“Being Able to Switch Between Identities and Being Able to Decide, That’s Actually a Feeling of Freedom”

Frederic Gülbeyaz is 29, a dialog moderator and alumnus of “Dialog at School “, one of the partner organizations involved in the exchange program “Your Story Moves! – Encounters of Young People in Migration Societies”. He lives in Berlin, works as a lecturer and project coordinator at the organization Interkulturell-Aktiv and is particularly interested in transcultural encounters and dialog formats. In October 2018 and April 2019 he participated in the exchange program “Your Story Moves!” In Israel and Germany.

What is important for you to share regarding your experiences in Israel?
I think my picture of the region has become much clearer, but actually there, where I did not expect it at all. In the beginning you have a woodcut in your head, and in the end it looks like a copperplate engraving. My picture was very much influenced by the Middle East conflict in terms of the Gaza Strip, the border and basically this kind of division. I was surprised and happy to discover the many small intersections between Jewish and Arabic life. This starts already with the food. This is a simple example, but who owns humus? It is a food that has been around for a long time but it is shared by everybody. Someone told me lately that it actually comes from Egypt.

I was later on in a private visit on the other side, in Ramallah. A very interesting cultural experience. The food you get on the street is the same everywhere. Whether you are in Jerusalem, in Ramallah or in Tel Aviv, the street food shows a great similarity. That’s just the simplest level. But also an important level, because it shapes your identity in a way. If you want to eat Israeli food in Berlin, you can also go to the Lebanese restaurant. The preparation is a bit different, but the basic feeling is very similar. I do not know if they would admit it, but actually you get nourished with the same ingredients. This goes even further in areas like music. People say that Mizrachi music is totally popular. Nevertheless, it would sound strange if Mizrachi Jews identified themselves as “Arab Jews.” People see this as a dichotomy. Something that cannot be combined, non-relatable and completely separate. Like oil and water. But it shouldn’t be like this. Through my work, my life and my believes, I see culture as something fluid. You can only take a snapshot of it at a time. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: “You cannot step on the same river twice”. The closer you look, the harder it is to make assumptions about the culture of each person. You can kick out all Armenians from Turkey but it will not be possible to take the memory, the experiences and the traditions away from the people in order to create a clear separation. In the end there is always something in common. You can rip out a tree, but there are always roots in the ground. That’s how it feels to me. And at the same time I feel that identity cannot be monolithic. I’m never just a German or just a Christian or a Muslim. Especially the three big religions share so many things in common.

How did you perceive your identity during the exchange? Does it bother you when people ask you what you are or if you are one thing more than the other?
I am getting more and more competent in it. That’s where programs like “Your Story Moves” help, where you talk about identities. In plural. It is much easier to find a common ground with the others. Let’s take for instance two lawyers. One is Jewish and one is Arabic. But the common ground is the fact that both are lawyers. We also have intersections in music, even though we grew up with different ideologies, different kind of story-telling and narratives. Back to your question regarding the identities … my answer depends on who asks me and how the question is being asked. I do not always enjoy sharing the exact equal amount of what I am in every case. I enjoy the ability to experience various parts of me with different people accordingly. Sometimes being a bit more childish, sometimes more of an adult, sometimes more “German”, in the sense of being more conservative, more specific. At work I am sometimes quite compulsive and meticulous. And that’s also fun because you can be performance-oriented. And sometimes I feel a little more “oriental”, for example when guests come to visit, I cook incredible amounts of food. Being able to switch between these identities and being able to decide, that’s actually a feeling of freedom.

This freedom and the great potential of mixed identities are very little emphasized. How do you see this?
I think the current discourse is strongly shaped by identity politics. I find the disintegration model quite exciting, as it is presented by Max Czolleck, Tobias Herzberg and other people of the radical Jewish culture days. On paper, integration sounds good, but in reality it creates a division. You and us. That’s basically the opposite of what it is supposed to achieve. Take a look at Shermin Langhoff, the director of the Gorki Theater, who shows up in interview appointments wearing a hoodie like an arab boy or arab girl from Neukölln. She deliberately marks herself as a migrant on appointments and “shows off” playfully with it: “I am German, but I am also a migrant and I can go to an appointment with such a hoody and I have the right to do so and this is also part of Germany”. This kind of provocative attitude is something I find quite sweet. There are certain scenes where being a migrant or part of a minority has quite a potential and can be very empowering. I believe that it can even be considered a value, if it is charged positively. Something you can be proud of.

And what happens when Germans from the majority society take over certain codes or attitudes as added value and act like a “Babo”, just because it is trendy? We see this a lot lately…
For me, this is not a “cultural appropriation”. For a while I was on this whole critical whiteness trip and my opinion is that it is up to the person who is part of this culture to decide. The other day I stumbled upon Nass Daily, the Arab-Israeli who makes the 1-minute-videos around the world. In one of the videos he threw a fake wedding party in India, where he married the Indian way. With Indian people, in the Indian style and somehow in an appreciative way. He polemically asked if we had to speak of cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation. This means adopting something in an appreciative way with the consent of people who have a certain culture and identity to them. Of course, that’s a question of consent. I understand this insertion, but I would like to broaden the vision a bit.

