How can someone so outright islamophobic hold a post as integration officer in Neukölln? This is the gist of the current critique by Green and Left politicians regarding Güner Yasemin Balci’s controversial selection.
That Balci (45) had been elected to such a position in such a volatile and ethnically mixed district as Neukölln came as a big surprise to me. I interviewed Balci in 2008, back when she had just come out with her first book, Arab Boy– a poorly penned text full of cheap shots against the Arabs, Turks and Muslims of Neukölln.
It seemed she couldn’t wait to get away then. Shortly after the unaccountable success of her first novel she made the move from Neukölln, her home for 33 years, to Bergstrasse in Mitte. Not far away – in a hip but slightly sterile café on Augustrasse we met and talked. It seemed her new life was not all that it was made out to be.
“In Mitte you have the feeling it’s all so ‘important’ and ‘great’ and you get sick of it after a while because that’s not real life. It has very little to do with it. And now I’ve been looking for a kindergarten and I’ve determined that I don’t want my child to grow up just with bourgeois Germans. Because I think it is a poor preparation for real life.”
About her book, Arab Boy, the critics had been vocal in their praise. Here was an insider – a Turk herself – dishing up the dirt on infamous Neukölln, “unflinching” in her realism.
It was 2008. That was the time before the full-blown hipsterization of Neukölln, when an image of Neukölln was being beamed across the nation, casting the district with typically overblown hyberbole as a kind of Berlin Bronx full of criminal Ausländer, who refused to integrate. That was the time one heard such ominous slogans in the media as “Neukölln ist überall” – Neukölln is everywhere. Today Neukölln, tomorrow your small burg – that was the message: fear.
It seemed as though Balci had made a well-timed leap on to the bandwagon with her tell-all novel of youth (read “Muslim youth”) crime in Neukölln.
I tried to read the book, I really did, but found my attention flagging, if for no other reason than for the lack of any sympathetic characters. I finally set the book down at page 50.
Only when I learned in mid August to my surprise that Balci had been made integration officer in Neukölln – a discrict which she had professed to hate – did I make another stab at her book.
The story – so goes it – is of a certain Raschid and his crew of Lebanese hoodlums, who terrorize Neukölln by day and night.
For my part, I am a fan of dystopian novels along the lines of A Clockwork Orange, or compelling cinematic street smart tales like Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Goodfellas. But Balci’s book bears no relation; instead what one has are straw-men conglomerations of everything Balci finds distasteful in Muslim and Oriental culture, pieced together from the seemingly petty to the no-doubt legitimate.
The book is so negative it’s a bring down. Everything – all the details of Raschid and his friends are fraught with negative connotation. Raschid and his boys go to the drolly named “Bogazici Dönerparadies” and eat tripe soup (how disgusting), and hang out with the older men who spend “hours” drinking tea; naturally most of them are jobless and have endless free time to kill.
The kids all wear Diesel or Picaldi jeans tucked into their white socks, hurl homophobic or anti-Semitic insults at each other, while boasting in a vulgar manner about sexual exploits, which they sometimes even capture on their mobile phones.
In school Rashid and his friends bully a non-Muslim – a Syrian-Orthodox boy named Jakub, who of course wears a cross around his neck and whom they harass because of his Jewish-seeming name, calling him a “Judensau” – a Jewish swine. And of course, he is the subject of homophobic slurs to boot. That’s just how Muslim youths are, innit?
In one memorable scene Raschid makes a stop at the Dönerparadies, owned by a “Fatih” (typical traditional Turkish Sunni Muslim name: bad). Here Rashid of course wolfs down his döner plus ayran, and spying through a lacunae in the menu-plastered window, he lasciviously ogles a German girl, like a voyeur at a peep show, only to have the sauce from his döner drip all over his trousers – an oblique sexual metaphor.
The Arab boys are variously described as “monkeys”, “dogs”, sucking noisily on their water-pipes. What would happen, one wonders, to the German who would write thus? And indeed, this is precisely the cachet of Balci’s writing. She is putting it to the kanake in a way that a whitebread German can’t for fear of the racism cudgel.
Arab Boy is just what the mainstream German readership wants to hear. They love to have their prejudices reinforced and augmented by someone they feel comes from the “milieu”, and therefore evidently knows what they are talking about.
