Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ich bin ein Berliner

From the East Side Gallery - painted on the remains of the Berlin Wall
Last week I was back in Berlin, courtesy of Martin Barthel and his Comparative Research Network.  In some ways, for example the structure, the week was quite similar to the one I spent with them last year (here's the blog on that one) - but in other ways it was decidedly different.  That was largely down to the people who were gathered there under the EU's Grundtvig scheme, which is remarkable in its cross-sectoral approach to interculturalism.  Usually when I go to an "event" - a festival, a workshop, or even Platform meetings and Practice Exchanges - there is a sense that everybody is there for much the same reason, and that, whatever the national, ethnic and cultural differences, everybody has a similar agenda.  In Martin's workshop, the agendas were radically distinct.  There were people whose work and way of thinking were close to mine, of course - a noted actor from Romania; a dance therapist from Hungary; an intercultural youth and community worker from Mauritania via Copenhagen, who extraordinarily runs an organisation called Crossing Borders! - but there were also people from education and business, politics and grass-roots NGOs, health workers and librarians.  Actually, there were quite a few whose professions never even came up in the conversation - and probably all the better for that.  The mixture allowed Martin and his colleagues Kamilla and Ewelina to create role-plays and scenarios which took everybody out of their comfort zone, and genuinely created the tensions which occur when different cultures meet.  Or collide.

It's simulation, of course.  My one quibble with this work would be that it highlights, through its very celebration of diversity, the one area which intercultural practice has not yet embraced, namely class.  However varied our backgrounds, they were all educated, middle-class professions - the sort of jobs that sit readily with language skills and international travel.  We may have role-played refugees and starving people, but we did not encounter them - even though some of the former were right on the doorstep in Kreuzberg.  I don't blame CRN for that at all - it's just something that has been preying on my mind for a while now.

It's to do with walls.  Berlin, in many ways, is the symbol of an inclusive idealism - its notorious wall either demolished or making space for optimistic murals.  But I have also recently seen Beirut, where there are deep, extreme economic divisions that accentuate cultural difference; and I have thought about those refugees' journey from Palestine, where there is still a literal wall dividing their people from their neighbours.  I have also been in Belfast, where it was explained to me that the people are not yet ready for the "Peace Walls" to come down.  And last summer we worked with refugees from the Western Sahara, where the occupying power, Morocco, has erected the longest wall in the world - and nobody in the West even talks about it.

I'm hugely grateful for the week in Berlin: and for the way it highlighted how very far there is to go.

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