.”

Robert adds, “What I’m doing is pure Neukölln. Pure street. Pure people. And it’s only a beginning. It began just for fun and gradually became serious. And what I would like to do in the future is make portraits of the people that I know from the street.”

On the subject of Neukölln, Robert says, “I lived in Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, but I always went back to Neukölln. Hasenheide is right at my doorstep. There’s  nothing nicer. Neukölln grooves. It lives. It’s simply life. It pulses. Everyone complains here about these cheap shops, these Ramschläden, import-export shops, with cheap shit from China to Turkey. But the stuff sells evidently. It’s a system within a system, a subculture. When you look at it, these Turkish mothers with their four, five children, where else do you see that? It’s crazy. But I have to go back to the point: for me it’s normal – and  there will only be more of it. It will spread. I have to be careful with what I say – The Germans, I have the feeling, are being pushed aside. There are all kinds of places here in Neukölln that have been around for twenty years and now have to shut. And do you know what comes in it’s place? An Albanian, a Turk or an Arab.”

Robert has also been busy taking photographs on the U-bahns and he currently has in mind a series of portraits of Berlin Gastarbeiter(guest-workers) and their children, of which Robert himself is one.

Although born in Berlin to Gastarbeiter parents, Robert still has a strongly rooted Croatian identity. In the nineties he went down to Croatia to fight in the war and he still is a big fan of the controversial nationalist singer and soldier Thompson. 

Robert also spent some time in the Yugo expat scene, frequenting fellow Croatian Bosnian DJ Robert Soko’s Balkan parties at the Mudd club and sometimes DJ-ing with him. 

It was there at the Mudd CLub one night that Robert met Robert Kovačić, a Croatian footballer also from Neukölln who pulled up a barstool on the spur of the moment and treated the club to an hour long stand up comedy routine about Neukölln characters.

“People pissed themselves laughing. It was too much for them. Our stomachs hurt we were laughing so much.”

Then one summer, in conjunction with 48 hours Neukölln,  Sokol presented a video work entitled ‘Hasenheide’ in which he filmed Kovačić impersonating three people – an African, an Arab and a German – involved in a Hasenheide drug deal.

Sokol is in close contact with Alen and Nino and follows their work. It’s inevitable as he sees it that we will be grouped together with the other two by virtue of his contact with them, their shared Yugo background and similar subject matter. However. Sokol stresses his difference. He was born in Berlin the son of Croatian Gastarbeiter, while Alen and Nino both came from Bosnia during the war. 

“It’s impossible to lump us together in the same pot,” he says.

But the three Yugo photographers do constitute something of a school in Berlin, taking as their subject their lives around them – three overlapping immigrant lives in an immigrant city.

Saturday night at Mama Bar. Piotr showed up. We downed a couple of drinks and walk to Chakaraka, a Bulgarian bar across the canal on Ohloer Straße. Every night they had live music. It was all Bulgarians and Gypsies when we entered. Posters of scantly clad third rate  chalga stars hung on the wall at the entrance. Once inside, a fat oriental crooner paced the dimly-lit room singing to tables of Bulgarians. The waiter brought whole bottles of vodka and whisky. 

“Here they know how to do things right!” said Piotr, rubbing his hands. 

There were no Germans in the place aside from maybe the bouncers. The men wore white suits and slicked back hair. The girls were in knock-off Gucci, had high-hair and lots of jewelry. I told Piotr that, as in the twenties and thirties arty people and armchair communists would frequent proletarian Berlin bars for kicks, so today you had to go to these Bulgarian, Yugo and Turkish hangouts to experience the real Berlin subculture. 

“These people are Berlin’s new proletarians,” I said to Piotr. Piotr started to chat in Russian with the bartender. We stayed for around half an hour and then left. I told Petrit back at Mama bar about Chakaraka and that I had this idea of researching all these Balkan clubs in Neukolln and Kreuzberg. 

“It’s the real underground,” concurred Petrit. 

Sunday I had a couple of bottles of wine with Sasha in Mariendorf, at the apartment of his German girlfriend, who he sometimes beats, and  tries to coerce into performing oral sex on him while in my presence. Then I went to Mama, Petrit’s  new bar. Sasha called me as soon as I arrived and told me he was coming over. He had heard from me how successful the bar was, and he wanted a piece of the action. I tried my best to dissuade him; I could imagine the great scene between Sasha and Pertrit, as Serb mangup clashed with Albanian hipster head-on. But Sasha was not to be put off. An hour later Sasha arrived. Petrit paid him the curtesy of sitting down with him and giving him the time of day. “Make it quick,” said Petrit and looked at his watch. He listened silently as Sasha enumerated his various jobs, some fictive, others no doubt legit. He spoke about owning a casino in Belgrade, a brand new Porsche, knife-fights, being personal friends with Arkan etc. etc. Petrit simmered there with disdain, and with all due respect, Petrit heard the guy out. “And now, I’ve got to go,” said Petrit. After Sasha had left the bar, Petrit took me aside. “Listen, Robert. Do me a favor. Don’t ever bring that guy here again.” 

Didn’t I see how his guests were getting uneasy with his macho posturing. It was less what he said, than his  manner. A Spanish girl who was sitting with us stood up and left because of him.

As for Sasha, he declared that Petrit was just a peasant. 

“The man has no class and no style. He is a total impolite bastard. And what’s the deal with his hair? He looks like a choban, just come down from the mountains.”

Petrit had a policy of just playing non-English language music at Mama bar. When Sarah, the Italian bartender put on a Smiths CD, Petrit reprimanded her, saying, “Ninety percent of bars play this shit. We want to be different. Here we play just non-English music.” 

So Sarah put on something Italian and that seemed to appease Petrit. 

I had given Petrit all my music – Balkan and Turkish. Most of the time he played Gypsy stuff. Sometimes he played the Turkish, but he noticed that Germans got quickly put off by the Turkish music. They get enough of it in Berlin, in all the döner shops, he felt, got hassled by it, whereas the Balkan Gypsy stuff was like their own polka music, which they might not outwardly admit to liking, but which was nevertheless in their genes.

That evening we danced to four in the morning at Petrit’s bar – Nino, Petrit, Lena and myself.

The romance with East Berlin appears to be over. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall opened up exciting new territory for the city’s art scene, people are now moving back to the old west Berlin – to the  “hot” new districts of Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Wedding, Moabit and Tiergarten – traditionally working class and heavily immigrant quarters. This move brings with it a whole set of problems as gallerists contended with anti-gentrification activists, touchy Muslim neighbors and petty criminality.

A couple years ago, rather than staging another Berlin Biennale in what had in the time being become a slick, chic and touristy Mitte, organizers decided to rent out spaces in Kreuzberg, center of West Berlin’s squatter and anarchist scene in Wall days and hub of Berlin’s Turkish community. Traditionally overshadowed by Mitte and Prenzlauerberg in the nineties, Kreuzberg has lately begun to reassert itself with its edgy, immigrant and often anarchic temperament – just the place to lend the Berlin Biennale a bit of street cred. 

Local anarchists – or Autonomen – as they are called here, see the newly transplanted art scene as a harbinger of creeping gentrification and they are not happy. Recently exhibition spaces in the Kreuzberg art venue Künstlerhaus Bethanien were wrecked, artworks destroyed and “Wanted” posters were stuck up around the neighborhood with the photos, names, email addresses and mobile telephone numbers of Biennale organisers.

Meanwhile some galleries have been trying to gain a foothold in the difficult territory of Wedding, in the north-west of the city. Jovan Balov is a Macedonian gallerist who runs an art space in a gallery collective called “Kolonie Wedding” subsidized by a real estate firm aiming to raise the profile of a high-crime and heavily Turkish and Arabic neighborhood with some of the highest unemployment rates in the city, turning it into a desirable, hip area.  

Right from the start Balov was made to feel unwelcome. Windows were smashed,  graffiti smeared on walls, feces stuck in the mail-box. ‘Kafir’ – “infidel” was scrawled on the gallery front.  At one point Balov was confronted by a gang of local Arab youths who asked him provocatively if he was, “some kind of Jew”. 

Balov invited the youths into his gallery and in the end managed to diffuse emotions. However, other neighborhood gallerists tell of similar problems: broken windows, vandalized or stolen art works, hostility.

South of Wedding is another working-class immigrant quarter called Moabit, which has seen the buddings of an art scene in recent years as well. Galerie Nord was one such Moabit gallery which came into the news when an exhibition of the Danish artist group ‘Surrend’, featuring satirical political caricatures and posters running roughshod over Muslim sensibilities, with an artwork at one point referring to the Kaaba as a “stupid stone”. The gallery was closed after violent protests by local Muslims.

Galleries like Klosterfelde, Giti Nourbakhsch, and Esther Schipper have meanwhile settled in the Tiergarten district around Kurfürstenstrasse and Potsdamerstasse on the fringes of a notoriously seedy red-light district known for its cheap prostitutes from East Europe. For years locals, many also of immigrant background, had complained about the sex trade in what was once a fairly respectable west Berlin thoroughfare, and perhaps for this reason the new galleries had been greeted by locals as a welcome sign that things may be changing for the better in the neighborhood.

The latest big hyped scene, however, is north Neukölln, the densest populated Berlin qarter and the quarter with the highest immigrant population in Berlin. Hyped by the local media as “Neu-cooln” and “Berlin’s Lower East Side” or “Berlin’s Bronx”, people seem to be rushing to open up new galleries and project spaces, hip new bars and cellar clubs, stoking fears of rising rents and creeping gentrification.  

Local activists, while welcoming the infusion of a bit of culture in the area, complain of a parallel society of galleries and gallery goers who have very little to do with the indigenous culture of the quarter. 

“It’s a kind of colonization,” a Neukölln DJ told me “taking as its premise, okay, the people of Neukölln don’t understand anything anyway about art, so we’ll show them how it functions.  And then what you have is just an importation  of art that comes from Mitte or from Basel or Venice and sells well there, but has nothing to do with the daily lives of the people who live here. And it’s clear that they have little connection to it.”

Having said this, there are some indications that local gallerists and curators in Neukölln at any rate, are taking some steps towards building bridges with the community.

“What I think is missing is simply communication between the two sides,” says Jana Taube a curator from Flughafenkiez Quartiermanagement in Neukölln. “Because no one understands the other. The gallerists think, ‘we are doing something or other with art and high culture, and they are the ignorant ones. ‘ One simply doesn’t come into communication. What we want to do is try through actions to connect to the people.”

Last Sunday the  Romanian Gypsy street band Fanfare Preda played at the opening of U.K. Roma artist Daniel Baker’s show at Galerie Feinkost in Mitte. Zigan Aldi had these guys sometimes pop in at his Kreuzberg Nights parties at Cake Club, just flooring the club-goers with their blasting brass numbers at five in the morning. I had organized the band for the vernissage at Aaron Moultan’s gallery. The musicians arrived early, hanging around but keeping to themselves mostly in white leather pointy shoes, matching hooded jackets with embroidered Chinese dragons on the back. Some wore dark sunglasses and trilby hats. Many had gold teeth, some moustaches. The cool, fashion-conscious art scene hipsters who had come to the opening didn’t know quite what to make of the Gypsies. Aaran was a little bit nervous. “Who are these people?” he asked warily. 

But when they began to play you couldn’t help but be moved by the infectious music. There were some tentative attempts at dancing. A look of relief swept over Aaron’s face. 

“These guys are phenomenal!” he said at last. “Just swingin’!”

Fanfare Preda played for an hour with a ten minute break and after the show they tried to flog their CDs. 

“One thousand euro,” announced Pedro, the band leader. 

I thought I would give band leader Pedro a call to arrange a interview. I  also met an interesting Albanian artist at Feinkost, Petrit Halilaj, who had lived in Italy and knew Petrit Hoxha.

Arranged for Suzan Demercan Turkish belly dancer to stop by Petrit’s bar. 

Yesterday Suzan Demercan, the  belly dancer, performed at Petrit’s bar. Her father was Turkish, mother came from Novi Pazar. They left in the sixties because of religious persecution. They weren’t allowed to go to the mosque, said Suzan. “I come from  Bosnia,” she said for simplicity sake. 

The Tuesday before last was International Roma Day. There was a band at Rroma Café on Boddin Straße. Nino was there and introduced me to several Gypsy cats. Then last week I stopped by Rroma café and sat down with Nebojša, one of the owners of locale. 

If you moved in the circle of Yugos  in Berlin, as I did, then sooner or later you were bound to hear about Rroma Café.

For a locale that had only been in existence for two years, it might be too much of an exaggeration to call the café legendary, but for those in the know, and who knew Slaviša and Nebojša Marković, the two Roma brothers from Serbia who ran the place, and for those people who spent nights in the café listening to Roma music from Serbia or live impromptu jam sessions,  the place was a little piece of the Balkans in Berlin, and one of the closest things to a real Serbian style kafana in this city.

Here you could drink your shots of Croatian slivovitz or sip cups of Turkish coffee Balkan style.  At the Rroma Café art and life blended together magically. At one in the morning, tipsy from rakija and moved by the voice of a fat Gypsy chanteuse  from Serbia who was singing in the corner with her three musician friends, the café became a stage and the drinkers actors. The Gypsy singer took her admirers by the hand and brought them to dance, Roko urged the musicians on calling out “Opa!” and “Hajde!” And they stayed till five in the morning. One was in Berlin and one wasn’t in Berlin.

