What if the local government wanted to take stock of its cultures, parade its diversity through the city streets – what would you wear to participate? This weekend Berlin’s parade of culture, Karneval der Kulturen, takes over my Kreuzberg Kiez (neighborhood) once again, promising to leave trails of glitter and plastic cocktail remnants in its wake, as well as much food for thought in answering this question of cultural self-representation.
With residents from nearly 160 different nations or nation-states, Berlin has many cultures to cover. There are more than 4,500 participants in the parade and fair, leaving many of these cultures untouched, I’m afraid.
At Hallesches Tor, food, drink, and musical merriment will give quite an entertaining glimpse of Berlin’s official multiculturalism, even if it is just a beginning. Shots of Arak on ice or fried plantains with peanut sauce, ‘authentic’ cuisine from the familiar Polish pierogi to the distant Equadorian empanada, soft serve ice cream and funnel cake served in dishes with the American flag – there is no shortage of interesting eats.
A collection of stages expose visitors to everything from ‘Mestizo rock’ to Balkan brass with plenty of room to dance (and there will be dancing, if my previous experience has taught my worn-out feet anything); wares from Africa – region often unspecified – blend with specialty teas from the Middle East, often advertised as ‘tastes from the Orient’; drum circles abound, as do slack-lining youth and spontaneous picnics. The combinations and divisions from one supposed culture – one Kulturkreis – to the next are sometimes interesting, sometimes decidedly humorous.
The parade is the true highlight, beginning tomorrow at 12:30 at Hermannplatz and continuing on to Yorckstraße. 79 groups, representing a ‘culture’ or ethnic identification within Berlin, are registered to participate. The registration process is important in gaining recognition as a cultural unit within the German system. As a Berlin-based anthropologist described it, wearing a mask at Karneval der Kulturen is a form of willing integration. Implicit in this statement is the critique of the official dressing-up of cultures, the categorization of different ways of life, and the parading of such in vibrant and exoticized forms.
It is no coincidence that Karneval der Kulturen was an initiative of the office for migration and integration in 1993, and no coincidence that some groups are always represented in extravagance, while others remain nearly hidden from view. Putting a city’s multiculturalism out on display can be an opportunity for inclusion and appreciation of diversity; it can also be an opportunity for classification and typification of identities, ignoring the splendid diversity occurring between categories and across them.
At last year’s Karneval der Kulturen, I found myself twirling in the warm air to the sounds of ‘gypsy music’ by a Hungarian band with a group of Germans, Americans, and Iranians. We devoured Hombow and Senegalese fries, giving culinary recommendations to a banker in a suit from Paris.
For all the official critiques of the event and the hope that it will grow with the city in its definitions and portrayals, there has got to be something said for the pleasant intercultural encounter the Karneval affords. Just be sure when photographing the half-naked women in golden headdress to recognize what we might not be seeing: which groups do not dare to participate in the official display, which cultures fear walking the streets freely, or which have nothing ‘exotic’ to represent. Most importantly, it might be interesting to truly ask how one captures a culture in a costume, in a plastic cup, or on a plate…the jury is still out on that one.
In the mean time, viva Karneval der Kulturen!
-By Kelly Miller
Photo source: Karneval der Kulturen e.V.