Bülent Küçük is an Assoc. Prof. in Boğaziçi University. I have taken 3 of their courses so far. It was a great pleasure to talk with him about migration and specifically the German context. We made the interview with Engin Gül Here’s what we have talked:
Mehmet Enes: To start off, we would like to take the direction towards your experience with immigration. From our knowledge, we know that you left Turkey for Germany and presumably learned German there. Is that correct? Did you start learning German from scratch in Germany?
Yes, I was a sociology student at ODTU between ’90-95, when I left my studies there and left the country altogether. Initially, I wanted to move to France and maybe move to England from there since, because of ODTU, I had English covered. Right as I was going to France, villagers in France started rioting. The political situation was shaky. I have relatives in France. They told me not to come because of the riots; they told me to go to Germany. I was kind of stuck in limbo. I wanted to eventually go to England but, having moved to Germany, I ended up remaining there. It was a bit accidental.
M: So you got your undergraduate degree in Germany?
Yes. Germany is a big place and not all of it is appropriate for us to live there. I think that Turkish expats from large cities can only live in big cities. That’s why I moved to Berlin. At first, I was near Dusseldorf. A strange thing happened there. People like us who study sociology at ODTU or Bogazici generally know European cities. You know, in urban sociology classes they are given as examples. I wrote a paper about Berlin. There was a professor there named Sencer Ayata—he’s a CHP advisor right now. I was taking that guy’s urban sociology course and I wrote the paper for that course. After that, it was really easy for me to move to Berlin.
M: Which university?
Humboldt. I continued my sociology education there, although there is no sociology department. There’s a social science institute that provides political science and sociology education together. I took a lot of political science courses. I took a lot of political theory classes as well. For a sociologist, political theory courses were very interesting because when I was studying sociology in Turkey, in my final years, I read a lot of Cemil Meric. Between ‘90 and ‘94 I read a lot of Sezai Karakoc and Ismet Ozel. In that period, I learned a lot about a world I wasn’t familiar with, it was very eye-opening.
M: Cemil Meric is generally read by more conservatives
Yes, of course, it is thought that a more conservative crowd generally reads him. In my opinion, he is one of the most important intellectuals in Turkish history. Maybe we can’t call him a theoretician, but he’s definitely an important intellectual. He induces excitement, especially coming from a world far away from yours. If you’re born into a leftist environment, you already know what Marx and the likes said, but Cemil Meric is something else. When I was going to Berlin, specifically for University, it was very exciting to read thinkers we generally label as in the “right.” For example, I read Carl Schmitt. Carl Schmitt’s theories on war, democracy, East-West issues, etc., I took something from that too. Actually, political theory was a formation that Germany provided me with. I did myPh.D.D in sociology afterwards. Because the advisor was a sociologist, it became a sociology degree.
M: Alright then, what about your university life; the places you lived, student life, your relationship with other immigrants? Did you live in a migrant neighborhood?
No, no, away from the workers in Germany—the guest workers (Gastarbeiter) and the people who migrated after the ’80 coup. Mostly men. Generally, they are educated in Turkey, coming from certain circles like journalism; generally, these people were previously involved with intellectual labor. Then in the 90s, there’s an influx of Kurdish immigrants. Some from Bosnia, Yugoslavia. When I moved there, it was a very large number. Around 500,000 people were moving to Germany annually. If one was coming from Turkey, four were coming from Bosnia, Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia. Also, in the 90s, there were a lot of German immigrants, known as Volksdeutsche, who were moving from East Germany, central Europe and Russia. Some didn’t know German. After the unification, When Germany united, they gave them passports directly through German consulates, even though many of them didn’t know German. In such a foreign stratum, not knowing German, growing up in Russia, displaced 300 years ago, or displaced to Poland during the 2nd or 3rd Reich; remaining in Poland after [WWII]. There are East Germans. Then we have Volksdeutsche who come to Germany and take integration courses. There are those who came in the 80s, and on the other side you have refugees. Now, as a person going into this environment, there was definitely a lot of intellectual capital on my part because of my previous education. I was speaking English, then, of course. So taking a lesson from the previous generation of immigrants, I deceided to distance myself from other immigrants. So I lived in Mitte instead of Kreuzberg. Mitte is in East Berlin and immigrants do not want to live in eastern Berlin. In our minds, the East always has a negative connotation. When you say East, it seems so far away; you think of a place lacking modern infrastructure. East Berlin is a little like that. So I lived in East Berlin. Some advantages were that this allowed me to both remain in the university environment and made it easier for me to interact with local German residents there. This made it a little easier and quicker to learn German.
