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third spaces / culture containment

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In an interview with Jonathan Rutherford, Homi Bhaba (1990) advanced three notions that are relevant to the present discussion, and the illuminous of the visuality and the make up of the third space. The first point distinguishes between what Bhabha calls ‘a creation of cultural diversity’ and a ‘containment of cultural difference’. Bhabha argues that within the Western cultural practices, ‘although there is always an entertainment and encouragement of cultural diversity, there is always a corresponding containment of it‘. This containment usually takes place in a subtle way and through a process of normalization whereby the dominant culture becomes the normalizing gaze. In other words, ‘a transparent norm is constituted, a norm given by the host society or dominant culture, which says that “these other cultures are fine, but we must be able to locate them within our grid.” …

Male and female students, as we can see, did enter the third space. However, given the patriarchal history and prescribed social and Islamic religious ‘tradition’, the background of almost all research participants, the female body seems to fall under stricter rules and policed more rigidly and systemically. Whereas males seem to enjoy what the Canadian context can offer, including dating, females are mostly denied this privilege. Clearly gender plays a major role in the intense experience of the third space.

Ibrahim, Awad. “The New Flâneur: Subaltern cultural studies, African youth in Canada and the semiology of in-betweenness” Cultural Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2008, pp. 234–253., doi:10.1080/09502380701789141.

This quote is from a discussion on African youth in Canada. There’s a lot to say and think about here, but it reminded me of my experience “flânering” along Sonnenallee in Berlin. Sonnenallee is a street in Berlin with a high concentration of pan Arab restaurants, shops, grocery stores, etc. Amongst locals, it’s also known as “Arab Street” and many in the Arab community call it “Little Damascus” and “Little Gaza”. In fact, there a couple of well known restaurants which are “recreations” of restaurants in Syria that had been destroyed. The people who ran those restaurants opened these new restaurants on Sonnenallee after escaping to Berlin.

As in the United States, there are people in Berlin who feel very strongly about the arrival of refugees and immigrants in Berlin. However, “Arab Street” – a “home away from home” for Arab inhabitants of the city – is a culinary “destination” for non Arabs.  As said the quote says above,  “…although there is always an entertainment and encouragement of cultural diversity, there is always a corresponding containment of it.” Sonnenallee was, for me, a place to practice the art of flânering. The refugees I spoke to during my time in Berlin – from Iraq, Syria, etc – told me that they did all of their shopping at the stores on Sonnenallee. They spent time there trying to feel “at home”, enacted pan Arab culture through the Hookah bars, family gatherings, etc. White women could be seen walking alone but not Arab women, who were always seen in pairs, groups, or with their families. For me, Sonnenallee was a special place. I was disappointed and surprised to find a lack of Arabic written graffiti and street art throughout the city, particularly in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. (Disappointed only because the original premise of my research there had been to study Arabic street art in Berlin.) Instead, I was directed to Sonnenallee by several people I spoke to. It felt that, for all of the talk by many in Berlin about tolerance and acceptance, groups of people from a similar geographical region were being funneled into this one space – a space that could be “located within the grid“, so to speak.

With all of this in mind, it also made me think about the “responsibilities” of the flâneur, or even “ethical” flânerin-ing. I take a lot of pictures on a normal day, but as Sonnenallee was part of my research, I wanted to take even more. However, I realized that though this was a space where many Germans came to eat and pointed each other to for “excellent Arab food”, it was also a very important space for Arab people in the city. (There’s also the issue of “Arabs” being lumped together when the cultures and foods of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc are unique.) Pointing my camera all around me, while I walked up and down Sonnenallee’s blocks several times, felt disrespectful, especially in that I could give the impression of attempting to take pictures of individuals. Similar to my exploration at Salvation Mountain, in southern California, where I wondered about the role of reverence and slowness in the flâneur’s journeys.

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