End of the Berlin Spring

Photo artist Steve Sabella in his studio in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
Berlin perceives itself as an international, multicultural city. But for many, this image has begun to show some cracks. Photo artist Steve Sabella is just one of the many Palestinians to have made the German capital their home (image: Miriam Klingl)

The German capital has attracted many Palestinian artists and intellectuals in recent years. Yet since the war in Gaza began, a sense of disillusionment has set in within the community

By Daniel Bax

Yasmeen Daher receives visitors at her new offices, her colleagues sit at the desks. The network of independent Arab media she works for only moved into the light-filled space in the Berlin district of Mitte last autumn. "We were euphoric and full of hope," says the 41-year-old. But since the war in Gaza that followed the 7 October Hamas attacks, the mood has changed. "A lot of trust has been lost," she says.

The media manager

Yasmeen Daher grew up in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, and studied philosophy in Canada. She came to Berlin on a grant eight years ago. After the Arab Spring, the German capital was seen as a haven for Arab intellectuals, some of whom had to flee their homelands. Not Paris or London – too expensive – and not Istanbul – too dangerous – no, at the time Berlin attracted many young artists, academics and intellectuals from Arab nations, among them many Palestinians.

Berlin isn't just home to Europe's largest Palestinian minority. The 2015 "summer of migration" brought around 40,000 more people from Syria, who in turn brought new impetus, opening restaurants and patisseries. So it seemed that this would be the ideal place to group together independent and progressive media from the Middle East and North Africa, just as the independent network Febrayer is doing. Yasmeen Daher is the network's co-director and editorial manager.

But when she arrived in Germany eight years ago, she quickly realised that the mood here was quite different to the one she was used to from Canada. There, there was a large university-based Palestinian solidarity movement. When she took part in a pro-Palestine demonstration for the first time in Berlin and daubed the word "apartheid" on a placard, she was told: "You can't do that in Germany". She remembers that she warned it would be seen as "anti-Semitic" because it demonised Israel. "That was a lightbulb moment," she says.

Media manager Yasmeen Daher
Yasmeen Daher, feminist activist, writer and co-director of Febrayer (photo: Miriam Klingl)

Yasmeen Daher was politicised at an early age. Because her mother comes from Nablus in the West Bank, she often went there with her family and experienced checkpoints, harassment, curfews, the whole occupation programme. She also experienced discrimination within Israel itself: "Palestinian parents were treated differently by the authorities. You wouldn't get an apartment because of your name," she says. A new residential complex with parks and swimming pools inhabited mainly by Jewish Israelis towers over Nazareth, a city with an Arab majority.

When the Second Intifada broke out in the year 2000, police shot dead a total of 13 Arab citizens at protests in places like Nazareth: an experience that has also left its mark on Yasmeen Daher. The Israeli state works to maintain the superiority of one group over the other, says Yasmeen Daher. In Israel, Palestinians like her are second-class citizens, Palestinians from the West Bank are exploited as cheap labour, and those living in Gaza are locked away: a system of divide and rule, she says.

For Palestinians like her living in Germany, the war in Gaza has also brought about change. "My son goes to kindergarten here," she says. "When the war in Ukraine began, they organised a clothing collection there. But now there's no response at all, just silence." She finds this difficult to understand. The lack of sympathy shown by many Germans has left her disappointed. "Many don't have a full picture of what's happening in Gaza," she believes.

This is also the fault of media reporting on Palestinians here, she adds. "Right from the outset, German media portrayed us all as terrorists, Hamas sympathisers and anti-Semites," she says. Little wonder then that many Germans are reluctant to express public solidarity with "such figures", even if they oppose the war.

Haven't anti-Semitic slogans also scared people off and deterred them from taking part in rallies? "At the demonstrations I took part in there were no anti-Semitic slogans," she says with certainty. The charge of anti-Semitism is used to prevent people from showing solidarity with Palestinians, she believes. The best way to counter anti-Semitism is to take to the streets together with Jewish partners to rally for a just peace, she says, but such efforts are also being hampered.

