Berlin gets bookish

With Berlin's international literature festival starting on Wednesday, Daniel Miller makes sure everybody is on the same page.

Berlin gets bookish
Photo: DPA

It’s well known that Berlin is town that likes its books, but fewer people are aware the German capital has been home to its very own literary festival for the past eight years. The annual event has quickly grown in importance and has carved out its own particular niche in the book world.

“Our festival is the most international out of any festival in the world,” says founder and director Ulrich Schreiber. “And we also are the biggest literary festival for children.”

A quick glance at the programme certainly suggests both these points are true. A large number of events starting on Wednesday at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele seem to begin at times in the morning in which most writers have not yet gone to bed. And more than fifty different nationalities appear to be represented, among the one hundred plus authors set to appear in Berlin over the next fortnight.

Two of those nationalities – Thailand and the USA – are held by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young short story writer currently based in Berlin on a DAAD cultural exchange fellowship. “Last year was the year where it meant I had spent half of life in each country,” says the chain-smoking, chess-playing 29-year-old, who readily agrees that he occupies an uncertain position between Thailand and America.

“The language I write in is English, and my work isn’t published in Thai, and so I have a pretty distant relationship to the literary culture there. At the same time, all of my relatives still live in Thailand, and many of them can’t even read English.”

Lapcharoensap’s appearance at this year’s festival – where he’ll be reading an extract from his novel in progress, as well as taking part in a panel discussion on young writers abroad – marks his second appearance in Berlin. “I attended the festival for the first time in 2006 just after my book came out,” he says. “I was pretty new to literary festivals then, and the Berlin one was the largest I’d been to. I loved it, I guess, though these literary junkets can sometimes be pretty strange.”

Asked as to whom he is particularly looking forward to seeing at this year’s edition Lapcharoensap names the British/Nigerian poet and novelist Helon Habila “and my friend Dinan Mengestu.”

Festival organizer Schreiber, meanwhile, says he is most looking forward to meeting some of the authors invited for this year’s special focus on Africa. “Last year, in April I was in Burkina Faso,” he says. “And I started to think about African literature, which has become much more internationally prominent. In the last 22 years, there have been four noble prize winners from Africa. Before that, there were none.”

Schreiber sees the enduring value of literature in teaching how “it is possible to learn how other people think and feel and live.” The large number of unpaid young volunteers who compose much of the festival’s labour force appears to support that this ideal is widely shared. But the success of the festival is also a testament to two other literary virtues: drive and ambition.

“Ten years ago, I went to see to the Poetenfest in Erlangen,” says Schreiber. “And I thought to myself: ‘Why isn’t there anything like that in Berlin?’”

He explains that for the next two years after that it was a fight for money. And then when it got off the ground in August 2001, the first festival drew only 6,000 visitors. But the next year 14,000 people showed up.

“And then three years ago we became part of the Festspiele, and received federal funding for the first time. Last year, 34,000 visitors came,” Schreiber says.

If you care to add yourself to that total this year, The Local has a few picks.

Selected Highlights

Wednesday September 24, 6:00 pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele | Main Stage. French Canadian author Nancy Huston officially kicks-off proceeding with an opening speech entitled “Why Literary Lies are Better than Other Lies.”

Thursday September 25, 9:30 pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele | Main Stage. Nuruddin Farah, Geert Mak, Tzvetan Todorov and Eliot Weinberger chew-over the meaning of Barack Obama in a panel discussion.

Monday September 29, 6:00 pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele. “People see Lagos as a dangerous place. Almost as if it were a living thing, a beast that devours you.” With superstar architect Rem Koolhaas’ long-awaited book about Lagos delayed once again, Nigerian author Helon Habila’s discussion of his home city with Bauhaus researcher and urbanist Omar Akbar is probably the next best thing.

Thursday October 2, 8:00 pm at Ballhaus Ost Berlin writer and founder of the international SLAM!Revue Martin Jankowski and the rapper and slam poet Gauner moderate a night of slam poetry at the Ballhouse Ost, with DJ Paul America on the decks.

Sunday October 5, 7:00 pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele | Main Stage

Frank Arnold, Margarita Broich, Leila Chamma, Tina Engel, Astrid Gorvin, Qassim Haddad, Jutta Lampe, Geno Lechner, Julia Malik, Chun Mei Tan, Friedhelm Ptok, Joachim Sartorius, Roland Schäfer, Nina West and others close out the festival by reading poems in memoriam of the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish who died in August this year.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.