Slaviša and Nebojša were also actors and Rroma Café was their stage, literally. The two brothers were talented thespians, artists, who had created not merely a café but a stage for plays sometimes of  their own conception.

The two brothers’ latest play had been a long time in the making. For several months Slaviša and Nebojša only opened the café Thursdays and Fridays in order to make time for rehearsals. Then one Friday they were finally ready to show Berlin what they had been working on. The title of the play was Zirkus and it was about two itinerant, penniless, hungry clowns, played by Slaviša and Nebojša, who had come to seek their fortune in a circus. Slaviša and Nebojša were both in their mid thirties, had long hair and dark, Indian eyes. For their piece they wore ill fitting, patched and dusty clothes, an exaggeration of their everyday Bohemian style of dress.

The two clowns, it became clear as the play progressed, were meant to be Gypsies. The problems the clowns faced, the indignities they suffered, the slaps in the face they received, reflected the travails of Gypsies in Europe.

The play was done with a great deal of humor. Botched clown tricks were performed with slapstick style. The clowns were pathetic, unprofessional, lazy – yet funny, sincere and human. And they were hungry. The circus management, represented by a droning, official loudspeaker voice spouting bureaucratic jargon was faceless and cold and had no understanding for the clowns’/Gypsies’ predicament. 

In addition to the two clowns there  was a dour circus figure who appeared on stage mostly seated at an official-looking desk with filing cabinets, and a pugnacious man in false mustache, bulbous nose who mishandled the clowns. And finally there was a photographer – played by an American actress and Roma Café habitué– who tried vainly  to capture the clowns’  mistreatment on camera, and who was also treated with a dose of irony.

To a certain extent, Slaviša and Nebojša were telling their own story as Gypsies trying to make it in a strange society. The two brothers came to Berlin in 1998 (first Slaviša and then his younger brother Nebojša). Wartime Serbia was not easy. There were embargoes, hyper-inflation, mafia hits, turbo-folk, nationalism, racism, a proliferation of guns. Walking the streets at night was dangerous. There were daily provocations. One had to be careful, especially as a Rom. Aggression was in the air. 

“During this time I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone at night or whatever,” said Slaviša. “I didn’t have any big problems, but there were small provocations. That’s the crazy thing. You are careful all the time there. You think it is normal, but it isn’t normal.” 

Perspectives were few in Serbia, and so he came to Berlin after studying theater and working as a salesman on the streets of Niš. Initially he didn’t plan to stay, as Berlin had no particular attraction for him. “I associated Berlin only with the Second World War and with this film, Der Himmel Über Berlin (Wings of Desire) and nothing else,” said Slaviša. “And I associated Berlin with a couple people who worked here as Gastarbeiter. I wasn’t that excited by these people. On the contrary, I thought ‘My God, what kind of small-times hustlers are these guys?’ As soon as I got here and the first thing I though was I have to get out of here.” 

Slaviša lived in Moabit initially. Quite soon he met people from the Roma Union. He got interested in Kreuzberg. 

“I was fascinated by Kreuzberg. Opener Straße near Hallesches Tor. There everyone addressed me in his own language. The Italians spoke to me in  Italian, the Turks in Turkish, the Greeks in Greek. That freed me so completely. I never had such an experience before.  Back in Serbia, people pigeonholed me immediately as a Roma. As a Gypsy. But in Berlin everyone coopted me as one of their own.  There was a Greek imbiss, they spoke to me in Greek. It was cool. I said, ‘no I don’t speak the language.’ But still, they remained friendly. ‘That’s cool,’ they said.  And so I felt more free here than in Serbia. I decided to stay.”

Slaviša moved to Neukölln because it was cheap. There, he and his brother got the idea to start a café.  They thought that they might be able to make use of public subsidies for the project, however on the other hand it would have meant curtailing some of their freedoms. “You could theoretically do something with public money,” said Slaviša, “but I seriously thought that we wouldn’t be able to do what we wanted. All of our donors would try to change us, determine our direction.  We didn’t want that.  Although I think in the time being it’s a little bit stupid, we did everything ourselves, bore everything on our backs.  

Slaviša and Nebojša collected things at flea markets and bought things over eBay. They worked on their own designs, made furniture in their flats from scratch. The idea was to make a café that could be stripped down quickly to a stage – so everything had to be custom made. They crafted everything down to the holders for the speakers. They read books on plumbing from the library and put the toilers in themselves.

They opened up the café in Neukölln because if was cheap and close to where they lived, but found it was difficult to get things started as  Roma. “We have enough problems as it is,” people said. “We don’t need Gypsies.”

In the time being, while they were still struggling financially, they had established a reputation for themselves. “The people that come to us have a variety of backgrounds,” said Slavisa. “but the one thing that all these people have in common is that they have a lot of experience with regards to nationality and ethnicity. These people are border-crossers, trans-nationalists. And that’s what’s so special. These people here understand that nationality is a projection; that ethnicity is not a requirement for people to get along together; that ethnicity is not a requirement that people get along together. It can be that people of the same ethnicity have much in common, but it is no guaranty. That is what we are developing here, what we are moving.”

And tonight we were at Rroma Café once again, sitting with a Gypsy from Novi Sad, speaking about Romanes and the Roma. Did I know that Bill Clinton was a Gypsy?

“Yes, they did some research,” said the guy from Novi Sad “and it turned out that Clinton was a Gypsy”.

Later in the night  I mentioned to Nino in Mama bar that Bill Clinton was a Gypsy. I had heard it from a Gypsy. 

“It’s true,” said Nino. “He is an Irish Traveler. Charlie Chaplain – he was also a Gypsy.”

Piotr, the Russian from down the street on Hobrecht Straße, and our local Harvard man,  showed up with Lena, an American girl who had some Yugo blood in her, and whom Piotr was hitting on relentlessly. We stayed until the early hours. Piotr wanted Lena and me to come to his flat down the street so that we could drink wine and listen to classical music. Lena said she would rather stay in Mama and drink Czech beer while listening to Gypsy music. 

Lena and I started to dance. Nino joined in and then Petrit. We linked arms and danced a kolo, while the Germans looked on uncomprehendingly. “Why don’t they dance too?” said Lena. Piotr gave up on Lena, exasperated he wasn’t going to get laid tonight, and left. Then at five Lena, Nino and I set off home. It was light outside in the grey,  gritty streets of Neukölln and we were forever strangers.

Then it was over to Petrit’s bar on Hobrecht Straße for the grand opening of the joint. Ladaslava, a Slovak Gypsy girl from Prague had stenciled “Gypsy” flowers on the wall. Petrit had managed to scrounge together an ensemble of secondhand furniture, mostly bought at the flea market at Boxhagener Platz. I had arranged for a Romanian Gypsy band to come and play. Petrit’s Albanian friends showed up. Roko came with his friends. Nino arrived with several of his Bosnian pals in tow.

Most of the time I talked with Nino, who  was disappointed there was no rakija. I was losing points with him, he said. He told me about how he started breaking glasses when he was drunk only upon his arrival in Germany. It was a funny thing. 

And then the Gypsies arrived, filing in one by one carrying their brass instruments. “Here they are,” I said. “You have read my mind,” said Nino. 

The band started to play. They played “Kalashnikov”, “Mesečina”, “Bubamara”, all those great numbers. Adnan, the Turkish guy who worked on Petrit’s bar, polished off a bottle of Jägermeister and passed out on the bar. Mime, a Bosnian friend of Nino’s, whistled shrilly at the band and then went up and plastered ten Euros on the forehead of the trumpeter. Slaviša, one of the Serbian Gypsy brothers from the Rroma café on Boddin Straße arrived with his friend Milan. However, it didn’t take long till a  neighbor arrived, complaining to Petrit about the noise. Petrit tried to assuage him, saying that it was only for the opening. The neighbor’s name was Elvis, a Montenegrin, who lived directly over the bar. He milled about, watching the band warily. I danced for a while with a German girl who was married to an Albanian. The Gypsy band wrapped it up and then went around with a hat gathering money from the guests. Petrit tossed them a fifty and all was jake. At around three in the morning I left with a  couple of Petrit’s Albanian friends from Prague who were going to crash at my place. 

As I was leaving, Petit waylaid me, tugging at my arm. He  wanted to know who the guy who had stuck the bill to the head of the Gypsy. I explained he was Bosnian friend of Nino’s. Evidently he had ordered drinks which he refused to pay for. 

“What’s his name?” Petrit asked. 

“Mime,” I said. 

Petrit wanted to make sure he was a Bosnian and not a Serb. If he was a Serb, that would have been a problem. Serbs were unwelcome at the bar. It was a curious thing with Petrit. When the Gypsies showed up, Petrit had asked me if I was sure they were Romanian and not Serbian Gypsies. No Serbs, said Petrit. That was the policy.

The next day we went to Kreuzberg with the Albanians. We drank double espressos at Lucia, a hipster bar on Oranienstrasse.  One of Petrit’s Albanian friends expressed a wish to go to some place more flashy, but this was good enough for Petrit, who hated flashy things.

“Ever since I knew him, Petrit was alternative,” said one of his Albanian friends. “Alternative music, alternative clothes, alternative sugar – you name it – everything alternative.”

In the nineties, there were many more Yugos in Neukölln than there are now, said Zoran.  But after the Dayton Agreement a lot of the refugees had to leave. Some went to Australia, others went to the States others went back home.  

Roko was a Croatian from Split and something in between the old Gastarbeiter of Neukölln and the new generation of Yugo hipsters.

I knew Roko from Zoran. He seemed to be in his mid-forties, though you couldn’t really tell, had jet-black hair, long sideburns, hatchet-face, sharp features, rings on his fingers – he looked a bit like some old rock & roller cat from the fifties, chain smoking, drinking rakija. 

Croatians when they come to Berlin either go into construction or they become waiters and bartenders. Roko was a bartender, for me the epitome of the Berlin bartender. Roko went from one bartending job to the other, all the while keeping within the radius of Nekölln. I guess his steadiest job was at Louis in Rixdorf, whose claim to fame is that they had the biggest Schnitzel in Berlin.

As I said, Roko wasn’t exactly a Gastarbeiter. He came with the second wave of immigrants from the Balkans, in 1994 when the whole war was going on down there.  He had an aunt who cleaned offices during the week and weekends danced in a Croatian folklore group. He also had a cousin here in Berlin. Both the aunt and the cousin lived on Weser Straße. So that when Roko came to Berlin fourteen years ago it was here in Neukölln where he landed. “Immediately. Beng. Right into the cauldron,” as Roko put it, and since his arrival he has never strayed much further than the precincts of Neukölln.

“Ah, it was interesting!” said Roko about the why things were in Neukölln upon his arrival. “It’s been fifteen years now. It was another crowd. Old Germans and Ausländer who came together in old German corner bars (Eck-Kneipen). There weren’t a lot of young people. You could drink to your heart’s content, but there was no real impulse. There were just workers. No artists. The scene was small back then. You’d walk into a bar and all they had was a just jukebox beer on tap. No frills. And if you wanted to go anywhere hip then you had to go to Kreuzberg, where the scene was.”  

Mostly I saw Roko at Zoran’s minimarket, a small dingy hole in the wall where local Yugos could buy Balkan specialities like rakija and kobasica sausage as well as a wide array of Yugo music cassettes and CDs. 

“The guy who married my aunt knew Zoran for from the beginning,” said Roko. “They worked together at Gilette.  And then he started this Balkan grocery shop. And since then I’ve been visiting him on a regular basis. Zoran’s a cool guy. In essence he is an old DJ. He has the most amazing collection of Serbian and Bosnian evergreens. Not fast, opa-opa-opa music, but sevdah, you know, the old love songs.”

Roko could appreciate what Zoran had to offer: old Yugo schlager and folk music. At the same time Roko liked what the German kids were listening to in Neukölln. When he wasn’t singing along to Šaban Šaulić in Zoran’s you could see him at Fuchs and Elster, grooving with the students to electro swing.

As soon as things began to heat up in Neukölln, Roko was quick to jump on action, mixing it up with the kids in the new cellar clubs. Whenever a new bar opened up, you can bet that Roko was there – at Karmonoia, Fuchs und Elster, Sandmann, and then after that Kuschlowski.  He was the first one to introduce me to Rroma Café, the Gypsy café on Boddinstrasse, 

Roko was always “Mr. Neukölln” for me. He was always around, helping the kids get started, giving hot tips about this or that empty shop front that was still available. He was full of ideas and leads.

“I keep a book,” said Roko. “I call it my ideas book, and all my ideas go into there. When I read though it I can see that only a small percentage of my ideas ever get realized. Maybe it will be something for my children. They can read it and do something with it.”

Roko spoke about Zoran. He knew that Zoran was getting old, and Zoran, he knew wanted to pass on the shop to someone else, someone who would carry on the tradition of selling Serbian folk music, smoked sausage and rakija. Zoran had hinted on more than one occasion that he wouldn’t mind if Roko took over the shop.

You could bet that Roko had ideas for the place. He wanted to turn Zoran’s into something else entirely, a kind of hangout for kids of Neukölln and Yugo Gastarbeiter, a Treffpunkt – not just for the old alcoholics on the dole. Something vibrant.

Roko said that people in Neukölln needed places to go at night. When you went out to a bar at night and you hung out with one hundred enthusiastic people, you got energy. 

“It’s about body contact,” said Roko. “Not in a sexual way. I mean the electricity you get from being around people when the place is jumping. Then you go home and you feel good and you have energy for your work on Monday.

