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Language & Literature

Laughing in the Face of Hate

Journalists like Deniz Yücel, Mely Kiyak or Yassin Musharbash work for the most prestigious newspapers and magazines in Germany. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from being bombarded with racist comments and hate mail. Until recently, they had no idea how to fight back. Then their colleague Ebru Taşdemir, a freelance journalist and author from Berlin, had a brainwave: Hate Poetry. Read all about the show and more, including why you should laugh at racism, in our interview with the makers of Hate Poetry.

In your show Hate Poetry, racist letters are ridiculed in front of a wide-spread audience. How did you come up with the idea?
It all started about three years ago when a colleague shared a letter on Facebook. It went something like this: »Dear Mrs Asshole! Your German is rubbish, you should be a bit more grateful considering you’re allowed to work for such a great German newspaper« – and the post generated a real buzz. We all started playing around with possible responses in the comments thread – along the lines of »It’s Ms Asshole, actually«. It was really funny and then I suggested that we should try and find a way to go public if we could. We asked several colleagues, who all loved the idea at once and wanted to get involved. We had a try-out in the taz café and that was the beginning of Hate Poetry.

So it really was very spur-of-the-moment?
Yes! Half an hour before the show, we still didn’t know what we were going to do. My colleague Doris thought we should aim for comedy. We had a hate video which had been sent to Yassin Musharbash, so we played that; then we read some of the letters and laughed a lot. The hall was packed and people were crowded down the corridor! It was obvious that we could do more. By the next show, we had decided to dress up, as well.

Why do you dress up?
It’s fun. On stage, Yassin Musharbash puts on the same Muslim robe he wore when he was reporting on the Arab Spring in Egypt. Mely Kiyak often turns up to the show wearing a Kurdish salwar and then surprises everyone with her amazing high heels. That’s not all, though. Usually, the journalists come on stage dancing the Halay, a Kurdish folk dance. Then we play »10 Jahre hier« (engl. 10 years here – ed,.) a melancholic song by Malek Samo, sung with a strong German-Turkish accent. Another highlight is when the journalists start to unpack their Aldi shopping bags and decorate the table with the things they’ve brought: A Turkish flag, a picture of Ataturk or a prayer clock. It’s a bit of an odd mix, but it is all part of the picture we are trying to convey.
What happens next?
Then the show begins. One by one, the journalists read the letters they’ve been sent. In the end, the one with the most outrageous letter or the grossest insult wins a prize. A cuddly kebab, or something like that.

What was the most blatant insult that you can remember?
That was a very extreme comment sent to my colleague Deniz Yücel: »NSU, NSU, you bumped off ten poor kebab sellers, but forgot Deniz Yücel« (NSU: engl. National Socialist Underground, a right-wing extremist group responsible for a series of murders between 2000 and 2007, known as the Bosphorus serial murders – ed.). Though he does win every round with that one! Of course, there are limits: we don’t read out the death threats. The journalists usually choose what to read and what not to read.

It sounds a bit hard to swallow at times?
Of course it is. Some words and sentences still give me the creeps. It’s a whole mixed bag of emotions. Most of our editors are not really switched on to the hate mail. So, it is incredibly liberating for a journalist to be able to unload this stuff and let go occasionally. Yassin Musharbas summed it up rather well, recently: Hate Poetry is a bit like visiting a Turkish bath. You go in and sweat out all the crap together.

How does the audience react to the show?
There’s a lot of laughter. People usually realize that we are playing with clichés. Dressing up, reading the letters, the dialogues – all help to convey our absurd situation. It’s a comical way of showing what some people actually think. We embrace the clichés, read the letters and comments and then spell out the daft logic! In some ways, it’s just a huge joke and it feels incredibly liberating to us.

Do some criticise it?

Of course some do. Everyone doesn’t have to laugh at it. We’ve been accused of using it to promote ourselves, but it’s about something completely different.
Why do you think Hate Poetry is such a success?
Hate Poetry is a new take on everyday racism. A few years ago, it would have been impossible to stand up and read these letters out loud and there’d have been no applause. Hate Poetry has managed to turn something evil and abhorrent into a fun and positive experience. We’re unmasking racism in an entirely new way. That’s what makes the show so special.
The audience soon notices that the journalists on stage are quite charming, witty people who are happy with their lives, and that is a good thing, too. Normally, we are only ever seen in a serious context. So, Hate Poetry gives us an opportunity to shake off the straight-faced side of journalism and have a really good rant.

What are your plans?

We’ve toured up and down the whole country – Leipzig, Bremen, Bochum, Cologne and Stuttgart. But invitations keep pouring in and we can barely keep up. We have also been asked to turn Hate poetry into a television show. But should we really change the format just because we can? I’m not sure. One thing I do know – we will keep on doing Hate Poetry as long as it’s fun.

So, we can carry on laughing?
Of course you can! At the end of every show, Yassin grants the audience absolution. It’s good to laugh. We want everyone to join in!

Photos: Onu Miyaki

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