It’s been a long time since I had huge amounts of time or motivation to make playlists and really dive into listening to music. Europe is always great for that. 🙂 I made a few playlists during my month in Berlin with some old favorites and new discoveries. This is the first playlist I made, as I explored the neighborhood I was staying in, Kreuzberg. (Though really, it was Kreuzberg and Neukölln, just past Gorlitzer Park.)
I The Plan
I went into this project wanting to study Arabic graffiti in Berlin. Having learned the Arabic language for the past year (with another year ahead), I’ve not only fallen in love with the language but, combined with my interest in the politics of public space, have also learned a great deal about Arabic graffiti in Arab countries and its role in events such as the Arab Spring. An entire book called Arabic Graffiti was published by the graffiti artist Don Karl (also known as “Stone”), full of beautiful images and short histories of graffiti in the various Arab countries and in the various Arabic dialects. I had also read Miriam Cooke’s “Dancing in Damascus” which examines the role of art (including graffiti) in the Syrian revolution.
The fifth season of the television series Homeland, was filmed in Berlin in September 2015. Most of the action happened in the city of Berlin itself, but one portion of the show was set in a Syria, in a refugee camp. This was also filmed in Berlin, on a designed set on the outskirts of the city, as filming in Syria itself would obviously be impossible. Egyptian graffiti artists were hired to add Arabic graffiti to the walls of the “camp” to create a more “authentic” appearance. The hired artists used the opportunity to scrawl several subservise messages throughout the walls in one scene, the most infamous message being, “Homeland is racist” (in protest of the portrayal of Muslims throughout the show) (Boshnaq, Bilefsky and Mona. 2015). With the history of the use of Arabic graffiti in revolutions in the Arab world as well as this incident on Homeland, I went to Berlin thinking there would be a vast sea of material to study and document. According to Dr Viola Georgi (as heard in our lecture at Humboldt), Germany had taken in 1.2 million refugees – over 265,000 of those are Syrian and nearly 100,000 from Iraq. With numbers like these , I took it for granted that there would be plenty of Arabic “urban art” to be found.
The “vast sea” of material became more like a needle in a haystack once I got to Berlin – there were only a couple of small bits of Arabic graffiti spotted over the course of several weeks. The reasons for the lack of Arabic graffiti may be numerous. I spoke to people in the refugee community, others who study graffiti and urban space, and people at my service organization who all theorized a potential lack of confidence, fear, and the simple fact that the Arab community was still fairly new here in Berlin. The Arabic language, in today’s political climate, is heavily stigmatized and to some groups, associated with terrorism. Perhaps the Arabic-speaking community doesn’t want to draw more attention to themselves. Perhaps those that would choose to be political and speak up are not in Berlin. The vast majority of the graffiti text that I saw was either in German or English – I also thought that people who wrote these words wanted them to be understood; Why write graffiti in Arabic when most of the audience of the city won’t be able to read it? Also, perhaps “urban art” is a luxury that the refugees in Berlin simply don’t have time or thought for. I think an entire paper could be written on this topic alone – the lack of Arabic graffiti in cities and the possible reasons as well as the idea that graffiti and subversive art as a “luxury”. However, I also noticed a distinct lack of the use of the language even in the signage for Arabic restaurants. For example, the Lebanese restaurant, “Nour”, a couple blocks away from the hostel we were staying in and which several of us frequented. I went there a few times each week to enjoy the best falafal and halloumi I’ve ever had. I practiced my meager Arabic skills on the man who was always working when I was there but the Arabic language was absent in all the signage within and outside the restaurant. I noticed a small bit of Arabic calligraphy only in a piece of art hanging on the walls within. As I spent more time wandering around the city and different districts, I noticed a few more places like this – food of Arab origins but the language distinctly lacking.