And the many Palestinian flags, don't they also serve to scare off some people? "I'm not a nationalistic person," says the media manager. "But I can't tell a group battling against its repression what flags they should wave. That seems paternalistic to me" – particularly if you yourself have a state that grants you rights and security. "We're portrayed as a homogeneous group. But we're very diverse and have diverse opinions," she insists.

The graphic designer and cultural mediator

Fadi Abdelnour can only confirm this. He came to Germany to study design at the age of 24, today he's 45 and a jack-of-all-trades: In the autumn of 2020 he opened the bookstore Khan Aljanub ("Hostel of the South”) in Berlin. It's in a rear courtyard off a main road, the entrance is between a Syrian and a Moroccan restaurant and isn't easy to find.

But the shop has a unique selling point: it's the only bookstore in Berlin that sells Arabic literature, art books and comics, but also non-fiction and philosophy titles. The store is about to be relocated to Neukolln, to a space with a shop window. Over the last 10 years, Abdelnour has been running the Arab film festival "Alfilm". Abdelnour designed the poster for the most recent edition in April, which recalled Palestinian embroidery.

But Abdelnour has noticed that major cultural institutions are now gripped by fear and uncertainty. There was a wave of cancellations due to "anti-Semitism" accusations, against Jewish artists too. Palestinian speakers are rarely given the stage. If there are any events or panel discussions, these mostly take place in independent backyard cinemas, left-wing meeting places or private academic settings. "For those seeking more open-minded debate, the space is becoming ever smaller," says Fadi Abdelnour.

Graphic designer and bookseller Fadi Abdelnour
The graphic designer and bookseller Fadi Abdelnour (image: Miriam Klingl)

It's like treading on eggshells, for fear of causing offence, he says: "It was a labyrinth. Now it's a minefield." The climate is causing him great concern. "You would think that democratic societies are stable," he says. "It's frightening how quickly people are ready to cast their own values aside." Tolerance, human rights, freedom of expression – the things people are often so quick and proud to claim when they're talking about their country.

Abdelnour grew up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and studied at Birzeit University near Ramallah before coming to Germany. At that time, students from Gaza were also able to study in the West Bank. He still has friends from back then whose families live in Gaza. "But it's getting more and more difficult to call them," he says. "There's nothing more to say. What is there to say? I hope your family hasn't starved to death yet?"

Abdelnour is downcast and asks himself: Have all his efforts achieved anything at all? His plan now is to focus more on his work as a freelance graphic designer. "I've built up a network here," he says. "But will people still want to work with me in future? How secure is my German passport?" he wonders.

The feminist

Fidaa al-Zaanin came to Berlin for the first time eight years ago. Then, she was still working for NGOs in the Gaza Strip and visited the Bundestag. The 34-year-old grew up in the Gaza Strip and studied computer science there. Her father is an engineer, her mother an English teacher. While they now live in Sweden; their children are scattered across different countries, in Berlin and Canada.

Fidaa al-Zaanin's younger siblings work in medical professions in Berlin. "I was always a rebel," she says. We meet in a cafe and she has plenty to say. Most Palestinians want their children to become either engineers or doctors, she smiles. But she went to study in Iceland and took courses in Gender Studies. She views Iceland as very progressive and felt welcome there.

Fidaa al-Zaanin describes herself as a feminist and is politically active. In 2012 she attended the World Social Forum in Brazil, and in 2013 in Tunis. In Berlin she works for a social enterprise with plenty of interaction with German authorities. On Women's Day on 8 March, she demonstrated in the city centre with feminist and queer groups from all over the world and gave a speech. Elsewhere on the same day, women demonstrated against Hamas' denial of sexualised violence after 7 October. Al-Zaanin can't understand that women at that rally waved Israeli flags, because after all, Israel tramples the rights of Palestinian women underfoot, she says. Referring to the other protesters that day, she says: "Our suffering means nothing to them."

