As an outsider, attempting to grasp the ethos of this city, the various complex, nuanced versions of Berlin seemed most apparent on Saturday.
At the Bundestag, in the heart of Berlin, hundreds of right-wing protesters gather on a sunny day to voice their anger against the Merkel regime.
German flags were held aloft, while slogans, many of hate and Islamophobia, were shouted out seemingly in anger. Facing them were hundreds of policemen, clad in full riot gear and all lined up in stern defiance. And right behind this ominous wall, were the liberals in their own counter-protests, and with song and dance and the message of peace as their weapons.
The angry shouts of “No Islam on German Soil”, with an intonation similar to a battle cry, was met with a song of “Nazi-free Berlin”, one that was inharmoniously accompanied by trombones. While the face-off stalemated as slogans bounced off of the protesting parties, a motley group of Germans and Aslyum seekers gather at the other end of the town in preparation for their show.
Tucked within the serene green of the Spanduer Forest, a nondescript hall fills up at the Evangelisches Johannesstift after sunset. Unlike the aggression of the youth assembled in Central Berlin, here, the mood among the gathered – comprising primarily of the elderly – is one of langour and passivity. Unlike the gaze of revolution and fury in Central Berlin, in Spandau it was a look of benign expectation.
To soft cheers and polite applause, a group of around 30 persons walk on to the stage. The centre of attention, however, were the around 10 refugees coyly holding on to their song sheets. The begegnungschor – a choir group of musicians and enthusiasts – had taken stage.
While “Rapefugees’ Not Welcome” echoed in the wide gardens of the Bundestag, Germans and refugees at Spandau welcomed those in attendance with an Arabic song. A healthy applause followed. With a practised routine, the group got off the stage after only one song. A little perplexing this, as hundreds of pairs of eyes followed the choir members taking their place amidst the crowd.
A few hours earlier in Central Berlin, there was a scramble from the “anti-Neo Nazi” protestors to block the route of the right-wingers. Partial success, as policemen stood guard to prevent any sort of clashes. It was clear that the mandate was to separate everyone: the right-wingers on one side, the liberals safely away on another.
In Spandau, the “interactive” part of the programme had begun, and gradually, the transformation in the role of the crowd – many, including me, were hoping to be just a passive observer – started to occur. The singer and the listener had melded.
Initially, there were warm up exercises, first of the body and then of the voice. Then, a sort of visualisation of the body as a band (I furtively made my way to the corner as the crowd sang “The band in my body is ready to play”. My body band was quite embarrassed for its lack of tone.) Then more exercises, where one had to face their neighbour (German to non-German, seniors to the youth), make their elbows or index fingers touch, while constantly making a variety of sounds.
From my covert corner, it became clear that the exercises were fun. They laughed as they made noises, and German and refugee alike swirled round in mirth. It was time to get out of my hole, and soon, I found myself standing with two aslyum seekers, one from Pakistan and another from Afghanistan, who ended up giving me company throughout the programme.
They were among the few not on stage, and initially, it did seem like they had been coerced to come. By the end of the exercises, and by the time the choir went on stage, and the crowd were encouraged to sing along with the Arabic, German and English songs. The words projected themselves on the screen up ahead, and my two companions seemed to be leaping out of their seats and shouting out the words. “We don’t understand the songs, but a melody can’t be confined by language,” said the Afghan to me.
As varied as their performers, the 90 minute show had German songs (99 Red balloons by Nina, which I did not know was originally in German), a few Arabic songs (one of which was repeatedly Yamo, Yamo as a dedication for mother’s day), and an English song (Michael Jackson’s We are the world). There was smattering of salsa, one rap bit, and a few Bach melodies improved in Arabian tunes (one, even with Arabic lyrics infused in very recognisable tunes).
There were laughs when a refugee stumbled to introduce the band in German, and there was mirth when a German stumbled on the guttural sounds of Arabic. Notes were missed, and the lyrics sometimes drowned in low cacophony, but each mistake was accompanied with the unmistakable sense that in the laughter, the German was gaining a friend and the refugee a home.
Earlier, in Bundestag, the counter-protestors attempted for hours to drown out the hate-slogans with their music and the beats of amateur Djs. Now, in the Spandau concert, a coy Syrian trumpeter had within a couple of seconds managed to have those in the audience in rapt-attention.
During an Operatic rendition (Ode to Joy, I think), the short-statured man stepped forward to take the solo. Suddenly, his voice reached a smooth crescendo and like a wave rose higher, falling lower, then much higher – all done in smooth transition. There was power in the voice, an uplifting confidence…my jaw dropped, the violinists were mere accompaniments, and even the silent murmurs of the crowd had ceased completely.
It was 10 p.m. when the concert ended. I can but imagine that around this time, the protestors at Bundestag had gone to their respective homes or bars or restaurants or places of assembly to carry forth their diatribes of hate or peace, of Islamophobia or tolerance.
But, at Spandau, far away from the sloganeering, the Welcome culture was apparent and seemingly infused as a ritual of laughter and song. Those from the audience went around asking for the girl who had crooned an Arabic song, or the Syrian countertenor, or the student who had occupied centrestage with his lute, or the two violinists and guitarists who had their moments to shine.
My two companions, the Pakistani and Afghani, sought out the choir director and promised them they would come next Wednesday for the rehearsals. Perhaps, they may even find themselves on stage in the next performance.
Even I, reluctant from the start with a ‚body-band‘ that refused to play, took the long journey home with the tune and snippets of a German song:
“Wir singen heute alle zusamem,
Wir singen huete alle zusamem,
Wir singen huete alle zusamem im groove”