Roko wanted to make Zoran’s into something hip. Throw up some paint, get hold of some cheap furniture. The only thing that you needed to spend a lot of  money on was the sound system. You had to have top quality sound.

Why, Roko kept asking himself, instead of giving tips to other people, did take up the initiative and do something for himself? The whole time he was helping other people and giving other people tips, but he was the guy with the nose. Why not take the bull by the horns himself?

But, as in the case of Zoron’s, Zoran was reluctant; he was suspicious of crowds of kids and hipsters. What did he want with a bunch of Germany hanging around drinking his rakija? And problems with the Ordnungsamt etc. etc. And so nothing came of the idea.

Then Roko dropped out of sight for a while. I bumped into him one night at two in the morning in Fuchs und Elster. Roko had fallen on hard times, he explained after he had cadged a drink from me. Like many Yugos in Neukölln he had fallen into a hole he couldn’t get out of. He had lost his job, lost his apartment, lost his Croatian passport, was in schufer – debt. I stood him another drink and wished him good luck.

A bit later I heard from Zoran that the owner of a new bar on Weserstrasse had given him a job tending bar. It was a Chinese tapas bar called Suzy Wong. Roko lasted all of a month there. The Chinese-Spanish theme didn’t work apparently and no one came. The owner claimed that Roko was drinking too much. Roko was fired. The bar changed it’s concept to just Spanish and altered its décor.  But Roko still hung out there. He wasn’t depressed. He knew that he would soon have his day. He had his ideas.

“It’s like a boomerang,”  said Roko. “I throw it out. It spins around, around, around and eventually it comes back to me. That’s like my ideas. Sometimes I threw the boomerang too far out. Right now I’m still waiting for the boomerang to get back tom me.”

One day I ran into Soko at Bosna Burek at Kotti.

“How is it going, Robert?”

“How should it be going for a world-famous DJ? Great. Super. I fuck all these wannabee dickheads who are trying to copy me. Small fish. Like Valentino Vallente. Your friend. How are you? Still living in a tent somewhere?”

“Balkan music is kind of quiet these days, Robert. Nothing new. Shantel has quit Balkan. So has La Cherga.”

“Fuck Shantel. Just a pussy. La Cherga: small fish,”

“A lot of people can’t hear the B-word anymore. Gino Banana won’t even talk about Balkan anymore.”

“Hey, I can’t complain. I’m only getting more and more successful. Nearly a thousand people come to my parties in Lido. Just got back from Mexico. Full clubs.”

“Schlesi has become really bad lately,” I said. “Lousy with tourists.”

“Better tourists than these anarchists, who are really a bunch of faschos. I’d rather have a Spanish girl standing next to me than some unshaven anarchist who is not getting any pussy.”

“OK, Robert, have a nice one.”

One Thursday afternoon after boxing I went to Soko’s to talk over this idea of selling T-shits at his Balkan Beats parties. I showed up late at his place. He had to pick up Marko, his son, from his school nearby. We drove over to the school to fetch him. He was eight. In third grade. Robert spoke to him sometimes in German, sometimes in Croatian. Marko answered in German. Sometimes he lived with Soko’s ex-wife Tatjana. Sometimes he lived with him. Soko still hadn’t entirely gotten over his break-up with Tatjana. It was partly the break-up with her that drove him to drink. Now he was not drinking. No drinking and no cocaine. When he went out, he drank only non-alcoholic beer. 

Back at Soko’s place we ate dinner. Soko had prepared lamb. Marko didn’t like it. I asked him what he preferred. He said spaghetti. All children like spaghetti. 

After dinner I explained to Soko my plan of selling T-shirts and sajkaca  at his parties. The shirts would go over well, he thought, but he couldn’t see the sajkaca selling.

I asked him if he had seen Alen lately. He swore it was over between him and Alen, he said. His friendship with Alen was like alcohol. He swore it was the end, but he always ended up falling under his sway. 

Alen was bad news, said Soko. He was coming on like he was Soko’s manager. Moreover, he was perpetually  hitting Soko up for money, getting him to buy coke and coming to his place and stealing things. Little things, trivial things, like vinegar, soap, shampoo, a CD. It was ridiculous.

The other thing was that Soko wanted to put the picture of me with my black eye on his website, and he wanted me to contribute a short accompanying text. Basically I got the black eye sparing with Fasil the Turk at Easy’s gym. But this was far too prosaic for Soko. He wanted me to think up something more dramatic, some crazy story about a fight I got up to. And so I wrote about how I was jumped by Albanians one night. Soko liked this version, and posted it on his website along with the picture of me with a black eye, holding a cold can of Red Bull up to my face.

Then we went together to Mama Bar, where Soko talked about his resolve to lead a clean life, how good he felt about himself now that he was not drinking, how much better his relationships were now with other people. I thought about myself. I didn’t drink very much, but weed was beginning to become a problem; Petrit said it was beginning  to alter my personality in unappealing ways and  I was beginning to get on people’s nerves. Perhaps it would be a good idea to give that a break. Soko said it would do me well to live without it for a while. 


The other night I was in Mama Bar. Robert Soko showed up with Tagada, a Balkan DJ from Paris. Both were very drunk and high on drugs. I spoke with Robert. His thumb was in a bandage after an encounter with his new Japanese knife. 

Soko put several cloves of garlic on the table, threw one clove in Tagada’s beer glass and put another clove in his coat pocket. “Everyone should have a garlic by him,” said Soko.

Soko was very drunk and every now and then he put a bit of coke in his nose. He said how proud he was to be a Slav. He would never give up his Croatian passport to get a German one.  

Yes, he was proud to be a Slav. They were bigger than the Germans. Scientists, artists, poets, saints, seers, revolutionaries, fire brands: Lev Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. There were three hundred million Slavs in the world. Mother Russia was going to take him into her fold. One of these days there was going to be a conflict, conflagration. It was building up. He could see it. 

“Berlin a Slavic city,” said Soko.

And the Slavs – the Russians – gave it to the Germans already once before, at the end of the Second World War. And it can happen again.

Soko made to smash his vodka glass on the floor and then he thought better of it.

Soko spoke about pan-Slavic nationalism.

One of these days he would get into some trouble. But you know what? He didn’t really give a shit. Maybe he would have to leave Berlin. His big mouth and Slavic nationalism would get him in hot water. It was all  his mind.


Went to Robert Soko’s place on Saturday. Before I arrived I spoke with him on the phone. 

“I’m already drunk,” he said.

So I show up at his place on Möckern Straße and ring the bell. Robert comes out on the balcony hoisting a raikija glass.

“Eh, American! California guy! Second floor!” He buzzes me up. 

Zvonko Bogdan is playing on the stereo when I enter the living room. Zvonko Bogdan was Soko’s father’s favorite singer. Soko’s father had passed away recently, and hearing Zvonko Bogdan made Soko think of him.

“I love this old Serbian shit,” says Soko, and gives me a shot of home-made rakija from his uncle’s farm in Bosnia.

“That’s how we do it in Bosnia. We don’t drink from a big glass, only a little one.”

Soko drank his in one go. I sipped mine. Soko said tonight we were going to party with the Germans (there is a ska concert in Lido, in which his friend Rüdiger Rossig was playing). Then we were going to groove with the Jews. 

Right now, though, we would carefully dig the music of Zvonko Bogdan, Pannonian crooner and avid horse-racer. 

Then, to really mix things up, Soko put on Laibach. It was a collection of national anthems, variously  interpreted. We listented to the Star Spangled Banner. For my benefit. Soko was really getting into it, playing it over and over again on repeat. Then he went onto the balcony and yelled and carried on drunkenly. So much for his resolution to cut out drink.

Robert showed me pictures of Bosnia. He had been going over these pictures before I arrived. Here was the village where he was from. Here was the house where he was born. This was the first bridge that he had ever crossed – a wooden footbridge behind his father’s house. One was always crossing bridges, said Soko. His village is a Catholic village up in the mountains above Travnik. There was a picture of a Muslim woman waiting beside the road. An unusual sight in this Catholic village. A bullet riddled statue of a well known priest, shot up by Muslims during the war. An interior of a church -the altar with a Bible laying open on it. The churchyard with the grave of Soko’s ancestors.  Old books with records of the Soko family from the 1880s.

“I have looked into my family history and seen many things. Things maybe I shouldn’t have seen.”

Soko did not elucidate.

“And now I am thinking of going back. Bosnia is the place where I will die. I  have accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in Berlin. Now it is time to go back.”

Soko showed me a picture of the Bosnian countryside, the green mountains shrouded with clouds. That was why he was such a good DJ. It was because of Bosnia. 

“Bosnia made me,” said Soko.

We took another shot of rakija. Soko downed his. Then he threw his glass against the wall, glass shattering over the CDs on his desk. He was quite drunk. 

“Reading Kafka now,” Soko said. He threw Das Urteil on his sofa. It was in Serbian.

“Now I am learning Hungarian. ‘Cuz of this Hungarian girl I am seeing. It would be my fifth language. In my life I always do things five times. Five is the magic number for me.” 

After we had drunk five shots of rakija it came time to leave. Soko hailed a cab. He looked for his keys, swearing where the fuck were his keys. Out on the street the cab was waiting for us. It was a Turkish cab driver. He called up Alen on his cell phone.

“What are you doing you motherfucking Muslim?” said Soko.

Alen was Soko’s best friend. Soko had knownAlen for ten years. Alen hailed from Bosnia as well. Prior to coming to Berlin, he had spent time in a refugee camp. 

“At least that’s what he says,” said Soko. “You never know what’s bullshit with Alen,” said Soko.

Alen met us at the door to Lido. Rudiger Rossig was there. He checked his watch. He was supposed o take the stage in a few minutes. When the band finally took the stage, Soko shouted “Danke Deutschland!” He kept on shouting.

We danced. Alen brought me a vodka. I sipped it for a while and then Alen took it from me, finished it off and smashed the glass on the floor.

“That’s the way we do it here,” he said.

I danced with a Croatian girl from Pula. I asked her why there were so many Yugos. There was Misho, a guy named Branko, the Bosnian girl who gave me a hard time because of my Guča T-shirt at Nino’s show. The Croatian girl said it was because of Rüdiger. He brought everyone together. 

That night I went back to my apartment in Halensee and read a few pages of Henry Miller. He had this to say:

“I am a traveler, not an adventurer. Things happen to me in my search for a way out. Up until now I had been working away in a blind tunnel, burrowing in the bowels of the earth for light and water. I could not believe, being a man of the American  continent, that there was  a place on earth where a man could be himself. By force of circumstance I became a Chinaman – a Chinaman in my own country! I took to the opium of dream in order to face the hideousness of a life in which I had no part. As quietly and naturally as a twig falling into the Mississippi I dropped out of the stream of American life.”

Stopped by Bajram’s tailor shop once more. Talk turned to our friend Sasha.

“He’s dangerous because he’s desperate and he has got nothing to lose,” said Bajram. “He’s frustrated and he’ll take his frustration out on someone else.”

Then I went to Zoran’s in Neukölln.

“Nothing against your friend Sasha,” said Zoran, “but I don’t want him coming here any more. It’s too much stress. He steals things and I don’t want him stealing anything here. He made a big to do about a missing sweater last time, as if I had taken it. No, keep him away from here.”

There were two other guys at Zoran’s. One of them I knew. He was from Kosovo. He and Zoran had just come from the anti- Kosovo independence rally at the Rote Rathaus. We drank rakija and the guy from Kosovo, in  a special Serbian gesture of friendship, linked arms with me as we drank in unison, then kissed me three times on each cheek, and finally shook my hands. 

“It’s like with the Africans,” said the Kosovar. 

Then Sasha showed up, despite the fact that he  was persona non grata at Zoran’s.

“Hey all you homosexuals,”said Sasha.

He pointed to my shoes.

“You’re wearing my shoes! Those are great shoes. You could kill someone with those shoes. All leather.”

Then Sasha told us how he could spot an Albanian a mile a way. He could tell from the faces.

“These Albanian faces. All drawn out. The Serbs are a much more handsome people, I think. Albanians – even when they are sleeping they are thinking about how to kill you,”

“I’m spitting like an Albanian,” Sasha would say.

Yesterday I stopped by a gallery in Linienstrasse to see an exhibit of a Croatian artist, Ivan Fijolić, who caused a bit of a stir in the ethnically divided town of Mostar in Bosnia the previous year with his life-size bronze statue of Bruce Lee.

Fijolić was reacting to a legacy of decades of socialist statues depicting Partisan heroes and then Serb, Muslim and Croatian statues and monuments to national heroes during the last Balkan wars. He wanted to create a statue to an ethnically neutral youth hero and so came upon Bruce Lee, who is highly regarded among the young people of Yugoslavia – perhaps more so than amongst the youth of any other country. However, many people thought the statue, erected on the front line between Croatian and Muslim Mostar,  was a frivolous gesture, which disrespected the communities and all the town went through during the war. The statue was vandalised and then disappeared mysteriously altogether. Now Fijolić had recreated the Bruce Lee statue for this Berlin show, this time in pink latex and placed upon a revolving pedestal. Why pink? And why revolving? Go figure. Art – what can you say?

Anyway, I got to talking with the gallerist who had curated the show and he explained that he himself  was part Croatian and that the focus of the gallery was on Croatian art. A woman came up to us and joined our conversation, saying she was Croatian as well, and as we got to talking, it turned out that she knew the guys from the Balkan Beats parties at the Mudd club and had been to the first Balkan Beats parties when they were at the Arcanoa. 

