Berlin's Arab Beats
The music is pounding, the alcohol is flowing and the Syrian refugees are trying hard to forget. They are dancing a traditional Middle Eastern circle dance to thumping Arab beats. One of them is on crutches, missing a leg – a casualty of war. Many have seen great hardship and have long footsore journeys behind them. Now they have reached the end of the road and it is time to celebrate.
"I feel really safe here," says Ali from Syria outside B-Nuu, an Arab Beats venue in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. "First Syria, then I had to go to Istanbul and I didn't know anyone, and then I came here and now all of this. I just want safety. I'm a peaceful guy and I know I will never have any problems."
Flashback to the 1990s
For some of those present and old enough to remember, the scene at Arab Beats brings back memories of Berlin in the 90s, when another group of refugees, then Bosnians from ex-Yugoslavia, gathered in clubs and bars in Berlin trying to exorcise their war traumas with music, dance and large quantities of alcohol. Like the Bosnians then, so today the Syrians are poised to change the nightlife of Berlin. It is no accident that the co-organiser of Arab Beats is Robert Soko, the 48-year-old creator of Balkan Beats.
In 1990, as Yugoslavia began falling apart, two years before the war started in Bosnia, Robert moved to Berlin at the age of 19. He became a cab driver while hanging out with other ex-Yugoslavs in a Kreuzberg punk bar, a popular haunt – in Soko's words – "of leftists, squatters, unacclaimed artists, alcoholics and assorted lunatics."
There Robert played cassettes of Yugo punk and new wave in exchange for beer to a mostly Yugo crowd. The parties quickly snowballed.
Soko discovered emotive gypsy music, Germans started showing up and Robert ended up playing to hundreds of people a night at the Lido club in Kreuzberg, while exporting his parties across the globe, from London to Tokyo.
Now he is working on a film with an acclaimed Dutch filmmaker and Sarajevo native, Sergej Kreso, who is in attendance at Arab Beats, filming the DJs and dancers.
"Everything is changing," says Kreso. "The question is, how you deal with the changes. Whether you like it or not. While I have been working on this project, the circumstances in Berlin and Europe have changed. When I started, there was the huge problem with refugees. A lot of people coming, literally walking through the Balkans, on the same route that Robert Soko and I took over 25 years ago."
"I identify with people in trouble," says Soko, "with people who have left their homes and are in search of a better future, which is the most natural human impulse... And I welcome these people, all of these people."
A Middle Eastern party scene in Berlin
For the past four years now, Berlin has seen a proliferation of Arabic parties and jam sessions, whether Achtung Hafla, a short-lived Israeli initiative that aimed at bringing spicy hot Middle Eastern shakshukasounds to Berlin, or Flying Arabs, an Israeli-Arab joint effort, or Arab Song Jam, a wildly popular weekly Arab jam session at the Werkstatt der Kulturen in Neukolln. Arab Beats is the latest party – aimed not solely at Syrian and Arab refugees, but a broader German and international crowd.
Uros Petkovic is one of the DJs at Arab Beats. A native of Serbia and a deft assembler of Oriental rhythms and beats, integral elements of Serbian music as a result of 500 years of Turkish Ottoman occupation, Petkovic came to Berlin from Belgrade in 2016 and is Soko's partner at Balkan Beats Sound System.