Capturing Turkish Culture's Changing Face

Berlin is currently playing host to "Şimdi Now", Germany's largest ever festival of Turkish culture featuring over 50 events ranging from classical music to video installations and experimental club sounds. By Silke Bartlick

photo: Şimdi Now
Rapper Sultan Tunc has Byzantine, Christian and Islamic influences

​​The sheer wealth of talent that's blossomed on the Bosphorus in recent years is finally getting the platform it deserves.

From classical to pop music, stand-up comedy to contemporary dance and traditional to modern art, the distinguishing feature of today's Turkish culture has always been its inspirational juxtaposition of western and eastern influences - a quality perfectly captured in the Şimdi Now festival's eclectic program.

Co-initiator Nilgün Mirze from the Istanbul Foundation for Art and Culture said her organization has always been far busier importing European culture to Turkey rather than exporting Turkish culture to the rest of Europe. The interest simply wasn't there.

"What's happened so far is that all the popular culture was exported, what is known to be touristic," she told Deutsche Welle. "I think maybe Europe wasn't curious enough to find out what was going on in Turkey."

A one-sided picture

That all changed when she met project manager Nikki Kawamura, who hails from Kreuzberg, home to a large percentage of Berlin's 200,000-strong Turkish community.

Often described as Little Istanbul, it's a run-down neighbourhood populated by traditional migrant families.

"The picture of daily life within the Turkish community that you see in Kreuzberg is very one-sided," observes Kawamura. "I always thought there must be more to (Turkish culture) than this."

Its full breadth is now showcased in the trailblazing festival co-organized by The Istanbul Foundation for Art and Culture, London's Harrison Parrot Artists' Management and Berlin's Werkstatt der Kulturen.

Radical changes

Andreas Freudenberg from the latter organization pointed out that Turkish culture is currently undergoing radical changes.

"Twenty years ago you went to Turkey on the look-out for exciting theater and you seldom found anything worth bringing back to Germany," he said. "When you go these days there's a real sense of change, you discover all sorts of young, new projects with a lot of broad appeal."

He's quick to put Turkey's rapidly evolving identity in an international context.

"It's important to consider Turkey's relations with Europe and Europe's relations with Turkey," he said. "To what extent does Europe identify with this country, and to what extent does Turkey identify with Europe?"

It's a question many of the artists featured in Şimdi Now have an answer to. The message coming across as the festival unfolds is loud and clear: These young Turks have no qualms about describing themselves as European.

photo: AP
Turkey's Setab Erener (second from left) after winning the Eurovision song contest in 2003

​​Sertab Erener demonstrated the exportability of modern Turkish culture by winning the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest, while popstar and pin-up Tarkan recently released an album of tracks sung in English and can rest assured he'll go down in history as the first Turkish artist to land a top 10 hit in Germany.

Turkey's unique status

While Şimdi Now boasts an impressive line-up of acts that provide a glimpse of dynamic new developments in contemporary Turkish culture, it also highlights the country's musical and artistic traditions - albeit often spiced up with experimental elements.

Turkey's unique status as a gateway between Europe and Asia gives the country a significance that Simdi Now's organizers are acutely aware of.

"Many of these new projects involve an exploration of Turkey's relationship with western civilization and with the Islamic world," Freudenberg said. "What they're doing is seeking out a new, enlightened and open-minded position."

Nikki Kawamura emphasized that the festival is based on the principle of cultural exchange -- one which not only prompts Germany to focus on Turkey, but which might also inspire Berlin's Turkish community to reassess what's happening in their country of origin and perhaps rebuild a sense of kinship.

"I've met people in Istanbul who say they have nothing in common with the Turks who live in Germany," she said.

Silke Bartlick


For more information about Şimdi Now festival programme click here