But the woods are almost empty On the co-option of queerness in Berlin, ecological doom and other things

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt,
denn das ist meine Welt
und sonst gar nichts

Marlene Dietrich, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt, from the film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)


There is a particular feature of our times that is inextricably linked to displacement, persecution and exile. As we — Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Somalis, Palestinians (and the list goes on) — find ourselves more and more pushed from cities we knew, lives we lived, and people we loved, we are faced with the task of finding new spaces to insert ourselves, or ways of just being. One of these spaces, or rather cities, which has been a destination for thousands of Arabs (Syrians, Egyptians, etc.) since 2011 in particular, is Berlin.

A city with its own cataclysmic history that is rooted in destruction, defeat, reconstruction and expansion, Berlin seems like a perfect choice. I first came to Berlin in 2008, after a 10-day visit to Brussels. The differences between the two cities, to my untrained eye, were shocking: There are no memorials for the horrors that Belgium inflicted on itself and others. There is no acknowledgment of the extent of complicity Belgium had, and still does have, in exploiting and using the resources of its former colonies. It is a beautiful, perfectly manicured city, almost. Berlin seemed to be in stark contrast to this — a city of memorials: the Holocaust memorial, the Wall memorial, the LGBT Holocaust victims memorial etc. As an outsider, this left a profound impression on me. I felt that this was a city trying to confront its past, or at the very least, acknowledging certain aspects of it. Needless to say that my initial impression has been gradually overhauled, as I have been coming to Berlin more and more, and have come to realize that memorialization can never replace self-examination, reparation and true change.  

I am here again. This time, I’m trying to understand the intricate layers of Berlin’s history, and, at the same time, see how the city is changing with all these new communities (not just Arabs, but also Spaniards, Portuguese, East Europeans, etc.), and if, and how, they coexist.

This exploration leads me to notice an enduring fascination with the past, specifically the Weimar Republic (the period roughly between 1919 to 1933), that persists until today. I can’t help but note this quasi-fetishization of 1920s Berlin. And I can’t help but notice that it seems to be specific to certain patterns of bourgeois consumption — this delight in re-staging moments of individual emancipation within a consumerist logic, i.e. “edgy branding.”

Queer has become yet another label to slap on a cultural commodity, just like “organic” or “bio,” to make it more palatable, and to appease the anxieties of capitalist consumption.

Berlin Babylon (2017), a popular show on Netflix both in and outside of Germany, focuses on the roaring 1920s and how critical this period was for Germany as a whole, as an extraordinary prelude to a most unthinkable horror. But political messaging aside, the “Babylon” in the title specifically references the culture of excess and contradiction that has pervaded the last decade or so. Every facet of German culture has undergone a moment of radical transformation and excess. From film, to theatre, to dance, to poetry, to visual arts, and all of the extraordinary creativity that burst open in a moment of extreme political turmoil, such cultural expressions still hold a grip on people’s imaginations a century later.

Still from Der Blaue Engel - Courtesy: Public domain

Much of the visual iconography of this period has shaped people’s perceptions of Germany and Berlin. A perfect example would be Josef von Sternberg’s Der Blauer Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), the first sound film released in Germany, which became a cult classic and symbolized the mood and zeitgeist of the moment. It was Marlene Dietrich’s foray into super stardom that introduced Berlin’s cabaret culture to a global audience. But a rather more representative film of its time was Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920). This dark, macabre story of hypnosis, murder and abuse of authority mirrored the internal turmoil of Germany in post-WWI, revealing the extreme vulnerability humans are constantly grappling with, and the immanent manipulation already implicit in any deployment of power. Sounds pretty relevant, even for now.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, theatrical release poster - Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In the rise of the post-WWI Weimar Republic and the creation of a democracy that activated a mobilized, sometimes even too mobilized, population, there was a promise of some kind of emancipation and a break with the past. The fluidity of the Weimar years is, in many ways, similar to today: severe economic crises, destabilizing effects of war (although right now, the wars are not happening in Europe, but in other countries where Europe is fighting via proxy), another capitalist transformation (i.e. the eminent rise of the machines and dispensing with human labor altogether — a fear we seem to carry from then to today — see Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) etc.), even the current rise of right wing parties, all are reminiscent of nationalist resentment at Germany surrendering, ceding territory and paying reparations after WWI. Although currently, Germany is not surrendering or ceding territory, or paying reparations, but taking in refugees and immigrants to stabilize its aging population, and making sure there is enough of a workforce to sustain its so-called “generous welfare state.”

