"Creating the Berlin of the future"

Arabs in the German capital? For many, this means criminal clans. Yet the city is home to a vibrant intellectual scene. Exiles from Syria, Palestine and Egypt are gathering to exchange ideas, eat and smoke. Is a new "we" emerging? By Dunja Ramadan

By Dunja Ramadan

Behind the blue door, in the courtyard of a small half-timbered house under shady fig trees and vines, a world comes together. People who never would have crossed each other's paths in life – thanks to visa regulations designed to divide rather than unite – meet here in Schoeneberg, Berlin, on the wide Potsdamer Strasse, next to a Moroccan restaurant, a Syrian restaurant and a vacant store with garlands in the window. The venue is Khan Aljanub, the "Hostel of the South". An Arabic bookstore in the middle of Berlin.

Here you can find the biography of Michelle Obama, the story of the Very Hungry Caterpillar in Arabic and about 4000 novels from Beirut, Cairo or Ramallah. On the second floor, there are Arabic novels in German translation, works by Egyptian Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz, for example, or the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih.

First and foremost, however, Khan Aljanub is a place of encounter: it is where Syrians meet Palestinians, Egyptians Lebanese and Moroccans Jordanians. There is no freedom of travel in the Arab world; although people speak the same language, they live separate lives. In Berlin, for the first time, Arab neighbours get the chance to meet each other and exchange ideas. They discuss, argue, drink coffee, read and smoke... a lot.

A place of encounter: Berlin, capital for Arabs in exile

In 2019, the Egyptian sociologist Amro Ali published a widely acclaimed essay in which he described Berlin as the capital for Arabs in exile, a haven for Arab intellectuals and cultural workers, especially since the Arab Spring. In the minds of many Germans, Berlin is primarily in the headlines as the alleged capital of Arab clans, engaged in a range of criminal activities: prostitution, drug trafficking and extortion.

But Ali offered a different view of the German capital, comparing it to the New York of the 1930s for Jewish intellectuals forced to flee Europe. He called on "the Arab intellectual community in Berlin to develop a name, a form and some sort of mandate. This might take the form of a school of thought, a political philosophy, or even an ideological movement – enriching all through a deeper engagement with the Arab world."

Today, three years later, the scene is flourishing. Some are already referring to Berlin as the "new Damascus" or "new Cairo". An increasing number of pan-Arab organisations are registering as associations in the German capital, such as the Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS), which aims to network and promote Arab cinematic culture, or the Febrayer Network, a pan-Arab association of independent media organisations. The scene even kept growing during the coronavirus pandemic: 2020 saw the opening of the Al-Berlin Cafe in Kreuzberg, the Khan ALjanub bookshop and the Oyoun cultural centre in Neukolln. The latter offers decolonised, queer feminist and migrant perspectives a platform for re-thinking culture.

Mohammed Sami Alkayial and his first book entitled "Berlin" (photo: Dunja Ramadan)
Mohammed Sami Alkayial und sein erstes Buch mit dem Titel "Berlin".

To return to Khan Aljanub: today, a young Syrian is presenting his debut novel. In the audience sit older gentlemen wearing polo shirts and glasses and a group of younger people, all tank tops, fanny packs and black nail polish. The title of the book is "Berlin". Mohammed Sami Alkayial, 36, glasses, full beard, shirt unbuttoned to the chest, writes about the near future, the Berlin of 2029. He calls this era "the black twenties", contrasting it with the Berlin of the Golden Twenties (1924-29), widely regarded as the heyday of German art, culture and science.

The author sketches a bleak vision of the future: in the world of organised crime, Mamo controls a fictitious kingdom called "Sham", but then he has to deal with the German investigator Peter Kloeckner. After the reading and at least five cigarettes, Alkayial has time for a short chat. What message is he sending with the book? "There are so many different worldviews in this big city, but they don't get exchanged. Everyone stays in their bubble and claims the truth for themselves, that's what I wanted to write down." What does he personally think of Berlin? "This city is my new home. I probably wouldn't recognise Damascus anymore."

Jowe Harfouche is a filmmaker and executive director of the Network of Arab Alternative Screens, NAAS (photo: Dunja Ramadan)
Jowe Harfouche ist Filmemacher und Geschäftsführer des Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS).

The day before, the venue hosted an all-female panel, in Arabic. "It all feels a bit like science fiction here," says Lebanese Jowe Harfouche, filmmaker and executive director of the Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS). They are currently planning their next event at NAAS: an exploration of whether blockchain technology is suitable for cultural organisations. The organisation supports more than twenty cinemas in the Arab world. Harfouche, with blonde hair and colourful socks, sits next to Fadi Abdelnour, owner of Khan Aljanub and graphic designer, Yasmeen Daher, philosopher and director of the Febrayer Network, and Muhammad Jabali, owner of Al-Berlin Bar.

Berlin is dynamic, free-spirited – and still affordable

Most of them came to Berlin on scholarships and stayed. Why? The city is dynamic, free-spirited – and still affordable compared to other European capitals, the four agree. They believe Berlin is experiencing an Arab heyday due to the 2015 refugee crisis and the many Syrians in the capital – around 40,000 according to the Federal Office of Statistics. In the meantime, the Syrians have settled in well and now have time for the really important things in life: culture, art and dialogue. This is also reflected in the increase in naturalisations. In 2021, 19,100 Syrians were naturalised as Germans – almost three times as many as in 2020.

