UW Honors Berlin Study Abroad – final reflection / project

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I The Plan

I went into this project wanting to study Arabic graffiti in Berlin. Having learned Arabic (MSA) for the past year, I’ve not only fallen in love with the language but, combined with my interest in the politics of public space, have also learned a great deal about Arabic graffiti in Arab countries and its role in events such as the Arab Spring. An entire book called Arabic Graffiti was published by the graffiti artist Don Karl (also known as “Stone”), full of beautiful images and short histories of graffiti in the various Arab countries and in the Arabic dialects. I’d also read Miriam Cooke’s “Dancing in Damascus,” which examines the role of art (including graffiti) in the Syrian revolution. The fifth season of the television series, Homeland, was filmed in Berlin in September 2015. Most of the action happened in the city of Berlin itself, but one portion of the show was set in a refugee camp in Syria. The Syrian scenes were also filmed in Berlin, on a designed set on the outskirts of the city. Egyptian graffiti artists had been hired to write Arabic graffiti to the walls of the “camp” to create a more “authentic” appearance. The artists used the opportunity to scrawl several subservise messages all over the walls in one scene, the most infamous message being, “Homeland is racist,” in protest of the portrayal of Muslims throughout the show (Boshnaq, Bilefsky and Mona. 2015). Due to the pivotal role of Arabic graffiti in the revolutions of the Arab world, as well as this incident on Homeland, I went to Berlin thinking there’d be a vast sea of material to study and document. According to Dr Viola Georgi (during the lecture at Humboldt), Germany had taken in 1.2 million refugees—over 265,000 of those are Syrian and nearly 100,000 from Iraq. With numbers like these, I took it for granted that there’d be plenty of Arabic “urban art” to be found. The “vast sea” of material became more like a needle in a haystack once I got to Berlin—there were only a couple small bits of Arabic graffiti spotted over the course of several weeks, primarily relating to the “Free Palestine” movement. The reasons for the lack of Arabic graffiti may be numerous. I spoke to people in the refugee community, others who study graffiti and urban space, and people at my service organization, who all theorized a potential lack of confidence, fear, and the simple fact that the Arab community was still fairly new in Berlin. The Arabic language, in today’s political climate, is heavily stigmatized and, to some groups, associated with terrorism. Perhaps the Arabic-speaking community doesn’t want to draw more attention to themselves. Perhaps those that would choose to be political and speak up are not in Berlin. The vast majority of the graffiti text that I saw was either in German or English—I also thought that people who wrote these words wanted them to be understood; Why write graffiti in Arabic when most of the audience of the city won’t be able to read it? Also, perhaps “urban art” is a luxury that the refugees in Berlin simply don’t have time or thought for. I think an entire paper could be written on the lack of Arabic graffiti in cities and the possible reasons, as well as the idea that graffiti and subversive art as a “luxury.” However, I also noticed a distinct lack of the use of Arabic even in the signage for Arabic restaurants. For example, the Lebanese restaurant, “Nour,” a couple blocks away from the hostel we were staying in. I went there a few times each week to enjoy the best falafal and halloumi I’ve ever had. I practiced my meager Arabic skills on the man who was always working when I was there, but the Arabic language was absent in all the signage within and outside the restaurant. I noticed a small bit of Arabic calligraphy only in a piece of art hanging on the walls within. As I spent more time wandering around the city and different districts, I noticed a few more places like this—food of Arab origins but the language distinctly lacking.

