Selam Berlin

Hi. My name is Hasan Kazan. In Berlin some people call me Hansi though my parents gave me the name Hasan Selim Khan. Oh yeah, my parents . . .

They left Istanbul years ago and moved to West Berlin, the Kreuzberg district. That's where I was born.

My parents believed in the West. To them, it meant progress, technology, and jobs. But as my brother Ediz and I grew up and actually started to come into contact with Western values, morals, and schools, my parents changed their minds. They began to worry that we'd become potheads, hippies, or queers. So they sent us off to the German school in Istanbul. I was thirteen.

Baba, my father, stayed in Berlin. He owned a travel agency there. And we would shuttle back and forth between Istanbul and Berlin, Berlin and Istanbul, all year round.

My parents couldn't have known back then that years later we'd be called Kanacken here and Almanci there. Back and forth, Kanacken and Almanci. Whatever. I was what I was. I was a Kreuzberger, who rushed headlong into life full of curiosity and full of cum.

It all began on a Thursday evening in November 1989. From that night on, things would never again be the same.

 

Istanbul: Baba was there for a visit. In the living room, tea was boiling in the samovar. My parents were sitting right in front of the TV and I was stretched out on the sofa in the corner. I was thinking about the previous night—with Britta. She was the hot new number at the German school. Blonde, leggy, easygoing. Britta showed up in all the guys' daydreams. She was a big hit.

I was replaying the whole scene in my mind. Fits of passion. Her heavy sighs exciting me and the blood racing out of my head and into another spot. I fumbled around in her panties and then dipped into her. Between her breasts I found heaven.

The pressure from the buttons on my 501s hurt. I opened my fly and put Mama's crocheted pillow in my lap. Had they noticed? Caught me? My parents?

I looked over furtively, out of the corner of my eye. They were still in front of the TV, as rigid as Janissary guards at the Topkapi Palace. They were holding hands and watching the news. For a second I thought they'd both had heart attacks, not surprising given how heavy they were. Still aroused from reliving Britta's Kama Sutra positions, I jumped up and lunged at my round mother.

"Mama, Mama," I shouted, my throat dry from my sudden fear that they'd had heart attacks.

They didn't budge. Too late! Dead, I thought. I looked over at my dad for help. He was staring at the newscaster, his face like a wax statue. In his open mouth a gold tooth sparkled.

Oh Allah, was it because of Britta? What was I being punished for? The place was dead, airless and empty. Not a breath. Not a sound. Not a word. I broke out in a sweat. The golden tooth kept glistening. "Baba, Babaaa!" I screamed in an absolute panic. Adrenalin shot through me and I blew my load in my Levi's. I was lucky, though, and fainted at the same time. I collapsed, and the last thing I heard was a clink as the chandelier jiggled.

When I came to, there was a cool washcloth on my forehead. My Levi's were sticking to the insides of my legs. My parents were talking. They had snapped out of their Janissary stares.

"Mama, Mama," I murmured. But she didn't hear me.

She was telling Baba all the reasons he should stay. She missed him, she needed him. After all, he was her husband, the only man in her life.

Baba was silent. Then he said, "But, but . . . my dove, my little lamb, you have to understand—I have to go."

His pet names had no effect. Mama was getting bitter.

"No, no Said . . . you can't go to Berlin . . ."

"But . . . my dove, you know that I can't . . ."

"Don't tell me what I know! You just got here, Said . . . And what about the children? How can you!"

"The Wall has fallen. I've got to get back," I heard Baba say in a grave tone. Mama tried to start up with her questions again, but I distracted them.

"What? What did you say? The Wall has fallen?"

His face still looking as pale as a wax statue, Baba looked at me with deeply troubled eyes. He nodded his head slightly, as if he'd just let slip a secret.

Where was the damn remote? I turned and turned and turned, made a full circle. Where was it?

 

Trabis—the little East German cars—were driving over to West Berlin through the border crossing point on Bornholmerstrasse. A woman in a fur coat sprayed champagne over their hoods. Fat men in East German police jackets hugged each other and slapped each other on the back. They wiped tears from their eyes and were as friendly as the men at the Istanbul bus station. East Berliners were all over the TV. And they were walking right out of the TV, through the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and straight into the West onto Kurfuerstendamm. Gleeful, smiling people at Café Kranzler. You could see their breath in the cold night air. Masses at the Wall, on the Wall—on my graffiti wall.

 

I looked at the television, awestruck. It was like watching images from another universe. After a few seconds I finally snapped out of it and began to grasp what had happened. It was a revolution. Exactly. A revolution in Berlin.

