My research in Strasbourg, France, explores how Muslim Turkish men negotiate where they go and what they do when they go out in a borderland that generates moral anxieties. Initially, I expected research to take place in venues where my interlocutors socialized, and not workspaces. Most migrant men, however, worked long hours and extra days—leaving them with little time to go out and no place to go to in Strasbourg after work. This was a city that was fast asleep by 10 p.m. No surprise that most Turks found life boring here. In search for fun, some frequented German towns, such as Kehl, Karlsruhe and Offenburg, and took me along to restaurants, shisha bars, casinos, and, in rare instances, brothels. Others chose not to cross the border for fear of giving into a sinful life or wasting away money, and went to mosque courtyards and Turkish coffeehouses, or invited friends over to their houses and workspaces to play cards, PlayStation, drink tea and smoke cigarettes.
Work, it appeared, played a role in how men socialized. What did a working migrant man’s eyes see? How did he experience the city? When a Turkish man asked me to help him in his döner kebab shop (snack döner), I accepted the offer right away.
I have been working at his snack döner since mid-February. It is open from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week. I work three days, from late afternoon until closing time. Earlier, the owner had a part time employee who filled in on my off-days. Like many other second-generation youth who sneer at the idea of working at a snack döner, he left after two months. The owner’s wife used to help him before their two kids got out of school in the early afternoon. But with schools closed, she can no longer stop by.
When I started working, everything seemed new and interesting. I would prepare the French fries; slice open pita breads; clean the floors, tables and counters; and greet customers and take orders. Whenever I found the time, I would take notes about the daily routines of running a snack döner, and converse with the owner about business.
After the first month, things started to get dull. What would it be like to work here seven days a week? With time, our conversations were no longer about business, but life itself. I realized that one of the reasons why the owner wanted me around was not because I did a good job cleaning the floors or making fries (though I certainly did!), but because I provided him with much-needed distraction. Over time, we started talking about life in Europe and the US, politics in Turkey, women, marriage, Islam, keeping halal, and city life, among other themes. I no longer had my pencil and notebook in hand, but a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
As things got dull, they also got casual. This opened new ways of experiencing life in Strasbourg. Before, I was not only a researcher, but also an urban explorer—the very flâneur that I aspired to be. Now, by the time I get out of work, there is nowhere to go, and no one to socialize with—other than those who also work late. With them, I end up sitting at Turkish coffeehouses, playing cards, smoking cigarettes and talking about work—the one thing that unites most of us in this city.
Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Washington University in St Louis, and a scholar at McDonnell International Scholars Academy. He would like to thank the Wenner-Gren Foundation for their generous funding, which made this research possible.