II Sonnenallee

When we met with our community partner, Empati, for the first time, and I mentioned my interest in the Arabic language, Arabic graffiti, and the apparent lack of it throughout the city, he immediately suggested that I visit Sonnenallee. He told me that it was referred to as “Arab Street” and reminded many of the Arab refugees and immigrants of home (Syria, Iraq, etc.). I went searching for Arab Street the next day, and I knew I’d found it the moment I reached it, even before I checked the street sign. Turning the corner and taking notice of the shops along the street—right in front of me, behind me, and to the sides— there were several restaurants and shops with Arabic script all over their storefronts.  صيدلية، المدينة، مطعم… Apotheke (pharmacy), The City (a grocery store), restaurant, etc. There were hair salons advertising a “menu” of services in Arabic, halaal restaurants, various shops, travel agencies, hookah bars, etc.—all of them had signs in Arabic. Some had hand-written notes in Arabic taped up in the windows. There were large gatherings of families with women wearing hijabs outside each restaurant, and it felt like a very familial atmosphere. Rather than the unpleasant smell of cigarettes that I observed all over the city, what I noticed most here was the soft, sweet, and fruity scent of hookah. For a brief moment, it felt like stepping into a whole other country. Sonnenallee is about five kilometers (barely over three miles) long, but this section known as “Arab Street,” “Little Damascus,” and “Little Gaza” was approximately six blocks long. One end started around the U-bahn and bus stop Hermannplatz (the particular stop that most people from the “Container Camp” used) and ended roughly around Wildenbruchstraße. There was no official, hard stop to this section of Sonnenallee, instead, the dense concentration of stores with Arabic language grew sparse until completely disappearing again a block or two down.  

III Pan Arab Space

Sonnenallee is important and interesting for several reasons. After my initial visit, I went back several times by myself and with a new friend who was, himself, Arab and who was staying in the “container camp” in Neukölln. I saw Sonnenallee as a kind of “pan Arab” space. In a very, very tiny nutshell: there is, on one hand, a distinct sense of identity among the individual countries of the Arab Peninsula as well as other Arabic-speaking countries that joined the “Arab League of Nations” (see notes). Though each country speaks Arabic, they have their own distinct dialect. There has been a push, by many in this Arab community, to preserve a style of Arabic (such as the Modern Standard Arabic which is used in the news) and a push for a stronger “pan Arab” sense of community. (Though many Arabs wish to come together under this umbrella of “pan Arab,” standardization of a common form of Arabic to be shared by all, side by side with each dialect, has become a proxy battle for other issues of power and validation among the countries involved. As I said, on one hand some people feel a strong, shared identity among Arab countries but on the other, they are quite different and separate.) This notion of a pan Arab identity or pan Arab spaces often seems like an impossibility. However, it struck me during my third or fourth trip to Sonnenallee that right here in Berlin was a small slice of this pan Arab notion. My friend, Muhammad, took me to a place for lunch that he proudly declared was Iraqi. When I looked it up online later, it was said to be Syrian-Iraqi. When I asked him about it, he argued with me and insisted it was Iraqi. For the Arabs that frequented the Arab shops on Sonnenallee, though some restaurants may be replicas of restaurants from Damascus (Aldimashqi) or serving up Lebanese or Iraqi variations of well known Arabic food, for the Arabs that spend time here, it’s a place for them to bond over the shared parts of their “Arab identity” and the parts of their experience here in Berlin that’s common to many. Again, as Muhammad showed me when he took me to Al Medina grocery store to buy small bags of pita bread, he said, “This is where we all come for our bread.” Because of the news, when I think of refugees, I primarily think of Syria. My visits to the camp reminded me that there were more than just Syrian refugees—Muhammaad and his roommate were both from Iraq. Though we didn’t meet anyone in the camp, there are also many Palestinian refugees in Berlin (hence, Sonnenallee also being called “Little Gaza”). Regardless of what part of the Arab world they are from, they can all go to Sonnenallee and, I’m told, be reminded of home, as well as find many familiar foods and their native language (or close to it) all around. If someone from Iraq wants to go to a hair salon run by someone with a Syrian immigrant background, they can speak and be understood in their Arabic dialect. Lastly, returning to the idea of a “shared experience” as Arabs, in Placing Panethnicity: Performing Arab Space on Sonnenallee, Hilary Silver describes Sonnenallee thusly:

These businesses do not sell fruits and vegetables, but rather goods and services that demarcate a specifically Arab space.  The Arab businesses are frequently engaged in illicit or off-the-books activities to make ends meet in an economy from which they are formally excluded.  Based upon field work and interviews with shopkeepers and customers, religious and ethnic association leaders and members, government officials, and Turkish competitors who cluster along a different Neukölln street, I report on the place-making activities of Arab Berliners.  I find this street offers “safe” public space for Arab political and cultural expression and the forging of “pan-ethnic” community.   Beyond common Arabic language, this street and nearby square is the location of pan-ethnic demonstrations and the center of ethnic associations, mosques, and predominantly Arab parks, schools, and other institutions in which solidarity crosses national lines.  The symbolic boundaries of pan-ethnic space separate Arabs from both Turks and Germans” (Silver, 2014).

