Immigration in Berlin: Can Social Integration Take Place in a Bathhouse?

Market at Maybachufer in Berlin-Neukölln

Market at Maybachufer in Berlin-Neukölln

by Gabriela Chavez*

I knew early on in my research project that I wanted to focus on some aspect of the Turkish community but I began at first with an arguably unanswerable question: are the Turkish communities “integrated” into society in Berlin? After attempting an interviewing process with young Turks in Kreuzberg I soon realized how obtuse my focus was. Every person I spoke to had such different opinions of their own “integration” in Berlin that it would have been impossible to extrapolate or come to some sort of yes-or-no conclusion—especially with the small amount of interviews I could feasibly conduct.  After spending so many Tuesdays and Fridays at the Turkish market, however, a new focus began to emerge. I began to see the space as more than just an opportunity for me to talk to young Turkish vendors, but as a space of recreation, business, and social interaction among many different types of people. This realization then inspired me to also visit the sports club Türkiyemspor and the Hamam Turkish Bathhouse in order to look at how all three of these recreational institutions function as spaces of interaction and cultural exchange for all sorts of Berliners. Furthermore, I hope to connect these observations with discussions of multiculturalism, social integration, and the specific integration of Turkish communities in Berlin (Bloomfield 2003, Silver 2006, Mueller 2007) and see how they might play into Berlin’s status as a global city, a bridge between East and West, and a future metropolis (Cochrane and Passmore 2001, Eckardt 2005, Molnar 2010, Scott 1997)

Before diving in this question, it is important to first take a look at the history of Turkish immigration into Germany. Already facing a labor shortage in the midst of rapid economic growth after World War II, West Germany’s need increased after the Berlin Wall cutoff the flow of East German workers in 1961. Beginning in 1961, Turkish workers were allowed to enter Germany with Gastarbeiter visas. These visas were intended to be temporary but as time progressed, most workers were reluctant to return to Turkey where fewer jobs were available and German employers had no desire to find and train new workers. It followed that these men were allowed to bring their wives and families into Germany and settle here on a more permanent basis. Thousands of families have thus been reunited in Germany since the 1960s and new generations of Turkish nationals (not necessarily German citizens) have been born here in Germany and lived here all their lives.  In addition, Turkish immigration to Germany has continued to this day. Roughly 300,000 Turks now live in Berlin with the densest concentrations in the former West boroughs of Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Neukölln.

The concenteration of Turkish citizens in Berlin

The concenteration of Turkish citizens in Berlin

The inclusion and role of this community—which constitutes nearly 10% of Berlin’s total population—within the city has been a topic of great interest for social scholars and those who study integration. In his article, “Integrating Turkish Communities: A German Dilemma,” Claus Mueller points out that  “the social and economic integration of the Turkish minority into German society reflects a systemic problem to which policy makers have not yet found a response. Marginalized by the larger society and separated by cultural and religious lifestyles, a significant proportion of the Turkish minority is becoming part of a “parallel society” reinforced by discrimination, restricted educational achievements, and a low socioeconomic status” (2007). Hilary Silver also discusses social, religious, and socioeconomic “cleavages” between the Turkish areas of the city and more affluent, homogeneously German neighborhoods and how perceptions of “ethnic concentration” has led to fears of “ghetto” formation. Jude Bloomfield goes on to complain that Turkish immigrants themselves are often seen as the barrier to integration and that they are seen as unwilling to integrate into German society. He points to the unfairness of such assumptions given that Turks have often been depicted as “the negative other to the German majority” and that unsavory terms such as “ghettoizing”, “uneducated”, and “alien” are at times employed to describe the community. In fact, says Bloomfield, “the problem of renewed ethnicisation—the tendency to retreat into traditional community—[is] attributed by Turkish commentators to the failure of the “majority society” to offer integration on equal terms and as a reaction to blatant discrimination.” So it could be argued that the institutions that I am studying—the market, the sports club, the bath—are attempts to reject German culture and reassert Turkish tradition in city that has refused to welcome newcomers. On the contrary, however, my experience of these spaces has been quite different. I believe they are unmistakable signs of “cross-cultural fertilization” in Berlin that Bloomfield might have overlooked.

