On the Same Side
Who said the first generation of ethnic Turkish immigrants was Turkish-German, the second German-Turkish? Going by that rule, Serhat Karakayali would be Turkish-German. He looks much younger than he does in photos, sports a casual two-day beard and has mischievous eyes. At first, he´s reserved. He says his story is nothing unusual. But then he gets going, his hesitance fades away and he suddenly bubbles over. Karakayali talks about himself, social conditions are part of his story. As his speech grows ever louder and ever more animated, his life becomes a blueprint for the history of migration in Germany. We go back to the days before "Kanak Sprak" (translates as "Kanak Language", "Kanake" being a derogatory term for ethnic minorities) and Turkish hiphop, the days before Fatih Akin and Cem Özdemir, to the days when the average German associated Turks with garlic.
When his father came to Germany in the late 1960s, you still couldn´t buy peppers in the shops, he jokes. His parents settled in Duisburg, an early kind of Berlin-Neukölln, built in the haze that surrounded the heavy industry of Thyssen and Krupp. In 1971, the year of his birth, Duisburg-Marxloh was already a district in upheaval. The "proportion of foreigners" was rising, German inhabitants moving out. Until then, everything still fitted the clichés. His mother worked first as a primary school teacher, then as a high-school teacher, and then got divorced. She and her son moved into an apartment in Marxloh with late Rococo furnishings and a front garden. Karakayali was five years old at the time.
After attending a Catholic kindergarten, he went to a primary school attended by many children from elsewhere. Here, he says, "I was the ´norm’, which is also what I wanted to be at high school." But in reality, when he started at high school, he was the only student from an ethnic minority. His teachers´ recommendation for high-school was crossed out by the school principle, who changed it into one for a comprehensive school. His mother, however, decided against following it and instead opted for a more academic career for her son.
All in all, he paints a picture of West German normality in the 1970s. His mother´s social circles are well-educated, a "teachers´ culture". He was unable to join his class on a trip to see the tulips in Holland because he couldn´t get a visa but the German "Oma (Grandma) Anna" made up for it by adopting him as her grandson. He always spent Christmas with Oma Anna. Maybe, he says, she too occasionally said something "funny". But he says he always forgot about that because he learned so much about German history from her. Oma Anna told him about the deportations of Jews, while her husband told him about the prisoner-of-war camps.
In those days, he avoided immigration issues. He didn´t want to be tagged with a characteristic that had always been viewed as a disadvantage. Then the dark days of the 1990s began. Germany was reunified. A home for asylum-seekers was burned down in the Sauerland region – this was only one of many far-right attacks on asylum seekers, most of which faded from the German collective memory. Alienation and fear grew among immigrant communities. Terms such as "the flood of asylum-seekers" and "social hygiene", used to justify the deportation of criminal foreigners, did the rounds.
In 1997/98, Karakayali completed his studies. When a couple of his friends and acquaintances, including the poet Feridun Zaimoglu, founded Kanak Attak in 1998 in Frankfurt, he joined the group. He began, as he says, addressing issues again. The movement dedicated itself to tackling the "Kanakisation" of people through racist terminology.
In 1998, the political duo of Schröder and Fischer came to power and promoted civil initiatives for migrants. Kanak Attak published a manifesto, organised political events and used artistic and satirical means to put the spotlight on topics such as multiculturalism, racism and illegality. In 2001, Kanak Attak enjoyed huge success in the Berliner Volksbühne with the multimedia production "Dieser Song gehört mir" ("This Song Belongs To Me"). Karakayali was among those on the stage. This amateur theatre group suddenly found itself being reported in the national press and reviewed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel.
2007 saw the publication of "Empire und die biopolitische Wende", ("Empire and the Biopolitical Watershed"), an analysis of modern capitalism jointly edited by Marianne Pieper, Vassilis Tsianos and Thomas Atzert. It was followed in 2008 by "Gespenster der Migration" ("The Ghosts of Migration"), his dissertation on the history of illegal immigration in Germany. Ghosts, he says, because migration always has something threatening about it while remaining, at the same time, difficult to grasp. But illegal is something that can happen to anybody, as demonstrated by the cases of several thousand German-Turkish citizens who were denaturalised a few years ago because of their dual citizenship.
Karakayali is not just a successful author, he is also increasingly active as an artist and curator. In 2008, he performed in the stage production "Illegal" in the Munich Kammerspiele. He and the multi-media artist Sebastian Meissner co-presented the installation "lost spaces" for Musikprotokoll at the Steirischer Herbst festival in 2008.
Nevertheless, he considers “Desert of Modernity” to be his "most important project of the last two years". The programme, jointly realised in 2008 with artistic director Marion von Osten and Tom Avermaete in the House of World Cultures, shows that colonial North Africa served as a laboratory of European modernisation fantasies and that European modernity arose from the developments of colonialism. The exhibition, according to Karakayali, is to be maintained and will be on show in Casablanca next spring, with subsequent stops in Cairo and Tel Aviv planned. The joint work with artists such as Peter Spillmann, Marion von Osten and Brigitta Kuster since the exhibition "Projekt Migration" in the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2005 has proved to be a fertile form of production and presentation of knowledge from beyond the mainstream. In 2008, they founded the Center for Post-Colonial Knowledge and Culture Berlin, the CPKC.
What projects is he working on right now, I ask. On many. As regards book projects, the next is an introduction to the Greek-French political scientist Nicos Poulantzas. The book accompanying the project "In the Desert of Modernity" is due out next year.
From an interview between the author and Serhat Karakayali in November 2008.
Gespenster der Migration
(The Ghosts of Migration). Bielefeld: transcript
Empire und die biopolitische Wende
(Empire and the Biopolitical Watershed), Ed. with Marianne Pieper, Vassilis Tsianos and Thomas Atzert. Frankfurt: campus
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Envisioning the Immigration Society
(04 June 09 - 06 June 09)
Koloniale Planung und danach
(29 August 08 - 26 October 08)