“The thing about the Arcanoa was that it was a place for all of these Yugo guys who were addicted to drugs and were into alternative things. It definitely wasn’t mainstream. Now the whole Balkan Beats thing has become a bit of a product. But in the past it was different.  It was about creating a kind of hybrid music that has nothing to do with the Balkans.”

This Croatian woman’s sister designed some of the first posters for the Arcanoa Balkan Beats parties. She remembers one. It said “B YU”. You know, “Be you”, but also “Be YU” as in Yugoslavia. 

“All of these Yugos at the Arcanoa, it was the type of scene which could only exist in Berlin,” the woman said. “It was the kind of scene which could only grow up in the diaspora.

“There was no way that something like that could have existed in Croatia. Back in Croatia, in the early nineties – just as war was breaking out – people didn’t want anything to do with Yugoslavia. I showed  people back in Croatia these posters for the Balkan Beats parties, and they said basically, ‘What is this shit? What is this YU shit? We don’t want to have anything to do with YU anymore.’ 

“And then there was the music. They played this Gypsy brass music which no one played back home. I mean you heard it at weddings and funerals, but it definitely wasn’t cool. Everyone back home was listening to rock and punk and not this shit. But this was what they were playing, maybe out of nostalgia or who knows what. 

“And you know, gradually you began to like it.”

Going out  with Petrit and his friend Erkand. First  we hit Kaffee Burger. Then we met some other guys and we went to the Mudd Club for the Balkan Beats party. I had my Belgrade T-shirt on. 

 “What the fuck is that for a T-shirt?”  said Erkand. 

“The Serbs say they are the wolves,” said Petrit. “But we say: we are the bears that eat the wolves.”

On the stage, Robert Soko was  spinning a set of fast-paced Serbian Gypsy brass numbers mixed together with some funky Romanian manele from suburban Bucharest, the odd Yugo anthem, and the crowd was literally going nuts. It was my first experience of total pandemonium on the dance floor, and it was mesmerising. Never had I seen so many people driven so wild by Balkan music. As soon as we entered, a circle of girls from somewhere in the Balkans was dancing a whirling kolo while some Scottish tourists in kilts, who had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the Spandauer Vorstadt, kicked up their heals on the stage. Then it was Djurdjevdan, and all  the Yugos in the house flew into ecstasy, throwing up their arms and belting out the  lyrics. A bottle of homemade slivovitz circulated through the crowd, moving from hand to hand.

“Nice!” said Erkand.

It was clear that something momentous was going on that night in the Mudd Club, in Mitte, Spandauer Vorstadt, Berlin’s old Jewish quarter. A mix of ex Yugos nostalgic for the mother land, which no longer existed, and curious Germans as well as a handful of stray tourists filled the club. And all this in an old coal cellar with bathroom doors hanging off their hinges, damp dripping from the ceiling. The walls you couldn’t really lean up against because they were covered with one hundred years of coal soot. It was really underground, in every sense of the word. It was smelly, shabby, not really that cool, not a posh joint by any stretch of the imagination. One paid three euros for the entrance.  Dancing couples everywhere, a  really good atmosphere. A lot of women swinging their curves. 

“Balzanizaciiiiijaaaa!” Erkand shouted into the crowd. “Balkanizaciiiiiijaaaaaaa!”

Balkanizacija – balkanization – was a  term that came into vogue in the nineties with the Yugoslavian wars, meaning a kind of breaking apart of large national entities – à la Yugoslavia – into smaller religiously or ethnically distinct communities. 

In the nineties suddenly journalists everywhere were talking about “balkanization” in reference  to all kinds of splinter groupings and independence movements,  patchwork communities and multi-cultural hodge-podge, be it in politics, culture or demographics. “Balkanization” almost always meant something negative.

And yet I saw it positively – in  the sense of the importing and spread of the Balkan way of doing things, the Balkan mentality, the Balkan lifestyle and way of celebrating – teaching Westerners, through Balkan music, Balkan festivities, Balkan holidays to eat, drink, love, dance, behave the Balkan  way, to relieve oneself for the moment of one’s civilized hang-ups.

And the kids here tonight at the Mudd Club on Großer Hamburger Strasse were receptive to the message. They wanted what Robert Soko had to offer – something with a raw feeling to it, pathos, humor, something that smelled of sweat and onions and gasoline. They wanted to dance like idiots and drink like fools. Right and left improvised belly-dances were going on, people were drinking slivovitz and reveling in their own notions of what it was to “be a Balkanite”. The message was this: “You can go mad with Balkan music, you can exorcise your soul, you can become a Gypsy for a night!”

All of us danced to Serbian Gypsy music and now and then there was something that Petrit assured me was Albanian. We drank steadily. And then around three Petrit said he was leaving. But Erkand had a train at six thirty. It wasn’t worth him going all the way to Neukölln, sleeping for an hour and then going to the station, so he figured he’d stay at the club until it was time to go. I felt bad for Erkand, all alone, and although I felt tired, I said I’d stay with him.

We sat down and drank, and then we danced some more.  Erkand stood next to me, tottering drunk. Next to us was a German couple. The girl was pretty but the guy was a little bit of a fish out of water there at the Mudd Club. Next thing I knew, Erkand had grabbed the girl and was kissing her passionately. The boyfriend jumped in between the two of them, all upset. I thought for sure there would be a fight. But nothing happened. The German let himself get walked over. 

We danced for a little while longer and then went to Hauptbahnhof so that Erkand could catch his train.

I met up with Sasha the next day. I told him about Erkand. 

“That’s just like the Albanians, stealing other people’s women. It’s not funny at all,” he said.

About the Mudd club Petrit said it was a nice place to be because there were a lot of German girls who liked dancing to Balkan music, but the German guys didn’t know how do dance to Balkan music, so the girls ended up dancing with all the Balkan guys.

I told Petrit I had an idea for his bar: we would play gangster films like Scarface and Mean Streets, Goodfellas with no sound and then we would play over it Balkan Beats. But Petrit said he wouldn’t allow it. 

“You have to realize I have suffered from the Serbs. And when I hear these songs it brings back the bad memories and I feel bad,” said Petrit.

Zoran told me what one of his customer’s – a Serbian woman – had told him what happened to her daughter in school. One day the teacher walks into class and says, “Class, I have something to tell you: there is a new nation in Europe. It is called Kosovo.” The Serbian girl stood up – she was maybe fourteen – and she said, “Excuse me, but Kosovo is not a country. It is part of Serbia.” The teacher told her, “You’ve got a five. Leave the room now.”

I stopped by Bajram’s shop before class. I had just picked up Vesti. There was news of the riots in Belgrade, the setting fire to the American embassy.

Na, my rich American friend from Hollywood,” said Bajram. “What are the Serbs doing? Are they crying.”

“See for yourself.”  I gave Bajram the paper.

Oh jej!” he said. “All propaganda!”

According to Bajram the Serbs were reluctant to wage war over Kosovo because they knew the Albanians would take it to Niš. Niš was the old border of Albania, from Illyrian times. You could never win against the Albanians; they would never give up. Not in a hundred years. They were relentless. And the whole world was behind the Albanians. And who was behind the Serbs? Russia. And that was it.  But Russia was far away. And Russia, truth be told, didn’t give a shit.No, it was finished. Over and done with. Kosovo was gone, and the Serbs had better just accept the fact.

“You seen Sasha?” I said.

“I see him every day. He has nothing else to do than come to me. ‘Brotherhood and unity’ as they said in Yugoslavia.”

I left Bajram, and as I was walking down the street Sasha jumped out of a black Mercedes and called me over. I told him I was late for class. He saw I was carrying Vesti and demanded to see the paper. 

“When will we see each other?” said Sasha.

I said I got out of class at four. I’d see him then, at  Bajram’s. Sasha took the paper and said he would give it to me then. As I was leaving he called me back.

“You are not angry with with your brother?” he said.

“No,” I said, perplexed. “Why should I be angry with you?”

“I don’t know. I was just thinking.”

What did he want to sell me next? What did he want from me this time? The thought coursed between my mind.

I went to class. Two Polish kids and two Germans I got to know through my mother. In between I drank a vodka at the little Armenian bar at S-bahnhof Charlottenburg. It smelled of cigarette smoke and bear-sodden wood. There was a picture of Christ’s Last Supper on the wall. The usual bunch of alcoholics.

After class I went back to Bajram’s.  Sasha was there, and the first thing he did was he tried to sell me his leather jacket. Right off his back. He was that hard up for cash. 

“You already sold me one leather jacket,” I said. “What do I need another for?” 

All the same, he insisted I take mine off and try his on.

“Pa! Like James Dean! A real Mafioso!”

It wasn’t a bad jacket, but I had enough jackets as it was. 

“Come on back and I’ll show you something else,” said Sasha.

Sasha took me in the back of Bajram’s shop and showed me a sweatshirt. It said “Don’t touch” on it. Sasha tried to sell it to me.

“You laugh,” said Sasha. “But this is top quality shit.”

“What will you try and sell me next?” I wanted to know.

“Listen,” said Sasha. “Do you want some seductive underwear for your girlfriend? Cheaper than the Sex shop up the street. I’ll get you that as well. Crotchless undies. By the way, I have been in touch with Dragan, the priest at the Serbian Orthodox church in Wedding. You recall, you drank wine with him  after mass and spoke about Kosovo – well  Dragan  is very angry with you – yes, he was in tears because he heard that you had celebrated with the Albanians at Brandenburger Tor for Kosovo independence. Yes, and you had  shouted: ‘Kosovo Republic!’ and ‘New born!’ and that you had been at the front of the auto korso waving an Albanian flag. He was very disappointed with you. There are photos to prove that you have celebrated with the Albanians. He said that any promise to help you in your research in Serbia was off. You can’t be in two places at the same time. Sitting on the fence is a dangerous game. You can’t party with the Albanians and commiserate with the Serbs. It just won’t work.”

“Actually, I’m thinking of moving to Belgrade,” I said. “Berlin is getting me down.”

“You hear that brother Bajram? Brother Robby is moving to Belgrade,” said Sasha.

“And then he will move to Prishtina,” said Bajram.

“Look,” said Sasha, “I will help you get in touch with the most famous Serbian personalities. I will introduce you to Ceca. You bet I will! Didn’t I tell you I know everyone.All it will take is a couple of phone calls. Come on.”

Sasha beckoned me further into the back of Bajram’s shop. There he gave me his spiel.

“How much will you pay me to get to know Ceca?”

“Why should I pay you anything?” I said.

“Nothing is free in this world, Robby. I have to make phone calls to Serbia. Do this, do that. Do you think I’d do all this work for nothing?”

“I’ll give you a tenner,” I said.

“You insult me, Robby. Why don’t I just come on over to your place and make the calls from there, It will be cheaper than if I call on my mobile.”

So Sasha wanted to come over to my place in Halensee, together with Bajram, after he had gotten off work.

“Listen to this,” said Sasha. “I can get you a picture of Ceca performing oral sex on Legija? How ‘bout that?” 

Just then, an old, white-haired Iranian guy, who sometimes hung out at the shop, showed up. He was married to a Romanian and had two children, was in his late fifties or early sixties. He  had just come back from shopping and had in his hand a plastic bag with his purchases.

“Let’s see what you bought,” said Sasha, and he pulled out a box of brown hair dye. 

“Ha-ha! Bajram! Come here and see what our Iranian brother has just bought! He has bought some color for his hair!”

“So what?” said the Iranian.

“What color are you going to dye your hair?” asked Bajram.

“Brown,” said the Iranian. “Above and below.”

“You should have bought blond!” said Sasha. ”And while you are at it you should get blue colored contact lenses. You will look like a real playboy!”

“The reason I have bought the dye because of a Ukrainian woman I know,” said the Iranian. “She kept saying to me, if only I was ten, fifteen years younger she would go out with me. She was around thirty. Now with his brown hair she’d agree to sleep with me. I’ll fuck her and she’ll see that I am the man for her.”

Sasha found this fantastically funny. He kept slapping his thigh. 

“He thinks he’ll fuck her!” cried Sasha. 

Bajram invited us in back of his shop to have a coffee. We sat around at his sewing tables. The Iranian said that he was on the U-bahn going to Schlesische Tor the other day when  a South American sitting next to him showed him on his mobile phone a movie of what he had recorded. He could hardly believe his eyes. It was of a woman, in the U-bahn who got up and suddenly stripped naked.

“Only in Germany,” sighed Sasha. “Can you imagine that happening in Lebanon or Iran? They would kill her. Or in Serbia.”

Bajram said they one summer there was a bunch of naked people just walking down the Ku-damm.

“Or the Love Parade,” said Sasha. “Fucking degenerates.”

 We talked about women.

“Do you know where they have the most beautiful women?” said the Iranian.

“There are beautiful women everywhere,” said Bajram.

“Not in Germany,” said Sasha.

“I’ll tell you where they have the most beautiful women in the world,” said the Iranian. “Everyone says so. It’s in Iran.”

“What about Serbian women,” said Sasha. “Eh, Robby? Serbian women are the best. Paaa! You should see the chicks in Novi Sad. Skirts like this with their ass practically hanging out. And expensive clothes. Two hundred euro sun glasses. Versace. Where do they get the money for this stuff?”

“What about Czech girls?” said Bajram. “Czech girls are nice, but they have diseases.”

Bajram explained that back in communism they ran out of chewing gum in Czechoslovakia. Then guys would come up from Yugoslavia with chewing gum and they’d fuck a Czech girl for one piece of gum. He knew a guy who paid to fuck five Czech girls at the same time for five packs of gum. He lined them up in a row and fucked them one after another, up and down the line. 