Suddenly streets, squares, and corners from my childhood had become the focus of world affairs. Cars honked, people yelled, chanted, cheered, and partied until all hours of the night. They danced and laughed and sang to a new Berlin.

I wanted to join the party in Berlin, and do it all with them. That was it. That was exactly what I wanted to do. There was nothing keeping me in Istanbul, nothing at all. I'd had enough of the pretentious drivel at the German school, the dirty streets, and all the nosy people here. My diploma was behind me; life was in front of me. My decision was made. But I didn't tell anybody else. I was going to be as secret and determined as Mehmet II had been before the capture of Constantinople. No man, no animal—not a soul—knew about his plans. Even his own beard hadn't heard him whisper about it. That's how purposeful I would be, too.

 

Baba switched from one news broadcast to another. As he did, he fidgeted nervously with his necklace and lit up one cigarette after another. Which he almost never did. Mama complained under her breath about the smoke ruining the new drapes. Normally she would have yelled about it so loudly that people on the Asian side of the Bosphorus could have heard her. But tonight Baba's intensity seemed to have cowed her. Which was unusual. Everything on this November evening was unusual. Mama sat perfectly upright in front of the TV and watched it all. The last time she'd been so enthralled by an event like this was during the live broadcast of Charles and Diana's wedding in the summer of 1981. That time she and the ladies from her German club, "the Bridge," had polished off a couple boxes of Turkish delight. The club was well organized, and Mama liked that. Of course, it was about the only thing in her life that was well organized. With everything else she did, I always had the feeling that it was about to go off the rails—everything seemed to be in flux with her. But this time it was different. Mama didn't eat any Turkish delight or chocolates, she didn't have any tea, and she even forgot about our dinner cooking in the oven. It was as if she were fasting. Which was a major change from the way she normally ate. She always defended her round figure: "I'm Turkish and not Swedish" she always said. What she meant was that she believed in the Ottoman ideal of beauty—as opposed to the blonde Barbie bimbos of the West.

 

For Mama, Europe existed only south of the Alps. Everything above was too Nordic and too cold. Baba was the exact opposite. For him, Europe began north of the Alps. He liked the order and safety of German highways. He liked clean streets and efficient people. Most of all, he liked the honest bureaucrats and officials. In Istanbul, he'd get worked into a rage every time he had to deal with some dirty, corrupt official. It would practically give him a heart attack. Every time.

My parents argued about this constantly, but it usually boiled down to a basic question: Where should we live—in Berlin or Istanbul? My parents sat on opposite sides of a North–South fault line. Ediz and I were stuck in the middle and had to take a position. We opted for New York. That way we could remain neutral, at least we hoped so anyway.

But I knew there was a lot more behind my parents' fighting than just where to live. It was a fundamental battle of New World against the Old. East against West. And most of all, it was about Baba's soft spot for blonde women. He just couldn't keep his eyes off the blondes, and he would flirt with them every chance he got.

Over the years, Mama had learned to stay pretty calm about it. She would console herself with a Turkish saying: Blondes are like American apples—they look good, but they've got no flavor.

Smoke started coming out of the kitchen. Dinner was burnt. I opened the window and turned off the oven. Outside, the Bosphorus was aglow with the light of the setting sun. Istanbul was getting ready for nightfall. I smoked a Gitanes and thought about Berlin—and about Istanbul.

For Baba and Mama, Istanbul was still the city of glittering lights, tavernas, and open air cinemas, where Muslims, Christians and Jews all lived side by side. A city on two continents and seven hills, with a million residents. The hippie route from San Francisco to Katmandu ran through this Istanbul, bringing flocks of Americans, Canadians and Europeans to the square in front of the Blue Mosque. Back then, the girls ran around in miniskirts and tall platform shoes, with their hair teased up, and the men drove Chevrolets the size of train cars.

Baba and Mama would head out to the bars and cafés of Beyoglu and experience a magical city. Baba always said, "Istanbul is like an aging harem girl, who, beneath her wrinkled skin, still has an erstwhile beauty." I didn't quibble with that. But their Istanbul was gone. There were twelve million people here now. It was loud. It was chaotic. Living here sucked. I couldn't walk through the streets without worrying about getting run over or mugged. I always had to watch out—had to have my eyes, nose, and pores open and my antennas up. Otherwise I'd get screwed. I didn't have any choice. The city was like a damsel in distress, trying with every fiber of her being to stave off the chaos. Things constantly smashed into each other. There were neighborhoods where people walked around in turbans and chadors. A few streets away transvestites and hookers were going at it with their johns. Gypsy street musicians played in front of bars and cafés where yuppies and Goths were tossing back cocktails and trading business cards.

