Monday,19 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Monday,19 February, 2018
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Redefining freedom

Ati Metwaly visits Christiania

Redefining freedom
Redefining freedom
Al-Ahram Weekly

Emerging from the row of graffiti-covered walls, a wooden sign above the entry to Copenhagen’s Freetown is the first landmark of this original venue. It reads simply “Christiania”. The car is denied entry; it would conflict with one of the nine laws of the local community; taking care of nature is on Christiania priorities’ list, not to mention that the town’s tiny alleys cannot accommodate automobile traffic. But Christiania is much more than a one-of-a-kind living space surrounded by nature and graffiti murals. The community’s understanding of freedom challenges the Danish authorities; over the four decades of its history, a number of violent clashes took place between the Christianites and police or gangs.

Covering an area of 34 hectares (0.34 sq km), Christiania is located within the city’s fortifications: parts of the chains of the city ramparts, a defence ring dating back to the 17th century, and the military barracks of Badsmandsstraede, which until after World War II housed the Royal Artillery Regiment, army material, ammunition, army laboratories etc. A complete withdrawal of the army from the area between 1967 and 1971 attracted poor and homeless squatters despite the best efforts of the watchmen, and eventually the Hippie community dominated the land — and has been living there for three generations.

Though the community has evolved and its population grown to 850 (including over 100 children), until today many consider Christiania the heart of Bohemian living. Despite the government’s recent attempts to conduct dialogue with the Christianites, according to the inhabitants, they are often confronted by prejudices and the media does not spare them exaggerated and over-sensationalised stories. Yet what once began as an anarchist and counterculture movement, an opposition to Danish government, has grown into an enclave following its own strict rules. The Christiania’s mission statement issued in 1971 and co-authored by Jacob Ludvigsen, Danish journalist and member of Provo, the counterculture movement, states that “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.”

Though seemingly relaxed in their lifestyle, Christianites created a basic common law by which they and the visitors must abide: no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no motorcycling colours (the patches indicating membership of a gang of bikers), no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of thundersticks and no stolen goods. Some of these laws — such as no hard drugs, no motorcycling colours — were developed as Christiania evolved and inhabitants found it important to give up some elements of “freedom” for the sake of the survival of the community. Any visitor wonders how it all works in a commune where the smell of hashish fills the air yet no dealers can be spotted. No wonder Christiania generates endless curiosity; everyone hopes to have a sneak peek at the lives of people whose hearts and souls are soaked in the late 1960s ethos of battling the system.

A group of cultural journalists from Egypt entered the Freetown assisted by one of the older members of Christiania’s community who offered them a memorable tour around the area. As we stepped into this world so unlike the rest of Copenhagen, we were greeted by a sign saying “No photography” marking the area where handicraft products along with - as they say - illegal weed is sold. Understandably, Christianites have had much trouble with the authorities and the last thing they need is for the wrong scenes to be photographed.

“The visitor is usually asked to delete the photos of this area from the camera, however there were instances that the local guards would react more harshly towards those who despite being warned, try to take shots secretly with their mobile phone cameras. A few such phones were taken away and literally nailed to a wooden board,” our guide explained, smiling, while we proceeded under the watchful eyes of the local guards. A pack of impressive looking dogs of protection breed were freely scattered across the area, relaxing in the early afternoon heat. We chose to believe they did not notice us...

Though photography is not forbidden in other areas of Christiania, the community does not welcome it; and it is preferable to ask permission before photographing people. The Christianites dislike being seen voyeuristically as the weird anarchist species, in contrast to their view of themselves as a free society, in which mutual respect is a value cultivated within the community, extended to and expected from visitors. Our guide, however, allowed us to document the many wonderful buildings emerging from the abundant nature of this well preserved area, where trees and the canal create a wonderful setting for the Christianites’ houses.

Buildings left by the army are transformed to serve numerous purposes. One of them, consisting of several rooms, is home to many Christianites. Another one became a cinema hall, a project in which our guide was closely involved. “We took the rows of chairs that were thrown away by one of Copenhagen’s cinemas, renovated them and here it is,” he points to the hall where films are screened on a regular basis.

Christianites build their houses with their own hands. Round, square, heptagonal, even triangular structures, many with wooden scaffolding: a haven for architecture without architects; nature covers many of them with its own green coat.

Nor is cinema the only testimony to the Christianites’ love of arts and culture. Graffiti covers almost every flat surface, whether they are buildings’ walls, vehicles, entries to the old bunkers or even flat parts of large stones scattered among the bushes. Thematic content varies, representing animals, humans, nature, dragons, characters from Alice in Wonderland, and other imaginary scenes, but each is a breath-taking piece of art. It’s worth noting that in Christiania, graffiti is much more creative than in Copenhagen’s train stations for instance; the latter tends to be limited to series of massive rounded letters.

