I grew up in deep West-Berlin, right where the city peters out into suburban villas and pinewood forest, on the outer fringes of Wilmersdorf. This was as far away from the “ghetto” as you could get.
The real so-called “ghetto” – by Berlin standards – lay elsewhere, in those mean, grey immigrant streets of Wedding, Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Schöneberg, where the “kanaken” lived i.e. Turks, Yugos, Arabs – in their dilapidated apartments with shared bathrooms and coal heating.
A bit later it became fashionable in Berlin to wear baseball caps with the names of tough Berlin districts, like Kreuzberg, Neukölln or Wedding emblazoned in old Germanic script. It was probably a take-off of the cap Eazy E used to wear bearing the name “Compton” in Gothic script in the early 90s. At any rate, I even saw a cap once that said “Steglitz”. But never, never would you see one that said, “Wilmersdorf”. I’d like to see one; it would be good for a laugh.
Schöneberg 30 – the “30” referring to the old post-code – is about as ghetto as Berlin gets – a small grey neighborhood consisting of a couple of gritty blocks between Goeben Straße Potsdamer Straße, and Bülow Straße – a tough area stuck between a rock and a hard place, fighting prostitution and brazen drug dealers on the one hand, and gentrification on the other. Normally it’s not a place that I would venture into, were it not for Sasha.
Sasha was a two-bit Serbian hustler, who made his money in large part by selling stolen designer clothing from boutiques on the Ku’damm. I used to patronise an Albanian tailor in Charlottenburg who Sasha would unload his hot wares on. One day Sasha showed up. He said he had some interesting stories. We took a walk. The gist of the matter was he wanted me to write the story of his life, destined, he felt, to be a New York Times bestseller. I agreed his life had story-potential, but it was rather a story to be written with a large dose of irony and with tongue lodged firmly in cheek – not quite the story Sasha had in mind.
It was a little bit risky hanging out with Sasha, as the man was essentially a psychopath. He could be charming, especially with women, but woe betide you somehow treaded upon his delicate Serbian ego. At any perceived slight he was prone to fly dangerously off the handle.
Just to give you a picture of his kind of volatile personality, I’ll tell you about a little incident I witnessed with him first hand.
At some point, Sasha decided to branch out from stolen suits to dealing in Macedonian plonk. One day there were three of us in a Mercedes driving through Berlin. Olaf, a German white collar criminal and expert in internet scams, whose car it was, sat at the wheel. Sasha, his side-kick and partner in crimes, was sitting shotgun and me in the back. The car was full of Macedonian wine Sasha was trying to unload on a Croatian restaurant in Charlottenburg.
We pulled up short at an intersection, Olaf nearly hitting a couple of Arabs who were crossing the street. The one guy slammed his hand down on the hood of the Olaf’s Benz, uttering some oath in Arabic.
This was too much for Sasha. Suddenly Sasha grabbed two bottles of Macedonian wine at his feet, jumped out of the car, smashed the two bottles together and went after the two Arabs with a broken jagged bottle neck in each hand. That was Sasha. Hot-headed, brutal, and – as I said – a psycho.
“I’m a pit bull’, Sasha explained to me once at the gym. “I thank God for a good body. I am strong, by nature, very aggressive. This is good, but I am also temperamental. I want to win at any price. My opponents are quickly impressed by my energy that they become afraid. Feel my arm. It’s like a rock. A doctor wanted to do tests on me in Belgrade.”
Because Sasha was the kind of guy he was, a blow-hard and a bully and essentially unreliable and untrustworthy, I was always trying to ditch him. Somehow, though, we always ended up running into each other again, and one day Sasha invited me to the gym where he worked out.
Isigym was his boxing gym in Schönerberg – in the infamous Schöneberg 30. The neighborhood was, as William S. Burroughs would put it “junk territory”, or had been until fairly recently, haunted by the ghosts of junkies of yore.
It was not the prettiest part of Berlin, full of betting shops and all night köfte joints and Turkish bistros, the prostitutes that plied their trade night and day on Kurfürsten Straße, the junkies and sex shops standing next to pawnshops and Turkish supermarkets, where Turkish greengrocers stood outside singing the virtues of their oranges, strawberries and watermelons.
“Tasty, tasty strawberries. Ladies and gentlemen: strawberries! Only one euro! Lecker, lecker Boris Becker” — and other sundry rhymes, improvised on the spot.
Isigym stood right next door to a Turkish supermarket, so that the patter of the salesmen mingled with the din of traffic and rap music and – occasionally – the thumping beat of Black Sea folk music, coming from the gym.
Izzet – or Easy, as he preferred to be called – came from the Black Sea region of Turkey, though – with his dark complexion – he looked rather more like a Kurd from South-East Turkey around Adana. He had come from Turkey with his parents in the seventies and went to work for his father, selling fruit and vegetables at his stall at the Schöneberger market near York Straße.
It was not easy for a young Turkish male growing up in West Berlin in the eighties. Turks couldn’t get into the discos and there were always fights with skinheads. Turks back then always had something to prove. And so, Easy took up boxing, boxed his way through his military service and was a real contender, had won a lot of medals and trophies, was Berlin champion, German champion. Altogether he had 240 amateur fights, and he was proud of his craft and his accomplishments.
“Easy is a real playboy,” said Sasha. “Normally I don’t trust Turks, all Muslims actually. But this guy is on the level.”
Easy had started his gym around five years ago, and he had won a city-wide integration prize for his work with Schöneberg immigrant youth, bringing them off the streets and steering them away from a life of crime. Sometimes he had renown pros stop by to train and spar or just shoot the breeze, like Oktay Urkal, silver medal winner in Atlanta Olympics, world champ and neighborhood hero, Marko Huck or Cengiz Koc.
