August is the anything-goes season for German journalism. Topics that serious reporters would not normally give a shrug about are suddenly given top billing, and nothing is sacred - not even something as personal as bathroom habits.
"Do Muslims Need Their Own Toilet?" Cologne's Express newspaper rhetorically asked on its front page earlier this week. The article detailed plans by a local community center to incorporate a toilet of the type used in dozens of multireligious nations the world over - but not typically in Germany - into a forthcoming remodel. "A culturally sensitive toilet will soon be built in the Alte Feuerwache community center," the newspaper's Robert Baumanns reported for the front page of the August 9 edition. "A sort of squat toilet for Muslims, supported by the state."
"We've never made the front page," said Josefine Utikal, an administrator at the Alte Feuerwache, a multipurpose space built into a converted fire station that offers cultural events, language courses and exhibitions most weeks. She said it with a laugh, but without genuine mirth. At a time when German media play up the divisions between people who welcome new residents and those who feel threatened by any deviation from the national norm, the front page can be a dangerous place.
'A top-notch fight'
With funding from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the city of Cologne, the Alte Feuerwache will renovate a space currently used for storage and building projects into a hall for exhibitions and performances. As the center regularly hosts artists and visitors whose national origins and accessibility needs vary, administrators decided to build three unisex restrooms into the new hall, which so far hosts no such toilets at all. One will hold the "classic" throne that has become common to Germany and many other countries, one will be specially set up for people with disabilities, and the third will feature the multinational model that has drawn nationwide outrage.
Ninety-one percent of 25,000-plus respondents to a poll on the Express website call the toilet "complete nonsense." Uli Scheitel, the top-ranking Free Democrat in Cologne's city council, told Express that the idea of adding such a toilet to the Alte Feuerwache "takes my breath away." And Germans from across the country have left scatological and threatening reviews on the Alte Feuerwache's Facebook page: "Ingratiation," an alarmed Alexander Weber writes, alluding to a common far-right view that the nation is undergoing an Islamic invasion. "One cultivates one's own hangman. Your grandchildren will pay a disgusting price for your naivete and shortsightedness." Phew!
"The ethnic soul seethes, and you can clearly have a top-notch fight over toilets," Monika Wendt, of the Alte Feuerwache's management team, said while reading selected notes from Facebook. "I find it really very shocking that so many people see this as an adaptation process to a certain religion. We're a secular center, and as a rule we are not beholden to any religion - and we didn't plan this with any religion in mind."
Though the Alte Feuerwache's Facebook page is flush with Germans' peeves about a potty they weren't trained on, messages of support have filtered through, too. Women who prefer the hover technique to the unfamiliar warmth of a public toilet seat, for example, have written to say that they will likely opt for the Feuerwache's new feature. "I, as a Western girl and a Christian, too, would prefer to use this toilet to a normal one on hygienic grounds," one wrote on the Alte Feuerwache's Facebook page. "I do not understand the outcry, because if women were honest, they would admit that they don't sit on strange toilets anyway, but more or less stand," she claims.
For now, the Alte Feuerwache will persevere with plans to add the three additional privies to the half dozen or so already on the grounds. No loos will be lost. And, Wendt promised, those who fear the foreign-seeming facility can take their pick of the others: "We won't force anyone to use it."