BERLIN—Berlin’s annual Turkish-European Street Festival tries to bring a dose of Near-Eastern culture to a stubbornly white European town. You can buy kafta and börek in the booths and pretend, for one afternoon, that the “Strasse des 17. Juni” is a boulevard in Istanbul. But this year, in the wake of three decisive elections in Europe—two defeats for the E.U. constitution, plus a regional victory for the German right—the street fair’s motto, “We Are Europeans,” had a forced multicultural spirit that not even the festival-goers believed.
“I have a German passport, but I’m still a foreigner,” said Aynur Aktürk, a woman of about 40 with hay-colored, gray-streaked hair, who moved to Berlin from Turkey as a teenager and now has two German-born kids. “My husband and I have jobs, we’re lucky. But if we lose our jobs, I don’t know what will happen. Germany is my home now, but it could change.” She munched thoughtfully on a sandwich. “Germany could change again. The people aren’t happy.”
The mood at the fair was subdued, compared to previous years, Akturk said. “It’s not as full as it normally is. And you don’t see many Germans.”
The frustrations that handed Gerhard Schroeder’s party a defeat last month in North Rhine-Westphalia, and forced him to call a snap national election in the fall—high unemployment, welfare reform—have sent Germans as well as Turks to their nationalistic corners. Schroeder and Jacques Chirac both championed the idea that Turkey belongs in the EU, but voters didn’t like it. The drubbing both men received at the polls last month has been read, not just by Turks, as a fear of immigrants.
“The elections in Germany and the referendum in France are the first signs,” wrote Turkish columnist Emin Colasan in the Istanbul daily Hurriyet. “Europeans do not want us, and they are making it more clear with their choice now ... Slowly parties that say ‘No’ to Turkey will take over governments in Europe.” The Economist magazine reckoned that both the French and Dutch EU referendums showed “growing hostility around Europe ... to the idea of taking in poor, big and Muslim Turkey.”
But Turks here, like other immigrants to Europe, still do the sort of work most natives try to avoid. Aynur and Sezai Aktürk have factory jobs. He works in a Berlin aluminum foundry, she works for Bosch-Siemens. They came to Germany about 25 years ago—separately—because their fathers had been guest workers. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish men settled here between 1961 and 1974, while West Berlin had a labor agreement with Ankara. They were a cheap work force that fueled West Germany’s “economic miracle.”
The guest workers were allowed to bring in wives and children; now Berlin has the largest concentration of Turks in the world outside Turkey. Around 2 million Turks live in Germany, about 2.4 percent of the population. But they’re not integrated, and they don’t feel secure.
“You feel at home in your homeland, not in some other country,” Sezai said, squinting up the Strasse des 17. Juni and wiping his mustache with a napkin. “If things get bad for us here, perhaps we’ll go back.”
“I’d rather stay,” said his wife.
The state of Turkish Germans now might be compared to the status of unintegrated Italian-Americans in the 1950s: The parents are traditional, heavily accented, sometimes religious. Their kids speak German, act cool, and try to fit in. (Aynur and Sezai make up a middle generation.) But nothing in German or European history guarantees that a third or fourth generation of Turkish Germans will adjust to Berlin the way Italian-Americans have adjusted to New York. America has never been a nation-state, for one thing; and the most interesting side of the EU project—the idea that Europe could move beyond its nation-state traditions and become more integrated, more open, more American—is stuck in the economic mud.
Besides, becoming German has never been exactly cool. The surprise of the afternoon at the Turkish-European fair was that even a table of modern teenage girls, all speaking fluid German and wearing jeans and red T-shirts—each with a different spangled letter on the front—was so full of defiant ethnic pride.
“We’re all Berliners, but we miss Turkey,” said Banu, from the Black Sea province of Samsun, who was brought here by her parents. “We go back every year. And we’re proud of being Turkish. That’s why we’re here.”
What did their T-shirts spell?
“Türkiye!” they shouted.
“We’re cheerleaders,” blurted Melek, from Istanbul, who seemed as chirpy as any mall-raised girl from California. “No, just kidding.”
Michael Scott Moore is a novelist and reporter living in Berlin. His first novel, “Too Much of Nothing,” is out from Carroll & Graf.