Berlin Impressions: Occidentalism?

15 March 2011: Berlin Tegel Airport: Going back to Karachi after spending 11 days as Kamran’s guest at the Wissenschaftskolleg. It was not my first visit to Berlin but since it was a long one, I got to know a little bit about the city and its people.

Berlin lacks the flirtatiousness of Paris, the blazeness of London and the exuberance of Rome. But it has a much stronger feel to it – and this feel is of tragedy – both in its physical form and in its people. Its old monumental architecture is grey and colourless and serious classical Doric and Ionic – no violations or adaptations here as in London and Paris. The grand access and symmetry of Housman’s Paris is attempted but not achieved – too many buildings off axis and with major aberrations. Its new architecture at Potsdamer Pl is also tragic – glass and metal, using technology to its limit, dwarfing the human figure, making man insignificant, and much of the elegant detail is lost in the scale of the buildings. Its new railway station, the Hauptbahnhof is similar. It is like the inside of a computer, glass and metal. Too many levels are visible, too much movement to contend with, one feels lost in it and the only colour is of aggressive signage which helps you find your way through a maze of movement options.

The architecture on Uder de Linden, on the east side, is different. It is low rise because perhaps it is not permitted to have buildings higher than the Brandenburger Gate. It also has the texture of stone, plaster and brick. There is a modesty and friendliness about it, forced obviously by byelaws and zoning regulations. It also attracts a very different street life, dominated by informal music and acrobatic performances. Maybe I am being prejudiced – the performances are perhaps only because more tourists visit the Brandenburger Gate than the Potsdamer Pl, though I doubt that that is the reason.

Two buildings of the 70’s however, are exceptional at Potsdamer Pl. These are the library and the Philharmonic Hall. They break with modernism in every conceivable way – concept, detail, colour and form. However, they are not the new post-modern for they do not seek to shock with their violations of grammar and knowledge. I visited the Philharmonic with Kamran and Saima on 13 and went back on 14 March and sat in the lobby for a long time and tried to imagine when went on in the architect’s head when he designed this building. That is an essay in itself.

Because of the war and the holocaust, Berlin is also different from other European cities. Nazi politics, atrocities and the attempted extermination of the Jews is reflected in monuments, plaques and museums. It is ever present because of them. However, there is no monument to the extermination of our cousins, the Romas. But why should there be? They were not residents of this city. They had not contributed to its intellectual, civic and professional life, and above all, they were not a “civilized people”. Today small groups of them, mostly women and young girls, roam around the tourist areas asking for money, posing as Bosnian war victims but looking non-Bosnian-dark skin, black eyes and hair, longish faces and thick lips. The dress too is different and unmistakeably Roma – long pleated skirts, embroided tunics and colourful scarfs.

There are also other differences. In the centre of Berlin there are large social housing estates. In Paris, they are in the suburbs and in London the Thatcher government has gentrified them. They are now the property of the rich. The Berlin working and lower middle classes have been saved from this devastation, perhaps because of the division of the city. Also, Berlin is perhaps the only European capital along whose rivers expressways have not been built. One can attribute this too to the division of the city.

The Berliners are also different from their urban west European cousins in many ways. They are polite, helpful and serious. Three times I got lost and each time when I asked for help people went out of their way to guide me to an extent that it was embarrassing. This could never happen in London and Paris and perhaps will not happen in the Berlin of the 2020’s. Maybe this is the result of the culture of a divided and battered city or perhaps of the socialist culture of East Berlin – I can only speculate. Also on the streets life is ordered as compared to London, Paris or Rome. Young people do not run about “having firm”, couples do not “misbehave” overtly in public, and though there are drunks, they are sad and depressed and was not violent and abusive. These are first impressions of a winter visit. Maybe when spring sets in and summer comes, life on the streets will be different and like in the other European capitals.

But one thing is not an impression, it is a reality. In the streets of London you no longer come across George Orwell’s characters or those of the films of the 60’s. In Paris the bohemian characters of Godard’s films no longer exist. In Rome the bar tenders and barbers are no longer the ones one saw in the movies of Victorio de Sica. But in Berlin you can still come across the dress, facial expressions and heavy make of the characters in the German films of the 1920’s. The upturned noses, the bright red lipstick, the melancholic eyes, blond hair peeping out of round wool knitted caps, the low back dress and a cigarette held on the holder, are still very much a part of the Berlin landscape. Maybe this too is the result of the fossilization of the city during the period of its division.

