From Authentification to distinction – The multiple meanings of Arabic in Berlin’s gentrifying falafel economies
(Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd)
During the last three decades, Arab snack stores selling falafel, shawarma and halloumi flourished in gentrifying districts in Berlin. This, however, was far from accidental. In contrast to common assumptions, the migrant entrepreneurs from Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and beyond never targeted an ethnic consumer group, but creatively promoted Berlin-style tastes of Falafel and other dishes towards an almost exclusive German and European young middle class. Falafel stores thus have become integral part of Berlin’s gentrification.
A key to falafel economic success lies in invoking “Arab” authenticity in the stores, which is mediated – among other aspects – via different deployments of the language of Arabic, spoken as well as written. Taking this as a starting point, this paper aims to investigate the different forms, functions and perceptions of Arabic surrounding Berlin’s falafel economies.
Berlin’s middle class consumers ascribe “authenticity” to the Arabic calligraphies on the walls, the background music, as well as the foreign sound of conversations between the “Arabic” employees in the snack places. For falafel consumers, these authentic representations become an important tool to reify their cultural hegemony towards other social groups within and beyond the city.
In order to brand their businesses as authentic, entrepreneurs strategically incorporate selective forms of Arabic in décor and atmosphere. Yet their positioning towards Arabic is much more complicated and sometimes conflicting. This paper will highlight, how different deployments of written Arabic and spoken dialects, while absences of others, create a distinction within Arab economies in Berlin which is linked to national identities and political affiliations. The cherity, yet non-understanding of Arabic by their German and European consumers, thus creates a convenient distance and anonymity for entrepreneurs and employees in this small-scale economic sector.