Reflections on the Iqbal Riverbank Walk
by Erin Kesko
I know a bit about global migration – but what do I know about migration where I live, in Heidelberg? This was the question that motivated me to get involved with the roadto_ Festival – through a partnership between the festival organizers and my seminar on urban migration at the University of Heidelberg’s Transcultural Studies Institute. Participating in and contributing to the road to_ festival with the Humans of Heidelberg project gave me and my fellow students a chance to explore themes of (post) migration, urban renewal, and public art in a hands-on way.
My name is Erin. I myself am a migrant – I grew up in the U.S., in the rural state of Minnesota. I’ve lived in Germany three years, two of them as a student in Heidelberg. Because of my interest in religion and migration, I want to use this post to answer the following question:
What role does a festival like the Roadto_ play in place-making, specifically for groups that have traditionally been viewed as “other” in German society?
To answer this question, I accompanied the Muslim community organization Teilseiend (English: “being part”) through their participation in the road to_ festival. The group hosted a walk and talk (which actually ended up being more of a sit and talk) about Muslim life in Heidelberg. The event was held on the Iqbal Riverbank, named after the famous Pakistani Muslim poet Muhammad Iqbal.
What is place-making?
Let’s start even simpler, by defining place. A place is a concrete physical location that derives its meaning from the beings who inhabit it and their emotional connection to it (Rigolon 2011, 152). Place-making, as defined by Rota and Salone, asserts that the ‘self’ and ‘place’ are mutually constitutive – meaning that each of us creates place through our interactions with other individuals, culture, and the environment, just as the places we inhabit help create us (2014, 92).
So if places are just spaces that have meaning, who decides what kind of meaning a place should have?
I argue that a festival, like the Roadto_, is something that can contribute to negotiations over the meaning associated with a particular place.
The road to_’s Role in Place-making
Throughout history, festivals have played a big role in connecting people’s emotions and identities to the spaces they inhabit. Between the 12th and 18th centuries identification with one’s hometown, began to emerge as a hallmark of European civilization, partly as a result of city festivals. By imposing the feast of St. Mark upon the territories it conquered, for example, the medieval citystate of Venice used the festival as a tool to promote internal unity, which in turn made the citystate formidable against outside threats (Muir 1997 in Quinn 2005, 928). Irish-Americans in the 1800’s used St. Patrick’s Day parades as a display of their community’s presence and internal unity in Lowell, Massachusetts, where they experienced discrimination by the protestant majority culture (Marston 1989).
In these cases, the festival serves to unify a group and connect it to a particular place. The Roadto_ festival also seeks to connect people to a place (Heidelberg).
However, I think something different is happening here, namely:
- Instead of relying on certain identity markers (citizen of a city, Irish-American), the target audience of the road to_ is virtually undefined: anyone who shows up can participate. And indeed, the guests of the festival included people of many nationalities, some who call Heidelberg their home and others who were just passing through.
- Instead of imposing a specific meaning on the place (Heidelberg), the festival offered an open space for people of different walks of life to encounter each other and start a conversation about the kind of place they want Heidelberg to be.
Yasemin Soylu is a member of Teilseiend and lead the Iqbal Riverbank discussion at the first road to_ festival. In an email interview (translated from German by me), she asserted that the festival creates a unique space for people to encounter each other who usually would not. Says Soylu:
“The target audience surprised me a little It was people who actually didn’t have a specific interest in Muslim life but had stumbled upon (the Iqbal Riverbank walk) in the context of the festival. In view of this, it was a very interesting exchange. Many had their own unique approach to spirituality and religion.”
In this way, the question “What is the meaning of Heidelberg?” (a question vital to place-making) was posed by the festival instead of answered by it.
For the Muslim members of Teilseiend, being an active and visible part of place-making in Heidelberg is of utmost importance. Muslim communities have been present in Germany since the 17th century and growing since the establishment of Germany’s guest worker program with Turkey in the 1960’s. Yet many academic and political debates have centered around whether and how well Muslim minority groups can be integrated into “mainstream” German society (Rosenow-Williams 2012, 15-25).
Teilseiend (lit. “being part”) is trying to push back on the narrative that Muslims need to become a part of German society, arguing that they already are. Says Soylu:
“For me, empowerment means, first, to clear a place for a thing, a worldview, a religion, a nationality in the “dominant culture,” which often doesn’t offer a place for “other” or “alternative” perspectives. To look only at that which connects is fatal, I think, because it pushes the specific characteristics and features of this worldview to the background.”Yasemin Soylu, email interview with author, July 23rd, 2019
In my view, the road to_ festival was empowering because it invited everyone, including those holding so-called “other” or “alternative” perspectives, to take part in place-making and assert their co-belonging to, and ownership of, this place called Heidelberg.
While I applaud the productive exchange that occurred during the Iqbal Riverbank Walk, I question its long-term impact for several reasons:
- Low attendance. Only five or six people participated, limiting the event’s reach.
- Evanescence. In their case study on a public art project in Glasgow, Pollock & Paddison found that art works which were time-bound had the highest level of engagement with the public but the lowest impact on long-term place-making (2014, 97). This one-time discussion is all well and good, but will any concrete action be taken as a result?
- No consensus. Like the festival itself, the discussion bounced back and forth between several topics with many different people contributing many different ideas. But without a central, unifying theme, the point of it all became sort of lost. Afterwards, there was no clear takeaway, leaving the question “what kind of place do we want Heidelberg to be?” without a definitive answer.
But, perhaps the purpose of the discussion and the festival was not to produce answers, but questions. And dialogue, and understanding. In that case, it was definitely a success.
- Marston, Sallie A. 1989. “Public Rituals and Community Power: St. Patrick’s Day Parades in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1841-1871.” Political Geography Quarterly 8, no. 3 (July): 255-269.
- Pollock, Venda Louise, and Ronan Paddison. 2014. “On Place-making, Participation and Public Art: the Gorbals, Glasgow.” Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability 7, no. 1, 85-105.
- Quinn, Bernadette. 2005. “Art Festivals and the City.” Urban Studies 42, nos. 5/6 (May): 927-943.
- Rigolon, Alessandro. 2011. “A Space with Meaning: Children’s Involvement in Participatory Design Processes.” Design Principles and Practices 5, no. 2: 151-163.
- Rota, Francesca S., and Carlo Salone. 2014. “Place-making Processes in Unconventional Cultural Practices. The Case of Turin’s Contemporary Art Festival Paratissima.” Cities 40: 90-98.
- Rosenow-Williams, Kerstin. 2012. Organizing Muslims and Integrating Islam in Germany. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
- Soylu, Yasemin. July 23, 2019. Interview with author.