How Berlin became the ‘capital city of Arab exile’

The Arab sociologist Amro Ali has illuminated Germany’s capital city as the center of an intellectual and artistic renaissance, fueled by Arab exiles from the authoritarian crackdowns that followed the 2011 uprisings.

By Mati Shemoelof

Amro Ali seen at the Baynatna Arabic Library and bookstore in Berlin. (Courtesy of Amro Ali)
Amro Ali seen at the Baynatna Arabic Library and bookstore in Berlin. (Courtesy of Amro Ali)

Berlin has become a magnet for political exiles from the Middle East in the years since the failed 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Syria. The city’s status as a hub for veterans of the Arab Spring was recently brought to life in an essay by Egyptian-Australian academic Amro Ali, who wrote about the role Berlin has come to play as the center of Arab intellectual life in the west. Ali’s article sparked a larger conversation about a future in what could be their city to reconstruct new political visions and practices. Mati Shemoelof interviewed him for +972 Magazine about what has changed in Egypt since the revolution of 2011, why young Arabs in Germany are becoming more politically involved, and his decision to focus on the exile phenomenon in Berlin.

How did you come up with the idea for this essay?

When I came to Berlin in 2015, I went to all these art galleries, plays, film screenings, musicals — all done by Arabs who had come to the city. I was dizzy with the richness of it all. People joked that Berlin had become the capital of the Arab world. And I started to think: What if Berlin were indeed the capital city of Arab exile? I submitted the idea to several German universities as a postdoc proposal, but was turned down. Ultimately, I pitched the article to Dis:Orient, an online magazine that publishes intellectual reporting about the Middle East and North Africa in German and English. The editors are all volunteers, and very professional.

You write: “Berlin is where the newly-arrived Arab suddenly (but not always) recognizes that the frightful habit of glancing over the shoulder — painfully inherited from back home — gradually recedes.” But in Berlin exiles cannot participate in civil society; they cannot vote.

I don’t see the bureaucratic machinery of politics as capable of striking joy and real public freedom. My perspective is closer to that of Hannah Arendt, who said that politics can only happen in a flourishing pluralistic space, where people come together and nurture some sort of civic consensus.

When did you first visit Berlin?

The first time I visited Berlin was in September 2011. At a café in Kreuzberg I met an Israeli who had refused to serve in the army, and who felt very guilty about the role he had played in an oppressive military regime. After learning that I was Egyptian he asked: “Do you hate me?” I answered that I absolutely did not hate him. The question is as bizarre as if a Palestinian were to ask me “Do you love me?’” He looked traumatized and said he could not go back to Israel.

Berlin is surrounded by right-wing extremists in Brandenburg and Saxony, which means that people fleeing violence in the Middle East find themselves again in a racist environment. How does this affect their ability to recover from trauma?

We have to separate Berlin from Germany. Berlin is still a very cosmopolitan place with a tolerant spirit. It is an anomaly in the European context. That doesn’t mean that things won’t change for the worse. I don’t see that as impossible. To Germany’s credit, they do have strong institutions that actively work against the right wing.

Tell me more about writing from a ‘we’ perspective. 

One of the biggest crises in the twenty-first century is the crisis of names and language. We don’t even know what “left” or “right” means anymore. We have people who call themselves leftists and yet support the regime of Bashar al-Assad because they see him as anti-imperialist. You can’t have a solution if you are asking the wrong questions. Young Arabs in Germany are engaging more in politics than the older generations. I know for example many young Syrians who think and yearn about returning to Syria after Assad falls. One Syrian student in Berlin told me two months ago, that until he read my essay he never thought about the exile body; but after reading it, he thinks of himself as actively part of this body in motion.

Did you participate in the Arab Spring?  What were you doing prior to that?

Prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings, I was interested in pursuing a career in international diplomacy. When the Egyptian uprising broke out in January 2011, I immediately flew to Cairo and even reconsidered my priorities: suddenly the world of diplomacy seemed to be mendacious and inauthentic. The events unfolding on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt felt human and authentic in the deepest sense. The Arab Spring was like a dream. I felt as though the gates of history had been opened. Cairo became a hub again not only for the Arab world but perhaps for other burgeoning revolutionary movements.

In light of the recent demonstrations in Egypt, do you think we can expect a renewed revolutionary movement to come out of Cairo?

Something has changed, but it’s not clear what and we are still trying to figure it out. History shows that you can only go so far with oppression, as an oppressor, or as a supporter for oppression. We forget that we live in a world of cause and effect. You cannot ally with the oppressor or hateful forces and expect positive effects to keep going your way over time. If you are committing a crime, you are being punished; you are going through endless anxiety and fear that detracts from your ability to be a better human being. The pendulum of justice eventually swings to what is good and just.

Mati Shemoelof is writer, poet, activist, author and editor now based in Berlin Germany. His latest poetry collection “Bagdad | Haifa | Berlin” was published by AphorismA Publishers. Read more: https://mati-s.com/.