Easy called himself “the Boxing Godfather” or sometimes “the Pastor of Schöneberg.” He presided over a gym that was the size of a good-sized garage, a boxing ring stood in the center, where young neighborhood Turks, Arabs and Germans slugged it out to the thumping beat of old school hip-hop, the stuff Easy had listened to as a kid in West Berlin – when he had distinguished himself as an agile break-dancer in addition to boxer.
The walls were hung with the 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 were boxing posters of bygone fights and above the front desk black and white pictures Easy fists held high, in his boxing prime, looking quite a bit like Robert de Nero in Raging Bull.
I would show up with Sasha, and we would spar a bit. I didn’t like sparing with Sasha. The guy didn’t pull his punches. If I landed a blow, Sasha took it personally and went ape shit.
“Easy,” I would say.
But Sasha would close in like an animal. I couldn’t get near him. I would move in. Boom, he’d hit me with a hard right. I got a couple of punches in and then he’d go crazy. No holds barred. In the end I would throw in the towel. I’d have a nice black eye I’d have to nurse with a cold Red Bull pressed to my face.
“Do you think I am too aggressive?” Sasha would ask. “I just have had a lot of stress lately. With my mačka and losing money on football etc. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist. Sometimes I think I am not normal.”
Isigym was more than just a boxing gym. It was an unofficial social club. Katz, the pawnshop owner from next door would come and hang out with Darko, a Croatian ex-fighter and and Oktay Urkal, a Turk from the neighborhood, who had represented Germany at he 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he won a silver medal.
In the summer they would hang out on the street. Easy would be smoking – he was a big athlete, at the same time a terrible chain smoker – and there would be the usual contingent of neighborhood Turks, roaring and bellowing, competing in loudness with the Turks next door hawking fruits and vegetables.
Sasha and I were part of the so-called “hobby boxers” as Easy called us. There were about fifteen of us. We’d show up to spar, skip rope, work the punching bags, pump a bit of iron and spar. There weren’t just Turks; there were also Albanians, Bosnians, but mostly Muslims. Muslims and Hollywood Muslims.
There was this one guy, a Turk with his hair dyed down the middle and a tattoo of a Turkish star and crescent on is right bicep. He was the loudest of them all. His name was Fasul. “Like Puzzle,” he said.
I talked to him after boxing once. “This kind of life that you see around here in Berlin, it’s just a modern slavery,” said Fasul. “One day all the poor people are going to band together and make their own army.”
Fasul smiled at the prospect.
“Hopefully I will live to see this day.”
Fasul liked to spar with me, but like Sasha, he never pulled his punches, till one day he punched me so hard that I had a black eye for a month and a numb incisor as a result of a nerve he had hit. The tooth remained numb for a year, till one night after drinking vodka nonstop at a Russian party in Wedding, I rode home on my bicycle and hit a tree, the upshot being three stitches and a lost incisor, the one that had been numb as a result of Fasul’s punch. At any rate, I never boxed with Fasul again after that.
Sasha, it turned out, had his eye on Fasul. “The Muslim fuck,” he said. “I am going to get him one of these days.”
It was the day of a big football match between Germany and Croatia.
Fasul said to Sasha:
“Big day today: Germany against your country.”
“Croatia is not my country,” Sasha gruffly replied. “We fought a war against those fags.”
Sasha was an outsider in life (he always described himself as a lone wolf), but in the gym he was also an outsider. He was someone from outside the ghetto who lived in the West somewhere, and came into the kiez to box at Easy’s. Also he didn’t have a crew to back him up. It was always Sasha against the world and the world against Sasha. This attitude Sasha was always schlepping around with him led to tension at the gym. People were wary of Sasha.
One day it came to blows with Fasul, “the Turkish Affe and majmun” – monkey, Sasha called him.
Fasul was trying to give Sasha tips on the proper way to do curls.
Sasha threw down the weights and shouted at him, “Who are you to give me advice, you majmun! Don’t you think I know enough how to lift weights?”
Fasul eased off and moved away outside and Sasha followed him. He was enraged. He ground his teeth and muttered to himself. He was just like a fifteen year old boy. In a fifteen year old boy I could understand this, but not in a grown man of thirty-five.
“Hey Fasul,” he said. “Why is a Turk like Coca-Cola?”
“Why is that Sasha?” said Fasul.
“Because he is only good cold. Ha, ha.”
It would have come to serious blows if Easy hadn’t stepped in.
“You are both good fighters,” he said. “But Sasha, you have not understand something essential. We are here in sport, not in war. You are now banned from entering the gym, understand? You can’t go around saying you will knock people KO,”
Easy explained later after Sasha had left, “We are all sportsmen. You can’t act like that. I know that there were a lot of people who were hot for Sasha. They wanted to give him something. I don’t think any other club will take that guy.”
Sasha left the gym and I would keep on boxing at Easy’s. Periodically I would run into Sasha and he would ask, “How is Easy, that fag?”
And Sasha would ask me why I was giving him the cold shoulder. He would enumerate all of the favors that he had done me, real or imagined.
“Don’t ever say that Sasha never did anything for you, Robbie. And don’t forget that it was me who brought you to Easy’s gym and introduced you to Oktay Urkal, Olympic silver medal winner and world champ.”
And periodically Easy would ask me in turn about Sasha. He called him my “father”.
“How is your father doing?” Easy would say. “He was a good boxer, but unfortunately he’s got a Balkan head. Boxing is less about toughness than about self-control. And another thing. What I want to know is where does this guy make his money? What does he do all day?”
I knew but I preferred not to say. Some things are better left unsaid.