Ahhhh Karneval. That magical time of year when everyday rules are suspended and the whole city turns up in droves to celebrate itself. So what about Berlin’s own Karneval der Kulturen, the poster child for multiculturalism and diversity? Well. A friend recently said to me that he loves Karneval because as a black man it is the one time of year that he feels that the colour of his skin is actually a positive rather than a negative. This left me with a disquieted feeling that made me see Karneval in a different light.
Having lived and worked for years in the neighbourhood of Blücherplatz where the Karneval takes place I have many obvious reasons to hate Karneval including but not limited to: four days of vulgar displays of public drunkenness, wading through veritable seas of shit, piss and puke, and all that drumming, so much drumming. And the fighting. Let’s not forget the fighting. In the last five years that I’ve lived in Berlin I’ve been witness to a total of three fights. The exact same amount of fights that I saw last Sunday within a 30 minute period as I passed through Blücherplatz.
The other thing I need to make special mention of is the malignant air of lecherousness that pervades Karneval. There is something about Karneval that makes many men let loose and feel free to objectify women. In fact many of my friends and neighbours have commented that Karneval is the only place and time where they have felt constantly uncomfortable and sexualised, and because of this were forced to heighten their senses and awareness accordingly. And let’s not kid ourselves: Karneval’s iconic samba dancers wow the audience through their hyper-sexualised outfits and dance moves rather than as representatives of Brazilian culture. Which brings us to the heart of the problem….
Imagine if you will a German themed float at the Notting Hill Carnival. If the said float contained burly Lederhosen-clad, mustachioed men and big boobied Dirndl-wearing Valkyrian Frauleins chowing down on Sauerkraut whilst rocking out to DJ Ötzi, I think many Germans would object. But this is the reality of what is represented at the Karneval der Kulturen. The cultures that are apparently celebrated are nothing more than classic western caricatures of exotic peoples. We are given a street parade of sexy, laughing, colourful and happy people that conform to a familiar and stereotypical worldview, that we imposed upon these cultures and have ourselves been fed through a self-perpetuating diet of popular western media. I am in no way condemning the participants or indeed the multitude of traditional dance and music being performed as part of the parade, but when a Chinese themed float is a dancing paper dragon and kung fu performers you have to wonder if Chinese culture will be represented by jumping, shouting, karate chopping (I realise Karate is Japanese) people for the rest of eternity.
The 700 thousand people that show up for the parade are not in the slightest bit interested in learning about or experiencing the realities of what makes up a culture. It is a designated time to find “foreign cultures” interesting and tolerable in a way that is comfortable and familiar to us. For centuries Carnival has granted people the permission to suspend or indeed reverse their social roles. The poor could play as kings, and the kings were made a laughing stock. But Carnival ends and the status quo returns. The same as it does here in Berlin after Karneval. The sexy foreigners become just foreigners. The black guy in the park is more likely to be asked for drugs than directions. And this is the way it will stay until next year’s Karneval. And so it goes.
Written by Jacob Sullivan; aided & abetted by Jan-Paul Hartmann and Christine Regan.