Amro Ali on Arab Berlin
Amro Ali, writing on his blog (and originally in al-Sharq):
Following the 2011 Arab uprisings and its innumerable tragic outcomes, Berlin was strategically and politically ripe to emerge as an exile capital. For some time now, there has been a growing and conscious Arab intellectual community, the political dimensions of which to fully crystalize is what I wish to further explore.
When the storm of history breaks out a tectonic political crisis, from revolutions to wars to outright persecution, then a designated city will consequently serve as the gravitational center and refuge for intellectual exiles. This is, for example, what New York was for post-1930s Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe, and what Paris became for Latin American intellectuals fleeing their country’s dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.
Against those historical precedents, the Arab intellectual community in Berlin needs to understand itself better, moving away from an auto-pilot arrangement, and become actively engaged with political questions that face it. In effect, there is a dire necessity for this community to acquire a name, shape, form and a mandate of sorts. With a vigorous eye to a possible long-term outcome, this may include a school of thought, a political philosophy or even an ideational movement – all cross-fertilized through a deeper engagement with the Arab world.
This is certainly not about beckoning revolutions and uprisings, nor to relapse into the stale talk of institutional reforms. If anything, there needs to be a move away from these tired tropes of transformation – away from quantifiable power dynamics that do not address matters that go deeper, into the existential level that shores up the transnational Arab sphere. This is the very area where the stream of human life animates a language of awareness and the recurring initiative helps to expand the spaces of dignity for fellow beings. Yet, this area is currently ravaged in a torrent of moral misery and spiritual crisis.
Having travelled to Berlin multiple times in the last few years, and knowing quite a few Arab exiles there and the wider German community that often hosts them – think-tanks, stiftungs, universities, etc. – I am struck by the emergence of the city as a genuine hub for quite varied Arab intellectual activity and political activism. For Egyptians in particular (Amro is Egyptian), it has been a sometimes difficult host: the Egyptian embassy is unusually active in following the diaspora community, sending its goons to disrupt gatherings, defend the Sisi regime at conferences, and I’ve heard reports of harassment of certain activists there.
Angela Merkel’s government has been usually craven (for Germany, that is, which unlike say France or Italy has tended to defend human rights more consistently in the past and have fewer economic interests in the Arab world) in pandering to the Sisi regime, staging state visits and at the EU level refraining from much criticism. Part of this is driven early bets Sisi made on German business, including very lucrative contracts for Siemens and for the German defense industry, but also by Merkel’s need to watch her right flank after her (admirable) intake of mostly Syrian migrants in 2015: she has sought to present Egypt as a partner in countering migration flows across the Mediterranean, although one might be skeptical about Egypt’s minor role in the migration crisis of the last few years and its ability to contribute.
But it has been welcoming to a wide array of people escaping their home countries, and Berlin has become a hub of sorts: as Amro argues, it is less politically tendentious, easier to access, and cheaper than other major Western cities with large pre-2011 Arab communities. It also more diverse and is a city that has, due to its peculiar history and relatively cheap rents, been welcoming to artists, students and bohemian life more generally. Amro’s essay is as much about the particular of appeal of Berlin as a city, rather than Germany, as it is about the condition of Arab exiles in the ongoing current great Arab exodus (perhaps not seen as region-wide as it is today since the 1970s) . An interesting essay that meanders through the history of the city, the status of exile, and the role of intellectuals in political activism; well worth reading.