There is definitely a break with the past in our current moment as well, but this is where the similarities with the Weimar years end. There is no radical vision re-imagining society, there is no new republic trying to institute the habits of democracy, and there is definitely no experimental urban and social planning of the future city. There is the neoliberal city, the frenzied gentrification shooting prices up, pushing immigrants and low-income people of color to the ghettos, or worse, outside the heart of the city, effectively making Berlin everything it was not.

A ‘queer paradise,’ but not for me

The political turmoil and, in many ways, the catastrophic economic crisis (the fall of the mark to 4,200,000,000,000 marks to US$1 in 1923) directly translated into social fluidity and a certain openness to non-traditional social configurations and choices. Berlin became the secret city of earthly delights, where “cosmopolitan homosexuals” like Christopher Isherwood, WH Auden and others flocked in the late 1920s to experience its “debauched” underground nightlife. Isherwood would later immortalize his experiences in Berlin in a series of stories, published as The Berlin Stories in 1945.

A plaque in Nollendorfstraße 17, Berlin, commemorating Christopher Isherwood’s stay between March 1929 and early 1933, Wikimedia Commons

Schöneberg, the district where Isherwood stayed, is a district with many contradictions — social housing units next to renovated residential buildings, run down parks next to posh cafes and fancy bars. However, what is most striking is how the “gay area,” specifically, has become, like most historical gay areas in Western cities, almost unaffordable. But also, ironically enough, it has turned into a “gay paradise.” There are rainbow flags everywhere you walk, there are plaques like the one above, the Christopher Street Day (Berlin’s main LGBT+ parade) starts from Schöneberg, specifically Nollendorfplatz.

The Berlin of the 1920s was a haven for “inverts,” and now it has become a “queer utopia.” Only there is nothing queer about it. And the conditions and policies presented by the German government can hardly be described as “utopian.” Queer has become yet another label to slap on a cultural commodity, just like “organic” or “bio,” to make it more palatable, and to appease the anxieties of capitalist consumption.

Let me illustrate: In the span of less than a month, there were two queer festivals (one for Zines and the other for queer people of color), three queer exhibitions and film screenings, in addition to the typical “debauched nightlife” of Berlin. Nearly all art spaces and cultural programming in Berlin are doing something “queer.” One would think that everyone in Berlin is queer, or really wants to be.

This type of mainstreaming in the land of the Frankfurt School really looks out of place, especially after the work of many intellectuals in pre and post-WWII Germany to examine and critique how capitalism undermines individual autonomy and agency. Such work highlighted how the dangers of mass-produced culture and the vulgarization of various concepts in a consumerist fashion is deeply antithetical to notions of freedom and emancipation. It becomes imperative then to reconsider why there is the need to jam “queer” into everything that is happening around the city in Berlin.

Queer*East festival poster, Literarisches Colloquium Berlin LCB Archiv, all rights reserved to LCB

Did all this “queerness” make me experience the city differently? No. I am quite used to making myself inconspicuous in Egypt, something many women and queer friends that I know also consciously and unconsciously do. To blend in, and not stand out, whether by choice of dress or social performance. My attempts at neutrality still elicit the ire of some, but, at the very least, it spares me the worst of being constantly at odds with everyone. This weight of choosing to conform is something I used to discard when in Berlin. I used to tell myself, “If there’s one place in Europe where my ‘freak flag’ would not stir anyone’s attention, it is definitely Berlin.” And true to this notion, I dress differently in Berlin. I hold myself differently. I don’t think too much about how others are going to react to what I say, or how I say it, or how I look saying it.

