Turkey's Exiled Intellectuals Find Haven In 'Little Istanbul' Of Berlin

Writers, artists, journalists and others fleeing oppression in Turkey are settling in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. But the dream is always to go back home.

View of the Kreuzberg quarter of Berlin
View of the Kreuzberg quarter of Berlin
Timo Lehmann

BERLIN — It was in January 2017. Yildiz Cakar, a Kurdish writer, had barely arrived in Berlin when she received a call from her family: the staff and members of their association for Kurdish authors were arrested in Diyarbakir, one of the most important cities for Kurds in southeastern Turkey, in a region they call Kurdistan. Yildiz Cakar had come to Berlin with nothing but hand luggage to attend a conference about literature. After the call, she feared that as soon as she would get off the plane in Turkey, she would be placed in handcuffs. "Propaganda for a terrorist organization" was the accusation. Since then, the author has been stranded in Berlin, where she's staying in the Kreuzberg refugee camp.

"I cannot write a single line here," she says. Back home, she's had several novels and hundreds of poems published. She is visibly nervous. Even in Germany, she is confronted by supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She doesn't know whether the Turkish intelligence service is monitoring her. Her husband and her children, who are not allowed to leave Turkey, are in daily contact with her. The life of Yildiz Cakar has gone awry.

Berlin has become the city of the Turkish diaspora. It's made of artists, musicians, painters, directors, intellectuals, authors, and journalists who have clashed with the Turkish government or whose freedom has been restricted so much in their homeland that their existence as a cultural entity is no longer possible. The exiles are talking about a "New Wave" of Turkish immigrants coming to Germany. Though some have gone to Paris, London and New York, Berlin offers the best conditions for most of them: an international scene, affordable rents, an already-existing Turkish cultural life, one to which they can connect. For the first time after decades of immigration from Turkey's rural areas, a part of the Istanbul intelligentsia is now coming to Germany. In May 2017 alone, 750 asylum applications from Turkish people were approved. The Berlin-Kreuzberg area is the new Berliners' stronghold. Since the 1960s, many people with a Turkish background have been living in the neighborhood. They call it "Küçük Istanbul" — little Istanbul.

One of the most prominent newcomers is the 56-year-old film director Mustafa Altioklar. With his sensitive 1997 gangster movie Agir Roman (released in English under the name Cholera Street), he became part of Turkish cinema's history. But since then, he has repeatedly been in conflict with the government of Erdogan, who first came to power as Prime Minister in 2003. The filmmaker sees himself as a political opponent. He is close to the left-wing of the social-democratic and secular Republican People's Party.

Mustafa Altioklar originally studied medicine. In an interview with a Turkish newspaper in April 2014, he diagnosed Erdogan with "narcissistic personality disorder". He was promptly brought to justice for insult. During his hearing, Altioklar said he would make the same diagnosis about himself, "but I do not rule any country," he added. The court sentenced him to eight months in prison. There are other charges pending against him.

Five years ago, the Turkish culture minister declared the local art scene the "backyard of terrorism". More and more activists, intellectuals, and artists who are critical of the government are being incarcerated, often without a trial. Since the failed coup attempt of July 2016 and the proclamation of the state of emergency, the government has had free rein to arrest inconvenient critics.

The government is now also keeping watch on the film industry. Mustafa Altioklar lost his grants and his investors. "They took away my life's purpose. I had no other choice: I had to go." In October 2016, in Kreuzberg, he opened a small drama school, "B'ACT Academy". He's been teaching here and in his own classroom. Other exiles come as guest lecturers. One year later, the evening school has two classes, each with 20 pupils.

Not all political opponents

Some of the Turkish artists living in Berlin have been friends for a decade. Others have only met in Germany. A few weeks ago, Altioklar met the cartoonist Serkan Altunigne. He used to work for the satire magazine Penguen, which was repeatedly sued by the Turkish government for several years. In 2015, two of the publication's authors were slapped with a prison sentence of 11 months. In May 2017, the editors had to cease publication. Serkan Altunigne found no job in Turkey and went to Berlin.

Others have been able to rekindle old contacts in Germany. The Kurdish screenwriter Önder Cakar, who cannot return to Turkey because he risks a prison sentence for his films about the Kurdish region, is currently working with the Turkish-German film director Fatih Akin on a movie about the Kurds' defensive battles around the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014. He, too, stands accused of having links to terror.

Not all of the exiles see themselves as political opponents: Many want to find strength and space for their work, away from the charged atmosphere in Turkey. It's impossible to say exactly how many Turkish artists have fled to Germany. Some live with refugee status, others with a work or student visa.

Most Turkish artists who have managed to flee want to return as soon as possible, but others will have to stay longer.

A group of 30 artists around Mustafa Altioklar want to start a club for Turkish exiles. Altioklar is sitting with the Armenian writer and journalist Hayko Bagdat and the screenwriter Baris Pirhasan in Kreuzberg. The three meet regularly to discuss how to build the club. The group, which formed around Altioklar, includes artists from different sides of the political spectrum — left-wing Kemalists, Kurdish activists, Armenian people who fought political battles in Turkey, and the like.

We share a destiny.

Their goal is to provide a starting point for newcomers and to help them as they deal with the German authorities, regardless of their political preferences. In the middle of this Kreuzberg café, the Turks revel in nostalgic memories of their lives back in Istanbul. Most of them used to live in the districts around Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue, the largest pedestrian street in the city, where hundreds of bars, cafés, cinemas and galleries are disappearing. Mustafa Altioklar says the diaspora will continue to gather in the cafes of Kreuzberg, their "little Istanbul," only until the day they can return to speak freely on the streets of the real one again.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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