Sunday, 25 December 2016

An attack at Kaiser Wilhelm's church

As I was writing of my visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin, a young Tunisian called Anis Amri drove a black Scania semi-trailer into a Xmas shopping crowd around the church, killing twelve people and injuring 56. He couldn't have chosen a more poignant location to create this carnage, because the church is a monument to the tens of thousands of Berliners killed by Allied bombing in WWII. The building has been left in its distressed state as a reminder of the insanity of war, and beside it has been built one of the most beautiful structures I have ever seen.

The black stump of the church
A remarkable apparition has sprung up in the shadow of the ruin; a new church whose 50,000 stained glass windows, homage to Chartres Cathedral in France, blaze in a vast display of incandescent blue. Sitting in the church, I reflected on how an artistic masterpiece on this scale can create a monument to the dead that remains with you for months afterwards.

The next week I listened to a performance of a J.S. Bach cantata in the new church, with full choir, the centre-piece of a service conducted in German by a bearded clergyman with a sonorous voice and vigorous gestures. The choir were located on a mezzanine floor, so their voices flew overhead like a divine wind.

The fire-bombing of civilian areas of German cities would now be deemed a war crime (think Aleppo, but on a vast scale) - but was thought necessary in 1945 to 'break the spirit of the German people'. If anything, it firmed the resolve of the populace. Kurt Vonnegut's novel 'Slaughterhouse Five' is a black comedic account of his survival of the fire-bombing of the medieval city of Dresden, to the east of Berlin. As an American Prisoner of War, his task was to emerge from the basement of a slaughterhouse after the holocaust, and sweep up the charcoaled remains of some of the 20,000 German civilians incinerated in one night, largely women and children.

It's hard to know whether Anis Amri, the truck driver shot dead two days ago by Italian police after he fled to Milan, had any understanding of the act of desecration he was about to commit. The killing of a French cleric in his church by a jihadi this year suggests the target may have been deliberate. Amri was a petty criminal, involved in the drugs world before becoming radicalised in Italian gaols. He chose this most sacred of spots in Berlin to renew the cycle of death that probably won't end until the unemployed and disaffected young men of the Arabic diaspora in Europe are drawn out of rage-filled isolation into the cultural mainstream.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Last Tango in Berlin

The tango club, the Haus der Sinne, was somewhere in north Berlin. Part of my mission over the city was to dance my way through as many tango clubs as I could, in a city second only to Buenos Aries in its obsession with this most passionate of dances.

The sheer ferment of tango culture in Berlin is astonishing. I found tango clubs tucked away beneath the rough brick arches of railway embankments; I stumbled across outdoor milongas swirling along the banks of the steely River Spree on a hot afternoon ... and bursting out of stylish cafes in the 19th century Kulturbrauerei in Pankow.

Now it was 10pm, I had walked for hours in search of the Haus of Sin, and found my way blocked by a long, sinister boulevard, devoid of pedestrians or lights. I had the odd feeling that I was entering a parallel universe. I hurried up the deserted road for twenty minutes, pleased to escape un-mugged into the warren of backstreets that led to the Haus. Next day, I discovered I had crossed the famous Mauepark, a former killing zone beneath the Berlin Wall ... now a monument to the divided city. The remnants of the Wall had been invisible in the darkness.

Mauepark - a former killing zone
At the door to the Haus der Sinne, a statuesque blond woman, with bright red lipstick, clad in black leather and holding a tassled cane waved me inside. I perched on a bar stool with an orange juice, watching the tangueros move about the floor in their fixed, intense coupledom. They were submerged in the gloom, like strange four-legged animals in a primordial sea. On a pillar was a picture of a bear-like creature, and next to it, a wan-looking girl with her legs splayed open. But there didn't seem to be a lot of sinning going on. Perhaps my translation was wrong? On checking the German, I found 'Sinne' means something else altogether. 

Tango couples are hermetically sealed; locked into their twelve minutes of love with a fixity that excludes the world ... and I watched as they danced tanda after tanda. The pairs weren't breaking ... it seemed that the Haus der Sinne attracted couples, rather than the free spirits I was in search of. Very different from Cafe Franz at the Kulturbrauerei where I had animated chats with foreign tangueros and begun dancing immediately. This club was patronised by native Berliners. After an hour or so, unable to attract another dancer with the traditional cabaseo, I gave up and ambled off into the night. The blond woman at the door grinned and gave me a playful whip on the butt as I departed. 

Quite why Berliners have taken so avidly to tango is a hard to explain ... a tortured history; their historic interest in intense, theatrical art-forms ('Cabaret'), and Berliners' very un-German obsession with sensuality. Christopher Isherwood's 'Goodbye to Berlin' and its depiction of licentious Berlin culture between the wars, is a classic portrait of a doomed civilization, and the spirit of the Weimar Republic still lives in Berlin. Tango allows raw and unbridled expression of passion between total strangers. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a complex and mesmerizing art form, in which the human spirit soars free within the architecture of the dance. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Eating with Syrian refugees in Berlin

During a month in Berlin, I met a young couple who had fled the conflict in Syria, their home and jobs destroyed. Some of the one million refugees that Germany has let into the country, they spoke no English and little German, and had a young child - a lively addition to Berlin's multi-cultural mix. My Berlin friend, Barbara, was teaching them German, as many Berliners have volunteered to do, and in return they took us to eat in Sonnenallee; 'the street of the Arabs', a bustling thoroughfare with a fascinating history (it was once bisected by the Berlin wall), and where only Arabic can be heard in the shops.

Sonnnenallee, -  Arabic brio
We ate on the sidewalk ... a delicious, heavily spiced Syrian meal, hummus, green chillis, olives ... which our host perilously retrieved from a food shop thronged with battling diners. Although Syrian refugees have been targeted by Far-Right groups in Germany, there was none of that on Sonnenallee, where the vivacity and brio of the street was a sign of Berliners' legendary tolerance of outsiders. Or perhaps it's just indifference - Berliners are notoriously oblivious to others.

Along Sonnenallee, the average pedestrian seemed about thirty; it's mainly the young who have been able to flee from war-torn Syria in significant numbers. Specialist shops vending coffee and spices echo with voices from farther afield ... Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Turkey, while shops sell fine silks and the tortured metal-work of ornamental hookahs.

Hookah shop
With the West turning against refugees in the wake of the US Presidential elections, Angela ('the Angel') Merkel continues to show moral leadership and compassion at the risk of her own political career. It was heartening to see such a vibrant enclave of Arabic culture at the heart of Germany's spiritual capital.

In a strange reversal of history, from Trump Tower, New York, a city once renowned as a haven for the oppressed and racially persecuted of Europe, comes the ugly voice of racial bigotry; while in the former home of Nazism, the doors have been flung open to desperate refugees and their children.