Istanbul and Berlin: Two kinetic energies

The energies of Istanbul and Berlin are different in substance but equal in exhilaration. Despite rapid change, they both possess resilient characteristics and kinetic energies that preserve their identity as two of the world's great cities.

The energies of Istanbul and Berlin are different in substance but equal in exhilaration. They are my two favorite cities in the world, each very unique but inextricably linked, in my mind and soul and on much larger dimensions. 

Both cities are wildly different in size and located within countries with vastly different political realities. Yet common undercurrents connect the two. They are without question both places that have experienced unthinkable trauma, particularly during the 20th century.  

Energy is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about either city, as each possesses one so distinct and alluring, with tones of darkness and light, failure and triumph, misery and ecstasy. Berlin's energy is more immediately gloomy, certainly in no small part because of the Holocaust, (today commemorated by numerous memorials in the city and the thousands of bronze 'stumbling stones' that memorialize victims outside of their former homes), years of separation by the wall, and a relentless winter/spring where the sun doesn't seem to come out for several months at a time. 

Istanbul's energy possesses a more wistful sadness that is hidden in every corner of its older neighborhoods, largely defined by a series of destructive fires and the dispossession and near-elimination of its non-Muslim communities. These tragic details can become overshadowed by the beauty of its geographical location. That too, is sometimes dominated by the rampant growth that the city has experienced, as anyone who gazes out at the Anatolian side from a ferry in the Marmara Sea en route to the Princes' Islands will see an imposing, practically endless stretch of buildings and skyscrapers that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. 

Berlin is a city where “anything goes,” and this is generally an understood and tolerated fact, to the point where there are open-air drug markets in parks and near metro stations. Istanbul has been described to me multiple times as a city where “anything can be found” though the bulk of the sordid nature of what that includes is located behind closed doors and otherwise condemned by large segments of society.  

On a recent visit to Berlin, I asked a bartender at last call where to go after he closed up at 1 AM. He sent me to a spot called Magendoktor in the district of Wedding, which is open 24/7. The 40-something bartender told me that the establishment had in fact been open nonstop since 1973, while serving me a fresh, frothy pint of Berliner Kindl. Before long I had struck a conversation with a friendly guy on his way to the airport who wanted a couple drinks before his red-eye flight. 

Berlin has a deep history of party culture and is practically the mecca for electronic music, with iconic clubs where the line stretches out the door and in which people often show up in the mid-afternoon, not leaving until after the sun rises next the day. This famous revelry is coupled with a legacy of avant garde art culture and the strong presence of scores of underground subcultures that have attracted people to the city from across the world. These factors are all essential to Berlin's intoxicating energy. 

Each a city of immigrants, Berlin became home to several hundred thousand Turkish people due to the guest workers that were recruited to rebuild the city and country beginning the 1960s. Large numbers of Palestinians, Russians, Vietnamese, Greeks, Albanians, Bosnians, and Poles also call the city home and their collective contributions have shaped it and are largely responsible for the city's unique energy. 

Istanbul's population exploded during the second half of the last century, though its migrants primarly came from rural Anatolia. Today, Berlin and Istanbul are experiencing opposite trends: the former has become wildly popular over the past decade among people from throughout Europe, (including Turkish professionals, intellectuals and exiles) while Istanbul for the first time in decades is undergoing an outward flow of net migration. 

Though Turks only make up around five percent of Berlin's population, the Turkish presence of the city makes it seem like that figure would be much higher. Lacking the industrial economy of many of Germany's major cities, Berlin is service-based, and Turkish restaurants and shops can be found throughout the city. There has been much ado about Berlin and its connection to döner kebab, but when I'm in the city I prefer its köfte joints, great variations of a Turkish classic with Berlin flourishes. 

One street in Istanbul's Feriköy quarter is dominated by those with roots in the northeastern province of Erzincan, where residents built rows of apartment buildings, opened breakfast restaurants serving products exclusively sourced from one mountain village, and established cultural associations. Meanwhile, in the Berlin neighborhoods Kreuzberg and Neulkölln, both which are home to large immigrant populations, nearly every owner or employee of a spati (a small convenience store selling alcohol, tobacco and snacks, similar to a Turkish tekel) I spoke with over the course of two months in 2015 was of Alevi-Kurdish origin with roots in Erzincan. 

Swift gentrification is a troubling reality in Berlin, which has slowly but surely become more expensive and is losing its reputation as a cheap city, though it still is one when compared to London, Paris or New York. Though when I brought up the issue with a Turkish friend from Vienna visiting for the first time, he described the process as a “nice harmony” where “gay bars sit next to older Turkish men playing cards,” adding that Turks were absent in the gentrified parts of Austrian cities. 

Sure enough, the heart of Kreuzberg's Kottbusser Tor (known to many as 'Little Istanbul') is still very much a Turkish enclave. Iconic German-Turkish rapper Killa Hakan's parents, among the first wave of Turkish guest workers to come to Berlin, ran a tiny shop in the heart of the neighborhood selling baklava and other Turkish products for years. It is now gone but numerous other Turkish establishments dot the area and Little Istanbul lives on.  

I first visited Berlin immediately after spending nine months in Istanbul, and the two cities will always be connected in my eyes and heart. Despite rapid change, they both possess resilient characteristics and kinetic energies that preserve their identity as two of the world's great cities.  

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