Turkish honey under a German moon

Reinhard Hesse
11 March 2004

When we were kids, there were two things every German “knew” about Turkey. At school we chanted C-A-F-F-E-E, trink nicht so viel Kaffee, nicht für Kinder ist der Türkentrank, schwächt die Nerven, macht Dich schwach und krank, sei doch kein Muselmann, der das nicht lassen kann (“C-O-F-F-E-E, don’t drink this dreadful coffee, the Turks’ drink is not suitable for children, it weakens your nerves and makes you ill, don’t be a Muslim who cannot stay away from it!”); and at our provincial town’s annual festival of Kirmes (shooters’ feast, firefighters’ anniversary – or, if you lived in Munich, Oktoberfest) we enjoyed an enormously sweet, white and gluey confection which mother would never allow us outside festival season. They called it “Turkish Honey”.

We have all grown up. A generation later, other Turkish delights – vividly apparent at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival – are fertilising German tastebuds and imaginations, suggesting ways that this most special of relationships is becoming both more mutual and more…European. We might even call what is happening a “Turkish honeymoon”. But if so, will German politicians be proud parents or stern moral guardians?

Cultures of celluloid

The Berlin Film Festival moved east at the start of the millennium, from the heart of old West Berlin to the former no man’s land of Potsdamer Platz in the city centre (a site powerfully romanced by Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire). Since then, Potsdamer Platz has been rebuilt in Shanghai style and pace, but only during the ten “Berlinale” days do film people transform it from a desert of skyscrapers into an anthill buzzing around the seventh art. It’s the movies that keep the city moving.

This year, Berlin put cinema itself on the move: the theme of many festival entries was migration, longing to connect with elsewhere and otherness, endless journeying to the character’s roots or soul. (Norwegian) Hans Petter Moland’s Beautiful Country about a young Vietnamese man travelling to Texas in search of his American father, and (Argentinean) Daniel Burman’s El abrazo partido / Lost Embrace about another youngster’s trip to his parents’ Poland were typical.

But it was Stanislaw Mucha’s central European co-production Die Mitte / The Centre which showed what can be achieved by exploring the space between movement and rootedeness, by circling the camera around places that claim to be the very centre of Europe and then letting people simply act and talk. And when Gegen die Wand / Head On, a German film made by Fatih Akin (a Hamburg-born director of Turkish immigrant parents) was named the festival’s winning picture, it was clear that on the eve of Europe’s political enlargement, migration and all it connotes – discovery, diversity, the shock of the new – was a cultural tide riding strongly across the continent.

Head On was clearly the most courageous and convincing film of the festival, a wild, rough, refreshing windstorm. In it, a young German man and Turkish girl meet in a mental institution after failed suicide attempts, agree a token marriage so Sibel can flee her family and celebrate the joys of love, life and sex with Cahit; but a winding course leads to disaster, prison, and a fresh encounter in Istanbul. This is the wittiest, most candid and unprejudiced depiction of the reality of young Turkish life in Germany yet seen in German cinema.

The film also poses questions which Germany – and Europe, at that – must answer sooner rather than later. Can there still be a serious argument over Turkey’s eventual admission to the European Union when that country has, for all practical purposes, already arrived at the heart of Germany? Could it be that, at least for Turkish-born Germans who speak Hamburg slang far more fluently than any Anatolian idiom, life in Istanbul provides more freedom and liberality than struggling for your place in life in a German city? Will German recovery, once again, come from the margins, at least in cinema? And are we, while talking about the integration of immigrants addressing the right issues?

For the German tabloids, the revelation that Head On’s Turkish-born starlet Sibel Kekilli had a porno past sold better than any controversy over female Muslim teachers or pupils wearing the headscarf. German public opinion reacted calmly: isn’t this freedom and women’s self-determination, the one thing we are always using to put Turkey, and Islam at large, to test? And wouldn’t we all rather have to deal with some familiar vices like sexual outspokenness or, at that, male adolescent alcohol excesses, than with Muslim radicals indoctrinating young men to become suicide bombers?

