The mean streets of Spandau

As gentrification spreads through Berlin, the city’s multikulti inhabitants are moving out to the most underrated Bezirk. A Turkish taxi driver, two filmmakers and an imam reveal how they’ve made the hood their home.

Image for The mean streets of Spandau

As gentrification spreads through Berlin, the city’s multikulti inhabitants are moving out to the most underrated Bezirk. A Turkish taxi driver, two filmmakers and an imam reveal how they’ve made the hood their home.

Image for The mean streets of Spandau

Ali Ferrari. Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

Ali Ferrari cruises through Spandau’s down-at-the-heels Wilhelmstadt in his cream Mercedes cab. One tattooed armrests on the wheel, the other hand trails a cigarette out of the window. His baseball cap is turned backwards and his thick black beard is neatly clipped, in keeping with his passion for rapping which has led to him being signed to a German rap label, Oddv. “Almost everyone has prejudices against Spandau,” he says. The taxi driving is how he hopes to finance his rap career. “Most of the time I’m in the taxi. When it comes up that I live in Spandau, people say, ‘Oh… Spandau’ and I feel the negative vibes coming at me. People think it’s where people live who don’t have money, especially foreigners, and who have taken a wrong path in life. I have to contend with prejudices my whole life: taxi driver, Spandau, Ali, beard. What else can I tell you?”

Spandau is probably Berlin’s most underrated Bezirk. For years it existed outside of the city and was only incorporated into Greater Berlin in 1920. And to this day for most Berliners Spandau remains beyond the pale. Apart from concerts in the Zitadelle, why go there? There are no clubs, no galleries, no hip cafés. Spandauers themselves seem to feel out of the loop; when they talk about taking the U7 east to Charlottenburg or Neukölln, they say they are going to the “city”, as if Spandau was somehow extraneous to Berlin.

But Spandau is changing, becoming more colourful, cosmopolitan, multikulti. A lot of people – many of them Ausländer like Ferrari with his Turkish background, have moved here from inner-city districts such as Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Moabit, pushed out to the peripheries by gentrification. They have come to Spandau seeking refuge in one of Berlin’s last low-rent preserves, in turn changing neighbourhoods that have up until recently been traditionally German working class, stamping the district with their mosques, mini-markets, cafés and shisha bars. Ferrari, 26, moved to Spandau from Moabit. “A lot of people have moved out here,” he says. “They can’t stand it anymore. The city is too hectic. Lots of tourists. Okay, I have nothing against tourists. I’m a taxi driver, what can I say? But people don’t want that anymore. They want the old Berlin back.”

Arrival of the Ausländer 

Over a third of Spandau’s population has an immigration background. Furthermore, 42 percent of new arrivals over the last 10 years were foreigners. Recently a “container village” was set up here to house Syrian refugees, and there are other refugee homes scattered across Spandau. The district is also home to several “problem neighbourhoods” – “Problemkieze”, which often make headlines. Lynarkiez is one of them and its name is used as a synonym for immigrant crime; the kind of place that gives AfD voters anxiety.

Image for The mean streets of Spandau

Kubilay Sarikaya and Sedat Kirtanare the directors of Familye, a gangster film about three Spandau Turkish brothers. Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

In May Lynarkiez made it to the big screen in a black and white indie film entitled Familiye by Kubilay Sarikaya and Sedat Kirtan. With their matching beards, the two film autodidacts from Spandau, aged 44 and 37 respectively, look like they could be brothers. Sarikaya, with tattoos covering both his muscular arms, used to be a social worker and was employed by a facility for the handicapped. He and his friend Kirtan, who worked as a security guard, shot the film last year on a budget of €500,000. Last September Familiye won a prize at the Oldenburg film festival, where it premiered, and that was where the two friends met the German film star Moritz Bleibtreu – who helped them with distribution. The film tells the story of three brothers: Danyal, played by Sarikaya, is the eldest and has just been released from prison.

He is trying to keep his family intact, Miko (Arnel Taci), a gambling addict unable to hold down a job and heavily in debt, and Muhammed (played by Kirtan’s brother of the same name), who has down syndrome and who the authorities want to place in a home. Familiye has been dubbed by The Hollywood Reporter a “German Mean Streets,” in reference to Martin Scorsese’s 1973 classic about young Italian-American hoodlums in New York’s Little Italy. The only difference is that this is about the Turkish subculture in Spandau, described by alarmist Germans as a Parallelgesellschaft – or “parallel society” – rife with poverty, gambling, drug trafficking and violence.

