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BLOG: Discussing Europe`s Kitchen Munich

Europe´s Kitchen Munich

Europe’s Kitchen bloggers Mandula van den Berg, Marie Detjen and Mohammed Z. Rahman come together in response to Europe`s Kitchen Munich. Imagining a diverse Europe, and what Europe means to them, the trio talk about how Europe’s Kitchen has made its mark.

Mohammed Z. Rahman © STEP Mohammed: I think the discussion was about Afropean as a framework for the idea of Europe as Black, and how we can properly welcome a diverse idea of Europe. I think it was also a reaction to how much - in Johny Pitts' experience, which is UK-based - the African-American experiences of Blackness are taught as canon and how that narrative doesn’t represent the European experience and other narratives are needed.

Johny emphasised how it’s important to not have consensus over a Black Europe and Teresa was praising Johny on the way that Afropean became an online multimedia journal instead of being just a book to hold that. I think we need more multivocal, interactive tools to address experiences like Afropean, not just in academia but also in mainstream media and education.

How people are schooled is so foundational to how people see themselves growing up in the nation-state and continent. I relate to this sense of betrayal of people going through the schooling system, then having to go to university or educate themselves online, and retrospectively being like - “oh my God, you didn’t teach me so much about my own history”.

Who are we fooling? Neat narratives of belonging aren’t cutting it. As they mentioned in the discussion, Germanness is not just about Germany but also Namibia and former colonies and how those relations exist now. The discussion made me think about my own experience and how to reform the way we document and teach what it is to be European.

Marie Detjen © Marie Detjen Marie: I’m very excited to read the book now! The finale opened up so many different questions, but I’m still grappling with a basic, underlying one: Is there something specifically European about the Black experiences that Johny finds in Berlin, Stockholm, Marseille and so on? Is it precisely the diversity of experiences? I was impressed by how he manages to draw all these parallels and comparisons, without ever building up an “African-European” model that would stand next to the “African-American” model.


Mandula van den Berg © Marianne Hommersom Mandula: In that light, I find it an intriguing idea that Johny is constructing an unhyphenated Black experience. To me, the term Afropean seems to intentionally distance itself from the American model. The word itself calls for an idea of embedded Blackness, a Black European identity where the blending of the African and the European is at the core.






Mohammed: Yes, exactly. I think there is still a pressure to hyphenate as Black experiences which projects like this are working beyond. To find and access resources on the history of Afropeans, you still need to put phrases like “Black history” into the search bar as the way information is currently organised still relies on these labels. I guess Afropean is showing us where we want to be, gives us something to aspire towards.

Marie: My impression was that in doing so, the panel discussion started moving away from theory, to experience on one hand and history on the other, as grounds on which you can drag ambivalences out and look at them without having to solve them. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that history and sensual experience can, or have to, be able to contain contradictions.

Mohammed: That reminds me of how Johny Pitts’ ideal of multiculturalism was eating with his Yemeni neighbours and taking really outrageous positions and still at the end walk away from it and still be kin, friends, the same community. I think that kind of normalising opposition and debate in these kind of realms is really important and something we should work towards instead of being quick to cancel people. Being a non-white European in a lot of white spaces, there’s a pressure to be conflict-avoidant as sometimes people frame you as a spokesperson for your whole ethnicity. But ultimately, that’s not going to create a healthy sustainable environment where people can live with each other. I really liked the emphasis on the productive and constructive elements of these kinds of conflicts and disagreements. I think Europe is reaching a point of increasing political polarisation. There’s the phenomenon of family members being too conservative or too radical, and feeling weird about inviting them over for dinner. That’s a very limiting rut that a lot of people have been driven into, and I think we need to find a way out of it.

Marie: Have you had experiences where this was disrupted?

Mohammed: I resonate with what Johny was saying about rap battles when he was little, how people rip into each other, I think with my PoC/Black community in London, there is this kind of space to be both caring and outrageous at the same time, also in the intersecting queer community which I am part of. African-American and Ballroom culture from the US has really informed the way we speak and exist- on one hand there is caution that they are hegemonic and eat up the experience we’re having on the ground. On the other hand, for instance with ballroom culture, access to it via the internet has been good for the queer community in the UK in that it’s given us a framework to create our own community, organise and develop a sense of historical rootedness. Within these groups there is a lot of trust so banter and teasing exist in a very endearing way, in my experience it’s quite disconcerting when faced with very non-diverse institution where people are super positive and inclusive with good intentions to gain trust or they don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything. It can be very disconcerting because the formality of it makes you conscious the level of trust isn’t there for you to be outrageous.

Marie: Don’t you think, though, that within the last year, the affectedness of a lot of these non-diverse institutions has become somewhat fraught? The Black Lives Matter protests, but also for example the current debates on antisemitism in Germany, are prompting people with “good” intentions to start to disagree with each other. They are being forced to have some of these difficult discussions, because suddenly it’s not enough to say “We’re all against antisemitism and racism”. We have to be more concise, figure out what we mean when we say that.