Graffiti also covers the metal hall called “Wonderland” where skateboarders can defy gravity. In one of the smaller streets stands the house of an artist, partially hidden under leaves and covered with rainbow-coloured patterns. A sign in front of the house says, “Smile! Photo OK here,” and once we lifted our cameras, an older man, introduced as “an artist”, welcomed us with a huge smile. Our guide took us further, to a large courtyard surrounded by a few houses: “This is our kindergarten,” he explained.

In parallel to meditation and yoga, art plays a very important role in the Freetown. In its early years, Christiania was known for as home of members performing with a large theatre troupe, Solvognen (meaning: Chariot of the Sun). The troupe gave several performances and staged numerous happenings that turned to political acts one the streets of Copenhagen. But Solvognen was dissolved in 1982, for political reasons.

Among the creative endeavours of present-day Christiania are handicraft products which also serve as a source of income. Inside Christiania, there is a pub where a jazz band consisting of local musicians performs frequently. Moreover, guest musicians such as Alanis Morisette and Bob Dylan also gave concerts inside Christiania. The visual art gallery holds curated exhibitions presenting works by local artists as well as new work from outside Christiania. Our trek to the venue was rewarded with a large collection of nature photography. In the adjacent room, a group of locals gathered to discuss the movie that had just been screened. Some of Christiania’s collections are presented to the public outside the Freetown. Recently, the Danish Cultural Institute in Copenhagen opened the exhibition Christiania in Art, displaying over 300 works — paintings, photograph, sculpture, ceramics and design — by 28 of Christiania’s artists. The exhibition was followed by a three-day Christiania Cultural Festival, before works traveled to Lithuania. 

Over 40 years of alternative culture became a target attraction for many tourists. But only recently did the Danish government take steps leading to a possible normalisation of the relations between Christiania and authorities. Since mid-1990s, the residents have had to pay taxes, covering the cost of water, electricity and other services. In 2011, the Christianites agreed to pay a substantial amount of money to buy off parts of the land from the government.

“Negotiations proceed very slowly; for decades we’re trying to gain recognition from the Danish government and society. Christiania is a beautiful land, and this issue must be among the many concerns of the authorities. Why should a community like ours possess such mesmerizing territory? Any citizen of Copenhagen would dream of a house emerging from the wonderful nature and overlooking the canal,” our guide explains.

Most of the inhabitants are of Danish origin but some are immigrants. As the size of Christiania’s population is growing, it is no longer easy to settle in the area. “Usually, the community develops as the families grow. An outsider can be easily accepted only if he has already developed links with a community member, a boyfriend or a girlfriend...” Our guide also explained how Christiania’s inhabitants are still discriminated against. “Of course now it is better than a decade or two ago. However there are moments that are quite difficult. For instance, when one applies for a job, it is preferable not to reveal our Christiania background, at least not before being accepted for the position. People tend to have ‘second thoughts’ when meeting a Christianite.”

The presence of drugs in the area is definitely one of major controversy. Though the police organised a number of raids on Christiania, according to the Danish police department, the attacks on the drug dealers backfired in other areas of the city. Through the many “legal experiments”, it is possible that the Danish authorities must have realised that it is more convenient to have drugs focussed in one area, instead of having them spread, clandestinely, all across Copenhagen. In 2005, during one of the raids, police reports to have confiscated two pistols, one revolver, a few knives, tear gas and undisclosed amount of ammunition. Some politicians argue that those findings do not necessarily mean that the Christianites “arm themselves” and can point to a few criminal individuals only. The social and political dilemma however remains.

Despite its “criminal record” as perceived by some, to others, Christiania is one of the most successful communal experiments that emerged from Hippie culture. It has grown into a strong self-sustained, self-governed and well organised community. Its existence is the result of Danish concepts of equality and freedom on the one hand and a sense of responsibility and determination of the Christianites on the other. In over 40 years, the Freetown has maintained its horizontal pattern of governance rejecting the formation of any social elites. Crucial decisions on to the community need to be discussed and approved by a committee formed of chosen inhabitants from each of the 14 parts of Christiania. “Yet cooperation in governance has its downside as often not all members of the committee agree and as such, some decisions take months or even years before they can develop into a vision that is accepted by everyone,” our guide noted. In Christiania, the parameters of freedom are re-defined but never challenged. Each citizen holds full responsibility for their behaviour, home and life. As such, Christianites exercise self discipline and cooperation.

“You are now entering the EU” says the sign above our heads as we leave Christiania. A walk through the Freetown triggers many questions on definition of freedom and how different perceptions of this freedom coexist in one country. While Christiania generates a substantial amount of revenues for the Danish economy, the discussions around the future of the 42-year-old Freetown are incessant. They involve, however, a complicated net of social, economical and political elements infused with a multitude of ideologies and relations.

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