When we met with our community partner, Empati, for the first time and I mentioned my interest in the Arabic language, Arabic graffiti and the apparent lack of it throughout the city, he immediately suggested that I visit Sonnenallee. He told me that it was referred to as “Arab Street” and reminded many of the Arab refugees and immigrants of “home” – Syria, Iraq, etc. I went searching for Arab Street the next day and I realized the moment I reached it, even before I checked the street sign – taking notice of the shops along the street, right in front of me, behind me, and to the sides there were several restaurants and shops with Arabic script above the shop windows, the doors, etc. صيدلية، المدينة، مطعم… Apotheke (pharmacy), The City (a grocery store), restaurant, etc. There were hair salons advertising a “menu” of services in Arabic, halaal restaurants with menus of food, various shops, travel agencies, hookah bars, etc – all of them had signs in Arabic. Some had hand-written notes, in Arabic, taped up in the windows. There were large gatherings of families with women wearing hijabs outside each restaurant and it felt like a very familial atmosphere. Rather than the unpleasant smell of cigarettes that I observed all over the city, here what I noticed most was the soft, sweet and fruity scent of hookah. For a brief moment, it felt like stepping into a whole other country. Sonnenallee is about 5 km (barely over 3 miles) long, but this section known as “Arab Street”, “Little Damascus”, and “Little Gaza” was approximately six blocks long. One end started around the u-bahn and bus stop Hermannplatz (the particular stop that most people from the “Container Camp” used) and ended roughly around Wildenbruchstraße. There was no official, hard stop to this section of Sonnenallee, this was simply around where the dense concentration of stores with Arabic language grew sparse until completely disappearing again a block or two down.
III Pan Arab Space
Sonnenallee is important and interesting for several reasons. After my initial visit, I went back several times by myself and with a new friend who was, himself, Arab and who was staying in the “container camp” in Neukölln. I saw Sonnenallee as a kind of “pan Arab” space. In a very, very tiny nutshell: there is, on one hand, a distinct sense of identity among the individual countries of the Arab Peninsula as well as other Arabic-speaking countries that joined the “Arab League of Nations” (see notes). Though each country speaks Arabic, they have their own distinct dialect. There has been a push, by many in this Arab community, to preserve a style of Arabic (such as the Modern Standard Arabic which is used in the news) and a push for a stronger “pan Arab” sense of community. (Though many Arabs wish to come together under this umbrella of “pan Arab”, standardization of a common form of Arabic to be shared by all, side by side with each dialect, has become a proxy battle for other issues of power and validation among the countries involved. As I said, on one hand some people feel a strong, shared identity among Arab countries but on the other, they are quite different and separate.) This notion of a pan Arab identity or pan Arab spaces often seems like an impossibility. However, it struck me during my third or fourth trip to Sonnenallee that right here in Berlin was a small slice of this pan Arab notion. My friend, M, took me to a place for lunch that he proudly declared was Iraqi. When I looked it up online later, it was said to be Syrian-Iraqi. I told him this and he argued with me saying it was Iraqi. Of course, all “Arabs” are most definitely not the same. Though it did seem to me that for the Arabs that frequented the Arab shops on Sonnenallee, though some restaurants may be replicas of restaurants from Damascus or serving up Lebanese or Iraqi variations of well known Arabic food, for the Arabs that spent time here it was a place for them to bond over the parts of their “Arab identity” that were shared among them and the parts of their experience here in Berlin that was common to many. Again, as “M” showed me when he took me to Al Medina grocery store to buy small bags of pita bread, he held out the bread towards me and said, “This is where we all come for our bread.”
Thanks to the news, when I think of refugees, I primarily think of Syria. My visits to this camp reminded me that there were more than just Syrian refugees – “M” and his roommate were both from Iraq. Though we did not meet any in the camp, there are Palestinian refugees in Berlin (hence, Sonnenallee also being called “Little Gaza”). Regardless of what part of the Arab world they are from, they can all go to Sonnenallee and, I’m told, be reminded of “home” as well as find many familiar foods and their native language (or close enough to it) all around. If someone from Iraq wishes to enter a hair salon run by someone with a Syrian immigrant background, they can speak and be understood in their Arabic dialect. Lastly, returning to the idea of a “shared experience” as Arabs, in Placing Panethnicity: Performing Arab Space on Sonnenallee, Hilary Silver describes Sonnenallee thusly:
These businesses do not sell fruits and vegetables, but rather goods and services that demarcate a specifically Arab space. The Arab businesses are frequently engaged in illicit or off-the-books activities to make ends meet in an economy from which they are formally excluded. Based upon field work and interviews with shopkeepers and customers, religious and ethnic association leaders and members, government officials, and Turkish competitors who cluster along a different Neukölln street, I report on the place-making activities of Arab Berliners. I find this street offers “safe” public space for Arab political and cultural expression and the forging of “pan-ethnic” community. Beyond common Arabic language, this street and nearby square is the location of pan-ethnic demonstrations and the center of ethnic associations, mosques, and predominantly Arab parks, schools, and other institutions in which solidarity crosses national lines. The symbolic boundaries of pan-ethnic space separate Arabs from both Turks and Germans” (Silver, 2014).
