Neukoelln plays tricks on me

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The Sonnenallee, the eastern of the three more-or-less parallel boulevards going in the north-south direction in Neukoelln, is closer to a hallucination than reality in my memory. The better and hipper bars are concentrated on that side of Neukoelln, beyond the Sonnenalle, diametrically the opposite edge from our place. When I’m meeting friends in one of the bars in the area, I have to walk over during the relatively early evening hours, and walk back half drunk later in the night. Due to the fact that I am nearly always (at least half-) drunk when i get a second view of the Sonnenalle in the course of a single day, I have a strange memory of the place as a post-european dream land: a wide street lined with ugly modern and beautiful classic Berlin-style apartment buildings, pavements lit up with the neon lights of the cheap shops and the mini-supermarkets (called the Spaeties) open through the night, catering the tourists, students, new-berliners and alcoholics not only with cheap alcohol and not-so-cheap tobacco, but also most of the necessities of daily life 24 hours a day.

On one of these evenings, on my way-back-home stumble, I decided to buy one last bottle of beer to enjoy on the way — this was, I should mention, in my “drink as much beer as possible before the night is over” phase. The shop I entered to buy my last beer turned out to be, at least for my drunken self, something like a cinema set designed by a neo-pop artist. The relatively big shop area was illuminated by glaring fluorescent lights of at least three different colors; the walls were lined with fridges full of bottles of various beer brands, all ordered with great care and even maybe a sense of brand-colors-matching aesthetics. The wine selection was just as impressive as that for beer, and liqour bottles lined a special locker behind the counter. Much more interesting than the shop for me was the couple running the shop, who were most probably also the owners of the place. The husband and wife pair, who were obviously Turkish to my eyes, looked very happy and shiny. They had a very well-kempt appearence, at the same time, so it seemed to me in my inebriated state, sporting a look reminiscent of the sixties in Turkey: the husband with a thin moustache and slick hairs, a colorfull silk shirt, neatly ironed pants, looking a lot like the turkish pop-culture icon Orhan Gencebay, and the woman with wavy long hair and a colorful skirt and shirt combination. In fact, it was so out of time and place, and so perfectly belonging to a Turkey I know only from my early childhood and from films of even earlier years, with their working class heroes and clear distinctions of all characters and classes, that I was convinced they were somehow —intentionally or not— emulating that era. Gencebay was one of the best-known characters of a cultural phenomenon called Arabesque. The foundations of Arabesque are in the sixties, a time when Gencebay became famous for his music, a particular blend of turkish and arabic music. A typical song from his repertoire can be heard in the linked video, which is from one of the numerous films in which Gencebay played working-class characters. These characters end up in difficult situations, but face these difficulties thanks to their unwavering ethic, suffering through them, and then either getting saved at the end through a deus ex machina, or perishing, but without betraying their principles.

This cultural melange in the middle of Berlin —Orhan Gencebay in a neon-lit and colorful Spaeti, serving drunkards like me at 2 in the morning, right next to the student-bars— made me so delighted with living in a neighbourhood where something like this could happen, that I kept on talking about the wonders of this unexpected mixture for the next month to anyone ready to listen. I found it incredible that imagery from so long a time ago and such particular a cultural period would catch up with me while buying beer somewhere in Berlin.

One month later, new year’s eve was there, and we went to a party on the other side of Neukoelln again. On my way back, with another friend in tow, looking for something to eat before we go to bed, I remembered this Spaeti. We decided to go there to get a last beer, not the least because I wanted to renew my memory of a month ago. We found the shop, went in, and to my joy the same couple was there again, looking as neat as the last time. I went to the counter, decisive on starting a conversation with the cashier, and said good night and happy new year to him in Turkish. To my utter astonishment, he responded with the annoyed expression of all the foreigners who get taken to be Turks in Germany just because they look a bit turkish; he was actually from an arabic country — which one, I didn’t want to bother him longer to ask.

We paid and got out of the shop with our last beers of the year. The first day of the new year started with a fresh beer, and a small lecture about forgetting.