Ber­lin’s wild charms make it first choice for Syr­ian artists

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE - — AFP photos

From sculp­tors to ac­tors and film­mak­ers, Ber­lin has be­come a mag­net for Syr­ian artists flee­ing their coun­try’s bru­tal vi­o­lence to a place where they can ex­press them­selves with­out fear. While Beirut and Paris have long been the des­ti­na­tions of choice for Arab artists, the Ger­man cap­i­tal has in re­cent years earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a more ad­ven­tur­ous, pro­gres­sive al­ter­na­tive for ex­iled cre­ators. As well as of­fer­ing af­ford­able spa­ces to live and work, Ber­lin is “the city of an­ar­chy and rock”, says Ziad Ad­wan, an ac­tor and di­rec­tor who ar­rived two years ago af­ter spells in jail back home.

Once di­vided by its in­fa­mous wall, re­uni­fi­ca­tion en­er­gized Ber­lin as young peo­ple who grew up yearn­ing to es­cape the sti­fling for­mer East Ger­many met West Ger­man peers who had moved to the city for its spe­cial sta­tus that ex­empted them from mil­i­tary ser­vice. The com­bi­na­tion pro­duced an open­minded at­mos­phere-and an un­in­hib­ited party cul­ture-that con­tin­ues to lure artists from all over the world. Syr­i­ans have proved to be no ex­cep­tion. “The Ber­lin cul­tural scene has cer­tainly taken on a new tone,” says Syr­ian Ali Kaaf, who has lived in Ber­lin for the past 16 years and teaches at the well-re­garded Weis­sensee fine arts school. He helps around 20 refugee stu­dents each se­mes­ter to find places in art schools, put to­gether port­fo­lios or recre­ate those lost in the chaos of their es­cape and ar­du­ous jour­ney to Europe.

‘Just like Da­m­as­cus’

Once the es­sen­tials of life-hav­ing a place to sleep and food to eat-are out of the way, many of the new ar­rivals find them­selves among fa­mil­iar faces. “Some of my stu­dents from the Da­m­as­cus drama school where I used to teach now live in refugee homes,” says Ad­wan. “It’s just like Da­m­as­cus here,” agrees pho­tog­ra­pher and jour­nal­ist Doha Has­san, who has found old friends and ac­quain­tances from the Syr­ian cap­i­tal among her 600,000 com­pa­tri­ots who have fled to Ger­many since the war broke out in 2011.

Still, Egyp­tian Basma El-Hus­seiny says that “it can be very hard for those who have just ar­rived to find their way” to re­sum­ing their stud­ies or ex­hibit­ing works in Ger­man in­sti­tu­tions. An ac­tivist with two decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in the arts, she founded the char­ity Ac­tion for Hope that helps refugee artists through the thicket of Ger­man bu­reau­cracy. Mean­while, Ad­wan and Ger­man pub­lisher Mario Muen­ster have come to­gether to pro­duce an English-lan­guage mag­a­zine, A Syri­ous Look, aimed at link­ing up the new Syr­ian di­as­pora with young Ger­man artists.

Out in the open

What refugee artists have to ex­press is of­ten marked by the war within Syria’s bor­ders-and by their own ex­pe­ri­ences on the long road to es­cape that con­flict. Un­der Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, the rul­ing Baath Party ide­ol­ogy was forced on art schools, and some artists say the in­sti­tu­tions were also rid­dled with cor­rup­tion. “Artists used to use sym­bols” to crit­i­cize the pow­er­ful for fear of the cen­sors, Ad­wan says. “To­day, they can just try things out openly.” One of the works by artist Su­lafa Hi­jazi shows a woman’s naked body, supine and legs splayed as she gives birth to a ri­fle.

Another il­lus­tra­tion fea­tures a skull-topped sew­ing ma­chine stitch­ing red thread into a cam­ou­flage uni­form. Some cre­ative have gone through sub­tler trans­for­ma­tions. “I used to write dark, de­press­ing pieces,” muses Rasha Ab­bas, a writer who won a grant from a foun­da­tion in Stuttgart. “It seems strange but since I’m here, my writ­ing is full of hu­mour,” she says, a smile play­ing across her face framed by waves of dark hair. Some com­fort on the path into an un­known fu­ture is the fact that they are liv­ing in a city, Ber­lin, which has had to rein­vent it­self from scratch. “Da­m­as­cus to­day is how Ber­lin was at the end of the war,” Muen­ster says. “No one can imag­ine that Da­m­as­cus could be a cap­i­tal of cul­ture in 50 years, but no one could have imag­ined that for Ber­lin in 1945.”—


A Pak­istani cy­clist rides past a mu­ral on the wall of a govern­ment girls’ school in Is­lam­abad yes­ter­day.

Syr­ian artist Ali Kaaf poses in­front of his pa­per art­work Rift II and Rift I at his stu­dio in Neukoelln district in Ber­lin.

Syr­ian writer and jour­nal­ist Rasha Ab­bas poses close to her res­i­dence in Ber­lin.

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