Feminist Fidaa al-Zaanin
Artist and feminist Fidaa al-Zaanin (image: Daniel Bax)

It is a feminist's duty to denounce any form of sexual violence, no matter who the perpetrator might be, she emphasises. "But who decides which crime deserves more outrage?" she asks with a nod to the war in Gaza where it's thought more than 8,000 women and more than 13,000 children have already been killed. "The bombs are also falling on my queer friends there," she says. The university she went to has been destroyed, her hometown of Beit Hanoun has been reduced to rubble. Her brother-in law, her nieces and nephew were caught unawares by the war as they were visiting Gaza.

"We tried the whole time to stay in phone contact with them," she says. "It's difficult to explain what we've been through as a family." She couldn't sleep for days, she was constantly looking at her phone and watching all the news channels. Eventually her relatives were able to leave and fly out via Cairo. She has a video on her phone showing her relatives arriving at Copenhagen airport. Her father is crying.

"I've lost friends and relatives," she says. "There's no time to process it." You think you're immune, but that's not the case, she adds. "Some see us as victims, others glorify us. But we're just people who are tired and who don't want to give up."

The photo artist

Steve Sabella's studio is in the bohemian Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. He's set it up in his late 19th-century apartment with a view over the bustling Kastanienallee. A cat sits on an armchair in the bay window and jumps up when the visitor enters. The walls are hung with his work in large format. Sabella is a photo artist whose images are displayed in London, Paris and Dubai. He's just accepted a teaching position at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, he reports with pride: there, he'll teach students how to "paint with light", as he describes it.

The 45-year-old has been living in Berlin since 2010, but he doesn't feel tied to the city. He simply likes it here. His wife is from Switzerland, his daughter has just moved to Paris to study. Sabella originally came to Berlin on a grant to study at the Akademie der Kunste, he previously lived in New York and London. "I spent the best 10 years of my life in Berlin," he says, referring to a time pre-coronavirus. He used the pandemic to work like crazy day and night on new projects, he says. But is he firmly established here in this city? Globally speaking, his work has been exhibited in more than 120 shows, 25 of them in Italy alone – but only seven in Berlin. But still, it's not his style to complain. He leafs through the catalogues lying on his table, and a monograph published in 2014.

Some of his pieces are currently on show in the Berlin villa quarter of Dahlem. The Emirate of Qatar has set up a cultural venue there. It's called "Der Divan" and hosts regular events. The interior design is simple and elegant, everything is white and gold. Sabella recently spoke to the curator and philosopher of religion Almut Shulamit Bruckstein about his work at an event there. The two sat in rococo armchairs beneath huge chandeliers and inevitably, their conversation turned to the situation in Gaza. "I find no words for what's happening there," said Sabella. "It will take generations to process it."

Photo artist Steve Sabella in his studio in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
Photo artist Steve Sabella in his studio in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg (image: Miriam Klingl)

Pictures from his "Everland" series are displayed in the upper rooms: in these, re-coloured images from historic Palestine are blended with scenes from other regions in the Middle East to form the fairy-tale-like dreamscapes of an imaginary Orient. In the basement, visitors can see views of Jerusalem and modern silhouettes of the city. Sabella comes from a long-established Jerusalem family; his great-grandfather was once a superintendent of the Old City.

As he was building his career as an artist, he worked as a photographer for the UN from 1999 to 2007. This meant he was able to travel to Gaza several dozen times. "I'm one of the few Palestinians who's seen all parts of Palestine," he says: a rare privilege. He sees art as a means of self-liberation from everyday life under Israeli occupation. The occupation is "like a never-ending hostage situation. No one wants to live like that," he says. It's not just the land that's being occupied – but people's imaginations too. "Many can't imagine a life in freedom," he adds.