IV Heterotopia and Borders
Obviously, not all Arabs in Berlin are refugees but for for the refugees, Sonnenallee takes on yet another meaning. I had the privilege of being invited into the “container camp” in Buckow several times. Even though I passed through a few times and the same security personnel were there each time (and recognized me), they had to see my ID and sign me in every single time. Though it made no difference to me, it was quite distressing to my host (my friend, M) as it was a reminder to him that he wasn’t “free” here in Berlin nor was he able to feel a part of Berlin. Every time we passed through he repeated how much he hated not just this protocol but being here in the camp and in Berlin. Here in this space, surrounded by the fence border, the refugees were kept in a different sort of Heterotopic space then the one I will go on to describe Sonnenallee as. This particular “space within a space” (the container camp) is within Berlin but not OF Berlin. This is a space of restriction, rules, exclusion. The people in this “other space” are not allowed to participate fully in being part of Berlin. Their access to the city is limited.
Sonnenallee is also a Heterotopic space, a space within a space – an Arab space within a German space. (Or, since we are often reminded that “Berlin is not Germany”, an Arab space within the space of Berlin, Berlin itself being a heterotopia within Germany!) Rather than exclusion, this (Sonnenallee) is a space of inclusion for this particular community. While the camp was created by non Arabs for Arabs (and others), Sonnenallee is an Arab space created and supported by Arabs. Though non Arabs, such as myself, can walk through Arab Street, eat lunch or dinner here, make purchases, stop for a Hookah break, etc, Arab Street has slightly different cultural and social norms than the surrounding Berlin, perhaps only noticeable if you are actively watching. I, a self proclaimed “flâneuse” often walk alone. A woman walking alone through urban spaces isn’t as noticeable as it may have once been but here, on Sonnenallee at the height of daily activity, I felt conspicuous. Muslim women do not walk alone. Every woman I saw was either with their family, in a small group, with a man, or with at least one other woman. The families were gathered at the tables inside and outside of each restaurant but gathered at the two major hookah/shisha bars, I only saw men. I was also told by a couple of people (though could not confirm for myself) that though the Späti’s** on Sonnenallee sold beer and liquor as did Späti’s all around Berlin, the (Muslim) owners asked that you not stand outside on the sidewalk and imbibe your purchases right there, as you might outside of other Späti’s in Berlin; This was out of respect for their Muslim culture.
V Conclusion – The Future?
There are several facets and layers of interest in regard to “Arab Street” but I left wondering what it would look like five or ten or even a year from now. Many of the refugees that I met were unsure of their fate in Berlin – M told me that he was told he has a fifty percent chance of being granted permanent stay in Germany but that his roommate had a five percent chance. I don’t know how these percentages are calculated but what will Arab Street look like if the majority are sent away? What will it look like if many of them stay? Will it expand beyond those approximate six blocks? Will Arabs become as ubiquitious in Berlin as the Turkish have become? And if I were to return to Berlin in a year or five years, would there finally be some Arabic graffiti in the city for me to study?
*Arab – I use the word “Arab” to speak of people from the countries that are part of the Arab League of
nations (which includes the countries located on the Arabian Peninsula as well as several other
Arabic-speaking countries) . Though Syria’s inclusion in this group has been suspended (due to the
political situation and revolution), I am still including them as “Arab” here. The word “Arabic” is an
adjective, used to describe things such as the language, food, etc.
** Späti – the shortened, vernacular for Spätkauf; essentially a corner store that sells candy, magazines,
alcohol, etc. The Späti is part of Berlin culture and often people will sit or stand outside their Späti on
the sidewalk to drink the beer they purchased, etc.
Boshnaq, Dan Bilefsky and Mona. “Street Artists Infiltrate ‘Homeland’ With Subversive Graffiti.” The
New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2015. Web
12 July 2017.
Silver, Hilary . “Placing Panethnicity: Performing Arab Space on Sonnenallee.” The Street and the Urban
Public Sphere: Diversity, Difference, Inequality. International Sociological Association, Yokohama. July 2014. Lecture.
There are many aspects – sense-wise – that have been fairly universal in my European travels over the years. There’s certain smells or sensations that have been imprinted on me that, whenever I smell them elsewhere, immediately take me back or fill me with nostalgia. When I noticed these things in Berlin, I knew I was in Europe again.
This first one will seem very strange, I know, but one of the smells I always notice, overwhelmingly, is that sewage-y type scent. (I once read an article that said something about how “The stench of medieval Europe still echoes today”.) I don’t know if it’s medieval Europe I’m smelling but I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about. The strange part about this is that I have occasionally smelled it (especially after big rain storms) back home and whenever I do, I always feel waves of nostalgia for my time abroad before feeling something closer to repulsion!
