Not a whole heck of a lot has changed here at Kottbusser Tor – or Kotti, as it is affectionately called by Berliners – over the past twenty years. People have come and gone, some new places have opened up and some old places have closed. But Kotti remains to this day, the secret heart of west Berlin (like Alexander Platz remains the heart of east Berlin).

Despite the hipster onslaught, and the incursion of ever more tourist gawkers and rubberneckers, Kotti has maintained its rough edges as well as its cachet as Little Istanbul, a place where Turkish bistros exist side by side  a flourishing  drug scene, which no one has managed to root out for well nigh forty years now. 

For more than twenty years, Kotti’s been a place where Turkish migrants and hedonists  mix like oil and water, brushing shoulders,but wrapped up in their own separate worlds and preoccupations, never properly mingling in any meaningful way. I would like to take the occasion to recall some memorable characters I associate with Kotti, some of whom have passed away and whose ghosts still haunt the pavement here.

First of all, let’s set the scene. Arriving by elevated train, you pull into a messy hub of six traffic snarled streets which conjoin Cairo-like under a sprawling, twelve story brutalist housing complex from the seventies, known as the Neue Kreuzberger Zentrum, or NKZ for short, a Kreuzberg warenzeichen, an icon of sorts, which twenty years ago – one can hardly believe it – was actually slated for demolition.

In one of Kotti’s modern casbah-like alleyways, Ibrahim Kaya has been running his cobblers shop for more than 20 years. Ibrahim, a religious man, who prays five times a day in the basement of his shop, tells me how it is in Kotti. “The religious types arrive at eight for evening prayers at the Mevlana mosque on Skalitzer Straße,” he says. “Then comes the in-between time when people go out to eat, from eight till ten. At ten the religious people are no longer on the streets. Like small hobbit-like creatures, they do their shopping and retreat into their holes. Then come the owls and snakes and scorpions.”

One of the owls was definitely Birol Ünel. Originally from Bremen, he became one of Germany’s most touted actors, who rose to fame in Gegen die Wand (Head On) in 2004, in which he played a binge-drinking German Turk, who tries to commit suicide by driving his car against a wall, and then during a stay in a psychiatric clinic hooks up with a Turkish women (Sibel Kekilli), leading to various pointless antics, an eventual marriage proposal, a murder and a denouement in Turkey. 

Kreuzberg barfly, disheveled rabble-rouser, man possessed, Ünel liked to carouse around Kotti. Balkan Beats DJ Robert Soko, recalls him coming to his parties at the Mudd Club as well as many a night drinking with Ünel.

“What he did was, he never paid his bills,” says Soko. “So he was banned from various establishments. All Oranienstrasse had him on their blacklist. One morning, he came out of a bar on Oranienstrasse, crossed the street without even looking, and a car hit him. He just picked himself up and kept walking. His spine was seriously injured. But he never asked for anyone to reimburse him. He was actually quite a weirdo to be honest.”

Somewhere around 2015 Ünel’s career took a nosedive and he made the cover of BZ, for laying drunk and homeless on the pavement at Kottbusser Tor, seemingly at the low ebb of his career. Ünel died in of cancer in 2020. He was 59 years old.

For me Kotti means Little Istanbul. In 2001 I and a school friend were sitting not far away on Oranienstrasse, where we scored some grass, laced or not, which led to a week-long psychosis and me telepathically communicating with Turkish Muslims gathered outside Mevlana mosque on Skalitzerstrasse for morning prayers. 

Ten years later I would become Muslim, and not long after my conversion I dreamt I was at Kotti one night, in the alleyway behind Möbel Ölfe, where I heard the ezan – the Muslim call to prayer – ring out above the rooftops. Kotti is heiße Pflaster, as the Germans say, a tough neighborhood and yet is also holy ground, with two mosques close by.

Kotti is also the turf of aging Kreuzberg street gang 36 Boys, who eventually had their name trade-marked and turned into a street fashion line in 2010. Here in SO36 – the old post code for this section of Berlin, the 36 Boys came into being in the mid-eighties. In a time when West Berlin walls were daubed with Türken Raus! (Turks out) slogans, and Turks had house bans in discotheques, 36 Boy gang members sought strength in numbers to fight against racists and neo-Nazis. 

The 36 Boys would go on to boast a stellar alumni including a world champion kick boxer, a critically acclaimed film and theater director “the Spike Lee of Kreuzberg”, a celebrity chef (the only German in the gang) – and a German-Ghanaian rap star turned jihadist (killed, they say, while fighting for ISIS in Syria), named Deso Dogg. 

I drank tea with Deso aka Dennis Cuspert in 2010, here at Simitdschi, a Turkish café at Kottbusser Tor. Deso, neck and arms busily tattooed, body  honed by a daily program of pumping iron and kickboxing, spoke about hip hop and gentrification, casting aspersions at hipster upstarts, while holding his 36 high. We didn’t speak much about religion, so it came as a bit of a shock to learn some years later that he had found radical Islam, grown a beard and traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS, who elevated him to the position of propaganda minister. 

After being put on America’s most wanted list by the NSA, everyone wanted to get in touch with me, from the New York Times to Japanese television. Then presumably, Cuspert was killed in an American airstrike. A tragic and sad story, I still can’t bring myself to believe that he is really gone forever – and sometimes I imagine him returning, incognito, to the alleys here, another ghost haunting the Kotti pavement.