x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Carnival celebrates Muslim integration

A Muslim immigrant is appointed this year's "carnival prince" in Bonn, a rare honour being hailed as a symbol for successful integration.

Amir Shafaghi, the Bonn carnival's master of ceremonies, with his partner, Uta Gabels.
Amir Shafaghi, the Bonn carnival's master of ceremonies, with his partner, Uta Gabels.

BONN, GERMANY // A Muslim immigrant has been appointed "carnival prince" in Bonn this year. It is a rare honour being hailed as a symbol for successful integration. Amir Shafaghi, who moved to western Germany with his parents in 1980 after Iran's Islamic revolution, when he was 10, was the city's official master of ceremonies for the carnival celebrations that culminate today. "Prince Amir I", clad in a gold-embroidered costume with white tights and a feathered cap, held comic speeches at carnival balls and threw sweets to the crowds at festive processions, accompanied by his real-life partner, "Princess Uta". For anyone passionate about celebrating carnival in Germany, being appointed "prince of fools" is the crowning achievement.

Carnival is an honoured folk tradition in the predominantly Catholic west and south of Germany, especially in the Rhineland towns of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn and Mainz, and Mr Shafaghi's nomination by the local carnival societies proved he has been well and truly accepted by the natives. He was the first Muslim carnival prince of a major German city. "We wanted to show that the Bonn carnival isn't just for people born here, and to invite everyone who has moved here to get involved," Wilhelm Wester, a spokesman for the city's festival committee, said. "And that's succeeded with Prince Amir's help. He's the embodiment of an open-minded person and we hope he will encourage other immigrants to embrace the tradition and celebrate with us."

Mr Shafaghi, who runs a marketing company, said he was infected by the "carnival bug" as soon as he arrived in Bonn and saw sweets being hurled from procession floats. "I would never have dreamt that I would one day be the carnival prince parading through the streets, the kindergartens and schools, the hospitals, old folks' homes and festival halls," he said. "I want to be remembered as the prince who did all he could to unite people of all colours and religions. Religion, profession and social status don't matter in carnival."

Jürgen Nimptsch, Bonn's mayor, said: "At long last we've got a prince from the Orient, and boy does he know how to celebrate." However, in a sign that even Bonn's carnival spirit has it limits, Mr Shafaghi was forbidden to hold the traditional prince's speech at a festive carnival service in the city's main Catholic church last month because he is Muslim. His partner Uta, who is German, had to step in.

"The rules of our church restrict the involvement in services to Christians who share our belief in the Trinity," said Wilfried Schumacher, the dean of Bonn. "Whether his majesty Prince Amir likes it or not, I give the orders in this church." Germany's four million Muslims, most of them of Turkish origin, have been slow to join in carnival. The first Turkish carnival society was formed last year, in the western city of Dortmund, with a logo consisting of a smiling doner kebab spit with tomatoes for eyes and wearing a carnival hat. Despite its ancient Christian roots, the festival has evolved into a secular festival of fancy dress parties and processions. Millions of people lined the streets in Cologne, Düsseldorf and other cities to watch Rose Monday parades, which each year boast floats with satirical themes.

Carnival has a mixture of origins, including a Roman celebration of the onset of spring, Germanic fertility rites as well as the Christian tradition of celebrating before the pre-Easter fasting period of Lent. "It's part of life in the Rhineland," said a spokeswoman for the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which takes part in a carnival procession each year. Whether celebrating carnival together can help suppress Islamophobia is another matter. One of Germany's most vocal anti-Islam groups, the far-right organisation Pro Köln, is campaigning against the construction of a mosque in the city.

dcrossland@thenational.ae