IV Heterotopia and Borders

Obviously, not all Arabs in Berlin are refugees but for for the refugees, Sonnenallee takes on yet another meaning. I had the privilege of being invited into the “container camp” in Buckow several times. Even though I passed through a few times, and the same security personnel were there each time (and recognized me), they had to see my ID and sign me in every single time. Though it made no difference to me, it was quite distressing to my host (my friend, Muhammad), as it was a reminder to him that he wasn’t “free” here in Berlin nor was he able to feel a part of Berlin. Every time we passed through the border of the camp, he repeated how much he hated not just this protocol but being here in the camp and in Berlin. Here in this space, surrounded by the fence border, the refugees were kept in a different sort of Heterotopic space than the one I will go on to describe Sonnenallee as. This particular “space within a space” (the container camp) is within Berlin but not of Berlin. This is a space of restriction, rules, exclusion. The people in this “other space” are not allowed to participate fully in being part of Berlin. Their access to the city is limited. Sonnenallee is also a Heterotopic space, a space within a space—an Arab space within a German space. (Or, since we are often reminded that “Berlin is not Germany,” an Arab space within the space of Berlin, Berlin itself being a heterotopia within Germany!) Rather than exclusion, this (Sonnenallee) is a space of inclusion for this particular community.  While the camp was created by non Arabs for Arabs (and others), Sonnenallee is an Arab space created and supported by Arabs. Though non Arabs, such as myself, can walk through Arab Street, eat lunch or dinner here, make purchases, stop for a Hookah break, etc, Arab Street has slightly different cultural and social norms than surrounding Berlin, perhaps only noticeable if you are actively watching. I, a self-proclaimed flâneuse often walk alone. A woman walking alone through urban spaces isn’t as noticeable as it may have once been but here, on Sonnenallee at the height of daily activity, I felt conspicuous. Many muslim women don’t walking alone. Every woman I saw was either with their family, in a small group, with a man, or with at least one other woman. The families were gathered at the tables inside and outside of each restaurant, but gathered at the two major hookah/shisha bars, I only saw men. I was also told (though could not confirm for myself) that though the Späti’s** on Sonnenallee sold beer and liquor as did Späti’s all around Berlin, the (Muslim) owners asked that you not stand outside on the sidewalk and imbibe your purchases right there, as you normally would do outside of other Späti’s in Berlin; this was out of respect for their Muslim culture.    

V Conclusion – The Future?

There are several facets and layers of interest in regard to “Arab Street,” but I left wondering what it would look like five or ten or even a year from now. Many of the refugees I met were unsure of their fate in Berlin—Muhammad told me he was told he has a fifty percent chance of being granted permanent stay in Germany, but that his roommate had a five percent chance. I don’t know how these percentages are calculated, but what will Arab Street look like if the majority are sent away? What will it look like if many of them stay? Will it expand beyond those six blocks? Will Arabs become as ubiquitious in Berlin as the Turkish have become? And if I were to return to Berlin in a year or five years, would there finally be some Arabic graffiti in the city for me to study?  

*Arab: I use the word “Arab” to speak of people from the countries that are part of the Arab League of nations (which include the countries located on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as several other Arabic-speaking countries). Though Syria’s inclusion in this group has been suspended (due to the political situation and revolution), I am still including them as Arab here. The word Arabic is an adjective, used to describe things such as the language, food, etc. 
**Späti: the shortened, vernacular for Spätkauf; essentially a corner store that sells candy, magazines, alcohol, etc. The Späti is part of Berlin culture, and often people will sit or stand outside their Späti, on the sidewalk, to drink the beer they purchased, etc.


Boshnaq, Dan Bilefsky and Mona. “Street Artists Infiltrate ‘Homeland’ With Subversive Graffiti.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/europe/homeland-arabic-graffiti.html?mcubz=1. 12 July 2017.

Silver, Hilary . “Placing Panethnicity: Performing Arab Space on Sonnenallee.” The Street and the Urban Public Sphere: Diversity, Difference, Inequality. International Sociological Association, Yokohama. July 2014. Lecture.


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