At the beginning of my research, when I was still focused on a yes-or-no sort question in regard to the integration of Turks in Berlin, I decided that the Turkish market south of Kotbusser Tor would be a useful place to conduct interviews with young Turks around my own age. I knew this to be a place where much of the Turkish community congregates on a regular (bi-weekly) basis in an open and public space. This space was therefore highly accessible to me and I knew I could go on any Tuesday or Friday.  Walking the market with my initial questions still in mind, I spoke with several young shopkeepers including Hakan, 17, Oguzhan, 18, Tuba, 20, Ibo, 21, Olgun, 22, and Hasan, 24. Generally speaking, the interviews showed me that the responses of these Turkish youth do not correlate entirely with what I have heard academics, politicians, and other high-ranking members of Germany society say about the Turkish community but they also showed me that it is impossible to characterize the community under one banner. None of my interviewees expressed a deep sense of isolation on the basis of their religion but they all differed on their levels of religiosity. None seem to have had difficulties finding jobs but they all have differing ambitions—some want to stay in the family business, some do not—and half of them are completing some sort of university or vocational degree. In regard to language, however, all of them, even those born in Berlin, say that they do not speak German as well as Turkish with the exception of Hakan who says he speaks both equally well. All attended public schools in Kreuzberg or Neukölln which they describe as having mostly Turkish students and Turkish teachers. When it comes to whether they see themselves as German or Turkish, five of them say they do not consider themselves German at all, only Turkish. Hakan went on to say the only time he ever feels German is when he is in Turkey and his family there refers to him as German. In contrast, Tuba, says with a smile: “I am both!” as she brings her hand together to interlace her fingers. I found it particularly interesting that everyone said they have mostly Turkish friends with some of them emphasizing that they could not name a single German friend and that they seldom interact with Germans at all.

At the market

At the market

And yet, more than half of the people I saw them speak to while at the market were in fact German. Hilary Silver tells us that “social integration entails the breaking down of boundaries and categories of otherness so that Berliners identify with one another as individuals and feel a sense of ‘we-ness.’ On the face-to-face level, this can be accomplished through performance or acting together” (2006). Although social integration might not have been an intention behind the market, I began to see the market as a stage for this “performance.” The participants themselves might not even realize that they are in fact participating in some sort of social integration but we can see something happening as Turkish and German customers talk about which sellers have the best persimmons or a Turkish shopkeeper shares a recipe for baklava with a German customer. As the Germans step into this lively and community-oriented atmosphere—so different from a typical grocery store—and begin to chat with other shoppers and vendors from differing backgrounds, it seems to me that they are, as Silver suggests, beginning to create a blend of “we-ness” rather than a sense of Us and Them.

The inviting, community-oriented atmosphere of the market empowered me to it as a point of entry into the Turkish community in the first place and then led me to see exactly why this space functions as a place of cultural exchange for people of all backgrounds. It is located along a waterway, which gives shoppers and sellers alike a connection to nature that cannot be found in any supermarket. As an open-air market, it brings the market tradition of Turkey to Berlin even in December as temperatures drop and snow begins to fall. I have noticed that the pace of shoppers—regardless of ethnicity—is rather slower and more leisurely than it would be in a grocery store. The market, perhaps because it is open only twice a week, is more of an event than a chore. People take there time, talk to shopkeepers, haggle, and eat. There is a roughly equal mixture of Turkish and German language spoken at the market with English being a close third. Mostly the shopkeepers speak Turkish amongst themselves and with some shoppers, however, I would say the majority of people attending the market are non-Turkish. I have noticed that prepared foods such as falafel, baklava, gozleme, and other Turkish specialties are eaten mostly by non-Turkish consumers while the Turkish shoppers are mainly interested in the fresh produce and fabric vendors. It should also be noted that visitors of all ages and whole families can be seen walking amongst the stalls and that there is no age group or gender that is clearly represented more frequently than any others. Although the market is a place of business, I feel that it can be classified as a place of recreation as well because many customers I speak with say that they could go grocery shopping elsewhere but they go out of their way to go to the market. This, I think, is largely because it is a more than a shopping chore; it is a social atmosphere—an open and communal space that is typical of Turkish culture but less common in Germany.

