Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guener Yasemin Balci, author of ARABBOY: A Youth in Germany--or the Short Life of Rashid A., tells about her Childhood in Berlin

Guener Yasemin Balci, author of ARABBOY: A Youth in Germany--or the Short Life of Rashid A., tells about her Childhood in Berlin

By Kevin A. Stoda, Weisbaden

Guener Yasemin Balci is author of ARABBOY: Eine Jugend in Deutschland oder Das kurze Leben des Rashid A. ( Frankfurt am Main: S. Fisher Verlag, 2008, pp. 287.) ARABBOY is a controversial book describing the alienation of recent Middle Eastern immigrants to Berlin and Germany. The book offers new insights into the culture of victims and perpetrators, a theme which has marked modern German history.


Early-on, Guener Yasemin Balci was raised in the socially and economically troubled neighborhood in Berlin known as Neukoelln. In her late teens and early 20s, Balci returned again to the neighborhood of Neukoelln, in order to try her hand as a social worker and exponent for neighborhood education and development. In ARABBOY, Balci tells the troubling, shocking, and moving story of a boy named Rashid, of Lebanese-Palestinian descent--and of the Berlin inner city neighborhood that forged and eventually destroyed Rashid’s young life.


Although most of the tale is based on Balci’s own friends, acquaintances and contacts in the poverty-stricken multicultural Neukoelln neighborhood, it is written in novel-form, and Balci candidly admits that the main character, Rashid A., is based on a composite number of actual characters. Several of the supporting characters in ARABBOY are also composites. The title, ARABBOY plays on the SMS-, YouTube-, and internet “handle” that Rashid chose for himself early on. Rashid sees himself as “Arabboy 44”, which means that in his neighborhood, there are certainly many Arab boys about. Likewise, most of Balci’s tale takes place in the midst of Arab gangs and Arab families in Berlin.


Balci, herself, is not Arab. As a child in Neukoelln, she saw herself as “Turkish”. Berlin, itself, is claimed to be the largest Turkish city outside of Asia—with approximately 200,000 Turkish or Turkish-German residents living in and around the German capital city. At home, however, Balci’s parents spoke in German to her and to her older siblings. She has written that until she was much older she didn’t really understand much Turkish and definitely did not know the language of her parents, known as Zaza.


Balci detailed the following in her self-introduction for ARABBOY, “My first years in primary school, I had also thought that we [my family] were Turkish. My parents spoke in a mysterious tongue that we children could not comprehend. Only later was I bold enough to enquire about the language. As I began to ask questions I learned that the language was known as Zaza [spoken by Dimili peoples of Persian ancestry].” That is, in Turkey, during her parents and most of Balci’s own childhood, “Zaza” like Kurdish had been a banned language in militarily-controlled Turkey.

Balci added, “Zaza was one of numerous minority languages that Turkey were banned from speaking through the 1980s. To the Zaza language belongs an entire culture—all of its very own [i.e. separate from the Turkish culture that many Germans have come a bit to know during the recent post-WWII decades]. The Ataturks had sought to destroy these cultures [and the memories of these cultures]. In order to protect us children [from abuse], my parents had decided not to teach us Zaza.” Incidentally, it is claimed by some linguists that the Dimilis migrated first to the Caspian Sea from the Tigris River, i.e. the cradle of civilization, and then later on to Western Turkey over the millennia.

Likely, due to the childhood abuses in Turkey inflicted upon her parents, Balci’s father determined that his own children must try to become as multicultural as possible—even though early on, he and his wife had been interested in returning to and living in Turkey. Balci noted, “ As a child I was often angered by my father’s decision to send me to a Catholic Kindergarten in Berlin. My father was always too friendly and too quick with a good or complimentary word for the Germans. That kindergarten became a place for dread and fear for me. As would happen to me in German public schools and universities, I would be seen immediately as Turkish—although then I hardly spoke a word of Turkish. My mother tongue was German.”


Balci’s parents had been among the first waive of Turkish immigrant labor in the early 1960s. So, unlike many of the Middle Eastern arrivals of later years, not many of her parents generation had seen themselves as political victims or exiles from their homeland. These first generation of settlers had seen themselves (as had the German government) as temporary or “guest workers” who would return to their homeland one day. This is in contrast with many later German refugees--and characters created by Balci in ARABBOY. For example, Rashid A.’s household had come from a Palestinian refugee family from Lebanon via Turkey to Germany in the 1980s.


Balci definitely benefitted from her father’s push to have all his children make as many friends from different cultures as possible. By the time she entered primary school, Balci was doing quite well academically, and, of course, her German skills were much better than in many other Turkish households in Neukoelln. Otherwise, Balci noted, she would have ended up in the so-called “Turkish classes” of her local public schools in Berlin. Balci explained, “[Turkish classes] were seen by her and her peers as a sort of Losers Club. For such a class, a Turkish born teacher was hired—this person, often, could hardly speak any better German than his own students. This teacher also treated his classroom dictatorially and further broke down the self-confidence of many would-be students [and new-Germans].”

Balci noted, “Apparently, this entire ‘Turkish class’ was intended as a program of Turkish immersion, so that the Turkish-German youth could be assisted in eventually becoming resettled back into their parents Turkish homeland some day. However, these [second generation] Turkish kids simply stayed in Germany. When I see these same ‘Turkish class’ students today, I find them selling vegetables in the market or working at doener kebab stands around the city.” Obviously, they had not been prepared to do anything else than that in the German society. In short, the bar had been set too low for them.

