December 16, 2010

Arabqueen: "Volkstheater" in Neukölln, Berlin's integration front

Neukölln, in South Berlin, has been elevated to the status of the most infamous neighbourhood of German politics by Thilo Sarrazin. The (ex)socialdemocratic Bundesbank board member, in his xenophobic, eugenetics bestseller “Deutschland schaffts sich ab”, devoted a long part to Neukölln as a dangerous ghetto demonstrating the impossibility of integrating Turks, and the necessity of hard “help less, ask more” policies towards immigrants. He largely quotes is party-comrade Buschkowsky, mayor of Neukölln who had warned about the failures of multiculturalism, in contrast to the equally socialdemocratic, but more politically correct and inclusive Berlin’s gay president Klaus Wowereit, keen on developing a ‘diversity-friendly’ image for the capital.

But if you go to Neukölln expecting some thrilling emotions, to see flying knives, masked terrorists or anything of the like, you will be bitterly disappointed. Coming from the city centre, when entering Neukölln you actually first go through the trendiest part of today’s Berlin (“Kreuzkölln”, or crossing between gentrified-Kreuzberg and Neukölln): here are the most fashionable clubs, and in a grid of pleasant, leafy streets there is a variety of cafés, ethnic delicatessen, art shops and bookshops – often combined in the same outlet. At Hermannplatz the more ethnic part of Neukölln starts, and the 20%-plus unemployment is reflected in the poorest standard of shops and bars. But still, coming from the West Midlands and being familiar with its 80%-Asian neighbourhoods (Sparkbrook), I wonder how they can call this heterogeneous mix of Arabs, Turks, blacks, eastern Europeans, South Europeans and, indeed, Germans, a “ghetto”. The schools of the area had gained a bad reputation of segregation, failure, drop out and violence – but over recent years they have shown mark improvements with a series of pragmatic integration policies such as longer school hours (despite his sometimes alarmist tones, on pragmatic grounds Buschkowsky is certainly capable and widely appreciated). Social housing is sometimes controversial (i.e. the high towers Gropiusstadt, setting of Christiane F.'s "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo"), but better than certain British council estates or French HLM. Green areas are pleasant and there are popular playgrounds with spontaneous multi-ethnic social activity, but are now threatened by developers: who should be blamed then if integration fails? The nearby recently closed historic airport of Tempelhof, now a huge park, offers opportunites of regeneration - or speculation.

Neukölln main street is Karl-Marx Straße, and in the middle of it, behind a pleasant courtyard, is hidden a surviving, stylish XIX-Century Ballroom, now turned into café, cultural centre and theatre, Heimathafen. The café Rix is in old Berlinese style but mixes German with Middle-Eastern food. The theatre is austere, as it receives no public funding, but its program exciting. I went to "Arabqueen", directed by Nicole Oder, loosely based on the recent novel on forced marriage “Arabqueen oder der Geschmack der Freiheit” by the young feminist writer and journalist of Turkish origins Günner Yasemin Balci. German literature is currently being reinvigorated by a lively generation of writers with immigration background: four of the six authors, including the winner, of this year Deutscher Buchpreis have non-German origins. In Arabqueen, just three actresses (Tanya Erartsin, Inka Löwendorf, Sascha Ö.Soydan) play a dozen parts, sometimes changing role during the same scene: the two sisters Fatme and Mariam, their mother, their Paris-raised hippy friend Lena, a few other funny local characters and, with great effect, the Middle-Eastern macho-acting boys. Thanks to their outstanding acting skills, this multiple interpretation has the effect of highlighting the complex, contrasted variety of humanity in Neukölln – starting from the ambivalence of the headscarf. The only character who never appears on stage, despite being heavily felt, is the tyrannic, double-standard moral father, who interrupts Fatme’s flirting and imposes a forced marriage.

The play is very well received, by critics and by the audience, as a revival of "Volkstheater", people’s theatre’: close representation of local everyday working-class life, by local actresses, with no political tones but still a political message. But after so much funny and moving theatre, once the lights on, with everybody clapping, it was impossible not to notice that, in the middle of Neukölln, Turks made just about 10% of the audience (although a good thing with Turks is that you can’t always tell them apart…). Which is better than in many other cases of ‘ethnic arts’ (i.e. blues music in Chicago, where the only blacks are unavoidably the performers), but reminds that cultural segregation is a reality.


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