Sasha explained that once when he was living large and running around with seven thousand Euros in his pocket he had blown one thousand five hundred euro in one night at a whorehouse in Šabac.

“I swear to God and on the grave of my father,” said Sasha. “If I am lying may this be the last sip that I take,” he said as he took his last sip of coffee.

The Iranian said that once he had paid a woman ten thousand marks just to sleep with her. That was in Switzerland. She was French. A famous singer. He mentioned her first name. He couldn’t think of her last name. Bajram thought he knew her. 

“But that’s nothing,” said Bajram. “I know of an Albanian guy from my town in Tetovo who paid two million marks to screw Lepa Brena.”

“Ten thousand marks I paid to sleep with her!” repeated the Iranian.

“Two million marks!” said Bajram. “Think of that.”

All Bajram’s stories began with “I knew an Albanian guy who…” Sasha on the other had only told stories about what he had done himself. Some of the stories were pretty wild – bullshit obviously. And he had a tendency to tell the same stories twice, with the facts all twisted around each telling. For example how he got knifed. That was probably his favorite story. He had been close to death, he said. But he pulled though. For he was the Serbian phoenix.

The Iranian finally said his goodbyes and left. Then it was time to leave. Bajram locked up. Sasha unlocked an old bike he had parked next to Bajram’s shop. Bajram had given it to him. Then the three of us walked to my flat.

“Bajram’s the only guy in Berlin who helps me,” said Sasha. “And you, Robby. I will never forget your  generosity. May God reward you.”

“Better you reward me. And soon,” I said. “You already owe me five hundred euro.”

Walking up the street to Adenauerplatz Sasha said it was a fucking lie what the Iranian had said about paying ten thousand marks for a screw.

“If it was Yugoslavia I’d have believed him. People are always throwing away money down there. You should see how much they throw away on music.”

We stopped at the bank so that Bajram could take out some money to pay the rent which was due. Then we walked down the Ku-damm in the direction of my place. Sasha rode his bike on the pavement up in front of us, looking like a beat  Gastarbeiter and a Yugoslav in his leather jacket and clunky shoes on this old bike. A German would never look like that. A German would have some sleek mountain bike and some sporty jacket. But Sasha could care less. He had no sense of style. Not in the German sense, at least. He had Balkan style, which didn’t conform to German style. He just didn’t care what they thought of him. He had other cares.

Suddenly Bajram and I discovered that Sasha was no longer with us. Turning round, we saw Sasha making threatening gestures at some guy who was coming the opposite direction with his girl. 

“What is the problem now with this guy?” Bajram said.

Sasha was now ranting in Serbian. Somehow the guy had insulted him. I have no idea what had transpired. Evidently the guy didn’t like the fact that Sasha was coming at him on his bike and he had waved his hands in the air or something. At any rate, Sasha had taken it amiss.

“He thought I was some kind of queer because I have this pony tail,” said Sasha.

We bought olives, goat’s cheese and wine at Kaisers. Sasha asked me if I had anything for Bajram to drink because he was Muslim. I said I had juice. We paid up and left. 

Walking to my place Sasha said, “This will be Bajram’s first time in your flat. I have to tell you it’s a Balkan custom when someone comes to your house for the first time you have to give him fifty euro.” 

“You are joking of course,” I said. 

At the same time he was not.

We went up to my place and drank and ate cheese and olives. I had put some meat out, and Bajram wanted to know what kind of meat it was. I said it was pork. In that case Bajram said he’s have none of it. He stuck to the chips he had bought and drank the apple juice I gave him, while Sasha smoked and made calls on my phone to Serbia. He was trying to arrange an interview with Ceca. But it was no dice. Sasha, after all, turned out to have not that much pull.

Bajram was telling me about  guys from Tetovo who had gone to America and made millions. There was a guy for instance, who like a number of Albanian guys, had snuck across the border from Mexico to the US, through a tunnel. He made it to Denver, where he opened up an Italian restaurant. He opened up one restaurant after another and before he knew it he was a millionaire. 

“And he made his money legally. No mafia,” said Bajram, as if this was something exceptional and remarkable in the context of Albanian success stories.

Bajram said that back in Tetovo he had many tempting offers to lure him into a life of crime. That was how you made easy money. Drugs. Boom, boom, boom. The money just piled up. But not Bajram. Not he. He didn’t want to mess up anyone’s life, and then have a kid’s mother cursing his name to God.

No, when he was twelve Bajram decided he’d be a tailor. It was better than being a builder and having to be outside all the time in the cold. His brother decided to be a barber. That was also an easy job. But you had to be something, and in Macedonia you learned your trade early. In Germany there were guys, thirty-five years old who had never worked a day in their lives.  Bajram couldn’t understand it. These Albanians, they started working when they were twelve. They had business in their blood, and the Germans, they couldn’t compete with these people.

Then Sasha went to get cigarettes from Amma, the Tunisian with the bar across the street. He asked for money from me. I gave him a fiver. He took money from Bajram as well.

“The man is only making debts,” said Bajram after Sasha had left. “I have known Sasha for, what, thirteen years, when he had two cars and a motorcycle. And now he has nothing, the poor sod. But when he has money, he is a very generous guy. Always throwing money around.”  

After he came back,  Sasha  explained that his grandfather was an Albanian from Sveti Naum. His father had told him. He had no special affinity for Serbs, he said. All the Serbs he knew had let him down. But Bajram – an Albanian (and technically his enemy) – had been there to help him. Therefore he could never think badly about Albanians. All of these national distinctions meant nothing to him. It was all – as he said – kurac.

I met up with Petrit the other day at Ostbahnhof, where an Albanian friend of his  named Erkand was arriving from Switzerland. I got there before Petrit and recognized his friend immediately as he got off the train. You could see the Albanian in his face, in his eyes, in his swagger.

“You’re a friend of Petrit aren’t you?” I said.

“Who are you?” said Erkan. He was  a little bit apprehensive, wary of me,  thought maybe I was trying to pull a fast one over him.

Petrit showed up a bit later and together we took the U-bahn to Neukölln and then went to Petrit’s bar so that Erkand could drop off his suitcase. We played darts. Petrit surfed the web, caught up on events in Kosovo. He now had a picture of flag waving Albanians at the independence rally in Prishtina as a screensaver. 

We left Mama to check out a couple of local bars, first the Kinsky bar, then to a one of the new bars that were beginning to pop up in the neighborhood like mushrooms after a heavy rain.  Petrit and I drank vodka. Erkand drank beer. 

“Erkand was a fighter for the KLA,” said Petrit.

“What made you join up?” I asked.

“Boredom,” said Erkand. “Me and my friends were just sitting around in cafes with nothing to do. Someone said, ‘Lets go join the KLA. They’ll give us weapons.’ They gave us guns. They gave us the most antique guns you could imagine. They must have been from the First World War. But we trained with them and  soon the  commanders  said we were good to fight the Serbs if we wanted to. It was up to us. We didn’t have to fight if we didn’t want to. I remember shooting at tanks. I can’t tell you if I killed anyone.”

Going home Petrit said that Erkand was a “real Gastarbeiter guy.”.  “He is kind of primitive. Not alternative at all. Listens to Albanian music from Gjakova.” 

Petrit was different than Erkand. He didn’t like that typical Albanian music – tallava.  He was not a fighter, never considered joining the KLA. He was an intellectual. Now in retrospect of course, he says he might have joined the KLA if circumstances had been different. I didn’t believe him, though. Despite the fact he had a definite nationalist streak. But then all Albanians were like this. Even the Albanian hipsters were nationalist. Even the punks and queers. I had never met an Albanian punk or queer, but if there were any I’d imagine they had Albanian eagles tattooed on their arms and  hated the Serbs just like the Albanian mangups, like Erkand.

I was sitting in the Café Sahara smoking a hookah when I got a call from Petrit. “We’re over here at the Tetovo Café on Sonnenalle about to celebrate Kosovo’s independence. Why don’t you come over and have a drink. History is in the making.”

I put down my hookah, paid Ali and walked over to Sonnenallee, where the Albanian café was full of men drinking coffee and playing cards. Petrit and Dren were sitting at a table drinking vodka. On the TV Hashim Thaci was giving a speech, preparing his nascent country for this great moment. But the men in the bar couldn’t seem to give a shit; they went on playing cards, seemingly oblivious to the history that was unfolding on the screen above them.

“What the fuck?” said Dren. “They are about to declare independence and these guys are sitting around playing cards like nothing is happening.”

I ordered a vodka. Cars drove by outside, honking horns and flying Albanian flags. Then the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. Thaci declared independence. Everyone in the café put down their cards and broke out into wild applause. There were cheers as men shook hands and slapped each other on the back.

“Don’t you know of anyone who has a car?” said Petrit. “I want to drive around Berlin and wave my Albanian flag.”

I called Nino. He was Bosnian and friendly to the Albanian cause. He probably could take a few memorable photos. But he wasn’t answering his phone.

So Petrit suggested we rent a car, and we toyed with this idea for a while. After a couple more vodkas, we went outside, across the street to another Albanian local called Dy Fazane, the Two Pheasants. The café was full of men drinking coffee and drinking beer. They were flying the Albanian flag as well. There we watched more scenes on the TV from the streets of Prishtina.  We ordered vodkas. Petrit asked the Albanian girl tending bar if there was going to be a party somewhere later and she said something about Brandenburger Tor. 

There were really a lot of cars now  flying the Albanian flag. Most of the people from Dy Fazane had gone outside to cheer at the cars and flash victory signs. Some of the people were filming the calvacade  on their mobile phones. A group Turks from a neighboring bakery were cheering as well. The Turks and the Albanians were brothers.

Petrit decided to chuck the idea of renting a car. Instead we made our way to the Brandenburger Tor, while Dren went to sleep at Petrit’s bar. Petrit gave him the keys to the bar and we walked to Petrit’s apartment. There Petrit grabbed his Albanian flag and we took off to the Brandenburg Gate. On the subway Petrit tied his flag around his neck. 

But when we arrived at Brandenburg Gate there was no one there. We wandered around forlornly on the square, Petrit lonesome with his Albanian flag.  It started to drizzle. We took the U-bahn back to Neukölln and sat around Petrit’s bar and drank beer, while Petrit surfed the web, reading stories about the celebrations in Kosovo. It was all rather anticlimactic. Kosovo was a newborn country. We wanted to celebrate, but somehow the party had eluded us.

The next day I got a call from Sasha. The Serbs were going to protest Kosovo independence at Brandenburg Gate on Sunday and he wanted to know whether I would come with. 

“Sure,” I said.

He asked me what I did last Sunday. I said I was with a couple of Albanians at the Tetovo café watching the Albanians declare independence. Sasha wasn’t pleased. I didn’t see why.

“I’m a journalist,” I said. “I have to see both sides of the coin.”

A couple days later there were riots in Belgrade. More then 150 000 people took to the streets of the capitol, storming the American embassy and setting fire to it. Mobs trashed several McDonalds and looted American stores. I stayed up all night watching the footage on You Tube.

The day after the riots I was walking past Bajram’s shop in Charlottenburg. Sasha was there, and I stopped in. Sasha hugged me passionately and slapped me on the back, while Bajram sat, altering a pair of trousers. A white haired Iraqi-man was sitting in the corner.  What did I think about the situation in Belgrade? Dangerous, eh? 

“If I were you, I would think twice about going to Belgrade,” said Sasha.

“It’s all set. I’m going in August, “I said. 

“Americans won’t be welcome,” said Sasha.

“I can deal with Serbs,” I said. “I also speak a little of the lingo.”

“But when they hear you were partying with the Albanians in Café Tetovo they’ll kill you. We have our spies, you know. Never underestimate the Serbs. One of our guys was probably there taking photos.”

“You know where I stand on Kosovo.”

“But how can you go to Belgrade after celebrating with the Albanians? A traitor is what you are.”

“I wasn’t celebrating. I’m a journalist and I’ve got to remain neutral.”

“There is no such thing as being neutral. You can’t be with both Serbs and Albanians. You are either with us or you are against us.”

“No, he’s right,” said the Iraqi. “As a journalist he must see everything.”

Kurac!” said Saha. “I am of a different opinion.”

Shasha showed me his new watch. It was a gift from Bajram, he said. 

“Normally such a watch costs a thousand euro. But Bajram gave it to me as a gesture of Serbian-Albanian friendship.”

“Where did you steal this from?” I said.

“Bajram gave it to me so that I wouldn’t feel so bad about losing Kosovo,” said Sasha. “I know Kosovo is gone. We have lost this battle. But we will regroup and emerge the stronger. Serbs never surrender.”

I asked Sasha if he was going to the demonstration on Sunday.

“Probably I will not go there,” said Sasha. “Maybe there will be some fights. I don’t want any trouble with the police. They already know who I am.”

That same day I was teaching English to two Germans who worked at an antique lamp shop on Nestorstrasse, around the corner from Bajram’s shop. We spoke about the events in Kosovo and Belgrade.

“I am for the independence of Kosovo,” said the owner, Fritz, a good old German who, in the good old German fashion, always towed the party line of those in power.

“It is a good thing for Europe,” he said.

“But Kosovo is a part of Serbia,” I said.

Ach, the Serbs!” said Fritz dismissively. “They are a primitive peoples. They are two hundred years behind the rest of us here in Europe.”