Sabella has long curly hair, usually wears all black and always red socks; he's painted his fingernails black. His images are partly enigmatic and fantastical, partly metaphoric and partly political. For the installation "Settlement", he photographed six Israelis – and himself – in underwear. "That's my most radical work," says Sabella. It is now displayed at the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. For the series "The Great March of Return", he combined images of demonstrators at the border fence in Gaza with images from outer space to create cosmic panoramas in the style of Renaissance art; they look like Sistine Chapel frescoes with a dash of agitprop.

For another series, he photographed ornamental tile designs and kitchenware displayed on the wall of an old house in Jerusalem. He printed the photographs on old paint prepared with photo emulsion, remnants that he'd scraped off the walls of houses in the old town. The fragments appear ephemeral and fragile. The motif has been used on book covers by the cultural scientist Ella Shohat, among others. It shows "how a picture can open up entire worlds," says Sabella, clicking on the images on his website.

Berlin perceives itself as an international, multicultural city. But for many, this image has begun to show some cracks. "We give this city so much – in terms of language, art and culture," says Yasmeen Daher. But now, many people are feeling a sense of estrangement. "Clearly some people don't like having such a diverse capital," says Fadi Abdelnour. "Germany is strange," says Fidaa al-Zaanin. "They want migrants as labour. But they're not very kind to the people." Only Steve Sabella isn't fazed by this: "That's the system," is all he says.

"Palestinians never had it easy here, there were always reservations," says Fadi Abdelnour. But now it's become normal to say racist things about Arabs, he adds. May Palestinians who only moved to Germany in recent years don't speak German. "Sometimes I envy them, that they don't understand what the society they're living in thinks about them," he says grimly. "The atmosphere in Germany is frightening," says Fidaa al-Zaanin. Palestinians who speak out are being criminalised, barely a demonstration ends without arrests. "I feel like I'm in a hostile environment," she adds.

In previous years, the City of Berlin banned all demonstrations to commemorate Nakba, the flight and expulsion of Palestinians from modern Israel; police cracked down on any gatherings not registered with authorities in advance. The situation worsened after 7 October. Many were shocked at the brutal police tactics used to break up many demonstrations that first month after the Hamas attacks. "What I saw was off the scale – even in comparison to Ramallah," says Fadi Abdelnour. It was "almost like in a film", how the police charged through the crowd, how several officers set upon a single person, quite openly.

There were similar scenes recently at Berlin's Hauptbahnhof or central train station. In the autumn Fadi Abdelnour began wearing a Palestinian scarf as a form of protest. He sometimes dyed his hair in the national colours: black, white, red and green. At the gym, he wore a Palestinian soccer jersey – somebody complained.

Police aggression, Berlin city authority plans to attach conditions to cultural funding, or proposals to require those seeking German citizenship to acknowledge Israel's right to exist – all this has left its mark. "People fear for their livelihoods, their support, their residency status," says Yasmeen Daher.

Some of her media network employees are so afraid they now prefer to publish their reports under a pseudonym. Others are worried about being attacked on the street. In October, a woman in Berlin wearing a Palestinian scarf was pushed in front of a subway train; she narrowly missed being hit. "We're an irritation," says Fadi Abdelnour. "My sheer existence is a provocation," says Fidaa al-Zaanin. "I have the feeling that the German establishment would rather we didn't exist."

That's why many members of the community are considering emigration. "People are starting to make serious plans," says Fadi Abdelnour. "Some even describe it as escape." Yasmeen Daher knows people who've already left the city. "One acquaintance of mine has gone back to Beirut," she says. "Many people I know want to leave – not just Palestinians, but others too," says Fidaa al-Zaanin. "They're repelled by the racism." Only Steve Sabella is taking a different approach: he has plans to rent a shop around the corner from his apartment and turn it into his studio. He hopes it'll make it easier for him to interact with people in his neighbourhood.

Daniel Bax

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon