Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Berlin Checkpoints

Best European youth campaign (but worst postcard)

Everyone different, everyone equal

When I first arrived here, I stayed in a hostel in Friedrichshain, a borough once part of what was East Berlin - thinking it would be interesting to see the area. For a short time it was. The buildings have now been enlivened with pastel colours and the new youth scene is much in evidence. As Sabine Reichel describes in the Berliner Zeitung (14/15 April 2007) 96% of the population is under thirty and down every street you can meet twenty-five young mothers with pierced eyebrows.

My friend came from the borough of Kreuzberg by car to find me, not having been able to identify which metro line I should take to get to her house. “I just don’t know the area,’ she explained, ‘I never come here. Eighteen years since the wall came down and in my head the border’s still there.” See the map here

On my first weekend I visited AlexanderPlatz, the centre of former East Berlin. Alongside the town hall is a leafy park where you can wander, sit and admire the statue of the female worker or the monument to Marx and Engels. But searching for postcards to send home, I browsed the kiosks (not only in AlexanderPlatz but all over Berlin) to find that, indeed, eighteen years later, it’s difficult to find any images of quality which do not in some way commemorate the wall.

In fact a blown-up Checkpoint Charlie notice is on the outside wall of the youth hostel in Friedrichshain: “You are leaving the American sector”(threat or promise?). Postcards show the Brandenburg Gate in all her guises between 1961 and 1989: from the east, from the west; with Russian tanks or US armoured cars; people leaning over the fence, climbing on top of the wall or slipping through a hole. Even the modern shot of the Brandenburg Gate by night, illuminated in her restored glory, only serves to invoke the shadows of the past. And they’re still selling cards with a tiny piece of the graffiti-ed wall enclosed in a plastic bubble (or am I just naive?)

It’s all over now

Another reason my friend doesn’t visit former East Berlin is that she has two adopted children from Mali and racism is still alive in the east – as I’ve seen it myself - across all the former soviet states.

But not just there… In the current affairs journal Der Spiegel (No. 16, 16 April 2007) I read an item on the upcoming Islam Conference at the beginning of May, which is being co-organised with the German Minister of Internal Affairs. Leader of the newly formed Islamic Coordination (KRM) an umbrella for Muslim organisations, Aiman Mazyek is demanding a “clear roadmap for achieving equality between Islam and other religions in Germany,” including the same rights and status as church groups - and Islamic teaching as part of the school curriculum.

I worked in former West Germany thirty years ago as an English teacher, so I know that the 3.3 million Turkish population of “guest-workers” - as they are so quaintly called - are now into their third generation and questions of citizenship are still problematic (see a very comprehensive post on this by Aaron Erlich). They have no rights to develop their mother tongue within the state school system - although you can find Germans (because that’s who they are) of Turkish origin (excellent English students all) as successful entrepreneurs, academics, artists across the country.

In the meantime, Recep Tayyip Erdogan the Turkish Prime Minister is running out of patience waiting for Germany, currently holding the EU Presidency, to make a firm commitment to support Turkey’s application for European membership.

Best poster

Inside each one of us lurks a pacifist. I’d like to live in a society where no one, whether Muslim or Christian, needs to be afraid.

Then there was the story of the CDU leader in Bad-Wuertenburg, Günther Oettingen, who caused Angela Merkel a headache with his eulogy at the funeral of Hans Filbinger. In this he claimed that, although Filbinger was a high-profile member of the German military during the second world war, “he wasn’t really a nazi at all,” which understandable incensed the families of victims, academic researchers and other politicians. At Merkel’s insistence Oettingen publicly distanced himself from his remarks – although CDU federal parliamentarians from the south-west say “every word was correct.”

Indeed Merkel, while juggling “the grand coalition” with much more skill than anyone would give her credit for being able to do when she was first elected, is more often held back from achievement by the ultra-conservative members of her own party than any ideological differences with the SDP. The Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been attempting to bring in legislation to increase the provision of quality affordable pre-school care (kindergartens) to enable women to pursue their careers. In opposition to this, CDU representatives in the Laender (different regions) are basically invoking the nazi “Kinder Kirche Kueche” role for women – despite the fact they have elected a divorced childless woman scientist as federal leader.

Still in that very same issue of Spiegel is the poignant tale of two sisters who were separated in 1945 after five years in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. One came back to Hamburg to live and the other was brought up by a foster family in Czechoslovakia - too young to remember where she was from. Through the Red Cross tracing service they were recently reunited. Sixty years too late the Czech woman travelled to Hamburg with her background papers, all the while thinking, “Oh my god, my sister’s a gypsy!” (Zigeunerin, German for Roma, still the subject of acute discrimination in the transitional states). They don’t have much to say to each other and watch a lot of television.

And by the way, the Jewish synagogue in the centre of Berlin - along with the Jewish café in front of it - is cordoned off from pedestrians and protected by a police patrol (although Esther Slevogt says that’s not the only thing that keeps people out).

Road blocks of the mind

Before travelling out to Berlin I met up with my Palestinian friend who had just come back from visiting family. After many years living and working around the globe she’s decided to return to Palestine in a professional capacity as a humanitarian aid / development project manager.

It’s not much of a leap from Berlin to Jerusalem, which is still divided into quarters - Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian - where Israeli Arabs have a hard time moving around because of the curfew and where Palestinians need to go through checkpoints to enter the city from the West Bank. Not forgetting the controversial security wall that Israel has erected…

I carried out an education mission in Palestine late 1999 at the time when both sides were preparing to sign a territorial agreement – just before Ariel Sharon provoked the current intifada in his visit to Nazareth. So I know a little about how it feels, even armed with a British Council letter of invitation, to be held up at a road block or searched twice in the middle of the night when crossing Israel from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv airport. “It’s not just the frustration or the time-wasting, it’s diminishing as a person - to be constantly reminded you have no rights, no status, no statehood,” says Yara. She noticed that people’s expectations have also diminished: “they’re just glad with the new regulations, that it only takes four not eight hours to cross.”

On 5th June, the fortieth year of the Israel-Palestine conflict will be commemorated (an opportunity Avaaz.org sees for civil society to stop the clash which is politically rather than culturally based). Germany has played a role in The Quartet and Condoleeza Rice has been diplomatically active in the region. The discourse has changed from ‘roadmap’ to ‘destination’. The Arab League’s offer to renew the 2002 peace initiative makes the future look slightly more hopeful for a Middle East settlement.

But clearly that’s not the end of the story.

However many years of division, whoever we are and whatever kind of map we draw up, we’re not going to get anywhere - unless we can somehow find a way to dismantle the roadblocks of the mind.

Best quote so far

Esther Pfeiffer, a young black woman from South Africa, was one of the panellists at a meeting in Hamburg on the topic “Women bringing about change: gender and development” organised by VENRO’s Africa Project.

When asked if women from different (racial) backgrounds in South Africa now work collaboratively to promote their rights, she answered (in perfect German):
“Unfortunately apartheid lives on inside us. But then, in Germany, you know all about that.”

Patricia Daniel
April 2007

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