Family first-neighbourhood

Sitting in his new black Mercedes sedan parked outside the Turkish-owned Café Kardeşler in Lynarkiez, where he wrote his screenplay, Sarikaya says: “We wanted to make an authentic and critical film. Our film mirrors the reality, I would say, 70 percent of the time. We could have made a documentary film and then it would be one-to-one. But that wouldn’t have gone down well in the Kiez, and we didn’t want to do it out of respect for the people and their stories. But it reflects the reality in a really stark way.” Kirtan and Sarikaya have given up their former jobs and are already planning their next movie. But despite their success they have no plans to move from the mean streets. “I love Spandau,” says Sarikaya. “I wouldn’t change this district for any other.”

Image for The mean streets of Spandau

Spandau resident. Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

Part of the appeal of this corner of Spandau is the close-knit, familial character of the neighbourhood, of which Familiye – with its cast in part coming from Lynarkiez – is itself an expression. “The advantage to living here,” says Sarikaya, “is that you always have somewhere to go and someone to talk to concerning everyday problems; whether your car is broken or your kitchen needs to be repaired or something needs to be organised. The one guy who speaks a bit better German than the other can help in dealing with the authorities.” The disadvantage on the other hand is that you can easily get sucked into the downward spiral of gambling addiction and drugs that stems from the fact that few here have reliable, well-paid jobs. Many young people from economically disadvantaged families turn to zocken (gambling) believing that it is the only way to make cash. “The job market isn’t very good,” says Sarikaya. “Not exactly motivating. So this film was important to show how the people live here. The important thing is to fight this desperation and lack of perspective. That is the dark side, if you will.”

Ferrari sticks up for Spandau too: “It’s not all as bad as it’s made out to be. There have been so many negative reports about Lynarstraße. But when it all comes down to it, a woman can walk around here at three in the morning and nothing will happen to her. You can’t say the same about other districts.” He says that unlike other parts of the city where there can be long-simmering vendettas, here if you have a beef with someone the next day things are patched up again. Everyone knows everyone and people rarely hold a grudge. “There are corners where people look a bit daunting,” says Ferrari. “But they let you be. They don’t say anything. If there is someone with black hair and a black beard listening to loud music, they’ll just turn their head and ignore you. In Spandau everyone lets you be.”

Aiming for inclusivity amid tensions

Yet that’s not entirely true either. A fortnight ago, a 36-year-old Muslim woman was waiting at a bus stop on Falkenseer Chaussee when a pensioner asked her why she was wearing a headscarf. When she replied that she liked to, the pensioner punched her in the face. Incidents like these are telling of the tensions boiling underneath the surface here.

Image for The mean streets of Spandau

Ferid Heider. Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

Ferid Heider, a 39-year-old of Iraqi, German and Polish descent, is the imam in Spandau’s newest of seven mosques, the Teiba Culture Center on Brunsbütteler Damm. It opened last November in a former used car dealership. Inside it is laid with multi-coloured prayer rugs, with the windows papered over. The congregation is part-Arabic, part-German speaking, so the hutba (Friday sermon) is delivered in both languages. After prayers, Heider, whose forehead bears the zabiba – a mark that many devout Muslims have from making prostrations on the floor – talks about the challenges facing his mosque in Spandau. “Our intention is to create a sense of community, a ‘we feeling’ at a time when a lot of people are trying to create an exclusive community, whether that be against refugees or Muslims, or people who think differently. ‘Wir sind das Volk’ some would say, although they only speak for themselves. And we want to argue against that. We want to say, ‘No, we all are the people’.”

A lot of what Heider does centres around youth work, helping the next generation to stay clear of radical tendencies. “We have to offer the youth something. Because maybe they don’t feel in touch with society. We try to give the young people an authentic and balanced knowledge of Islam and to encourage the feeling that they as Muslims are part of this society and have certain responsibilities. And to prevent young people from joining the radicals.” Heider’s aim is to make the mosque not only a place of prayer, but what he calls a Begegnungsort, a place where people can inform themselves and exchange ideas, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In his words: “Everyone here is a part of Spandau.”

Special screening of Familiye at EXBlicks on August 27, 20:00 at Lichtblick Kino, Prenzlauer Berg.