Searching High and Low for Arab Culture in the Streets of Berlin

Although Turkish and Arabic are commonly heard as you walk around Berlin, it’s not so easy to find Arabic books, movies or CDs. You’ve got to dig really deep if you want to find the treasures.

So, I went to Berlin to see what the fuss is all about. No, I have no intention of moving there, or anywhere else, in the near future. All I wanted was some relief from the intensity of the Middle East and the growing paranoia stemming from all the reports about Islamic State, Hamas, Jihad, the whatever Front and Nasrallah’s latest sneeze.

Screengrab

Why Berlin, of all places? For some years now, a few of my best friends have moved there, one after the other, or have gone on frequent visits and returned with glowing faces, as if they had spent a year at the Osho ashram in Pune. I first visited Berlin 17 years ago, but had not gone back since. In those days it seemed dark, gloomy and too cold, and its eastern side was not the kind of Eastern I was interested in.

Yes, even on visits to European capitals I search for “Eastern” features. Not the Soviet kind, but the Mediterranean one. Along with visits to museums and galleries, local bookshops and parks, music shops and squares, as well as searching for significant Jewish sites I always like to visit the neighborhoods of Muslim immigrants. There I try to find books, movies, music and magazines that come from the Arab world to Europe but never to Israel – which resides in the east but whose heart yearns for the West. I try to identify the cultural intermixing created by these migrants, between their countries of origin and their adopted ones. I look for what they preserved and what they changed and adapted to their new domicile.

However, Berlin is not London with its Arab British Center, or Paris with its Institut du Monde Arabe – centers of cultural activity associated with the Arab and Muslim world. Furthermore, although the presence of migrants from Turkey, Lebanon and Palestine is felt in Berlin, and Arabic and Turkish are the languages most frequently heard in the street after German, my impression is that they haven’t managed to imprint their culture onto its streets, other than with doner kebab restaurants, shawarma and hummus joints, or stores selling baklava. I couldn’t find any stores selling books, discs or movies in these neighborhoods.

The long Sonnenallee in the borough of Neukölln is full of signs in Arabic and Turkish, but they mostly advertise cafés and restaurants, groceries, and a few stores selling traditional garb. The only bookstore I found along the entire street was one that sold religious and holy books. There was not a single modern book or recent disc that had been released in Arabic or Turkish. In contrast, a simple stroll along the Boulevard Barbès in Paris is, for me, like finding a gold mine, with its wealth of books and movies – especially from North Africa – alongside all the food and sweets one can find there.

The London-published Arab magazine Brownbook.

All this doesn’t mean there aren’t such stores in Berlin. It could be that, as a tourist for 10 days, I missed the right places. It could also be, as I was told by friends living in the city, that most of the Turkish migrants were from rural areas rather than elite groups in urban centers, and that they haven’t yet managed to consolidate their culture in the city and establish institutions that would attract non-Turks or non-Muslims.

Other friends told me that the Germans, in trying to impose integration on newcomers, do not let other cultures flourish. Germans aren’t that interested in other cultures, especially non-Western ones.

Changing trend

However, my German friends told me this trend is changing. More and more German cultural institutions are hosting artists and performers from around the world, while also trying to make room for migrants living in Germany. For example, the Hamburg-born Turkish director Fatih Akin is well known and widely respected in Germany. Turks are more prominent in German popular culture in recent years, such as the TV comedy series “Turkish for Beginners,” created by Bora Dagtekin, or with Turkish players in German soccer teams.

There’s also an annual Arabic film festival in Berlin called ALFILM, which has existed since 2009, run by a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Arab Cinematheque, Berlin. And a night called Gayhane, for the LGBT migrant community, is held at the SO36 club in the Kreuzberg district on the last Sunday of each month. This series of parties was initiated by the Turkish performer Fatma Souad in 1997, and the deejay is a German-Turk who plays Arab, Turkish and Indian music, as well as electronic music.

The London-published Arab magazine Brownbook.

None of this was happening while I was in Berlin. However, there was a documentary series from the Arab world entitled “Memory and Revolution” at the Werkstatt der Kulturen. It included three screenings and meetings with the makers of these films, or people associated with the movies.

My repeated question in bookstores or video stores as to whether I could find material from Turkey or Arab countries was met with either shock, embarrassment or criticism. In one store specializing in film books, the seller was so shocked he started rushing around between the shelves, finally admitting that he didn’t even know there was a developed film industry in these countries and that he had never encountered any such books – not even among the works of German-Egyptian film researcher Viola Shafik.

When I asked for books about the Middle East in another bookstore, I was told, “We never conquered the Middle East, so we have no interest in it.” When I asked whether the store carried books about Togo, Namibia, Cameroon and Tanganyika, which Germany did conquer, the salesman laughed ironically and said, “Don’t you get it? It’s enough that we acknowledged the Holocaust. We can’t face our colonial past on top of that. That would be too much.”

Still, I finally managed to uncover a few cultural gems. I found the excellent magazine Brownbook, published in London, which deals with contemporary culture in the Arab world. The current edition is dedicated to home design in Arab countries or homes of Arab immigrants in the West. I also found Bidoun, the quarterly magazine devoted to art and culture from the Middle East, which is published in the UAE. The latest edition of The Outpost, which is published twice yearly in Beirut, is entitled “The Possibility of Warming Our Hearts.”

The London-published Arab magazine Brownbook.

“This issue was made to make you feel good. Starting with this ice cream,” reads the cover, which features a drawing of a triple-scoop ice cream cone. The Iranian magazine Pages, which is bilingual (Farsi and English), is all about art and architecture.

Jewish women in Arab music

But the real jewel was something I found by chance in a bookshop named Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus, and it was worth days of walking. It is a collection of four discs entitled “Rouad a-tarab fi bilad a-sham” (“Pioneers of Poetry in the Levant Countries”). The collection, which was published recently in Beirut, contains 62 rare recordings from the first two decades of the 20th century, featuring 28 performers from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

The collection includes a booklet, written in Arabic, English and French, which recounts the development of music in the region, and about the various performers and musicians who were well known during that time, including Farajallah Baida, Muhammad al-Ashiq, Moheddine Bayoun and Ahmed al-Sheikh. Many of the songs on the album, such as “El-ouf mish’al” and “Ya asmar el-loun” (O dark one), became perennial hits in Palestinian and Hashemite (Syrian-Lebanese) music.

It was especially fascinating to see once more the place of Jewish women in Arab music – a well-known phenomenon in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa, but less known in Israel. As Diana Abbani – who is writing her doctorate on the subject at the Sorbonne – writes in the booklet, Jewish and Christian women played an important role in Arab music since, at that time, Muslim women were not allowed to perform or sing in front of men. Thus it happened that Jewish-women singers were prominent in almost every Arab country, and their contribution to the local culture is being discussed more and more in Arab countries.

This collection contains recordings by Badriya Saada and Beirut’s Hasiba Moshe – one of the first singers in the region to have a recording contract with a record company, in 1908. In the booklet, Abbani includes a long list of Jewish actresses and singers who were well-known in the Levant during that time, some of whom later moved to Egypt.

Even if I never found the Mizrahi [Jews of Middle-Eastern descent] presence I was looking for in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, at least I found it in this collection of Arab music that came out of Beirut.