One Friday in February, I met with Ero Behrić and Alen Hebilović — two erstwhile figures in Berlin’s Balkan party scene — in a Turkish cafe on Oranienstrasse, half an hour before cuma — Friday prayers — at the Bosnian mosque on Adelbertstrasse near Kotti.
They always have cuma (Friday prayer) at 2 p.m. at the mosque, convenient for those who missed the usual noontime prayers elsewhere in the city.
Ero and Alen are Bosnians who came to Berlin from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. They threw themselves into the nightlife of Berlin with a vengeance, seeking to exorcise war traumas with large quantities of alcohol and Gypsy music, and were familiar faces in the Balkan party scene. And then, at a time when many people settle down and have families, they compensated for their extreme lifestyles by embracing Islam — the religion of their forefathers.
I knew Ero and Alen from when the Balkan wave was at its peak and both had whooped it up around the bars of Berlin in search of Gypsy music and good times. Ero was an old punk who had paraded his mohawk through the streets of suburban Zagreb at the end of the 1980s. Traumatized by his experiences while in military service in Kosovo in 1988 — he had “nightmares about flattening Albanians in his tank” — and lured by the mythos of Berlin, he came to this city in 1990, landing directly in Kreuzberg, on Oraniestrasse — “beng” — right into the cauldron.
“Berlin is the first city before Slavic Europe and there is a marked Slavic influence here,” says Ero. “And then you had Kreuzberg, with its Turkish population — this Islamic aspect. I felt immediately at home here. Actually, it’s similar to Yugoslavia in a way, to Bosnia, because you have this Slavic touch and this Islamic touch. Like what I grew up with.”
Back then, Ero took various jobs at bars and restaurants around Berlin, waiting tables and eventually putting on parties, ultimately luring other ex-Yugoslavs like Alen, a Bosnian from Prijedor who had been interred by Serbs at the infamous Trnopolje concentration camp.
Alen made it to Germany in 1993, where he was stuck in a refugee camp in Brandenburg, took up photography and eventually escaped to Berlin, where a social worker friend gave him the key to his flat and a bit of cash.
In the 1990s, when the war was raging in Yugoslavia, Berlin teemed with Bosnian refugees (35,000, to be exact, in Berlin and Brandenburg). While the old Gastarbeiter Yugoslavs stuck to their hermetic bars, cafes and social clubs, the new arrivals — many of them young, intellectual and artistically inclined — hung around scene-bars where this or that ex-Yugoslav waited tables or worked behind the bar, promising discounted drinks.
Oxymoron was one such place, a bar in the Hackesche Höfe in Mitte, where Ero, together with Robert Soko, put on Balkan Beats parties, forerunners of the famous monthly parties presided over by Soko in Kreuzberg.
Ero says Balkan Beats was about “trumpets and getting drunk and puking. That’s what it came down to.” But in the beginning, the parties had high cultural aspirations.
“Back then the Balkan Beats parties were together with slide shows and some exhibits,” says Alen. “They weren’t just pure parties and about playing music. There was a program along with it.”
“Someone shows up and says, look, my wife sings and I play the accordion, can we do something?” says Ero. “I said, why not? The goal was to bring people together with the idea of building something up.”
Soko and Ero eventually had a falling out. Soko, taking the label “Balkan Beats” for himself, put on his Balkan parties at the Mudd club in Mitte and later at Lido with great success. Ero opened a restaurant called Nosh in Prenzlauerberg, where he put on his own Balkan parties, called Zigeunergeschäfte, where many glasses and chairs were broken and where one guest remembers there being frequent “dancing on the tables and under the tables.”
Alen became a regular figure around Kreuzberg, reveling and raising hell with the likes of Birol Ünel, the hard-drinking leading man of Fatih Akin’s “Head On” and regular Kreuzberg barfly, while taking photos of Kreuzberg gangsters.
“I had an extreme lifestyle,” says Alen. “Ero also. Every night you were carousing around, looking for kicks. Sometimes I didn’t go home for a week. And then you have to ask yourself: Where is all this leading you? One morning I woke up and decided now it’s time to stop.”
“That’s exactly how it was with me,” recalls Ero. “I remember I said to the boys, ‘I will never drink again.’ And they were all like, ‘Eh, what’s that?’ In my head, in my soul, it happened two years earlier. But I had to distance myself from other things. If you drink six gin and tonics and the next day you go to the mosque, it won’t mean anything to you. One thing had to come to an end before another thing could start. And then it came to pass. I can’t really put it into words.”
Alen remembers one particular scene: coming home drunk at 5 in the morning and running into old Turkish men who had just finished morning prayers at Mevlana mosque on Skalitzer Strasse around Kotti.
“I had to ask myself, ‘Who has the better quality life? Them or me?’ ” says Alen. “Of course, they were better off. I had great respect for the people who decided to live that way: to be clean. Reality is totally psychedelic also when you are clean. You can have fun on that trip as well. Alcohol steers you in another direction. Many things remain invisible to you because you are blinded.”
Alen looks at his watch.
“It’s time,” he says. “Time to pray.”
And the two troop off to Friday prayers down Oranienstrasse, scene of many a drunken night in a not-too-distant past.
>Featured image courtesy of Alen Hebilović.