E: So socialization made the integration process easier?
Yes, integration, you know, is a problematic word, because integration is always understood as a one sided thing. It is understood only as immigrants getting used to the society they moved to, but nobody really analyzes the majority’s adaptation to the new immigrants.
M: Yes, that seems to be correct.
And it needs to be. My personal story is not very typical in terms of a person going to pursue a master’s/doctor’s degree in Germany without knowing German. It doesn’t have examples of structural exlusion.
M: But it’s different in terms of adaptation as well. Not everyone gets used to a new country this easily.
Yes, yes. Immigrants mostly work in the migrant-dominated informal sector. They are the most informal within the informal sector, working at kiosks, as cab drivers, or at doner restaurants. Some, at least the politically involved ones, flock to foundations. Most of their socializing is done in and around those foundations. It’s the same for all, for Muslims, Kurds, Turks—either because they don’t know the language very well or because they can better speak their native language. They also socialize in events like weddings, engagements, etc. They find spouses through these organizations.
M: Did you socialize more with other students?
Yes, my socialization was more fragmented. By fragmented, I mean that it’s a little disadvantageous to be from ODTU or Bogazici, or familiar with metropolitan life in this situation. By this I mean, being familiar with cosmopolitan life and therefore having more confidence in living with and coexisting with other groups. This brings with it some problems. Being born into a family, into a community is always a comfortable thing. At the same time, this comfort is lethal. It kills creativity and risk-taking. For example, the phrase “baba meslegi” (father’s occupation). If your father’s occupation is good then okay, but if your father works at a doner restaurant, you also work at a doner restaurant. Your kid doesn’t go to university. When you enter that community, there’s always this risk.
M: So, you weren’t exactly a part of “us” (Turks in Germany)?
Our migrants too, yes. You know about limbo? I wasn’t exactly in limbo but people who had a problem with their city, or with German, Turkish, Muslim or any other identity. I mean people with a problem with those identity politics.
E: The outcasts…
B: The outcasts also have their own community there. There are certain heterotypical niches there. I guess I ended up being situated there. For example, by not living in Kreuzberg, you end up making this decision whether you like it or not. The places you end up going to become different because of this. You end up spending a bunch of time at the university. You spend a lot of time in the library. The way you spend your free time becomes different. But of course, you never become fully foreign to it. You never get tied away from Kreuzberg. You have to go there at least once a week. Going to a café there and seeing your acquaintances, your friends; speaking, in your own language are things that you want those things are always needed. You know how here we go to Taksim once in a while, leaving Bogazici? You can’t ever leave Kreuzberg in that respect.
M: It’s a need, right?
Yes. Of course, that distance is very important, I think. It’s important to stand at a distance and go in and out occasionally. Once you go in there and start living there, you can’t leave. It has everything: it’s café, restaurant, cinema, it is secure, etc. It even has outdoor cinema. There are even places where you can chew on some seeds and watch cinema in Kreuzberg. When that’s the case, you ended making everything, yourself even, ghettoize. That ghettoizing has its comforts but there are difficulties as well.
M: Can Germany’s policy of “open door” last for a long time? There are nearly 700.000 asylum applications. Maybe it will reach 1 billion. Is this something sustainable? What would be the possible reactions of Germany?
I cannot say something because I don’t follow the news in Germany. This open-door issue was one of the most popular issues.
M: Hungary made barbed wire.
Hungary did so, these north countries could take a little number of migrant. Apart from that, countries outside Germany could distribute a little more of that responsibility, including the UK. They could disperse the burden a little. Due to the burden of Germany’s own history, it seemed a bit related with the Nazi past. Germany was also responsible for the fact that it was also the leader of the European Union. Moreover, as you know, there is a very new populist tendency in Germany is emerging.
M: Isn’t it Pegida?
