Podcast: Concrete canvas

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like the Berlin Wall and other political barriers, the Israeli wall has witnessed an explosion of protest art on its concrete canvas.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 6 September 2016

From where I live on the Mount of Olives, I have a sublime view over the Jordan Valley, all the way to the Dead Sea and beyond. But the divine landscape conceals an unholy reality.

The territory I can survey with my naked eyes is sliced and diced into numerous zones, including the Israeli-annexed Jerusalem municipality, settlements, West Bank Palestinian towns and villages, and more.

If you look carefully, this geopolitical reality is underscored by the Israeli wall, which goes by various names, depending on who is speaking: the separation or security fence or wall, by the Israelis, or the apartheid or segregation wall, by the Palestinians.

The wall runs across the landscape like an open gash or a badly healed scar. Even though Israel insists its sole purpose is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens, the concrete monstrosity swallows up land, disrupts lives, ruins livelihoods, segregates Israelis and Palestinians, and reinforces the psychological and emotional barriers between the two peoples.

Like the Berlin Wall and other political barriers elsewhere, the Israeli wall has witnessed an explosion in artistic expression since its construction. And this artwork has become the target of political pilgrims.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

During the recent Palestine marathon, I stopped, like many others, to take snaps of the more striking artworks on the wall. Surreally, a surprisingly high number of Palestinians were posing for individual or group selfies, making the barrier seem more like a tourist attraction than a prison wall.

The most famous artist to have worked on this concrete canvas has to be British graffiti artist Banksy. With his trademark mix of humour and poignant socio-political commentary, Banksy figuratively tears through the barrier.

One of his large murals features a huge, misshapen crack in the wall through which a child climbs. This puts me in mind of the street murals painted on to the walls erected by the Egyptian military in Cairo to curb the movements of revolutionaries. To reclaim the streets, revolutionary artists simply and painstakingly painted what was on the other side, transforming the concrete barriers into a transparent window.

One amusing Banksy art piece features a large, rectangular dotted line with scissors on its edge, rather like what you find around a cut-out coupon in a newspaper. Another expresses more explicitly the desire to escape. In it, a rope ladder dangles precariously off the wall with a boy at the bottom tugging on it.

Armed with sledgehammers, some activists have emulated this desire to smash through the barrier in real life. Others have actually scaled the wall in daring stunts aiming to show that no barrier can hold back the human determination to be free.

But it is not just political activists. Thousands of ordinary Palestinians find creative ways to get over, under or around the wall and fences which cage them in, so as to make a living or see family and friends.

Khaled Jarrar, the hard-hitting and provocative Jenin-born Palestinian artist who lives in Ramallah, made a hauntingly raw, unstructured documentary, called Infiltrators, about this. Over the course of four years, Jarrar filmed workers, patients, worshippers and smugglers as they embarked on risky journeys to the other side. Despite the overall grimness, there are moments of surreal comedy, such as the Palestinian boy squeezing bread through a hole in the wall, apparently oblivious to the world around him.

For wry humour and true laughs at the absurdity of it all, one must turn to Suad Amiry’s book Nothing to lose but your life. In it, the intrepid architect, academic and author disguises herself as a man and joins a group of workers in the dead of night as they attempt to cross into Israel.

With her eye for the ironic and quirky, and her no-holds barred straight-talking, Amiry brings to vivid life the rogues parade of characters she encounters on her journey. And it is all done with the eccentric, zany, chatty wit she exhibits in person, as well as on the page.

But the wall separating Israelis and Palestinians is not just a canvas and subject for art, it can also provide its raw materials. Khaled Jarrar chips away chunks of the wall and uses the concrete to fashion or sculpt footballs, basketballs and ping-pong rackets, like those abandoned by kids playing by the wall.

Palestinians may dream of dismantling the wall and ending the restrictions it imposes on their lives, but, in the meantime, life goes on. Under its long concrete shadow, in front of its dizzying array of street art, people go about their days until the day arrives when it, like its predecessors elsewhere, will vanish.

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Defeating Hitler’s legacy

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, Germany provides an inspiring role model for how societies can come to terms with their ugly past.

Thursday 11 April 2013

An unknown German defies the tyranny of Nazism and the mass psychosis of the time. From Topography of Terror collection.

An unknown German defies the tyranny of Nazism and the mass psychosis of the time. From Topography of Terror collection.

Walking around today’s cosmopolitan Berlin, it is hard to believe that it was only 80 years ago this year that Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. The self-styled “Führer” transformed a volatile yet vibrant democracy into the very definition of a totalitarian dictatorship, paving the way for a war that would claim an estimated 75 million lives, including the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million people belonging to other stigmatised ethnic groups and minorities.