“I like the Serbs very much,” I said. “I find them friendly and hospitable.”

“That is the two sides to the Serbs,” said Fritz. “Forget about the Serbs. Why should you waste your time with such peasants.”

And home I went, more lonely than ever.

I had been to Serbia and I had been to Kosovo. I liked each people and and wondered why they just couldn’t see eye to eye. In the end both sides would turn out to be the losers. That I was sure of.

We decided to pay up and move on. We wanted to check out the Kinsky bar on Friedelstrasse, but when we got there, it was closed, so we hit a couple scene-bars in the neighborhood, where young German students, artists and hipsters sat drinking beer in dimly lit interiors, next to the Turkish Kultur Vereine social clubs, where Turkish men sat playing cards under bright lights. 

I said to Petrit that it was interesting how the Turks liked brightly lit cafes and the Germans preferred dark bars. Dren said it was because the Turks couldn’t see their cards in the dark. Petrit disagreed, saying it was because the Germans did dark things at night, whereas the Turks did dark things during the day and so preferred to sit in brightly lit places at night. 

It was an interesting theory.

After sitting for a while in a dark bar where I got in a conversation with a long-haired Brit with a bad stutter, we ended up at a German corner bar that was surprisingly crowded for a Monday. 

“It would be interesting if your new bar catered not merely to Germans, but Germans and Turks, Albanians and Serbs. It would be a step towards world peace,” I said. “You could make your bar the only place in Berlin where Albanians and Serbs, Turks and Germans coexisted in harmony,” I said.  

“It would never work,” said Petrit, who was shooting for the young, hip German and West European clientele.

And so we sat at a table in this Neukölln scene bar, Dren and I driking beer, Petrit having a double vodka.  Dren spoke about the Albanians in New York, where he had lived for a couple of years. Mostly, the Albanians lived in the Bronx, alongside the blacks. There weren’t many Albanians in the Bronx, but they formed a close-knit community. When they first moved into the Bronx they kept getting in hassled by the blacks. Two Albanians would be walking down the street and they would get jumped by a gang of blacks. Then the Albanians would go home and they would round up ten other Albanian guys and they would go looking for the  guys that jumped them and beat them up. Next week the same thing happened. The Albanians showed up and the blacks jumped them. The Albanians would go home and round up their friends and they would go beat up the blacks. This  kept happening week after week until finally the blacks just gave up. 

“Now no one messes with the Albanians in the Bronx,” said Dren.

Dren had an idea for a screenplay. It would be about Albanians living abroad who don’t fit in their adopted homes, but who had lived for so long away from home that they had lost touch with the reality of Kosovo.

“It’s funny, these Albanians you meet in America. Although they have lived for fifteen, twenty years in America, they nurture this completely unrealistic nostalgia for Kosovo. They keep these folders with all their pictures and memories from home, and they cherish these memories above everything.  But their image of Kosovo no longer reflects what Kosovo has become. So when they go back home they are totally shocked at what they see; nothing is as they remember it. 

“You know, these Albanians, especially the men who grow up abroad, they are more conservative and more backward than the Albanians back home in Kosovo. They don’t fit into their new societies, keeping a distance from it. They hang on to their old customs and when they adopt some aspects of German or American culture, they feel guilty about it, like they are selling out. 

“But these guys back home, they don’t have anything holding them back,” said Dren. “They are free to be what they want: gays, lesbians, punks, whatever. All they have around them are Albanians and all the new trends and influences are coming from Albanians, not another people who they are suspicious of. They are much freer, these guys, more normal, with less hang-ups, less aggressive and closed-minded.”

“You notice the same thing amongst the Turks when you got to Istanbul,” I said. “You don’t see the same kind of Alemancı Turks as you see in Berlin. These tough guys, swaggering around with their shaved heads and  and cocky baseball caps and bleached jeans, these little, two-bit gangsters, they don’t exist in Istanbul.”

“Yeah,” said Dren. “There are tough guys in Kosovo and Turkey, but they don’t put on a big show and swagger around, because back home everyone is tough. Here in Germany, the Turks and Albanians know that they can slap any German around and the German won’t do anything. They can walk all over them. So they swagger around.”

“And another thing,” said Dren, “These Turks and Albanians in Germany, they complain about the coldness of the Germans and how they never accept them as anything but foreigners. It’s bullshit. Of course they won’t accept you if you don’t try to fit into the society, if you insist on doing things your own way. If you scream and shout and carry on like back home then you are going to have problems with your German neighbors.”

“So tell me about your screenplay,” I said. “What’s it about?”

Dren sketched it out for me. It dealt with three figures: an Albanian in America who was livening in isolation from society, hanging his old idea of Albanian identity, his sister back in Kosovo, who spoke English, was working for an international organization and was going out with a foreigner working for the U.N. Then there was the little brother who was a radical Muslim.

We spoke about mangups,  a Serbian word, used also in Albanian, to refer to a tough guy, a macho, a small time gangster, chav, knacker, prole – in Turkish a kiro.  A lot of these Serbs and Albanians who lived in Germany were mangups. 

My friend, Sasha the thief, was a mangup, and I told told Dren and Petrit about this guy, his fights, his tough guy posturing, his small-time gangster antics.

I told Dren about the time Sasha called me up one day, very upset that I had slapped him on the back the previous night. I had disrespected him in some weird way that was purely in Sasha’s imagination, and now he was threatening to fight me.

“Typical mangup strategy,” said Dren. “It’s very strange the mangup way of thinking, his psychology. The mangup always has to have power over the other person. This may have been his way of intimidating you so as to have more power over you in order to hit you up for money.”

Dren knew mangups in New York, who when they sat down in a bar insisted on sitting with their backs to the wall so that no one could attack them from behind. Also when they were drinking beer and the waiter came round to take their bottle and bring them a new one, they would insist on the waiter leaving the old bottle on the table until he had brought the new one in the event that they could smash the bottle over someone’s head if needs be.

Petrit also knew Albanian mangups in Brno. He had been friends for instance with a seventeen year old thief who had killed a man. The two used to go out cruising around for chicks in the mangup’s car. At one point the mangup took him out to pick up some chicks down town, and then all of a sudden pulled out onto the highway. 

“I said, ‘Hey, where are you going? I thought we were going to pick up some chicks.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But first we are going to go to a gas station so that we can steal something,’ His technique was to steal briefcases and valuables from cars while the owners went inside to pay for their gas. So we pulled into a gas station and this time the mangup had his eyes on a new model BMW. ‘Hold on a sec’, said the guy, and went up to the BMW, but it was a quick transaction and the car owner was on his way back while the mangup was still looking for valuables in the car. I honked the horn and the mangup promptly returned. ‘You saved my ass,’ said the guy. ‘I really owe you one.’” 

“Another favorite trick of this guy,” said Petrit, “was to slash the tire of a fancy car at the gas station and then follow the car until it pulled over at the side of the road. Then he and whoever he and his accomplice would get out of the car and offer their assistance. One guy would go with the driver to the back of the car to see what the problem was while the other guy would steal the guy’s briefcase from the driver’s seat or whatever.”

Bajram was closing shop. He wanted to make us coffee, but I  said I had to go. Sasha said he would stick around for coffee. I said goodbye to Sasha and Bajram, walked to Adenauerplatz and took the U-bahn to Hermann Platz. I walked up Kottbusser Damm, turned left on Lenauer Strasse, then walked up Hobrecht Strasse half a block until I came to Petrit’s new bar. I knocked on the door and Petrit opened up.  Things were still in a state of chaos.

Petrit was a thirty year old , tall, dark-haired fanatic  from Gjakova in Kosovo, where it is said all the Kosovo queers, communists and intellectuals come from. Petrit had been confronted at thirteen by  Serbs with Kalashnikovs, and ever since then had been fighting četniks of all stripe in Brno – where his uncle (a shoemaker) lived, at whose place Petrit had lived during the war in Kosovo – and Barcelona, where he ran a small bar before moving to Berlin.  

Although he was an intellectual and a hipster and very alternativ, as they say in German, he was  a nationalist to the core, as all Albanians seem to be, and having lived six years abroad didn’t seem to have tempered his nationalism any, in fact may have fired it up a bit. 

Upon arriving at Mama Bar, I bumped into Petrit’s Kosovo buddy Dren. Dren was also from Gjakova, had grown up with Petrit and had also gotten hassled by Serb soldiers. While Petrit was in Brno and Barcelona, Dren was in New York, studying at NYU. Now Dren was a struggling film maker in Berlin, and Petrit was supposed to give him a job as a bartender at his bar.

Dren was eating pumpkin seeds from the Turkish Euro Gida on Kottbusser Damm. Breda, Petrit’s Czech handyman,  was busy walling up the door into the hall to cut down on noise, while Petrit was catching up on Kosovo news on the internet. I suggested that we all go to the Croatian restaurant on the corner of Sonnen Allee and Hermann Platz for dinner. But Breda wasn’t finished yet with work, so Petrit and I decided to get a six pack in the time being. We walked down Hobrecht Strasse and popped into a Turkish mini-market and bought a six pack of Becks, went back to the bar and cracked open a couple bottles. 

“Have you spoken with your Montenegrin neighbor above?” I asked. “Is he down with your bar?”

“He’s a Bosniak,” said Petrit, the intimation being that he would be cool with Petrit, the Albanian, Muslim brothers in arms.

“How do you know he’s a Bosniak?” I said.

“His name is Elvis.”

“Elvis, Tarzan, Rambo…” I said.  “These Balkan names.”

“The Gypsies give their children the most absurd names,” said Dren. “There was one gypsy girl in Kosovo who was given the name Madelaine Albright during the war. Albright  heard about this and decided to give the girl a scholarship.”

“The whore,” I said. 

We ate pumpkin seeds. I ate them shell and all. Dren said this was very bad for the stomach; the shells didn’t digest and collected in the intestines. Dren showed me how to eat the pumpkin seeds, cracking them open gently in the teeth and lifting the seed out of the shell with the teeth. We ate the seeds and threw the shells on the floor, drank beer and talked. And then it was time to go. 

As we walked down the street I told Dren and Petrit about my meeting with Vladika Artimje, the Serbian Orthodox pope of Kosovo, and how Sasha in his hasty attempt to offer him a cigarette (despite the fact that the bishop didn’t smoke), spilled red wine all over his vestments. 

Both Dren and Petrit knew of the Vladika. He was constantly in the news, and there had been stories about his latest trip to Germany, how  he  had tried to convince the German government to reconsider recognizing Kosovo independence, and how they had failed miserably.

Dren laughed at my story of Sasha, the thief, and Bishop Vladika, and said one could write a piece about it for the Kosovo papers. The Serbs would hear about the story in the Albanian press and they would think they had an Albanian spy in their midst. 

“Vladika had gotten all upset about some of the things I said,” I told Dren. “For instance, I had referred to the so-called “culture of Kosovo”. Not a big deal, you would think, but in the eyes of Valdika, in doing so, I was acknowledging that Kosovo was an independent entity.   “There is no ‘culture of Kosovo’” the Vladika had said. “There is only ‘Serbian culture’!” 

“So he is he saying there is no Albanian culture in Kosovo!” said Dren. “That’s totally absurd.”

“And the other thing he got upset about was when I said that I had ‘walked through Serbia and Kosovo.’ ‘No,’ the Vladika had corrected me. ‘You didn’t walk through Serbia and Kosovo. You walked only through Serbia.’”

“Idiot!” said Dren.

We hit Sonnen Alle. There were a couple of Croatian restaurants a stone’s throw away from each other, the last of a dying breed. We checked out the prices at one of them, and found them too high, so we decided to go to the Albanian joint Petrit, Dren and Breda had been going to for the past couple of weeks. They had the best burek in Berlin, it was said, and it was cheap, cheaper even then the Turkish joints. Euro Imbiss, it was called. 

We walked down Sonnen Alle. Apple and mellon scented smoke from the shisha bars wafted out onto the sidewalk. We passed an Albanian bar where men sat at tables chatting, drinking beer and playing dominos. Petrit and Breda walked up ahead and Dren and I hung back and talked.  We spoke about Kosovo.

“But tell me this,” I said. “Just because the Albanians are in the majority in Kosovo, does it really give them the right to take it from the Serbs? Look at the example of the U.S. Take California. Say in a hundred – no fifty –  years the Mexicans in southern California outnumber the white, European Americans. Does that give them the right to suddenly declare independence from America and make their own state or become a part of Mexico?”

“Sure,” said Dren. “It was a part of Mexico before, wasn’t it? Why not? The difference is that they wouldn’t be able to get away with it, but we can. Kosovo isn’t Serbian. It’s Albanian. It’s just like if the Germans started to lay claim on Italy based on the fact that there are some German churches there. Okay, so Italy, or a part of Italy, was part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was German at one point. That still doesn’t give the Germans any right today to lay any claims on Italy. Or take the Celts. Maybe there are twenty thousand people in Ireland today who speak Gaelic. These people are the old Celts. By the same argument that the Serbs make for Kosovo then the Celts should have the right to take over all of Europe. Look, these old Serbian monasteries and churches in Kosovo, they should be seen just like the Roman ruins in Italy. They have no connection to the people but are only part of their cultural heritage.”

“Except for the fact that these places aren’t dead monuments, but living places of faith,” I said. I told Dren about the old lady I had met in Peć, who had asked me why I was in the church, and had told me that it wasn’t a museum. In her mind these places were not just for show, but alive.