You are suggesting an attitude which focuses on positive implications…
I am aware that this is nothing new. We know about the positive Orientalism. I would like to give an example of positive-implications. Earlier in the 18th or 19th century people spoke French at local markets. It was cool to be French. What if it would be cool to be a migrant in ten years? I wish to bring a bit of brittleness to it. Just for a bit, let’s imagine we don’t all have to speak high class German. Imagine it’s cool to speak with an accent, a bit broken, a bit washy. This already happens in the hip hop culture, which led to a new feeling of belonging in the society. In order to open up and let go, we need the participation of us as bearers of migrant identities that do not match by “blood” or by nationality. The potential of “Critical Whiteness” is to point out problems. The problem I see is that it splits people. When people say, “I understand this but I also am conscious and critical about racism,” and they also think it’s cool to adopt something from the minorities, I think that’s fine. I think it is something that can bring people together. This is something that “Critical Whiteness” as a concept doesn’t yet offer. How do we come together in the end, how can we become a family again? I think it’s worth turning a blind eye sometimes and not be so strict. I understand of course, that in the end it’s all about resources, but I think it’s worth being generous.

What experiences do you make with this as a dialog moderator at “Dialog at School” in Germany?
We have a lack of teachers with migration background and this contributes a lot to what perspectives are offered and understood at school. Many teachers come from a milieu with privileged cultural and educational capital and can hardly provide any kind of identification space for the students. We worked a lot with “Dialog at School ” and staged us as peers. Not in the sense of disguising ourselves, but in the sense of recognizing our common experiences and showing parts of ourselves with which the pupils could identify with. For instance through Hip Hop, which seems like something that could connect us with them. Some teachers generate authority through distance. They act as over-educated, consciously use a different language and use a different posture. This makes it difficult for some students to understand themselves as part of this school, especially kids with migration background.  That’s where school still lacks as a place where kids can project themselves. If we, for instance, want to talk about the subject of friendship, we can first hear songs on the subject. In part, these are very progressive texts. The students loved it when I used hip hop culture as material. This in turn was the starting point where meaningful educational work could begin. I believe that you can take methods of extracurricular education and contribute greatly to formal education without being afraid that you risk something. This is a win-win situation.

In which areas do the two countries differ from each other?
Israel has always understood itself as a country of immigration and thus has a positive relationship to this notion. In Germany we are still struggling to feel a positive connection to our immigration identity. It’s been already such a long time, it is already so old, and it is such a shame. On the other side, I’ve noticed new things about myself. For example, it surprised me how emotional the topic of Shoah is for me. When we were in Moreshet Holocaust and Education Center in Israel, I noticed that not all participants were paying the same attention to what we were talking about. One of us was doing something else at the same time. This triggered me so much. I became so angry and found it outrageous. I thought somehow, this is not why we are in such a dialog format, in which we respect and listen to each other. At some point I articulated my frustration, we could talk about it and that was good. It was productive to talk about it.

What I noticed about myself again was that the Shoah, as a fact and as part of German history, has a very emotional component in the context of guilt and responsibility, which almost goes in a sacral direction. It has something very ethical and moral. The only thing that I find positive about Germany in this sense is that Germany did not have such a strong patriotism and nationalism as other countries for a long time. This has also changed in the last years. But it is a very self-critical country, where everyone first questions themselves and is willing to accept critical feedback. Of course this is not true for everyone, but that is the main tendency. There is no such thing as a concept of pride. Pride is more of a foreign word. Paradoxically, when I was about 18 years old I was exactly proud of this very thing, the fact that Germans are not proud of themselves. The memorial sites have something sacred to them. I feel there is a duty to respect that, too. I think that’s what we latently grow up with here. But it is the aesthetic processing that conveys emotional understanding. Not the numbers and facts we learned at school. The aesthetic work around it has always impressed me and lies deeper than the rational level.

Someone said that day at Moreshet, “We have been fed the Holocaust with a big spoon”. How did you find that?
This was part of our clarification talk. I criticized that. How can one avoid such a dialog format and hide behind a sheet of paper? And then the other person used exactly those words. That’s when I realized that indeed some people feel like they have already been fed up with it. Of course on can say that we are the country of perpetrators and have a certain point of view. But actually it’s not about the amount of information but rather about the moment when you really realize things. Many of my friends show a lot of resistance to the topic and say that they do not want to know anything about it. They dealt with it at school and they do not want to feel guilty either. I know such defense mechanisms coming from people in Germany. As an educator, I rather think what we can do to strengthen the relevance of history for people. Another participant said “I know everything one needs to know about the Shoah”. But this point does not exist. One cannot claim such a thing. The statement came from a participant with Arabic background. We should not forget that anger also plays a role here, that the stories of the crimes committed against the Palestinians are barely told in the education system. And if you, in turn, grow up as a Palestinian Israeli whose history is repressed, then one can understand why such statements come can up. There is a disproportion of narratives in the public discourse and I can now understand where this resistance comes from.  After discussing with that person we developed empathy for each other. I always try to see reality with the eyes of the other person as well and understand why the person feels this way. And also the other person could get a bit closer to why I see things the way I see them and what the significance of this topic is for me and why ignoring it is a no-go for me. That is the point! In the end, we dealt openly with this conflict. This was a really enriching experience to make.

Read the interview here in German.

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