One Friday not long ago I met with Ero Behrić and Alen Hebilović – two erstwhile figures in Berlin’s Balkan party scene – in a Turkish café on Oranien Straße, half an hour before cuma – Friday prayers – at the Bosnian mosque on Adalbert Straße near Kotti.
They always had cuma at two o’clock at the Bosnian mosque, which was a convenient thing for the people who had missed the usual noon-time prayers elsewhere in the city.
You could say that both Ero and Alen were Muslim reverts. Both are Bosnians who came to Berlin during the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia in the early nineties. Both threw themselves into the nightlife of Berlin with a vengeance, seeking to exorcise their war traumas with large quantities of alcohol and Gypsy music. Both were familiar faces in the Balkan party scene. And both, at a time when many people settle down and have families, had compensated for their extreme lifestyles by embracing Islam – the religion of their forefathers.
I knew Ero and Alen from the time when the Balkan wave was at its peak and both had whooped it up around the bars of Berlin in search of Gypsy music and good times.
Ero, for his part, was an old punk who had paraded his mohawk through the streets of suburban Zagreb at the end of the eighties. Lured by the mythos of Berlin, he came to this city in 1990, landing directly in Kreuzberg, on Oranien Straße – “beng” – right into the cauldron.
“Berlin is the first city before Slavic Europe and there is a marked Slavic influence here,” says Ero. “And then you had Kreuzberg, with its Turkish population — this Islamic aspect. I felt immediately at home here. Actually, it’s similar to Yugoslavia in a way, to Bosnia, because you have this Slavic touch and this Islamic touch. Like what I grew up with.”
Back then Ero took various jobs at bars and restaurants around Berlin, waiting tables and eventually putting on parties, ultimately luring other ex-Yugos like Alen, a Bosnian from Prijedor, who had been interred by the Serbs at the infamous Trnopolje concentration camp.
In 1993 Alen made it to Germany, where he was stuck in a refugee camp in Brandenburg, took up photography and eventually escaped to Berlin, where a social worker friend of his had given him the key to his flat and a bit of cash.
Back then in the nineties when the war was raging in Yugoslavia, Berlin was teeming with Bosnian refugees (35,000, to be exact, in Berlin and Brandenburg). While the old Gastarbeiter Yugos stuck to their hermetic bars, cafés and social clubs, the new arrivals – many of them young, intellectual and artistically inclined – hung around scene-bars where this or that ex-Yugo waited tables or worked behind the bar, promising cut price drinks.
Oxymoron was one such place, a bar in the Hackesche Höfe in Mitte, where Ero, together with Robert Soko put on Balkan Beats parties, forerunners of the famous monthly parties presided over by Soko in Kreuzberg.
Ero describes what Balkan Beats became as being about “trumpets and getting drunk and puking. That’s what it came down to”. But in the beginning, the parties had high cultural aspirations.
“Back then the Balkan Beats parties were together with slide shows and some exhibits,” says Alen. “They weren’t just pure parties and about playing music. There was a program along with it.”
“Someone shows up and says, look, my wife sings and I play the accordion, can we do something?” says Ero. “I said, why not? The goal was to bring people together with the idea of building something up.”
Robert and Ero would eventually have a falling out. Robert, taking the label Balkan Beats for himself, would put on his Balkan parties at Mudd club in Mitte and later at Lido with great success. Ero would open up a restaurant called Nosh in Prenzlauerberg, where he put on his own Balkan parties, called Zigeunergeschäfte, where many a glass and chair was broken and where one guest remembers there being frequent “dancing on the tables and under the tables”.
As for Alen, he became a regular figure around Kreuzberg, reveling and raising hell with the likes of Birol Ünel, the hard-drinking leading man of Fatih Akin’s “Head On” and regular Kreuzberg barfly, while taking photos of Kreuzberg gangsters.
“I had an extreme lifestyle,” says Alen. “Ero also. Every night you were carousing around, looking for kicks. Sometimes I didn’t go home for a week. And then you have to ask yourself: Where is all this leading? One morning I woke up and decided now it’s time to stop.”
“That’s exactly how it was with me,” recalls Ero. “I remember I said to the boys, ‘I will never drink again’. And they were all like, ‘Eh, what’s that?’ In my head, in my soul, it happened two years earlier. But I had to distance myself from other things. If you drink six gin and tonics and the next day you go to the mosque it won’t mean anything to you. One thing had to come to an end before another thing could start. And then it came to pass. I can’t really put it into words.”
Alen remembers one particular scene: coming home drunk at five in the morning and running into the old Turkish men who had just finished morning prayers at Mevlana mosque on Skalitzer Strasse around Kotti.
“I had to ask myself, ‘Who has the better quality life? Them or me?’’ says Alen. “Of course, they were better off. I had great respect for the people who decided to live that way: to be clean. Reality is totally psychedelic also when you are clean. You can have fun on that trip as well. Alcohol steers you in another direction. Many things remain invisible to you because you are blinded.”
Alen looks at his watch.
“It’s time,” he says. “Time to pray.”
And the two troop off to Friday prayers down Oranien Straße, scene of many a drunken night not in a not too distant past.