"If you make it in Istanbul, you can make it anywhere," Ediz would say, thinking of New York. He was right. In Istanbul, taking one step forward meant thinking two steps back. Nothing went according to plan, routine, or rule. Every day I had to be ready for delayed buses, blackouts, busted telephone booths, and strikes. It was a pain. I'd had it with always getting stuck in traffic jams and having to argue with taxi drivers.

 

Mama thought Berlin was too parochial, which is why she stayed with Ediz on the Bosphorus. Compared to Istanbul, Berlin was a backwater. But it was also manageable, with a wall all the way around it. I liked it. Istanbul was crazy. Berlin was, too, but in a different way. Everything was better laid out and more easygoing.

Businesses closed at six o'clock, the buses were always on time, and people ignored one another and left each other alone. That was OK with me. Things went according to plan. I felt safer and calmer than in Istanbul. And then there were my old buddies, Leyla and Kazim.

I didn't know what I would do in Berlin. But the main thing was to get away, I thought. I would find something. Who knows what. But something.

 

Later that evening Baba turned the radio on—BBC news. I guess he still couldn't believe what had happened in Berlin. He needed more facts. Ediz had to translate. His English was good. Me, on the other hand, I'd only picked up a list of English sayings and words—but I'd let one fly every now and again. I had to keep up. (I was great with English song titles.) Ediz was in his element. It was a chance to show off his skills to Baba. And secretly, I think he was hoping he could convince Baba to send him for a stay in America. A lot of the guys from the Bosphorus were going to Boston to study. They called it Bostonbul. Ediz wanted to keep up.

Baba listened as if his life depended on it. The attention actually annoyed Ediz. He wasn't used to having Baba pay attention for so long. With every new detail Baba picked up about the fall of the Wall, his face got more and more green—almost puke green.

Ediz didn't seem too impressed by the events in Berlin. "Well, that'll improve the view from our room," was all he had to say. He was right. In front of our Berlin apartment, where other people had a yard, we had the Wall. We could look out over graffiti, death strips and razor wire into the East.

On the other side, a ways off, were high-rises, watch towers with cameras, and border guards. A room with a Wall view. I never thought the Wall would fall. Never. But it fell, and I was nineteen.

 

I couldn't imagine then what the fall would mean for me and my family—and what it would do to us. How could I have? Everyone was so excited, so animated, and just rushed ahead.

Nobody thought about it—including me. I was right in the middle of the flood of emotion, and I let myself be swept along. If I had paused for a moment to think seriously, a few things might have turned out differently. But I didn't, so things happened the way they happened.

Baba flew back to Berlin the next morning.

One week later I flew over, against my parents' will.

 

"You? What are you going to do in Berlin?" Mama kept asking me.

"Go to university," I answered, just to say something in my defense.

"University?" She rolled her eyes incredulously. Any other mother would have jumped with joy to hear her son had such a goal. But Mama had other thoughts.

"Your father studied—and what became of him? He sits in his travel agency and gets nowhere. Do you really think you'd be able to get a respectable job there afterwards? As a foreigner you'll be lucky to be a taxi driver or a waiter. Wake up."

I didn't say anything. When she was right, she was right. I was supposed to help build up Baba's travel business in Istanbul. Mama was very strict, and Baba knew it. That's why he left her in charge of everything that had to do with our schooling and careers.

"What am I supposed to do in Istanbul—in this chaos," I screamed at her. I just didn't want to hear any objections.

"Work in the travel business. Open your own office and make money. Just look at Mehmet Bey's sons. They can't even speak proper German and they are already managing a travel agency for German tourists. You could do ten times better, with your skills and Baba's experience." Mama's arms were flailing around, drawing the blueprints for a building in the air, an office building, practically a skyscraper, reaching all the way up to our ceiling. She had moxie. "Think big, act big," she always said—it was the only English she knew. Baba's travel agency was a piddling affair as far as she was concerned. She thought on a completely different scale. She would have fit in well on the board of directors of Hapag-Lloyd. But instead, she was stuck on the board of directors of our family.

"You should have gone to college," Baba always said to her. She would shake her head bitterly, thinking to herself I stayed home for you and the children. I have no doubt Mama would have made a good manager. No doubt. Because she could deal with anything. Even when she fought with my father, she did all right for herself.