Smells are very strong here – cigarette smoke is more prevalant than it’s been in other cities I’ve been to in awhile. Unique to Berlin, though, (particularly Kreuzberg so far) is a pervasive scent of marijuana. (Between the cranes and the marijuana, I might have thought I was still in Seattle…! Haha)
I love the sounds here, the hustle and bustle of the city. I haven’t ventured to many other neighborhoods yet but the soundtrack of an urban space is on constant loop – traffic, people socializing, shouting, laughing… I’ve noticed a distinct lack of horns honking, which surprises me. And, of course, my favorite sound of all – the sound of languages all around me. Mostly German, of course, and English, but I’ve caught Spanish, Many Arabic conversations, Turkish, etc. It’s the collage of languages that make the urban sounds of Europe different from those back home (and this is the thing that I think I love most.)
And, sometimes at night, in the hostel, we get to hear people who are completely unaware that there are people trying to sleep around them…! (Though we’ve heard some interesting conversations!)
Tastes are wonderful. The food is not so different here and yet it is. We had Lebanese food the other night and I was woefully reminded of how watered down food often seems to be in the United States, when it comes to cuisines from other countries. You couldn’t pay me to eat a plate full of parsley at home, but I had the brightest, most delicious, proper tabbouleh here. I’m writing this in a “health food” cafe (after so much bread and cheese, I needed something green) and even the green smoothies which have the same ingredients as what I make back home taste slightly different. (Not worse, just different). Though I love the bread and cheese and I have a huge appreciation for a culture that so values it’s bread (such a nice reprieve from the gluten free culture back home), sometimes I need a day without the bread and cheese…! 😉
One particular taste that I’ve been seeking as “familiar” is the coffee. I am a diehard “third wave cafe” coffee drinker (think of all the swanky coffee shops in Seattle) and I’ve been seeking out a new coffee place each day from a list I’ve been cultivating for a year. The coffee is exactly the same as Seattle (I’m not going to say better because, come on… I live in Seattle!) but this is the one thing I do to give me a sense of routine and remind me of home. 🙂 One interesting note: Third wave cafes are completely globalized, I think it’s safe to say. That is to say they are all exactly the same – the same aesthetic and interiors – no matter what country you go to! (I had hunted one down in Italy, as well and you’d have never known you weren’t in a hipster cafe in Seattle…) Normally this isn’t something I’d like – globalization and homogenization of culture concerns me… but coffee, oh coffee. This is a familiar, routine thing and Berlin puts it’s own spin on it. (Actually, I’ve never seen cafes back home as beautifully designed as Populus here in Berlin. Maison Han is also quite lovely.)
I LOVE the visuals of Berlin. It’s a feast for the eyes here! When I first walked around Kreuzberg, I was amazed at all the graffiti and street art here. It seems like every surface is covered with layers of colors, scribbles, words, images… I don’t have time to read every word and look at every picture on any one street! It’s creative chaos. (Conversely, I’ve been to Dresden a number of times and the thing that always struck me there is how pristine and orderly it was. It surprises me to see how different Berlin is.) The fashion, as well, is wonderful to pay attention to – there’s plenty of “normally” outfitted people but in between there’s some wild outfits, brightly colored hair, risque clothes, chains, piercings, ink, hairstyles that I wish I could get away with and to a greater extent than I’ve seen on my other travels around Europe. It’s just an incredible mishmash of EVERYTHING here in Berlin – the modernity of the new buildings and sculptures, old buildings and cranes creating new, carefully detailed art and chaotic amateurish scribbles… It’s easy to be inspired here and it’s pretty much everything I love about Europe.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that, like Seattle, there is a great disparity between the new construction, the tourism, and all the “privileged” things about being in the city versus the street populations (homeless, squatters, etc). We passed a squatter community the other day that I’m interested to learn more about – Kopi (I’ll need to double check the spelling.) I am constantly comparing and contrasting – mostly contrasting – with Seattle, though. From my perspective (which may also still be a bit starry-eyed), there’s a greater freedom of movement and use in the space here (greatly helped by the incredible transit system… Oh, Seattle. Why can’t we have this?) The human element feels strong, unlike Seattle which often feels very sterile with all the new buildings that are mean to look impressive. Though certainly, Berlin and Seattle may have more in common eventually – the signs of gentrification are everywhere. A friend who lives in Neukölln said her neighborhood has changed drastically in the 3 years that she’s been there.
