What does it mean to ‘look Turkish’?

New Turkish immigrants in Germany are often told they “don’t look Turkish”, which underscores German perceptions of Turkishness and highlights the primary faultline of Turkish society, said an analysis published on Monday by Milan-based Reset Doc.

Thanks to the recruitment of Turkish labourers starting in the 1960s, Germany is home to more people of Turkish origin, about 3 million, than any country outside Turkey.

First and second-generation Turkish immigrants were mainly unskilled labourers or from marginalised communities and thus ended up with a similar socio-economic status, according to two recent studies.

But in recent years a new wave of Turkish immigrants, including professionals, students, Kurdish politicians and persecuted academics, has arrived, particularly with the spike in asylum seekers after Turkey’s failed coup in 2016.

As a result, getting into Germany has become more difficult: the rejection rate of Turkish visas has nearly doubled in the past four years. Still, last year nearly half of the 10,600 Turkish nationals who applied for asylum in Germany reported having university degrees.

These well-educated new arrivals spur responses like “but you don’t look Turkish”, which often leads to frustration and discomfort, according to Gülay Türkmen, postdoctoral fellow in sociology at the University of Göttingen. She interviewed more than a dozen skilled immigrants from Turkey who had arrived in Germany in the past decade.

“Usually, if I start the conversation in English, they think I am Spanish or French,” Duygu, an anthropologist who arrived in Germany two years ago, told Türkmen. “When I say I am from Turkey, their face darkens and they take a step back ... I think to myself ‘What have I done to you? Why do you punish me just because I come from Turkey?’”

Türkmen found this common German response more about socio-economic status and religion than ethnicity. “It also reflects the self-perception of Turkish people and the fault lines that have historically divided the heterogeneous Turkish society,” she wrote.

She was referring to the country’s rural-urban and conservative-modern divide, which in recent years has to some extent defined those who vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), also known as Black Turks, and those who vote against it, White Turks.

Dogs of Berlin, a German television show that debuted last year, highlighted how this fault line can be generational and divide a family. In the show, a Turkish-German father and son held starkly contrasting views of Turkey and Germany, to the point that they could barely hold a conversation.  

Damla, a Turkish marketing specialist living in Germany since 2010, said that when she is confronted with German misperceptions she explains how her circumstances are different from the Turkish guest workers from previous generations. “In Germany, I constantly have to clarify that ‘I am not one of those Turks’,” she told Türkmen.

According to a study last year by the University of Duisberg-Essen, most Turkish-origin people living in Germany feel more strongly connected to Turkey than to Germany, and this includes those born and raised in Germany.

Some of the newer Turkish arrivals, like Begüm, a mechanical engineer, view Turkish immigrants who have been in Germany longer as behind the times.

“I come from Istanbul, and people know Istanbulites are more modern,” she told Türkmen. “Plus, I have these conversations also with Turks born and raised here. For example, they are surprised I am fluent in English.”

Gamze, a Turkish marketing specialist, said such comments were largely about class. She does not receive them in business life, but only in more public settings, like on a recent trip to the hospital.

“I explained to the nurse that Turkey is a diverse country with varying skin colours,” she told Türkmen. “Yet, I think that we, Turkish people, are much more judgmental than Germans who are quite open-minded. By declaring ‘we are not like the Turks here’, we are othering those Turks.”

Turkey is phenotypically diverse, making it difficult to come up with a stereotypical Turkish look, according to Türkmen, who also thinks “but you don’t look Turkish” carries a hint of truth.

A 2018 survey by Turkish pollster Konda found that just 16 percent of respondents across Turkey were university graduates, while some 70 percent viewed themselves as conservative. All of Türkmen’s interviewees were college graduates, and all would consider themselves modern, which means they are outliers.

“This explains why some Germans think they don’t look Turkish. It also explains why almost all feel estranged from Turkey,” said Türkmen.