It was onto such a situation that the later-comers, Arabs from the Middle East would also find themselves upon their arrival in Neukoelln over recent decades. Many had initially been housed together in big groups, whereby soon Arab ghettos were born. As in many marginalized neighborhoods around the globe, where the stakeholders gain little from the richer and more powerful local and national system of governance, the heroes of the day for Neukoelln boys were often either sports stars, rap stars, or gangsters.


Balci’s family moved out of Neukoelln during the last part of the 1970s—i.e. just before, most of the Germans and many non-Muslim & non-Middle Eastern neighbors moved out of the area. ( However, because it is still one of the more inexpensive parts of modern Berlin, Neukoelln still draws partying crowds from throughout the area.)


Balci wrote: “As my parents, three brothers and sisters, and I left [Neukoelln’s] Rollerberg Quarter in 1978, no one could have predicted all the changes over the coming few years. That is, no one would have predicted the enormous unemployment and the leaving of most all German families. This was accompanied by waves of violence and crime in the following decade. At that time [i.e. 1978], I had many German friends, Turkish friends, Yugoslavian friends, Greeks . . . .—my father had encouraged me to make as many friends and contacts as possible. He explained that it would help me and the entire family to assimilate better. However, not all Turkish families thought this way, nor did all German families. They [i.e. the Germans as well as many Turks] seemed to prefer living amongst themselves in Berlin. Both groups were afraid to lose their culture and sense of identity as to who they and their cultures are [or were]. They wanted to hone their own languages . . . ”, etc.


Balci is very multicultural and multi-talented. Throughout her first novel, Balci played on many different genres in literature and film. It is, therefore, not surprising that along with studying social work, Balci studied literature and has worked in radio and TV in recent years. Therefore, allusions to film and other literary works and authors are loaded into the ARABBOY tale. At first glance, many of the inner city trouble makers seem to march out of Bertoldt Brecht dramas, short stories, or musicals. Brecht had, of course, lived out the last decades of his life in Berlin.


Likewise, ARABBOY makes numerous allusions to documentary fiction and non-fiction. For example, the Berlin world of Christiane F. of WIR KINDER VON BAHNHOF ZOO


fame is quite obvious in both title and characterization of modern Berlin’s underworld of children pornography, youth prostitution, violence and rape. (In English, BOTH the documentary novel and film of same name are known by the title Christiane F., i.e. not WIR KINDER VON BAHNHOF ZOO or WE CHILDREN OF TRAIN STATION ZOO. Yes, this is the same Bahnhof Zoo written and sung about BY U-2.)


Set in the late 1970s, the quasi-non-fictional work WIR KINDER VON BAHNHOF ZOO had been published by STERN magazine journalists, by Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck, on the lives of Berlin inner city drug addicts and prostitutes. The main protagonist had been 14-year-old Christiane F. (now known by her full and real name Vera Christiane Felscherinow). Christiane F., like Rashid A., is a drug addict involved in prostitution. Likewise, whereas Rashid A. was more interested in rap music, the docu-novel with Christiane F. focused on the music of David Bowie, who lived in and produced music Berlin at the time.


As well, in contrast to the Christiane F. tale, Rashid A. (the Arabboy a la 2008) gets arrested, sent to prison several times and is finally expelled to Turkey (a country he has never lived in nor a country where his father and mother live) . Meanwhile, the actual Christine F., over the decades has fallen off the wagon several times, but the novel that brought her fame still influences the writing of many such social political novels in modern Germany.

The ARABBOY novel is still only found published in the German language, but I hope to see it in English print soon because it does a lot to show the marginalization and isolation of minority youth in Germany, a process that has led modern Germans to fear the Arab and Muslim population in their own country. Reading the ARABBOY, although partially fictional, is certainly a more realistic way to begin to disentangle the issue of integration, assimilation, and self-identity development in a modern Germany. By making that last statement I mean or believe it is much more realistic to see the problems of German minorities intimately by reading Balci’s fiction than it is to simply condemn minorities and immigrants for having behaved (badly or) either isolationist or hostilely towards German cultural, social and educational values prior to arriving in Germany.

Finally, the theme of “Perpetrators and Victims” is common in the narration of Rashid A.’s life. In the 1990, the large immigration of East European refugees and settlers to Germany came along with the “re-emergence of the issue of wartime suffering to the fore of German public discourse represents the greatest shift in German memory culture since the Historikerstreit of the 1980s. The (international) attention and debates triggered by, for example, W.G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur, Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang, Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand testify to a change in focus away from the victims of National Socialism to the traumatic experience of the ‘perpetrator collective’ and its legacies.”


Germany has often been called in literature and media, the Nation of Perpetrators and Victims, especially after the collapse of the double dictatorship headed by East German Berlin for over 40 years. From a minority twist or perspective, Balci begins to discuss this extremely German theme of “perpetrators and victims” by looking at its prevalence on the modern streets and in the schools of Berlin, which is often promoted as the cultural capital of Central Europe and European Unification. She does this by looking at Arab and Muslim families in the troubled neighborhoods of de-Germanized Neukoelln in 2008. Although Balci seldom points her finger directly at Germans in modern Berlin for the Victim and Perpetrator community of Neukoelln, it would be interesting to see what Balci will do in a follow-up novel.


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