In addition to the market, I also visited Türkiyemspor and the Hamam bathhouse, both located near Kottbusser Tor. I chose these institutions for comparison with the market because they are also places of recreation for the Turkish community but they differ from the market in that they are open every day and they are, typically (in the case of the sports club) and explicitly (in the case of the bath) gender-specific. Türkiyemspor is located very near the marketplace however it is tucked away at the mouth of a small alleyway—perhaps making it less accessible to a larger public. On the front of the building there are posters advertising for both men’s and women’s soccer teams and for teams of all age groups. Above the doorway and on posters you see the slogan: “Be Türkiyemspor, Be Against Racism” (in English). Here, unlike at the market, we see a clear intention to emphasize multicultural inclusiveness while the posters advertising the soccer teams also make references to “players of all ethnicities and backgrounds.” Stepping inside the club however, I felt more out of place than at the market. The club was full of men (aged between 30 and 50 roughly) playing cards, drinking tea, eating, reading the newspaper and conversing. They spoke only Turkish and there did not appear to be anyone of a non-Turkish background present. As soon as I walked in I felt I attracted attention both because I was the only female inside and because I approached the counter and began speaking German. None of the employees spoke much German or English but one waiter quickly went over to a nearby table and asked a man sitting there to come speak to me because he was the only one there that spoke German and some English. Although I was limited by my own German language skills, I was able to talk to him shortly about the club, its teams, and its youth programs. Despite the fact that the club itself seems to be a hangout for mostly Turkish men, I found that the teams are much more mixed in their ethnic backgrounds. Although the club is a tribute to Turkish soccer tradition and has a clearly Turkish name, these teams seem to have been successful including players of all backgrounds and promoting camaraderie despite cultural differences; judging from the many pictures hanging on the walls of the club that show teams of evenly mixed ethnicities. Although the patrons of the tea-room itself spoke little German, all the coaches speak both German and Turkish and conduct practices in both languages which helps players of all backgrounds to feel part of the team and unite around the sport without feeling our of places. According to the club records, more players continue to sign up each year.  I had originally categorized the sports club as a recreational space for men but I realized that the women’s teams are popular as well. Still, as very few women spend their time in the tea-room of Türkiyemspor, I wanted to look into an institution that was meant for women and for this, I went to the Hamam.

Hamam - das Türksiche Bad für Frauen in der Schokoladenfabrik. Photo:

Hamam – das Türksiche Bad für Frauen in der Schokoladenfabrik. Photo:

Unlike at Türkiyemspor, where cross-cultural interaction takes place on the field but is difficult to see in the tea-room itself, at the Hamam—das Türkische Bad für Frauen—I could clearly see the diversity of the patrons and the staff as soon as I walked in the door. Although the bath itself is entirely set up in accordance with Turkish tradition—the interior of the bathhouse is decorated with Turkish and eastern motifs such as Turkish rugs, jewel-toned lamps, and Ottoman-style furniture— the staff (serving traditional Turkish tea and coffee) and patrons are of many different ethnicities. The atmosphere is very warm and inviting to all women and the staff is eager to provide information on the bath in German, Turkish, and English. I found the ambiance to be congruent with the welcoming statements of the brochure which stated: “relaxing and communicating in a warm and pleasant atmosphere are the essentials of the thousand-year-old Hamam culture.” I think the fact that they stress the word “communicating” is an important element of how this bathhouse functions as a place of leisure and recreation as well as social integration. Open dialogue between women of all different backgrounds is crucial in constructing the “we-ness” that Silver describes. The Hamam is also part of a larger women’s institution called the Schokofabrik and in the bath they advertise workshops focused on integration that will provide a meeting point “für Frauen aus der Türkei und anderen Ländern.” Here again, like in both the market and Türkiyemspor, I felt that I was experiencing an institution that is firmly rooted in its Turkish identity but that has allowed people—in this case women—of all backgrounds to identify with Turkish culture and share in a sense of belonging to a tradition that is not ancestrally their own. It seems to me that this could be an example of the “cross-cultural fertilization” that Bloomfield says cannot be found in Germany.

