t was 35 years ago, when Ercan drank his first coffee in Berlin. Located between vegetable stalls, snack bars, junkie meeting places and casino ads, in the café that he was soon to reopen – “Café Kotti”.
The area surrounding Kottbusser Tor has generated headlines for many years. A place “to be afraid”, a “no-go area” is what Berlin’s daily newspapers call this neighbourhood and report on pickpocketing, drug dealers and violence. Passers-by hurry into the metro station. Two grey-haired men embrace each other fraternally. Cars sound their horns and bikes weave their way through the traffic. If something happens in the streets surrounding the Kreuzberg Zentrum residential complex, the proprietor of “Café Kotti” is one of the first to know about it. He gets calls from snack bar owners or those involved in the middle of the night. He lives at Kottbusser Tor and acts as “everybody’s social worker”.
“What would I do if I didn’t have Kreuzberg? Here you get an up-to-date impression of what’s happening in the world. You get to know realities.”
Chai tea with lashings of sugar, stacked cappuccinos and fresh mint are passed over the counter at short intervals. People of varying ages and appearances are sitting at each table and conversing with folk sat several tables away. The air is filled with at least five languages. Opposite, a blond-haired boy is teaching a Syrian German vocabulary. When Ercan steps into the café, most people turn and look at him. He sees nods from all sides. He strides through the room with a broad smile and strokes his grey-streaked hair away from his face.
He greets everyone, taps a couple of people on the shoulder and asks for a coffee. Ercan knows most of his guests personally, knows their faces. Ercan never sits with his back to the large glass panels in his cafe. He always wants to have his eye on everything, in the café itself and also what going on in front of it.
Every ceiling panel in the café has been painted by a different guest. The colourful mosaic reflects the diversity of his clientele. It’s supposed to be a living room, a place to meet people, where your ethic background is irrelevant. “If you walk along the street you see a Turkish café, a French café, a German café.
We wanted to break that mould, we wanted a café that everybody can identify with.” The space does not belong to him, Ercan emphasises, but to every guest that abides by these shared values and that feels a sense of responsibility, which he calls “transculturality in action”. The rules are written on large boards on the walls. Standing together against racism, homophobia, sexism and violence. Drug dealers are barred from entering.
Ercan grew up on Turkey‘s Aegean coast – together with the children of Albanians, Kurds, Jews, Christians, Turks and Greeks. Religious differences were not perceived as a problem. The experience of religious festivals was shared on the Aegean coast: Eid al Fitr, Christmas and the Jewish Feast of Sacrifice were celebrated together.
Because of his left-wing political beliefs, Ercan flees the Turkish military coup in 1980 to Syria. He seeks refuge in Lebanon, until war breaks out there in 1982. He arrives at the GDR’s main airport in Schönefeld without any papers. The People’s Police escorts him to the former Friedrichstrasse border crossing. He finally ends up at Kottbusser Tor.
The former neighbourhood café is a meeting place of the left-wing community and asylum seekers in exile in Germany. He makes friends and finds like-minded folk, discusses Kreuzberg’s problems, Berlin’s problems, global problems. He soon begins to question everything that focuses on the nation-state. Every national and religious pigeonhole carries a weight of expectation with it that impedes a genuine meeting of equals. He treats every foreign person with friendliness and respect. “My first marriage was not one between a German lady and a Turkish man, but the marriage between Christina and Ercan.”
He campaigns, launches initiatives against drug dealing and dealers, encourages people to adopt a culture of welcome and champions refugees’ rights. Ercan feels as “free as a wild boar” in his café at Kottbusser Tor. Again, his deep, chortling laugh resonates. “What would I do if I didn’t have Kreuzberg? Here you get an up-to-date impression of what’s happening in the world. You get to know realities.” Diversity enables him to think and act more freely. After fleeing from Turkey, Ercan spent a long time searching for a new home. He found it at Kottbusser Tor.