Politics on heat

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) opposition leader, Angela Merkel, was unimpressed by such reasoning. She sees Turkey through an “Anatolian” veil and cannot acknowledge what Cem Özdemir – a Green politican and professed “Anatolian Swabian” (i.e. a Turk born in the Stuttgart region) – has said: that Turkey “is Switzerland and Bangladesh at the same time”.

For Merkel and her fellow partisans, Turkey is not, will not, and cannot be ready for Europe – and Europe is not, will not and cannot be ready for a large Muslim country like Turkey. Neither Turkey nor Islam is European; no Nato membership or domestic reform programme can change that.

It seems odd that these conservatives would prefer simply to break a promise given as early as 1963 – when Europe gave its word to facilitate Turkey’s entry into Europe’s political community – than to break the negotiations themselves. Their explanation might be that where prejudice and legal process conflict, choose the former and neutralise the latter. To halt the process of formal negotiations in an orderly way require making a convincing case and proving that Turkey has failed in its commitments to human rights and politico-economic reform. In this reasoning, any damage done to Turkey’s reform process and the immigrant Turkish community in Germany is seen as the lesser evil.

But Angela Merkel’s “hare and tortoise” diplomacy – she visited Ankara a week ahead of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – has not impressed. No one in Turkey was interested in her offer of a somewhat vague “privileged partnership” with Germany. The Turkish side opted to wait and see Schröder reiterate Europe’s commitment to open negotiations once Turkey fulfils the reform conditions as set out in the “Copenhagen criteria” .

Moreover, Merkel has had to face dissent in her own party – not least by Hamburg mayor Ole von Beust who decisively won the elections in his home city on 29 February, thus reinforcing dissent from Merkel’s plan to campaign for elections to the European parliament in June 2004 on opposition to Turkey’s EU membership.

This aspiration of Merkel and her allies was reiterated by all elements of the CDU at an 8 March meeting. Their argument is that a European Union that accepts Turkish membership would become a “mere free-trade-zone”. There is even some anti-American code hidden in the subtext – implying that the US wants Turkey to join the EU so that it will become too big and unwieldy to remain a coherent political power.

This only prompted Gerhard Schröder to be even more outspoken on the great opportunities that Turkey’s EU membership would open; while warning against the damage that could be done to the reform process if Europe turned a “cold shoulder” to Turkey on its way to Brussels.

Europe's future is Turkish

Yet opposition to or scepticism about Turkish membership of the EU is not limited to conservative hardliners. The outgoing German president, Johannes Rau, cautions against being “too quick” with “overstretching” the union, as has his fellow social democrat (and former chancellor) Helmut Schmidt.

Moreover, two respected, left-leaning German historians, Heinrich August Winkler and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, have categorically rejected the idea of Turkey joining the EU in any foreseeable future. Their argument is impelled by fear that the enlarged union of ten extra countries after May 2004 will simply not be able to “digest” further a country of 70 million people whose average income is far below even the poorest regions of the existing member states.

What matters even more to Winkler and Wehler is their belief that the old “Byzantine” (now orthodox or Muslim) world has never having attained the “Roman” (now western) values of secularism and enlightenment. That may sound fanciful, but Winkler’s observation that Europe after May 2004 can no longer combine “deepening plus enlarging” at the same time and for the same price, is certainly not.

More integration, though, is the only European road. And, yes, culture can help. For those willing to see, Fatih Akan’s film is an imaginative contribution to the debate on how we can progress from “Turkish Honey” to a German-Turkish honeymoon. For the others – for those who dislike movies, the dark, or even popcorn – the message is still very clear: Turks are Germans, at times, at least; and Turkey in Europe will be the strongest message anyone can send out to everyone discussing the idea of “modernisation in the Muslim world”.

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