 

Baba was a Marxist. At least he was when he talked with his best friend and cousin, Halim. They had a world of their own, a world that consisted of drinking tea, reading Karl Marx, and discussing. Mama didn't think much of such things. She would always say, "It doesn't pay the bills." Dialectic, historical materialism, and all that—it was bunk as far as Mama was concerned. Not that she understood much of it. She didn't need to. The only things that mattered to her were things that made money. And those things were in short supply in my father.

For Mama, it was clear that Ediz and I would go into business, not off to college.

But I couldn't stand listening to all this crap anymore, poor prospects and foreigners and blah blah blah. I'd had my fill of listening to stories about failures. Was there nobody who had managed to make something out of nothing? There were failures everywhere in the world—even here in Istanbul. Enough of that! If I didn't assert myself now, then I never would.

Everybody around me seemed to have a clear idea of my future—but I didn't. All the ideas seemed to go in different directions. I decided not to strike out in any one direction. I would just take things as they came.

One thing was clear, though: I never wanted to live like my father. Never.

Baba lived out of a suitcase. He had his work in Berlin and his family in Istanbul. He didn't want to give up either one. He became a frequent flyer on the Berlin–Istanbul–Berlin route.

Over the years we got used to it. The constant back and forth became ingrained in us.

Ediz and I would spend summer vacation in my father's travel agency. We'd make tea and sell airplane tickets. It was the only time of year we were together as a family. The rest of the year there was no everyday routine, no evenings together with our father. Everything in our lives was transient. It had to change. I didn't want to be a commuter anymore.

Baba wanted to open a branch in Istanbul, and I was supposed to run it. I could picture it, collecting tourists from the airport and taking them through the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. And if one of the tourist girls was into me, I'd go back to her hotel room. That was the usual routine for guys in the travel business. Selling carpets and chatting up girls. A lot of guys thought it was cool and bragged about it. At first it sounded pretty good to me, too, hooking up with girls who came and went. But now I find the idea empty, depressing. It just doesn't do anything for me.

I guess I'm just different from the other guys. Istanbulers always noticed that right away, too. As soon as I opened my mouth, people would ask, "Where are you from?" In Istanbul, this question dogged my every move. In shops, at the markets, even in the German school I was slapped with that question. People were so nosy. I looked Turkish and spoke Turkish, just not like them. They were always surprised by my accent. They could tell I wasn't a Kurd, wasn't an Arab, wasn't an Azerbaijani. So was I a Cypriot? There were so few Turkish Cypriots that nobody knew what the accent sounded like. So I had to be a Cypriot—even though I'd never been to Cyprus.

"Berliner, Berliner," I would say with a smile. I had figured out quickly that a smile goes a long way in Istanbul. Berliner would settle it. And I would say it in a way that made Berlin sound like a country all its own. The Berliner Bear must have twinkled in my eyes, too, because a lot of people noticed how proud I was to be a Berliner. They would immediately tell me that their uncle or aunt lived there and ask me whether I knew them. The term Almanci would pop into their head and then they had a way to categorize me. In Istanbul, my Western instincts came out. If a particularly heated argument broke out—something typically Turkish—I'd switch on my inner German. The more emotional and irrational things became, the more restrained and rational I'd become. Whether it was superstitions, reading coffee grounds, or the evil eye, my reaction was cool and clinical. It simultaneously surprised and appalled people. I was logical through and through.

My German "Nein" became widely recognized. It was a short, rock-sturdy Nein that exasperated a lot of people. To counter Oriental exaggeration, waffling, and pliability, I used my unbending, sharp-edged German Nein. I picked it up from our neighbor in Berlin, Mr. Wessel.

When Wessel stuck his red face out the kitchen window and shouted his well-known Nein, it meant one thing: Get out of there, and quick. The kids in the courtyard would scatter. Wessel's Nein could even make the Russians along the Wall jump.

 

Just before I left, Ediz said to me, "Over there you'll always be a Kanacke. With or without a degree, you'll always be a Kanacke in Berlin."

Who cares. So I'll be a Kanacke.

It bugged me. Ediz was always after Lacoste and Polo shirts, Ferraris and hamburgers. He knew exactly what he wanted—to go to the US and get a business degree. I didn't like the fact that he wanted to leave. I had the feeling that I would never get anywhere. Compared to him I was aimless. I had no set plans or goals. That's why I was set on Berlin and wouldn't allow anyone to convince me otherwise. For once, I wanted to be as single-minded as Ediz.

I was ready to leave Istanbul, Britta's firm tits, and the German school behind me.

From Selam Berlin. Published 2003 by Diogenes, Zurich. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2009 by Tim Mohr. All rights reserved.