German reporters with foreign roots fight racism in theater

Published 7:39 am Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BIELEFELD, Germany — Yassin Musharbash, a leading German journalist with Jordanian roots, pulls out some recent “fan mail” and starts reading on the stage.

“We want to be informed by knowledgeable compatriots, not by foreigners,” the 39-year-old quotes from a letter-to-the-editor that landed at the prestigious Zeit newspaper.

Gasps turned to incredulous laughter as he continues: “Musharbash is an Islamist who is secretively involved in jihad. He is trying to weaken the defensive forces of the West from inside.”

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Musharbash is among a troupe of German journalists with immigrant backgrounds who have been touring with a show called “Hate Poetry” that has sold out across the country. The show explores the growing rancor against Muslims in Germany by revealing hate mail filled with clichés and abuse — and seeks to combat it with humor.

The journalists, none of them professional actors, confront prejudice head-on in the show. But they also use irony, poking fun at the stereotypes by appearing on stage dressed like migrant workers from the 1960s or disguised as radical Islamists wearing caftans and face masks.

“We’re being abused not for what we are writing, but for who we are or for who these people think we are,” Musharbash told The Associated Press in an interview before the show. “Apparently there are some people out there who have a big problem that writers with Middle Eastern names work for serious German newspapers.”

The attempt to promote tolerance through theater appears to be working.

“I would have never expected anybody to write such things … I guess I was a bit naive,” said Ute Grave, a 55-year-old saleswoman who saw the show. “It’s is a great way of simply countering the hatred with laughter.”

There are an estimated four million Muslims living in Germany — a country of 80 million. Most are children or grandchildren of Turkish guest workers who came in the 1960s when Germany recruited foreign workers for the country’s booming postwar economy.

Most have found a place in society, speak German as their native language and contribute to society in myriad ways. But many ethnic Germans still have problems with the fact that Germany is increasingly diverse — a society where more than 15 million citizens claim foreign roots.

Despite achievements, immigrant communities themselves face problems — adding complexity to the tensions. Children of immigrants fare worse in school than their ethnic German counterparts, according to government statistics, and the overall unemployment rate is far higher.