SONY DSCTo mark this important anniversary, the city of Berlin has organised a series of events in 2013 around the theme of “destroyed diversity”. Among the many attractions are open-air exhibitions – sort of pop-up urban memorials – at critical locations around the city which highlight Berlin’s diversity during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s, and how this was eventually destroyed by the Nazis.

The portrait exhibitions across Berlin place the wider events of this historical turning point in the human and personal by profiling more than 200 prominent Berliners who both represented the city’s immense diversity and subsequently fell victim to Nazi tyranny.

One thing that caught my attention is that though Jews were the Nazi’s most hated and persecuted victims, they were not the first. The early purges carried out by Hitler and his cohorts was a kind of political classicide in which opposition politicians, journalists, writers and intellectuals were targeted, particularly communists and leftists.

As a 21st-century observer who knows how this German tragedy ends, one thing that immediately strikes you is how incredibly creative and diverse the Weimar Republic was. Empowered by what some historians regarded as “the most liberal and democratic” constitution of the 20th century, its capital, Berlin, blossomed into a global centre of learning, culture and art.

At its best, Berlin was a free-spirited city where minorities and women flourished in a rare atmosphere of free inquiry, despite the increasingly bloody conflict between the extreme right and left. Had Germany taken a different path, we might today have looked back at the Weimar republic as a “golden age second only to the Italian Renaissance”, the American writer Frederic Grunfeld once claimed.

Although the ugly brand of anti-Semitism which was to become the trademark of the Nazi era was already visible on the political margins – such as in Hitler’s very own bestseller Mein Kampf  – Jews in Germany were to reach a level of prominence and integration that would be unmatched and unrivalled in the Western world except in the United States in recent decades.

In fact, so deeply woven into the fabric of German life were the Jews that some historians have gone so far as to declare this largely urban population who tended to speak High German, rather than regional dialects, to be the only “true” Germans. “Before Hitler rose to power, other Europeans often feared, admired, envied and ridiculed the Germans; only Jews seemed actually to have loved them,” wrote the late Amos Elon in The Pity of it All: a Portrait of Jews in Germany.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The 160,000 Jews in Weimar Berlin were prominent not just in their traditional domains of finance and business, establishing, for instance, Europe’s largest department store KaDeWe, but also in science, including the legendary Albert Einstein who taught at the city’s Humboldt University, and philosophy, such as Walter Benjamin.

Jews were also leading lights in Berlin’s world-famous culture scene. To name a few, there was the Hungarian-born opera singer Gitta Alpár and Max Reinhardt in theatre. Politics too was increasingly becoming a Jewish theatre, with assimilationist Walter Rathenau becoming the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister.

The people named above, like the vast majority of Berlin’s Jewish population, were eventually either killed or had to flee Germany for their lives, bringing to a tragic end the Weimar experiment which could have turned out so radically different.

Nazism and World War II left Berlin in ruins and the post-war years saw the city transformed into a Cold War battleground, rather than the interwar intellectual and artistic playground it had once been. The blitzed city was occupied by the four victors of the war: the United States, Britain and France controlled West Berlin, while the Soviet Union occupied East Berlin.

Like Germany itself, Berlin was divided and the most famous section of the Iron Curtain which fell over Europe ran through the city, becoming the stuff of Cold War legend and real-life nightmares.

One of the last remaining segments of the Berlin Wall. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

One of the last remaining segments of the Berlin Wall. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The Berlin Wall was more than 140km long and separated not only the two halves of the city, but also cut the West Berlin enclave from surrounding East Germany. Physically, the few remaining sections of the barrier still standing and archive images reminded me of another wall which has gone up in the mean time: the one erected by Israel, which is part of the broader physical and mental “Zion Curtain” dividing the Middle East.

Having seen Israel’s concrete monstrosity up close, I was surprised by how low the Berlin Wall was in comparison, 3.6m high versus 8m high in parts of the West Bank. But then again the Berlin Wall had deadly features its Israeli counterpart does not possess, such as the infamous Death Strip. That said, the Berlin Wall and the rest of the Iron Curtain running through Germany was constructed on East German territory, while most of the Israeli wall lies on occupied territory.

Both barriers were built, at least partly, for security considerations: East Germany claimed it had built an “anti-fascist protection rampart” to defend its civilians against “fascist elements” while Israel says it is a shield against “terrorism”. In reality, one wall was designed to keep East Germans in, while the other has been built to keep Palestinians out – not to mention to grab more of their land and cement de facto borders.