It’s the same thing with all of these writers – like Hamed Abdel-Samad – of Middle Eastern or Turkish origin who claim to “tell all” about the seamy side of Islam in Germany and about any allegedly unsavory aspects of Islam.
I’m not denying that Arab Boy is realistic. However, the fact that it is probable, and in many instances relies on actual fact, doesn’t diminish the stereotypically pat manner in which the characters are depicted.
The older men who the kids look up to are all conveyed as being bad examples with regards to the treatment of women, are homophobic, “tick” drugs, are illiterate, jobless or hold down menial, part-time jobs in a falafal shop.
Either the older men are jobless, slackers or are looked up to with undue respect and envy (because of their various dubious jobs), wear leather jackets, gold chains and drive new-model BMWs, have female relatives all wear headscarves.
Like the Aabid character, “one of the most-feared Lebanese in the neighborhood”, a pimp “with two bordellos”, who additionally makes his money with drugs and protection, an “Arabgangster”, a so-called “Mega-Checker”, who has worked himself up in the world from poor refugee kid to milieu big-shot; a hero, a figure of respect, who instead of living from hand to mouth, like the rest of the suckers, becomes a boss and a role model for all the little kids in the hood like Rashid.
And like in the familiar plot we know so well from the movies of Scorsese, the young kid from the street seeks the favor of the older gangster and joins the “clan”. But Balci is a far cry from Scorsese. There is no ear for the idiosyncrasies of dialogue, no eye for the humorous, slapstick moment – and while Scorsese’s. characters, no matter how brutal and thuggish, always have a veneer of charm, or at least weird, twisted humor, Balci’s characters are stick figures of pieced together negative stereotypes which she builds up only to knock down, no doubt deriving some kind of therapeutic benefit in doing so.
Despite the fact that the author “knows what she is talking about” on account of growing up in Neukölln, and having worked as a social worker in one of the toughest parts of the district, in the end the book falls flat. Rather than presenting full fledged characters, we have before us characters who are the sums of their negative traits.
Dialogue – not a strong point with Balci – is reduced to wooden gutter slang, void of any artistry, attempts to spice things up are made with a smattering of familiar ethnic slang, like yallah inserted in the end of a line of dialogue for local color.
The Germans, the Arab boys call “kartoffel” – potatoes, weak, gay, easily pushed around. That’s how they are in the eyes of Raschid.
Naturally also the issue of child brides – that old chestnut – is worked into the story, in the case of Raschid’s cousin, who is schlepped over from Lebanon and until her arranged marriage with a man hardly known, twice her age, is entirely ignorant of everything in her surroundings except for the Turkish greengrocers, she and the other women in the family dutifully visit every Friday.
German women, in the accepted Arab view, are as cheap as a box of cigarettes from the cigarette machine – Balci writes – with the exception that the machine sometimes refused to give up the goods – a German woman never.
Even the second time round I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book. There was no point. Right from the get-go I got the picture and I didn’t get the picture. It promised to tell all, but told nothing.
Balci is described as a scene-insider, someone who grew up on the asphalt of Neukölln along with the people she describes. But then why don’t her descriptions of Neukölln streets come to life?
Instead of giving us a sense of place, we are presented with the usual Neukölln clichés:
“Er lief, die Hände in den Hosentaschen…die Karl-Marx-Straße entlang, vorbei an den bunten Ramschläden, fettigen Dönerbuden und Handy anbiertern…”
Balci is described as someone who knows what she is talking about, having grown up in Neukölln and having worked as a social worker in a so-called “Problemviertel”.
Yet she isn’t really of the people that she describes. The people she so negatively describes are all Sunni Muslims. She is not. She is a Zaza (one of the three Kurdish branches in the Middle East)and an Alevite, whose background is very much different from the people she describes in predictable, simplified, black and white, one-dimensional manner. It’s like Four Blocks or Dogs of Berlin – clichéd in a most cringy way.
If Balci can describe her subjects without an ounce of sympathy and warmth, one wonders how she was as a social worker, where a certain human empathy is necessary. Or was she merely gathering material?
Finally one asks, based on books like Arab Boy – how can she hope to enjoy any success as an integration officer in Berlin’s most multicultural and diverse district?
More people should be asking this question.