In his early forties, Muhammad Jabali, the bar owner, has curly hair and colourful fingernails – and talks about how Berlin has opened up to Arab influences and tastes in recent years. Now, for example, you can buy fresh molokhia leaves in Berlin, the green spinach-like leaves of a mallow plant. These are made into soup into which pitta bread is dipped. Indeed, lovers of Arabic cuisine can now even get accoub in Berlin - a thistle-like plant, somewhere between asparagus and artichoke in taste, which used to be available only in February in remote mountain villages in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. "In the past, we had to wait for relatives to arrive or until we could fly down again. Now it's all just around the corner," says Jabali.

Fadi Abdelnour has been in Berlin the longest and is one of the founders of the bookshop (photo: Dunja Ramadan)
Fadi Abdelnour ist am längsten in Berlin und einer der Initiatoren des Buchladens.

Asked if he doesn't sometimes miss his home country of Palestine, he says: "I am there every day." Different cultures come together in his bar, bands from all over the world play there, and he organised a festival for this autumn. The night before, a French-Brazilian group gave a gig; women in headscarves sometimes drink a shandy at his place. "We are building the Berlin of the future," says Jabali.

Then Fadi Abdelnour intervenes. The German-Palestinian has been in Berlin the longest, since 2002. The 44-year-old, who lives in Berlin with his wife and child, tells of this one party in 2017 when he suddenly felt homesick. "I had become used to the fact that I no longer heard Arabic music and hardly spoke Arabic. But at this party, suddenly everything was possible again: I was surrounded by new people," says Abdelnour, who worked for ten years as artistic director of the Arab Film Festival Berlin. When he became a father, he felt the desire to read Arabic books to his daughter. But where to get them? He took matters into his own hands and, together with his partners Rasha Hilwi and Mohammad Rabie, began contacting publishers and ordering books.

"You need to realise something: it is more complicated to move a book from Beirut to Cairo than from Beirut to Berlin," says Fadi Abdelnour. "Berlin is now also an important hub for Arab artists from the region." Prominent Egyptian journalist and screenwriter Rasha Azab can confirm this; she is due to present her novel "Salted Heart" at Khan Aljanub the next day. The story revolves around Egyptian youth in the wake of the 25 January 2011 revolution. Rasha Azab laughs aloud when asked if she too will soon be moving to Berlin. "No, I belong in Egypt, that's where the people I love are. But these days Berlin has an exciting Arab scene that's impossible to ignore."

Yasmeen Daher is a philosopher and director for the pan-Arab network Febrayer (photo: Dunja Ramadan)
Yasmeen Daher ist Philosophin und Direktorin für das panarabische Netzwerk Febrayer.

That's also the reason Yasmeen Daher came to Berlin. She had previously lived in Canada, had just finished her doctorate in philosophy and wanted to return to the Arab world - but after the Arab Spring, most countries were ruled by authoritarian regimes, making it impossible to work freely.

Berlin: a haven for critical thinkers

"Then a friend told me about Berlin and the Arab scene, and I applied for a scholarship," says the one-time mother. She has now lived in the capital for six years. In her work as a project manager for the media network Febrayer, she is very much involved with the region. The organisation aims to provide audiences in the Arab world with reliable and independent information, especially in times of political censorship. At the same time, Daher is trying to build a new community around the network in Berlin.

Most of the time, the four Berliners-by-choice feel free to go about their everyday business. Occasionally, however, they worry about how the mood in Germany is developing. Inflation, the war in Ukraine, bottlenecks in gas supplies – these are all developments that aren’t exactly conducive to social harmony. Jabali tells of his last three attempts to get visas for Lebanese artists, all of which were rejected. Ever since the port explosion in the capital Beirut in August 2020, many young Lebanese have been hoping to emigrate to Berlin.

There's always something new to discover in Berlin, says Tariq Bajwa (photo: Dunja Ramadan)
Berlin lasse sich immer wieder neu entdecken, findet Tariq Bajwa.

Tariq Bajwa from the cultural centre Oyoun (Arabic for 'eyes') is familiar with such difficulties. Obtaining visas is very difficult, he says, even for artists who perform frequently in Europe. Yet when they do make it to Berlin, Bajwa is always surprised at how quickly the tickets sell out – and just who is sitting in the audience. English-speaking expats, German-Arabs who have travelled from different parts of Germany, German-Germans.

To get to Oyoun, you take the metro U7 to Neukoelln, which means travelling into the Arab neighbourhood: past little mannequins wearing festive turbans and Aladdin shoes, the classic outfit for every circumcision party, and past a guy with dreadlocks who amuses motorists stopped at red lights by standing on a ladder while balancing on a ball and skateboard.

The 35-year-old Bajwa from Emsland in Lower Saxony leads us through Oyoun's spacious facilities, three floors, dozens of seminar rooms, posters on the walls like "Black in Berlin" or illuminated signs that read "We have no time for beef". The cultural centre hosts readings, vernissages, plays, concerts, festivals and workshops, among other things. Although Bajwa has lived in Berlin for several years now, he is still discovering new corners of the capital. "So much is changing here, that's what makes Berlin so exciting."

Whether, as Amro Ali hopes in his essay, a new, post-revolutionary "we" is on the brink of emerging in Berlin, an engine for political ideas that will have an impact on the Middle East, only time will tell. Till then, Berlin remains a haven for critical thinkers who couldn't be like this anywhere else.

Dunja Ramadan

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2022