Both walls have also been the subject of enormous protest internationally, especially by their enemy camps. West Germans came up with the term “Wall of Shame” while Palestinians refer to a “Racial Segregation Wall” or “Apartheid Wall” in English. Graffiti has also served as a powerful tool for expressing opposition to the existence of both barriers. Like in West Berlin, the West Bank side of the Israeli wall has become perhaps the largest protest banner in the world and is covered in street art, including by the world-famous Banksy.

As seems historically inevitable in such situations, at least in retrospect, the Berlin Wall eventually fell. Since that fateful period in 1989, Germany has been reunited and the artificial division of Berlin has come to an end.

With massive investment from the West German government, Berlin has risen from the wastelands of the Cold War to reclaim its place as one of Europe’s great metropolises. While the German capital still remains a shadow of its former self, its vibrancy and cultural energy are truly impressive to behold.

But, in my view, the most impressive thing about Berlin, and more broadly Germany, is its ability not only to reinvent itself – losing the war, but in many ways winning the peace – but also its possibly unmatched propensity to come to terms with its ugly past.

In no other capital city I can think of are the crimes of the past so unblinkingly, unflinchingly and honestly on display. In fact, to the outside visitor, Berlin can resemble an open-air museum of historic horror, terror, death and destruction.

A few steps away from Germany’s Reichstag building, which houses the German parliament, the Bundestag, is an enormous Holocaust memorial. The haunting, if rather ugly, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe sits on a 4.7-acre site containing hundreds of plain, grey concrete “stelae” of different shapes and sizes.

Berlin is also home to one of the largest Jewish history museums in the world, housed in a unique twisted zigzag of a building. As a sign of just how far Berlin and Germany have come, the city and the country have again become attractive targets for Jewish immigration, with 200,000 mostly Russian Jews, and even quite a few Israelis, doing the once unthinkable and settling there.

Then, there are all the Cold War artefacts and museums, including the archives of the frightening East German secret police, the Stasi. In a similar vein, the Topography of Terror museum provides an honest, gripping and sobering account of the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, and its paramilitary SS, who once occupied the site.

Of course, even Germany has had its failures, as all the Nazi war criminals who managed to evade justice demonstrate. In addition, some East Berliners, as well as East Germans in general, complain that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater following reunification, and that even the good things from the communist experiment were jettisoned and the entire chapter depicted only as a cause of shame.

Abroad, though the Nazi legacy has turned Germans into the least nationalist of the great western powers and checked the excesses of Germany’s jingoistic past, it sometimes also leads to Germany shirking its global responsibilities, such as to speak out and act against the Israeli occupation.

To us in the Middle East, Germany provides a powerful case study in how to lay the past to rest, draw lessons from it and build a prosperous and tolerant future based on cooperation and the exercise of soft power.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 7 April 2013.

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Revolution@1: Foreigners without an agenda

 
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By Mariya Petkova

State-sponsored conspiracy theories have been bad for foreigners in Egypt. But Egyptians must not succumb to xenophobia and must be open to the world.

Thursday 26 January 2012

I was only three years old when the Berlin Wall fell and my country, Bulgaria, started on the road to democracy. I don’t remember much of the totalitarian regime that ruled for 50 years, other than the small red uniform that I had to wear to kindergarten. My parents have made sure that I know what they had to live through. They told me stories of fear, humiliation, and disgust. As much I sympathised with them, I could never fully understand what they felt for the first thirty years of their lives.

Then I came to Egypt, first as a student and then as a journalist. I could see the similarities between Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the communist dictatorship that ruled Bulgaria. I heard stories from Egyptians, read about torture, saw people emigrate because they couldn’t take it anymore, but I still didn’t fully understand their pain. The worst that used to happen to me was my taxi would get  stopped at night by the traffic police at the entrance to Maadi and my having to show my “white” face through the window to get them to expedite the check. Being “white” in Egypt allowed many of the expats to pay little attention to the suffering of their hosts. We were in such a position of privilege, getting treatment that most Egyptians never saw. I can’t remember how many times I heard Egyptian friends tell me that they don’t feel like citizens of their own country. “Egypt does not belong to the Egyptians,” they would say. And it was true. We, the “white” aliens, together with the Egyptian elite, hijacked the country. We had the kind of rights that the normal citizens should have enjoyed.

It came as a shock to many of us foreigners when state TV’s rumours about us being behind the uprising succeeded in  taking hold of the minds of many  Egyptians and we started being targeted on the streets. At the time, I looked at this phenomenon as “the massive loss of clear thinking and normal reasoning” – those were the words I used in my blog entry on 4 February 2011. Now that I think about it, the wild xenophobia that lasted about four or  five days was part of the catharsis of Egyptian people. They finally took us down from that pedestal of the untouchables that we had been sitting on.

