Open House of the Foreign Office UNITED IN FOREIGNNESS

Tricks on stilts: A cultural program for refugees.
Tricks on stilts: A cultural program for refugees. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig

Stilt walking in Mardin, a DJ exchange in Karachi: at the Open House of the Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut offered insights into its diversified international cultural work. At the weekend of 27 and 28 August, visitors in Berlin were able to see for themselves that understanding often takes unusual pathways.

Andi Teichmann, head of a workshop, is standing at the turntables of his DJ console in the basement of the Foreign Office and explaining to the music fans how skilled deejaying works. “It’s like playing chess,” he says, “you need to always be thinking two or three records ahead.”

The Regensburg native and his brother Hannes form the collective called Gebrüder Teichmann. The duo first travelled on behalf of the Goethe-Institut – to Siberia – back in 2004. The idea was to create a German counterpart to Vladimir Kaminer’s popular “Russian disco” and send them on the road. Since then, Gebrüder Teichmann has taken part in countless international exchange projects including the German-Kenyan DJ fusion BLNRB and the follow-up project Ten Cities, which travelled to a number of African countries. In Karachi, Pakistan the artists also united the electronic worlds of Europe and Asia and produced the album Karachi Files.

The collective called Gebrüder Teichmann The collective called Gebrüder Teichmann | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig The universal language of music

For Andi Teichmann, the thrill is in the foreignness. “There was no developed scene for electronic music in Africa in 2008,” he explains, “so it was all the more exciting to see something new arise from our encounters with the local club culture there.” For him, music is “the universal language that can bring people together faster than would be possible in other contexts.” In their work as DJs, Gebrüder Teichmann seek out the moment of friction in which “different cultures, origins and generations come together,” regardless whether it happens in Berlin or Nairobi, the artist emphasizes.

Refugee youths in the role of artistes

In the meantime, in the atrium of the Foreign Office, seven Syrian and Iraqi youth are practicing their stunts on stilts. The juggle, do daring leaps and crisscross oversized sticks. What at first looks like a circus attraction is actually a cultural programme for refugee children and teenagers. The Goethe-Institut Istanbul, the Turkish NGO Her Yerde Sanat and the Landsberg theatrical ensemble Die Stelzer under the direction of Wolfgang Hauck joined forces to bring it to life.

Hauck, who previously offered workshops in stilt walking in Turkey as part of a PASCH project, was able to input his special trauma education expertise.

Successes and political upsets

Syrian and Iraqi youth are practicing their stunts on stilts. Syrian and Iraqi youth are practicing their stunts on stilts. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig “It’s important that the kids find their own balance, get to know their bodies and can feel themselves in the here and now,” he explains. The stilt project began in December 2014 at the Nusaybin refugee camp near the city of Mardin with ten teens between the ages of 16 and 19 and almost 40 younger kids ages 6 and 14. From the beginning, the idea was to teach the older boys to be trainers to pass their skills on to the younger boys. “Train the trainer,” Hauck calls the principle. The project was a huge success. Today, thanks to the logistical support of the Goethe-Institut, there are about 100 pairs of stilts in Mardin.

Future prospects in Germany

The seven young men demonstrating their skills at the Open House now live in Berlin and have applied for asylum in Germany. One of them is the 21-year-old Syrian Ayad Milko, who is presently collaborating on a circus project for children from the Arab region. Milko already speaks German well and talks about the first time he stood on stilts. “It helped me get rid of the stress,” he says. “All of the sudden, I was less frightened.”

The central pillar of language work

Language is not the only link between cultures. But, it does decisively help to build bridges between cultures and nations. At the Open House of the Foreign Office – the forum presenting global alliances in foreign cultural and educational policy – it was therefore also clear that language work continues to be a central pillar of the work of the Goethe-Institut.

The Goethe stand at the Open House of the Foreign Office. The Goethe stand at the Open House of the Foreign Office. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig For example, at the Goethe stand, visitors could examine a selection of children’s books by German authors that recently were published in Arabic thanks to the kutub:na translation programme. The books deal with topics that are also part of the lives of Arabic families and children, such as travel (Füchse lügen nicht), birthdays (Dr. Brumm) and growing up (Vintulato).

Patrick Wildermann
works as a freelance cultural journalist in Berlin