Regarding our “scavenged item” yesterday – mine wasn’t really “found” as I knew I wanted to see the Book Burning memorial as soon as it was mentioned. It was one of the more interesting memorials I’ve seen because it was styled differently than most. I had to look closely to realize it was an actual space underground that held several empty bookshelves (I’m told it was enough space to hold all the books that had been burned.) These things are all particularly interesting to see now because of the political situation in the United States. I see memorials like this and the possibility of being told we should burn books or censor society in some similar way doesn’t seem like a completely far-fetched idea. (And this frightens me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s paranoid to walk through all of the history here in Berlin and think, “This history of fascism and censorship could be our future.”)
I am also constantly reminded of my privilege here (which I’m glad for) in the simple fact of my mobility. With all that’s going on in the world today – particularly the US – I was hyper aware of how easy it was for me to just leave the US to come to Berlin for a month. All I needed to do was decide to go and then buy a ticket, essentially. (I need a passport, too, of course, but I’ve had mine for 20 years and it was very easy to acquire. Filling up my first one well before it expired and having new pages added was a point of pride for me.) Even in terms of the public transit, I can easily afford to get around this way. When the program in Berlin is over, it’s nothing for my husband & I to casually mention countries we may go to afterward. I’m reminded of something I read in a previous class on immigration, that “having a passport from a Western Country such as the United States or England is like being royalty.” The Palace of Tears was another thing that reminded me of this idea of mobility and how much power there is in controlling how people move. I’ve often taken for granted my ability to just go wherever – to other countries, other cities, other states. This ability is one of the things that I consider most important to me and I tried to imagine being told I can’t leave Seattle or can’t enter Pennsylvania to see my family. This idea of “mobility” and borders and movement has been on my mind for awhile – it really is an incredible freedom that should be a right for all, not a privilege.
This is a VERY rough draft – I still need to work and write out the details in the background, method, etc:
Note: (added 5/15/17) – I will revise my final draft to reflect more on the concept of Heterotopias and Panopticism (re: Foucault) and space as power. Though I am still very much interested in urban art and graffiti, I will keep this as a side project and for study in my senior undergrad thesis next year.
I propose that within urban spaces there exist two cities: One, a city in constant development, a place of prosperity, $6 lattes, rising rents, and a privileged class of people generally thriving or at least getting by with plenty to spare. Two, a city often unseen or not wanted to be seen, populated by struggling communities, homeless, immigrants not considered “part of the same urban space”, people unable to be settled. The chasm between these two cities continues getting wider as developments and planning meant for “everyone” clearly exclude inhabitants of “the second city” and, in fact, seem to seek to erase city two completely. In both Seattle and Berlin – two cities themselves with a history of grassroots activism and struggle over “space”, now seen as two rising, global cities developing rapidly – one, a self declared “sanctuary city”, the other a city determined to manage the refugee crisis, the disparity seems even greater. Under these conditions, urban art and grassroots development of urban spaces (as opposed to official, sanctioned space activation) seek to make visible this “second city”, to merge the two cities into one and to be included and considered in the development and planning.
The idea of two cities existing together, sharing the same space, came to me after reading the science fiction novel City and the City by China Mielville. The novel is set within the cities of UI Quomo and Beszel, two cities that exist within the same space. While the two cities share a space, they exist as two separate entities with their own unique attributes (language, fashion, architecture, laws, etc). The inhabitants of each city are somewhat aware of the other city and it’s inhabitants but they do not (and are not allowed to) directly acknowledge anything or anyone in the other city. The two cities are watched over by a sort of shadow government known only as “Breach.” Anyone who directly acknowledges the “other” or who attempts to “cross over” is immediately arrested by Breach and harshly punished.
I had the fortune of reading this book during a class called “City of the Future” in which we were examining different aspects of “future cities” and development (within Seattle itself and around the world). Among all aspects of “development” we also examined the darker side – rising rent and home prices, gentrification, the human cost of “eco friendly” and sustainability. City and the City made me consider the idea that, within the shared space of a city such as Seattle (or Berlin, or insert any other “global” city of your choice), there exists two realities or two separate cities. Berlin is particularly interesting as it already has a history of existing as a city divided – with globalization and immigration, the division is no as clear cut as east and west, rather (as within City and the City) the separate “cities” within the city do not have clear demarcation lines. Rather, in this instance, they are intermingled, the edges of each blurred between alleyways, low income neighborhoods, areas of high income and development, etc.
Urban art is sometimes looked upon favorably but “graffiti” is rarely seen in a positive light. I propose that graffiti, along with urban art, and grassroots public space activation areas are ways of making the second “lesser” city visible, of forcing those in the more “developed” city to see and reckon with this other city.
(to be continued)