It’s something different that Pegida. There is an organization named Alternative für Deutschland, that includes former social democrats, some liberals, a part of far-right, and even former members of the Nazi party. It has an excessively heterogenous structure. So it reachs 30 percent in some places. In Germany, as you see, the support to the two main parties, both right and left, are apparently diminishing. This lead to a crisis in the migration policies. I think, for this reason, Merkel and right parties halted it. Now, almost all center parties losses the support. It is same in also France. Center parties are about to be collapsed.
M: Are you optimistic?
Well, I don’t think so. The problem is Germany, that I have seen, is so much different in the migration context. When you think of 1990s, there were unbelievably huge numbers of immigrants. All social and cultural places like stadiums were full of immigrant camps. But what the good point is there is also a tendency for supporting coming of immigrants. It is just the contrast to far right politics.
M: And they are also powerful
Yes they are powerful. The example that I can give is… For example, in the East Berlin, when I was living there. There was a project of the construction of a new mosque. Neo-nazis were against to the project. Then we support the project. It is very different context. So, as a person who has leftist tendency, I am taking part a marching for supporting the construction of a mosque.
M: In a different context, maybe you take a different position
But it is entirely about the power relations there. You are against the neo-nazis. If they are two thousands, so you have to be more than them.
M: There were over 100,000 people in Barcelona
Yes. In Turkey, what our problem is we have a refugee-friendly group. There are local solidarity groups. There are women solidarity groups. There are NGOs and foundations. As I know, in Üsküdar (a district of Istanbul, generally known as its conservative identity), there is an initiative to unite families. Refugees and Turkish families… Two families are getting together. It’s common. Maybe it is about the Ottoman heritage or the ideal of ümmet. Whatever it is, there should be something. There should be a jointness. Humans need to this.
M: Let’s remember Kant’s universal hospitality…
Yeah, it’s a sort of hospitality. Of course there is some conditions and borders but they are not visible. The polarized nature of Turkish society affect their stance on immigration issue. For example, they cannot think of the Syrian question in an objective way.
(a short break)
M: Let’s return to being immigrant…
It is something like an experience that break the roots, the history, and the memory. So it always makes a traumatic effect on the subject. If you went involuntarily, it damages more and more. That’s true but the immigration issue has also a positive side. Because, let’s think of the history of humanity, our history… Who did not come from a different place? From religious narratives to the national myths, in all of them, people were expelled to go somewhere. So this has also a reproductive feature that transforms the mental structure. It makes people more creative, in terms of the subjectivity of people. When you think a person who born and die in the same town and another person who had to emigrate, they are very different. The second has a richer subjectivity. He or she makes incredible contributions to the host society. Let’s take a look at 1950-1960s Germany, it there were not Muslim immigrants Germany could not have such a cultural richness.
E: Like America
The US is the typical one. But it is getting older. Almanya is a relatively new immigration country. Eve after 10 years, there is somebody who ignore the fact that Germany is a multicultural society. There is a cultural diversity in Germany. Immigrants consist of 10% of all the population. Let’s put its proportion on the labor market aside, in all restaurants immigrants are employed, without them, the reproduction of the social life is impossible. Even you cannot find a restaurant to eat something if there is no immigrant. For example, the Ottoman cuisine is so rich thanks to this diversity. Rome and Istanbul is so rich for the same reason. Even now, Germany is charming for major chefs. They come there and earn wealths. So, immigration has such a side. I recommend you do not deal with it as an incomplete subjectivity.
M: It affects and it is affected
Both they are transformed, and transform the place where they go. The space is changed, the cultural codes are changed, the relationship between they and the world is changed. Being foreigner teaches much more things. Both it is also traumatic. This is what I understand from being immigrant.
In one side, it is alienated the subject from his world. Living together with the other is something that is transformative. We should recognize the paradox. I am saying this because Turkish immigrants of Germany are seen as an assimilated generation, in Turkey.
M: Or degenerated
When I have gone to Germany, when you encounter the third-generation immigrants, you speak Turkish, and they are too. They cannot express themselves fluently. So unavoidably you think something negative about them… Anyway, we can say that not settled people but immigrants produce a culture. Because they are moved from one place to another. They are transformed during this mobilization.
M: Both during and after the mobilization
Exactly. Immigrants are like a running water.