But Dren was more interested in talking about his beloved Albanians. He said that the purest Albanian culture, the purest language, the purest customs were in the mountains of the north. This is where the real, unadulterated Albanian culture was preserved. Some researchers in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries did some research among the various tribes and they determined that the Albanians actually came from what is today the Raška valley, near Novi Pazar – that is the cradle of the Albanian nation. But when the Serbs came in the seventh century, they pushed the Albanians out of the plain and drove them into the mountains. However, over the years, because of their high birthrate and because the Serbs never really managed to populate these foreign lands, the Albanians would trickle down from the mountains into the plains again, repopulating Kosovo with Albanians.

“I believe,” said Dren, “that in the next ten or twenty years Tirana will become the new hip capital of Europe. Berlin is now hip, but it’s time will pass. Prague has been used up. Next will come a Balkan capital, like Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia or Tirana. Mark my words.”

We entered Euro Imbiss. The place was half empty. The owner, wearing a hairnet, sat  with someone at a table at the front discussing some pressing issue. Albanian folk music issued from the speakers. Advertisements for charter busses going to Kosovo hung on the wall. It was just like Kosovo. The music, the food, the décor, the way the people were dressed. You were in Berlin and at the same time you were not in Berlin.

I ordered ćevapčići. Petrit had a soup and burek. The others had bureks. We drank ayran. Dren spoke about the situation in Kosovo. He spoke about the European left which was somewhat equivocal about Kosovo independence.

“What the fuck did these people know about war?” said Dren. “How can these people talk about infringing on sovereignty? Do these people know how it was to be killed, imprisoned for no reason, oppressed? I know this. I lived through this. I was afraid.”

Dren spoke about Peter Handke, part of this European left that didn’t want to see Kosovo independent, that longed for the old Yugoslavia.

I said that, in my opinion, maybe Handke had been a lefty in the past, but ever since he had started championing Serbia, visited Milošević in prison and recently shook hands with Nikolić, the radical, he had outed himself as a nationalist.

Dren voiced the opinion  that conservatives were usually in favor of independence for Kosovo. I didn’t agree with this entirely.

“What about Le Pen?” I said. “He goes to Serbia and says he’s on their side and drinks rakija with the radicals.” I said the real conservative right wing actually spoke about America’s support of the Albanians and the Bosnians as a mistake. If you read some of these right wing websites then you came across articles about “the coming Balkan caliphate” and Islamic fundamentalism in Kosovo.

Dren agreed to a certain extent. 

“It’s a curious thing,” Dren said. “If you look at the names of all these right wing fundamentalists then you’ll see that most of them are Serbs. Either that or they are married to Serbs.”

It was also a curious thing that all the people in the Clinton administration who pushed for bombing Serbia were Jews or had a Jewish background. Madeleine Albright, William Cohn, Wesley Clark and so forth. The Serbs had made a big thing about this. In the newspaper they had published a list of all the Jews who had been instrumental in the Clinton administration during the war. They spoke about an Albanian-Jewish conspiracy.

“Maybe there is something to this,” said Dren.

Dren said it was a fact that the Albanians had helped the Jews during the Nazi times and that not a single Jew had died in Albanian lands. Albania was actually the only country in Europe that had more Jews after the war than before the war. Before the war they had five hundred; after the war they had two thousand. 

Then talk drifted to the elections in Serbia.  “If the radicals win,” said Dren, “it might actually be a good thing for Serbia.”

“How so?” I said.

“You see,” Dren explained, “Ever since ’89 the Serbs had never really come to terms with their nationalism. Milosević had fallen from power, but the nationalists in Serbia still remained strong, though they never ruled. Not only that, but the Serbian Orthodox Church was permeated with nationalist sentiment. When all the big Serbian war criminals went off to battle they had received the benediction of the Serbian priests; The Orthodox church hierarchy were chauvinists through and through.

“So if the radicals win,” said Dren. “Things will really go to shit in Serbia. The country will be isolated. They think they had it bad in the past. Now, when the Radicals win they will really have it bad. People will get sick of it. There will be protests like there had never been before. Then there will be protests. The radicals will be driven from power. There will be a revolt against everything nationalist. People will settle their accounts with the nationalists and the country will be cleansed.”

Dren said that it was a misconception that when Serbian churches were burned that it was a religious thing. 

“These guys weren’t Islamic fundamentalists when they destroyed churches. They were just reacting against symbols of a fascist regime. The Serbian Orthodox church is a chauvinist institution, connected with the Milošević regime. I’m not saying it was right what people did, but what they did wasn’t done out of religious fundamentalism.”

I told Dren how the Vladika had given me a couple of books on the persecution of Christians in Kosovo.

“That’s all bullshit,” said Dren. “Don’t read that shit.”

“Okay, okay. What you say is true,” I said. “And what you said about how the Albanians are thankful to the Americans for helping them, I can understand that. But do you really think that the Americans intervened because they had a great love of Albanians? Because, perhaps, they felt that the Albanians were their brothers? That’s what the Albanians think, but it’s bullshit. Today you are the friends of America. But America will turn on you. Mark my words. Why do you think, really, that the Americans intervened?”

“It’s a big mystery,” said Dren.

“It is not that big of a mystery,” I said. “It has to do with realpolitik . They want to be present in the Balkans; to have their base here, their big base at Bondstil. And so they drove all the ethnicities against each other. Divide and conquer. As easy as that.”

“But so what?” said Dren. “They never did anything bad to us. They didn’t bomb us. So, the Americans have their bases in Rammstein, in Italy, in Greece, why shouldn’t they have their base in Kosovo?”

“Just wait,” I said. “You will have your day as well. Today the Serbs, tomorrow the Albanians. Don’t forget that the Taliban were once close friends of America.”

“You guys should have a radio show,” said Petrit finally. He had been listening all the while, without saying a word. “You guys can talk and talk till the cows come home. And what does it mean pr matter at the end of the day? Nothing.”

I was supposed to meet up with Petrit at his new bar on Hobrechtstrasse in Neukölln. But before that Sasha, the thief called me up and asked me if I couldn’t come down to Bajram’s tailor shop, near Adenauer Platz, Sasha’s unofficial social club. I knew he wanted something. Money probably. I said I was just going out for a run, but that I would stop by the shop on the way back. I  went for a jog and when I was done I went by Bajram’s. Bajram was busy sewing something while Sasha was trying to arrange a business deal with one of Bajram’s customers, trying to sell him Serbian wine.

After the prospective customer had left, Sasha told me to come outside with him. 

As soon as we stepped outside, Sasha hit me up for a twenty.

“Give a brother twenty euro,” said Sasha.

“But Sasha, you already owe me two hundred and seventy euro. No,” I said.

Kurac!” said Sasha, and went back inside.

Sasha was pissed off. 

“You know what, you’re a very stingy guy,” said Sasha. “And in addition to that, you don’t appreciate all the things that  I have done for you. I  arranged for you to meet the Vladika Artimje, the Orthodox pope of Kosovo. Do you really think that without me you  could have met him? Also I am telling you the story of my life. My life is worth gold, man. But I have decided, I  don’t really need you. I am going to write my own story and sell it.”

“If you think you can do it,” I said.

“You don’t think I can do it? You think that I am some kind of choban, eh?”

“Is your American brother annoying you?” said Bajram. “When you start boxing together you will beat the shit out of him, eh?”

I picked up the copy of Vesti on Bajram’s table.

“So who is going to win the elections?” I asked Sasha. “Tadić or Nikolić?”

Jebo ti majke, my grandmother in the cemetery,” said Sasha.

“Sasha doesn’t care,” said Bajram. “He will get nothing out of it.”

Suddenly Sasha had another idea. “Come outside with me a moment,” he said.

We went outside again. “How about if you give me twenty euro and I give you fifty Serbian lessons for free,” said Sasha.

I thought it over a moment. “OK,” I said.

I ran home in the rain, showered, dressed and went back to Bajram’s with the twenty euro.

As I entered into the store Sasha was talking to one of Bajram’s customers, an Israeli, telling him about all the Arabs he had beaten up. 

“The Israelis are good people,” said Sasha. “They believe in an eye for an eye. Isn’t that right?”

“Actually we don’t want to but that’s what we have to do,” said the Israeli. “Really, we are the only democratic country in the Middle East.”

Sasha told the Israeli the story about how he was stabbed as a youth in a fight over a girl. It was one of his favorite stories. The Israeli lent him his ear.

When the Israeli left the shop I asked Sasha, “What does that guy do?”

“That guy? He’s a queer,” said Sasha. “Now give me the twenty euro.”

I gave Sasha the money.

“Brother!” cried Sasha. “I knew you would come through for me.” 

One day I got a call from Sasha, my Serbian acquaintance – friend was stretching it a bit; he owed me a lot of money and I knew I wasn’t getting a cent of it back. Sasha was what they call in the Balkans a mangup – a Balkan tough; a street guy; a thug; chav; knacker; prole – call him what you will. You never knew what was true and what wasn’t with Sasha. If everything Sasha said held together then he had been a paramilitary soldier in Bosnia, had owned casinos in Belgrade, had been a pimp, a jewelry thief and a jailbird in Vienna. I figured about half of what Sasha said added up. What I knew was true about Sasha was that he made his living here in Berlin by scamming gullible Germans out of their money. However, Sasha also claimed to be a devout Orthodox Christian, and as if to prove this to everyone he wore more crucifixes on his body than an Orthodox pope. 

The purpose of Sasha’s call was that he  wanted me  to meet up with Vladika Artimje Radosavljević. Artimje was a Serbian Orthodox bishop, who from his seat in Kosovo defended Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo and frequently criticized KFOR’s seeming incapacity in defending Serb inhabitants in Kosovo against Albanian reprisals.  Later he would be relieved from his post for embezzling millions from his synod. But that came later. Sasha explained that Artimje was now in Berlin where he was seeking to lobby German politicians to refrain from recognizing Kosovo’s independence.  I could meet him if I wanted. Maybe I could write an article about him.

“Something with power in it. Energetic. You can do it. I can see it in your eyes. You lazy little Amerikanac. Prove to us you are not a NATO spy. We’ll give something the public will think about! Write about Bishop Artimje! He is a man of the very highest morale, very pious.” 

Bishop Artimje was staying at the Belmondo, a four star hotel on Joachimsthallerstrasse, near the Ku’damm, a block away from Bahnhof Zoo. In the wood -paneled lobby decorated with stuffed animal heads, the receptionist took one look at Sasha in his long black hair and mafiosi black leather jacket and  tried to turn us away thinking we were some kind of hoodlums off the street. 

After a while the bishop showed up. He was a small old man in his seventies with long white hair and a long white beard. He wore a long black gown and an oversized jewel encrusted crucifix hung around his neck. Sasha genuflected and kissed the bishop’s ring, while muttering some prayer in Serbian. 

There was another man with named James George Jatras, a Greek-American lobbyist for Serbia in Washington DC. He had long hair and wore a  beard as well. We pulled up some chairs and sat down together, Sasha cozying up  to the bishop, while Jatras spoke about their mission to Germany – they  were trying to convince the Germans to come around to the Serbian position on Kosovo; so far their attempts had proved to be futile.

“We had a  meeting with a representative from the Foreign Ministry earlier. Aside from her sex, it was like sixty years ago, with the Nazis,” said Jatras. “She spoke in very clipped German sentences –  zak, zak, zak – telling us what the German position was. They wouldn’t budge. They are very determined to see Kosovo as an independent country. The way we see it, however, an independent Kosovo as an unnatural creation, doomed to fail sooner or later. You see, an independent Kosovo has only to do with commerce and profit, not with history and culture, or a better way of life, and especially not with so-called, ‘self determination’. It’s more like self-destruction.

The translator arrived, and I introduced myself to the bishop and explained what I was after. I was interested in the culture of Serbia and Kosovo, I said.

“You had better first reflect on your choice of words,” said the bishop. His finger leaped up and struck the point, vibrating. “’Culture of Kosovo’! There is no such thing! This is a term used by the Albanians and those who advocate Kosovo independence to negate the culture of the Serbs. There is Serbian culture. There is no such thing as Kosovo culture.”

The bishop spoke about the plight of the Serbs in Kosovo. The lootings, the killings, the burning of churches. And all the while the international community sitting back silently and watching. 

“Why is it that when a panda gets sick the whole world takes note, but when Serbian children are killed in Kosovo nobody cares? Something clearly is askew,” said the bishop.

Sasha interrupted. He ordered a second glass of wine and started gesticulating wildly, explaining his problems regarding women and money to the bishop, trying to get the holy man to bestow his blessings on his dissolute gangster lifestyle. The bishop listened warily, patiently, nodding his head. Unthinking, Sasha took out his pack of Marlboro reds and started spinning it on the table under his index finger, as though he were sitting in some dive bar with his cronies. Sasha took out his lighter and lit his cigarette, and then as an afterthought offered his pack to the bishop, and in doing so knocked over his glass, spilling red wine on the bishop’s lap.  The bishop stuttered and his party rose to go; plainly the interview was now over.

Then on Friday Anton the Romanian showed up at five in the morning at Mama dressed in drag, just come from an Israeli Purim party in Kreuzberg. He said he was at Robert and Tagada’s party earlier in the evening at Madame Claude and Robert had shouted anti-German slogans while spinning his records. He was fucked up and on drugs and so was Tagada. People chanted insults at them and hurled things at them later as they drove off in a taxi.