Mohammed: I think this unease about being specific has put a pressure on Black and African people to start these dialogues and prompt people to look at particular events in history, e.g. Windrush. The onus shouldn’t be on Black people to be educators and teachers and carry this movement if we truly want to de-hyphenate experience. I’m very conscious that we’re a bunch of non-Black people talking about this, but it’s important to continue having these discussions if we want to normalise an idea of Afropeanism. During the BLM upsurge a lot of my Black peers were approached to consult and educate professionally despite them never being in consultancy positions before. Certain assumptions were made about how Black people are expected to be forthcoming with their experiences of being racialised. There is this weird dynamic where this kind of labour suddenly comes out of the woodwork for institutions who have never looked at matters of race seriously and that labour is suddenly put on the shoulders of the people who are most affected by it. I think we’re navigating a new way of handling discourse given the current availability and rate of information production and I hope this kind of thing is a growing pain that can be flushed out by non-Black people educating themselves better.

Marie: At least in Germany I think the conversation hasn’t even gotten that far. There are “Black cases” that come up, but then mostly white educators and commentators and experts take over to discuss them. For example, the opening of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and the rebuilding of the imperial palace has prompted some reappraisal of Germany’s colonial history and crimes, both in media and academia, but we don’t hear from Namibians almost ever. It seems like they aren’t even given that onus because they are not considered capable of being educators.

Mandula: It’s interesting how we keep coming back to the question of education. So much boils down to who educates, and what is taught. There is so much space for different forms of telling these stories. Coming back to the Afropean project, I think multimedia dimension Johny’s work - the combination of pictures, music, diary notes - this offers something really special. Because it is so personal, so dynamic. While theory is obviously also needed, I do think there’s so much power in offering alternative forms of thinking through these questions of history, identity and belonging.

Social media can play a huge role here, as do the visual arts. When we talk and have these discussions on a textual basis, that’s when we fall back into the white voices. Text has been monopolised, sadly, and textual discourse is especially entrenched in the dominant power structures… Perhaps one solution could be to explore the space outside of this textual discourse - of course without saying goodbye to it completely.

Mohammed: I agree with you. That’s why the multimedia aspect of the Afropean website is so great. I think the whole entrenchment in theory is really counter-intuitive because ultimately, this is people talking about life experience which is not experienced textually. It’s a shame that’s often how discourse needs to be represented before being taken seriously.

Marie: The kind of discourse that can be held at the welcome table! In your lives, do you feel like you have spaces like that, kitchen tables, where you can have an exchange of ideas that’s not mediated through the textual or academic structures, that are diverse both in terms of content and form of discussion?

Mohammed: House parties! That’s something that the pandemic has really affected, Johny was talking about that as well, how being in party spaces is such a liberating fixture, such a point of community, coming together, also organisation, having the conversations that people really want to have. I’ve been really nostalgic lately having watched Steve McQueen’s short film series Small Axe (2020) about UK Black experience. One of them is called Lover’s Rock, and is an homage to the historical importance of house parties to the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK in the 1970s. It was really moving to see it during lockdown as it’s a legacy passed down through generations of migrants in London and has been such a fixture of my own life now in the present. I think Steve McQueen nailed that conflict, or representing the power of quite intimate and unpoliced spaces in the mainstream as there’s always this question of how much of that intimacy can be brought to the mainstream public without it losing its sacredness or power.

Mandula: I think I actually really lack these tables. For me, hospitality is a rather empty word in many ways, not something that’s central to how I live my life, not an explicit value that I was brought up with. I think that in itself is really telling. I mean, of course there are moments when hospitality is natural and easy, especially when you’re not explicitly ‘doing it’ and just make stuff together for example. This can be hugely powerful. But I have realised that I don’t seek out these spaces enough.

Mohammed: Do you think that has something to do with your experience of being in Europe? Do you think it’s a European thing?

Mandula: I don’t want to say that. I think maybe it is linked to certain (West-European) privileges, where you don’t need to open up your space, you don’t need to ask for other people to open up to you, so it becomes really easy to not do so, even if, on an intellectual level, you propagate values of hospitality and solidarity and genuinely believe in them.

I’m just afraid on many levels Europe isn’t defined by hospitality at all. It’s a very closed thing, and this is not just about Blackness, but also other divisions in Europe. The way when we say Europe we just think of the EU and completely forget the peripheries: Northern Africa but also all the ex-Soviet states... All these places are intimately European in many ways but we exclude them from these conversations. And the EU itself just continues building boundaries, economically and otherwise, so I find it really hard to say that hospitality is somehow central to the idea of Europe. I sound so negative…

Marie: But isn’t the point of this that it should be more central? That we should explore ways in which we can act in a hospitable way as Europeans?