My experience of these three Turkish institutions has shown me that—whether social integration and multicultural experience is intended or not—we can observe some sort of cultural intermingling taking place in these recreational spaces. Although scholars are careful not to equate integration with assimilation, the fact remains that “for most Germans integration meant acculturating Turks into German society without any attention paid to pluralism or multiculturalism” (Mueller 2007). However, in the Turkish institutions I have visited, I feel that we can see a different phenomenon occurring. The Turkish community has created spaces of recreation that are also open performance of Turkish culture. However, instead of turning inwards away from the majority society, they have left these spaces open to Germans and other non-Turks. Rather than the immigrant community “assimilating” into their host society, I have come to see this as something we might call reverse integration. Whether they are drawn in by the scent of Turkish cuisine, the desire to join a sports team, or tempted by Sabunlama massage, non-Turks are invited to experience and celebrate a culture which is not their own but which could, over time, become a shared Berlin culture through this collaborative performance between Berliners of differing backgrounds. My experience of these institutions has led me to believe this cultural exchange is more likely to take place in recreational spaces rather than schools, businesses, and religious institutions in Kreuzberg where the Turkish community seems to feel more isolated from non-Turks (according to the interviews I conducted). Although Berlin has struggled to meet expectations as a global city, a future metropolis, a gateway to the east, and bridge between east and west but this small cross-cultural phenomenon I believe I have witnessed might just be a hopeful sign that a true blend of east and west is occurring in Kreuzberg (Cochrane and Passmore 2001, Eckardt 2005, Molnar 2010).  Perhaps as Germans and Turks continue to establish cultural ties within Germany, we would see this translate to a shift away from the “blue banana” of Europe and a movement toward opportunities in the east; greater diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey could arise as the nations come to see that their citizens share common interests.  In fact, there are signs that Berlin’s reputation as a nexus of European and Eastern culture has already become part of the city’s cultural economy as blogs, guide books and travel shows begin to showcase Turkish life, döner, and even the Turkish market more and more frequently as must-see (or must-eat) parts of Berlin (,,, Rick Steves’ Germany). Even students at NYU Berlin have named the Turkish immigrant community as an attractive reason for studying here. Although Berlin’s multiculturalism is not exactly a “cultural product” that can be exported around the world like Hollywood films and Parisian fashion, it could still be that Berlin’s city planners will increasingly market this unique aspect as part of Berlin’s “monopoly power of place” (Scott 2006). Still, the city has a long way to go before all (or at least most) inhabitants are pleased with its resolution of integration and multicultural challenges. Economic integration, language acquisition, and access to employment, housing, and other social services, are the top concerns for both policy makers and much of the Turkish community itself according to Silver and Mueller; so from a policy standpoint, a “sense of belonging or joining social activities and informal networks” are of secondary concern. These amateur observations of mine are hardly cause to launch a new integration initiative but if such recreational institutions as the market, the sports club, and the bathhouse are shown over time to truly promote cultural integration between Turkish and German residents of Berlin, maybe in the future we would see the perceptions of these social activities begin to change. If further studies were to come to similar but more comprehensive conclusions, it seems plausible that a sense of belonging and the development of a common identity between different types of Berliners might be seen as integral pillars of integration alongside job opportunity and other economic factors. I feel that I have witnessed small microcosms of integration where openness and inclusion are created from the bottom-up—through everyday interactions in markets, sports clubs, and bathhouse—rather than top-down through policy makers and political initiatives. I cannot say for sure whether what I have seen is truly a process of social integration in Kreuzberg or whether these small interactions have the power to change the status of the Turkish community in Berlin overtime but I will be very interested to see if future studies look into these possibilities and maybe even corroborate my findings.

* Gabriela Chavez is a student at NYU and spent the Fall 2012 semester at NYU Berlin


Works Cited

Bloomfield, Jude. “”Made in Berlin”: Multicultural Conceptual Confusion and Intercultural Reality.” International Journal of Cultural Policy 9.2 (2003): 167-83. Print.

Cochrane, Allan and Passmore, Adrian “Building a National Capital in an Age of Globalisaton: The Case of Berlin”. Area, 33.4(2001): 341-352. Print.

Eastley, Tam. “How To Travel To Turkey In Berlin.” NPR. NPR, 28 June 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.

Eckardt, Frank. “In Search for Meaning: Berlin as National Capital and Global City.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 13.2 (2005): 189-201. Print.

Molnar, Virag. “The Cultural Production of Locality: Reclaiming the ‘European City’ in Post-Wall Berlin.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.2 (2010): 281-309. Print.

Mueller, Claus. “Integrating Turkish Communities: A German Dilemma.” Population Research and Policy Review 25.5-6 (2007): 419-41. Print.

Scott, Allen J. “The Cultural Economy of Cities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 21.2 (1997): 323-39. Print.

Silver, Hilary. “Introduction: Social Integration in the “New” Berlin.” German Politics & Society 24.4 (2006): 1-48. Print.

Steves, Rick. Rick Steves’ Germany. Berkely, CA: Avalon Travel, 2009. Print.

“Photo Essay: Berlin’s Vibrant Turkish Market” Turkish Market. Lonely Planet, 9 July 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. < Essay%3A Berlin’s Vibrant Turkish Market?destId=359364>.

“Turkish Market, Berlin.” Turkish Market. Trip Advisor, 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <;.

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2 Responses to Immigration in Berlin: Can Social Integration Take Place in a Bathhouse?

  1. Daniel Zimet says:

    What a lively and cheering life perspective…I see similar caltural attributes in the Arabic markets in Israel, where citizens’ solidarity and togetherness lurks brightly and renders hope for a peacefull future for both, the Jewish and Muslim socities living sholder-to shoulder in Israel.

    • Ares says:

      I agree Daniel. And sometimes it takes a young student, such as Gaby, to see that and give us a brighter side of society.

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