But this has completely changed. Berlin has become a lot like Cairo, and in certain ways, worse. Cairo might have the excuse of a city where everyone is fighting for their own right just to be, but Berlin is a city with an expansive space and shrinking tolerance. People living in the city now react, talk, laugh, hiss, grumble and sometimes even catcall (although, in my experience, the Arabs take the cake for this one at present). But, just to be clear, as there seems to be a lot of sensitivity about criticizing refugee or migrant communities, it is not just the Arabs or the Eastern Europeans who catcall and hiss. Germans too, perhaps now more openly, stare and show their disapproval — something that was not very common in Berlin; not because there is creed of tolerance or anything, but because of the sheer diversity of the city. Of course, there has always been racism and sexism and misogyny in Germany, and Berlin is no exception. Whether in the 1990s with the influx of Eastern European refugees and the rise of small right-wing movements (that literally everyone seems to have forgotten now), or the gender parity in the labor force. Xenophobia and misogyny is not the invention of the so-called “refugee crisis.” Refugees did not introduce right-wing politics to Germany, nor were Syrians the first non-white communities to settle in Germany since WWII. Each had their own historical trajectory of cultural attitudes and norms that manifest themselves differently in terms of conservatism, sexism and reactionary politics.

What is always lost in a climate of right-wing extremism and the rise of the first right-wing party to be elected to parliament since WWII, is that critiquing and dismantling patriarchy and misogyny is not the exclusive task of refugee communities, but also of Germans. This normalization of right-wing rhetoric, wholly demonizing Islam and Muslims and refugees, undermines any efforts by these communities themselves to face their own legacies of sexism and homophobia.

The violence and discrimination that white Germans act out on refugees and everyone who is not white is internalized and manifested in even more identitarianism among refugee and immigrant communities.

Once again, Berlin is changing. Its white population is anxious, impatient and wary. Its new population is trying to reassert its conflicted presence, sometimes violently, and sometimes with an ungracious lack of respect and generosity.

And we, women, women of color, queers, queers of color, LGBT+, etc. are at the receiving end of this violence, of this fear, of this inability to extend some semblance of humanity and respect to the other.

The birds and the bees

Berlin has 65,000 ha of parks and green spaces. Many of the parks were only recently founded, especially after the fall of the wall. My favorite is Ernst-Thälmann-Park, in Prenzlauer Berg, named after the former leader of the Communist Party during much of the Weimar years (here goes the Weimar link again). The park stands on the grounds of a former coal gas plant, which closed in 1981. In typical German fashion, this space was transformed into a park, an open green space with hedges and play areas and a giant memorial to Thälmann.

Ernst-Thälmann-Park, Berlin, 2018, Courtesy of Zizi

As I walk around the park, something is amiss. There are hardly any animals or birds. It is beautiful. There are of course a few insects here and there, but no visible animals, except a few ducks swimming in a pond. I keep thinking, I am probably the only queer presence in this entire magnificently picturesque scene.

Part of the gentrification process is that many young families moved into what used to be more hippie, socially fluid areas, and they transformed into what Germans call “babylands.” Prenzlauer Berg has become one such area.

And yet for other parks, they too have turned “queer.” Parks have always been public spaces of choice for the gay community, but this has seen a sharp decline with the advent of the internet and social networking apps. However, over the last few years, the woods (pun intended) have made a comeback — the paradox of consumption and the ephemeral nature of fashion.

And in one of these “queer” parks, in a designated “gay area,” me and three other Brazilian friends are the only people of color. As I sit there, I keep thinking: why are there no birds or butterflies?

Germany has witnessed a steep decline in its insect population over the past 30 years or so, resulting in a cascading effect on the food chain of essentially all other species. Most studies attribute this biological disaster to the use of pesticides and industrial farming disrupting natural cycles or original habitats. Some have also blamed global warming, not that insects would not thrive in warmer climates, but because severe weather conditions have devastated many plant populations. The price of industrial scale farming? Probably.

I decided to avoid LGBT+ spaces in Berlin, and stick to the parks. But the woods have become almost empty, and so, too, has the label “queer.”


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