Mandula: Yes, completely! And I like the idea of the sensual experience, whether that’s the graininess of the house party, or breaking bread together in the physical sense. I think that’s beautiful.

Marie: I often have to remind myself to not find that sensual, everyday, seemingly private dimension of hospitality ridiculous -- to break bread in your room and feel like you’re acting out hospitality while Moria is happening… To really look at Moria, and still invite people to your kitchen table, I think requires a certain tolerance of incompleteness or imperfection. And then, sometimes, it does change things! For my parents, hospitality has always been very important to their lives. They’ve always filled our house with people from all over the world, strangers who’d come and sit at our kitchen table and often turn into friends. But I think for me in recent years, having grown up like that, I learned that it’s not just about eating together. Being a host also requires a kind of openness to be changed, an openness to change your own ways. It starts with things like cooking different food, and goes over to things like drastically changing your opinion or not exhibiting certain habits or values because they would offend your guest. And suddenly, the smallness doesn’t seem small anymore at all, because it will change both your guest’s and your own life trajectory and world view.

Mohammed: I think that kind of radical acceptance a host takes on, where you’re willing to change part of yourself to accept a guest, goes back to your point, Mandula, about what having a welcoming table in Europe means. I had an islamic upbringing, and hospitality is quite a big part of the religion and its particular inflection in Bangladeshi culture. But then there’s this dual experience of being European but not being received hospitably in the UK and Europe, be that historically through the fascist skinheads who used to hassle the Bangladeshi community in the 70s, to more recent issues like islamophobia after 9/11 or Brexit xenophobia. I think to be a host, in a place that hasn’t always accepted you, you have to be quite vulnerable which is really challenging when you’re not met in the middle. I think the kinds of tables we need to lay to make the Europe we want are based on very intimate things like trust, vulnerability and acceptance, as you were saying Marie.

Mandula: And we shouldn’t underestimate how much this is already happening! Mohammed, you were talking about the difficulty of being the energy of house parties to the mainstream public and how that kind of defies the point. So I guess it’s easy to forget how much these things are already happening without being taken to the mainstream precisely to protect the sacredness of the private space. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t always need to be visible. These efforts and communities do not always need to be announced or advertised. Perhaps we can trust that if the networks are there, hospitality and togetherness will emerge from these roots?

Marie: Which, I guess, ties back to Teresa’s point about the importance of the material conditions to enable that. Which is also more difficult to do in practice - you can’t just throw money at something and hope that it happens. What kind of policies are needed to safeguard or enable these spaces of hospitality and informal exchange. I think there’s room for experimentation in what kind of support the EU should provide to locally foster these exchanges, as Teresa said, just giving people a “voice” or making them more visible in institutions that are already visible isn’t always a solution.

Final thoughts on the Europe’s Kitchen programme

Mohammed: I was really impressed by how they managed to keep such a diverse and ambitious programme going despite the physical travel aspect and much of the food experience no longer being possible. I think it’s really changed what my experience and associations with travel are. Despite staying home I was transported through talks from Munich and Glasgow, music from Ljubljana and food sent by mail from Madrid. It really made me think about my belonging in wider Europe as I’ve never properly asked myself these questions. All this has been quite grounding for me as the UK leaves the EU.

Mandula: For me, strangely I realised that I haven’t really actively thought about it, ever, what Europe is to me or what I want it to be. I have this vague alliance to Europe and I feel that the term ‘European’ does apply to me, but I have never had to really engage with it critically.

The second thing would be to not have this exploration to be only a verbal one, not just to talk about it, but also think about other ways that Europe might resonate with you. Whether that’s musically, or in smell, and I think that way the project sets a nice precedent for the ways of thinking about that. And the uncomfortable element is important. It’s so easy to not go out and reach out to strangers, especially in times of a pandemic, but there’s so much value in having strangers at your table, strangers in the conversation.

Marie: I often have to remind myself to not find that sensual, everyday, seemingly private dimension of hospitality ridiculous -- to break bread in your room and feel like you’re acting out hospitality while Moria is happening… To really look at Moria, and still invite people to your kitchen table, I think requires a certain tolerance of incompleteness or imperfection. And then, sometimes, it does change things! For my parents, hospitality has always been very important to their lives. They’ve always filled our house with people from all over the world, strangers who’d come and sit at our kitchen table and often turn into friends. But I think for me in recent years, having grown up like that, I learned that it’s not just about eating together. Being a host also requires a kind of openness to be changed, an openness to change your own ways. It starts with things like cooking different food, and goes over to things like drastically changing your opinion or not exhibiting certain habits or values because they would offend your guest. And suddenly, the smallness doesn’t seem small anymore at all, because it will change both your guest’s and your own life trajectory and world view.

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