Then there is Berlin and Islam. On my first night out by myself I went to a bar at Alexander Plaz. At the bar were two working class Arabs and their German friend who could not speak English. I and the Arabs talked about Iraq, Egypt and Libya and when the German was told I was from Pakistan, he asked me why in Pakistan we killed women who did not wear the hijab. He was very angry but after the Arabs told him that he was mistaking Pakistan for Iran, he calmed down. The Arabs did not tell him that this did not happen in Iran either, and because of language problems I could not explain either.

On 07 March, Kamran sent me to Oranien Street, the Turkish area. It was dark by the time I got there and cold. It was full people, bars, eating places, advertising companies, cabarets, casinos and Turks. The Turks were at home in this environment – both men and women – the hijab also was almost non-existent. I sat at a rundown bar and watched the dating and drinking drama, whose main actors were young Turks of both sexes unfold before my eyes. It seemed all of a sudden that unlike in the UK and France, the Muslims of Berlin were well integrated into the cultural and civic life of a white and Christian Europe.

However on the 8th, I went to visit the Jewish museum, but I did not go in for the area where it is located was fascinating. It was large scale public housing with interesting public spaces. It was a area where families lived and the families were for the most part Turkish. Children were playing in the open spaces, mostly football, and shouting to each other both in German and in Turkish – calling each other by their names – Ahmed, Murad, Khalid – are the ones I picked up. Were there any Germans among them? I do not know but what I do know is that their games were overseen by stoic plump Turkish women in long black skirts and hijabs of many colours. In the street too were a number of young couples, arm in arm and almost invariably the women was in a hijab.

For someone coming from the Karachi of the 60’s where clan and/or ethnic based neighbourhoods, speaking different languages were common, acceptable and peaceful, Europe’s preoccupation with the hijab and Islam is intriguing. But maybe not, for unlike us, Europe’s history is seeped in ethnic and religious conflicts – leading to the rise of nationalisms – something we have also inherited from our colonial masters and something, luckily, we have not yet fully come to terms with.

While in the neighbourhood, I went to a cafe. The waiter, who was actually running the place, was a Muslim from Calcutta. His name was Imran Khan. He spoke beautiful Urdu and had relations in Karachi. According to him the Germans cannot do without their Muslim population; he thought the present anti-Islam phobia was a good thing for it would lead to a give and take and would ultimately create a better understanding of Islam. We argued about this. He could give no reasons for his point of view which was based on intuition. However, he told me that there were Pakistani, India and Sri Lankan cricket teams in Berlin and in summer they had regular matches. He also said that they had poetic competitions and musical groups and programmes. I asked if there was a fusion of west and east taking place in poetry and music – he said no!. So different from Pakistan where the two are coming together in such a big way. The cafe he was running belonged to a Turkish friend and its Indian name and cuisine was to attract customers.

On my last day in Berlin, I went back to Eisenman’s Jewish monument to re-access my earlier opinion of it. My opinion remained. I think the monument is an insult to Berlin. It is ugly (perhaps meant to be) and as it is on a grid there is always light at the end of the pathways turning death and hatred into life and joy.

Today when I handed in my passport at the immigration desk, the immigration officer looked at it and said “Salam Alaikum”. I replied “Walaikum Asalam” and he further said “Wa Rehmatullah …”. I asked him where he was from. He replied “I am German”. I asked, “are you a Muslim”. He responded “why not?”

One Comment

  1. Maria

    I love the piece and can so connect to it. The cities mentioned have visited them all and had always wondered what is it about Berlin that leaves me so sad. Maybe I did not touch the pulse of the city, I did feel the population withdrawn in themselves but the reason defied me. AH has captured the essence and has awakened in me thoughts of the city Berlin that were simmering under the surface of Modern architecture Glass facades. Poignant read!

    Posted April 7, 2013 at 5:31 pm | PermalinkReply

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