For many of us, this was also a chance to get a taste of what billions of “non-white” people experience around the world – fear, persecution and injustice.


I wrote the above passage a week after my arrest by the military police on the day Hosni Mubarak fell (11 February 2011). The article never made it to print because my former Egyptian editor decided it was too dangerous to publish. Since then a lot has happened. What I thought was just four or five days of catharsis, turned out to be a year of chronic paranoia that some Egyptians have succumbed to. Without realising it, I myself have also fallen prey to the collective paranoia.

Every time at a Tahrir checkpoint, I would feel relieved to see the brow of the boy or girl from el-ligan el-sha’bia (the local, ad hoc security that popped up in the absence of the police) twist into a question mark at the sight of the Cyrillic characters in my passport. I would take photos sneakily, hoping no one would ask what I was doing. I would wear the same ragged jeans, worn-out shoes and jacket which I wore every day for the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak. I would almost definitely avoid being with Americans for too long at Tahrir. And just in case, I had prepared a short speech about “little Bulgaria” also suffering historically at the hands of the evil Western powers and having nothing to do with colonialism; oh, and by the way, we share common Ottoman heritage.

I was immensely happy three weeks ago to talk to an Egyptian in Bulgaria who was criticising the hell out of my country in a fancy Sofia restaurant. Ha! After Ahmed’s tirade, I have all the right to sit in Costa and criticise the messy political situation in Egypt, I thought happily.

A bit later, I realised that I had lost all my senses, that I have also fallen victim to the infamous Egyptian state TV broadcasting conspiracy theories about foreign agents and agendas. It seems that I was desperately trying to convince myself that I am not a “a’meela” (foreign agent) and I don’t have a secret agenda when I open my mouth to express an opinion about Egypt in front of an Egyptian.

Along with the regular flood of conspiracy theories and reports about apprehended spies of various nationalities broadcast on Egyptian TV, calls for the censorship of “foreign voices” have intensified and have come from the most unexpected places. Last month, al-Masry al-Youm’s editor-in-chief Magdi el-Galad published quite a lengthy rant in which he attempted to justify the censorship of an opinion piece in the English edition of the paper, Egypt Independent. The article written by Robert Springborg talks about cleavages within the ranks of the Egyptian army, which el-Galad probably considered too dangerous for himself to publish. He chose to mask his spinelessness in fiery “patriotic” words about dying for the Egyptian nation and foiling Springborg’s evil plot to hurt it, about snubbing the Pentagon, and yet forgetting to ask them to take back their $1.3 billion in annual military aid to the Egyptian army.

El-Gallad might be an obvious case, but Mona Abaza, a well-respected AUC professor, is not. A few months before the Egypt Independent affair, she wrote a piece published in al-Ahram and Jadaliyya in which she complains about Western academics flooding “local” Egyptian scholars with requests for assistance researching the Arab Spring. According to her, her Western colleagues come for just a week to visit the country and acquire the legitimacy of experts on the region. “Without sounding xenophobic,” Abaza says, trying to absolve herself of the xenophobia of her words, which do not distinguish between “some” and “all” Westerners.

There are plenty of mediocre Western journalists and scholars who not only do not understand the Middle East but also spread their faulty perceptions to readers in the West. However, there are also many who put a lot of effort into their research (without exploiting “locals”), who had been interested and lived in the region for a long time before the Arab Spring and have utmost respect for its cultures and peoplse. Elliot Colla, for example, who is an editor at Jadaliyya and who taught at my alma mater, is an excellent professor of comparative literature and a translator of Arabic literature. The Guardian has a staff of “Western” (non-local) correspondents in the Middle East such as Jack Shenker and Martin Chulov, who have done a great job covering events in the region. If el-Galad and Abaza were to give it honest consideration, they themselves could add quite a few additional examples.

I agree that Egyptians should tell their own story and I agree that the West should not meddle in the internal affairs of the country or try to set a direction for its transition. But it has to be recognised that the presence and the work of many foreigners on reporting and analysing what is happening in Egypt is of certain benefit to Egyptians. After all, international solidarity did play a role in Egypt’s revolution, and if Egyptians can comment on and criticise Bulgaria and the West, surely the reverse also applies. Limiting, harassing or completely censoring “foreign” voices will not bring any good to the country.

Throughout its 20 years of transition from communism, Bulgaria has rarely received coverage in the Western media and even more rarely positive coverage, which, I admit, can be annoying. But I would rather see more criticism of my country that would move and shake its stagnant system than be happy with the status quo in which some Bulgarians congratulate themselves for not making it every day on to international front pages like bankrupt Greece does.

Happy first anniversary, revolutionary Egypt!

 

This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

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