Robert Soko: ahahahahahaahaahaaa…beautiful, beautiful life…yes, this is true, we were completely wasted, and, by the way, being with this little French-Calabrian bastard always makes me want to change into drag as well…Yes, there was a period, at least for a little while when I started being rather provocative…ahahah…but throwing things behind us as we drove off, hum, I do not remember that bit….Could it have been the  episode where I would raise my right hand in a Hitler salute  in the middle of the Lido dancefloor, whilst the band was playing? That was 2016, I guess, and I was pissed off about the way the security was treating some of my guests. Ahahaha…Now in retrospective I can say I was quite the punk. But…one thing has to be said to that „anti-German“ episode, from what I vaguely remember there was a guy, a waiter, who absolutely detested Balkan music and was quite “German” in a stiff and arrogant way, and that was why we reacted the way we did. The key thing for me was always to react in a like manner – to be rude if need be, no intellectualizing in the Berlin leftish way but rather to act in the Bosnian way: first with fists, then with words. Yes, man.

After downing a couple Atlas beers chased by two or three slivovitz shots, I said goodbye to Zoran and strolled down Flughafen Straße light-headed to Sahara Café on Boddin Straße for a leisurely water pipe. There I got in a conversation with Ali, the Palestinian waiter, who asked me what nationality I was, and if I was Yugoslavian. “American,” I said. Ali shifted uncomfortably.

“Americans are the enemies of Muslims,” said Ali. “Bush is evil, chumming up to the Jews, is all.”

Ali and I smoked our shishas in silence. 

“In four months we will have to close shop because of the new smoking law,” said Ali. “We can then open a private club, but that isn’t a solution either. The only thing left for shisha smokers will be to smoke at home.”

That was typical Germany. Shut down anything that smacked of good times. The dark powers of German bureaucracy  were closing in around us. I sucked the hookah  ruminatively and decided to give Nino a call. 

“Alo? Alo?” said Nino. He was a photographer from Sarajevo, famous for his portraits of Gypsies. Gypsies were Nino’s bread and butter, as it were. Wherever he went in Europe, Nino found Gypsies from the Balkans. He befriended them, went to their weddings and funerals, drank with them, cried with them, and once they let him into their lives, and granted him permission, he took photos of them.

“Where there are Gypsies there are photographers,” quipped Uroš, a Belgrade friend of mine. 

Nino was in the neighborhood, and half an hour after ringing him, Nino showed up at Sahara. We talked about Robert Soko. 

Nino would go to Robert’s  Yugo parties in the beginning, back in the Arcanoa days. And then the parties started getting really big,  the whole success of the adventure started going to Robert’s head, in Nino’s opinion. I don’t know what had transpired between Robert and Nino, but somehow their friendship cooled off, and the two were no longer seeing eye to eye anymore.

We paid up and we went outside and got in Nino’s two-door Renault, and headed off to Schöneberg, where we had arranged check out  Delaine Le Bas’s exhibition on Kurfursten Straße.

Delaine was a British artist and Gypsy– or “Traveller”, as they were called in the U.K. –   who had been featured in the Venice Biennale the previous year, in the Roma pavilion, along with Nino –  despite the fact that Nino was not really  Gypsy at all.

The exhibition was on the ground floor in an old factory building off of a Hinterhof. The space was full of stitched- together, gaudy wall hangings and tapestries, installations with puppets and dolls. Propped up against the wall and dressed like one of her artworks, was Delaine herself. Her clothes battled it out against each other in an aesthetic  tug-of-war on her body. At her feet stood a cassette player stuck with stickers and glued-on little toy animals. The music played  so softly you could hardly make out what it was. 

“The Christians,” said Delaine. That was the name of the band. It was a funny name – funny name for funny music. Delaine showed me the cassette box. They were English.

Nino and I  went around the room, looking at the artworks, nodding, expressing delight and approval. Nino snapped  photos. The work he liked best was the one with a picture of a little child holding a gun. 

Delaine laughed. Nino, she knew, had a thing for guns. Delaine recalled the picture of Nino in the Venice Bienalle Roma pavilion catalogue, featuring Nino in a Gypsy camp hoisting a pistol in the air. 

On the subject of the Bienalle, Delaine said, “One of my artworks was stolen from the Roma pavilion.” said Delaine. 

The work was called “Nation of Dog Lovers” and it featured a Union Jack with a bobby and a dog sewn on to it. 

“Isn’t it ironic that an artwork by a Gypsy was stolen from the Gypsy pavilion?” said Delaine.

“It was probably Gypsies who took it” said Nino. 

“No doubt,” laughed Delaine.

We sipped our beers and spoke about names. 

“My name caused me a great deal of pain as a child,” said Delaine. “It was a heavy burden to carry around. Unusual names are difficult for children. Later you like unusual names, but not as a child. You always want to be normal, like everyone else.”

“People in Yugoslavia sometimes have funny names,”  said Nino. “Elvis is big.”  

“Not quite sure whether there are all these guys in Bosnia named after ‘the King’ or whether it is an actual Bosnian name,” I said.

Nino said that actually these people were named after Elvis Presley.

 “They are part of a certain generation,” said Nino. “Their parents were secular Muslims and wanted to give their children non-Muslim names, so they gave them names like Denis and Elvis and so forth.”

“I once met a guy called  Tarzan in Serbia,” I said. 

“I know quite a few Tarzans,” said Nino.

Nino spoke about Gypsy names. Quite often they would give their children names like RamboSuperman and Bil Klinton. Or sometimes Bilklinton.  Like that. Larger than life. Very often they were the names of famous movie stars and pop stars. Esmeralda was a popular girl’s name for Gypsies, after the Latin American soap series which took Yugoslavia by storm.

We drank our bottled Becks and  went upstairs to watch a performance by some Mexicans. It was a serperate exhibit.  There were three Mexican,  a woman and two men dressed as women – the same old routine. One of the men screamed and shouted while frantically cutting his hair with scissors. Then the woman stripped naked and laid down on the floor while the others covered her with paint. The woman got up and threw herself against the wall, covering the wall with paint. After around five minutes the performance was over, like a hasty sexual fling. 

“Old hat,” said Nino, dismissively and then we went back downstairs to have dinner. 

There was dinner in a room off of the Hinterhof. Nino and I didn’t eat,  just drank. And then we returned to the subject of Gypsies. What else was there to talk about?  

“The Gypsies are the most amazing people in the world,” said Nino. “The way they live! Every day is an adventure for them. They wake up in the morning and they say to themselves, ‘Now what am I going to do today?’ They have no plans, see?  They are totally irresponsible and they live completely for the moment. Who else are like the Gypsies?”

Nino knew a Gypsy in Rome. He was some criminal and he had a big picture of Che Guevara on the wall. That was also typical. Gypsies loved these larger than life figures. They just didn’t care. They had completely no taste. They didn’t care about what fit and what didn’t. The way they decorated their homes had neither rhyme nor reason. 

They may be Muslim and they would have a picture of Christ. “The colors,” they would say. Or they were Christian and they would have a brass relief of Mecca. Same thing. You found the most illogical juxtapositions. And that was why Nino liked Delaine’s work so much. It was a complete hodgepodge of the most disparate  patterns, images, colors.

Nino knew a lot of Gypsy artists. There was one Gypsy artist he knew in Sarajevo. He worked in copper,  was a coppersmith who lived in a little village where only Gypsies lived who did all the copper work you saw in the Baščaršija in Sarajevo. No one else would do this work but the Gypsies. This Gypsy did the most fantastical sculptures of eagles and Ottoman Turkish warriors with turbans and big mustaches, dragons and mythological figures. He was dirt poor and didn’t even have the money to pay for his materials, so Nino was trying to find a collector for him. He wanted somehow to save this Gypsy guy.

That was the way it was with Nino –  always trying to promote these Gypsy artists he knew, whether they were sculptors or musicians. When Timae Junghaus, the curator of the Roma Pavilion was putting together the show, Nino gave her several names. He had no wish to be included in the show himself, but  then when she said “let’s have some of your photos,”   Nino was completely surprised.  It was a high honor for him to be included among the Roma artists.

It was time to go. We said goodbye to Delaine, who was chatting to one of the Mexican artists. Nino walked to his car. I got in the U-bahn and rode to Kreuzberg to meet with the colorful Balkan-Turkish-Oriental DJ, Zigan Aldi.

The other day I met with Robert Soko and Arthur   Engelbert in an Italian café on Ludwigskirch Straße in Wilmersdorf. Arthur was a professor in Potsdam I taught English to. I had managed to instill in him my obsession with the Balkans and Balkan music –  so much so that Arthur decided to devote a seminar to the phenomenon of Balkan Beats at his university in Potsdam.

Soko had his son along with. He explained to us that he had just come back from spinning records is South Africa. Before leaving he had explained to his son Marko that papa was going to Africa to play Balkan music for the monkeys. Marko believed him and now Robert didn’t have the heart to tell him it was all a joke. Marko really believed that monkeys in Africa liked Balkan music. “You should have taken photos,” said Marko.

On Wednesday I met with Robert in his apartment (walls hung with photo of grandfather in Croatian garb, an icon, map of the Balkans, a photo of a Bosnian landscape by Alen Hebilovic) to write a text for the Womex music fair in Brazil, in which Robert was invited to take part in by Piranha Records. I put together a quick one hundred and fifty word text and Robert slipped me fifty euro. Then a Serbian friend of Robert from Bosnia showed up and together we drove to Lucia, a café on Oranien Straße, where we met another Bosnian named Vjeko who was writing a Gypsy-crime-love-story-road movie screenplay. Almir, the Bosnian, was also there and we chatted briefly, and after a while Milan from Shazalakazoo showed up in addition to  Sasha, who had called me up and when I explained I was with all these Yugos, wanted to come with. 

Lucia on Oranienbrger strasse wasn’t really Sasha’s territory. Sasha was more in his element surrounded by the faux glamour of Charlottenburg. I couldn’t imagine him mixing very well in Kreuzberg with people like Robert and Milan. It is a strange thing with Yugos. Americans mix wherever they are, but with Yugos it is a little bit problematic. For one thing the issue of religion complicates everything. On top of that, an urban Yugo will turn up his nose at a country Yugo. In talking to Almir he explained to me he was from Zenica. Later I went up to Robert and I said, “that guy over there comes from your home town.” “Oh?” said Robert. He looked over briefly at Almir. “Is he a Muslim?” I told him I thought he was. Robert made no move to go over and introduce himself.

Then Sasha showed up. He was wearing a grey pin stripe suit and red tie and looked like a fish out of water in the enforced casual vibe of Lucia. Amazingly he seemed to hit it off with Robert’s Serbian friend. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I it was clear he had launched into his well-rehearsed account of his exploits as doorman, casino owner, paramilitary soldier, and owner of a nagelneue Audi (sometimes it was an Audi, sometimes Porsche). Usually Sasha’s materialistic boasting had a tendency to put off many people, particularly cultivated Yugos. But Robert’s friend seemed amazingly  fairly interested in what Sasha had to say. He offered Sasha a cigarette from his pack.

“You see,” said Sasha to me, “that is the way to offer a cigarette. Not like you American bauer.”

Then Milan from Shazalakazoo showed up. I introduced him to Sasha. Milan with his  cheap, underground threads, Sasha with his suit and tie – I could tell the two wouldn’t mix. Sasha again gave his routine story. This time it was a BMW he drove around with in Belgrade. Milan just sat there listening to him, not saying anything. Later, after Sasha had left Milan said, “Who the fuck is that guy? He asked me if I was a DJ. I said yes. He asked me if I knew the DJ at Legija’s discoteque. I said no. He said, ‘what are you? A techno DJ,’ I said no, but to these people everything like what we do is techno.”

Later, Sasha turned to me.

Dieser Affe,” said Sasha. “That monkey. Is he a Gypsy or something?”

I had a couple more drinks. Club Mate, Bionade, vodka. The guys behind the bar were all gay and there was one guy who was a real transvistite. The music they played was this really annoying electro shit.

“They really like this gay electro shit in Berlin, don’t they,” said Milan. 

We got to talking about Hamburg. Milan had just come from Hamburg and he told me how anarchists had broken the windows of a McDonalds in St. Pauli. I said they did the same thing here in Berlin when McDonalds opened up in Kreuzberg. Then they smashed the windows of the new Subway on Schlesische Straße. At the moment there were battles  in Friedrichshain between police and anarchists, who had stormed into a couple of chic Laden and thrown acid all over the place. They were fighting gentrification and the yuppies.

“You can’t stop the golden hand of capitalism,” said Milan.

He explained that the same shit was happening in Belgrade. They were closing down the old kafanas and opening up slick, modern places that sold muffins instead of of burek.

“I don’t want muffins, mother-fuck. I want burek. It’s in my genetics,” said Milan.

Milan told me a little of what he and Uroš were involved with musically. Lately, instead of making use of trubaći samples they had been using live recordings, going down to Belgrade main station and corralling itinerant Gypsy brass musicians, who wait around there for someone with a wedding or something to organize, then recording these guys and using their riffs in their tracks.

They had been to Germany a number of times, playing at Balkan parties around the country. They had been to Dresden, which is full of Russians, according to Milan, and they had been to Hamburg, which was a very cool city. Milan liked the German girls.

“With Serbian girls you have to spend a lot of time and money, bringing them out and buying things for them. But with German girls they are all over you immediately with none of that Serbian bullshit. You just tell them, ‘I want to eat you,’ and  you go from there.”

I didn’t want to make such a long night of it. Milan invited me to their gig the next night in Prenzlauerberg and we parted ways at around eleven and I went back to Halensee.