فلسطين على أسوار برلين: الكتابة على الجدران والرقابة
30 octobre 2023

On Oct. 6, Yara and I walked around the Sonnenallee neighborhood in Neukolln, a district of Berlin. Yara is a Palestinian student and photographer documenting Palestinian street art in Berlin since she moved to Germany’s capital almost 2 years ago. That evening, she was taking me on a tour of the works of graffiti painted throughout the packed street, also known as Share’ Araby, or the “Arab Street.”

Berlin—which is home to Europe’s largest Palestinian population—is known for its hypervisible community on the Arab Street. The mostly Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi populations have shaped the culture over the years, particularly in the last five. 

Sonnenalle is full of Arab stores and restaurants offering services and food. There are various watering holes for people across the spectrum of the Middle East and North Africa, where friends and relatives gather and decompress. Here, our people can find some respite from the rest of Berlin, which is either indifferent or downright hostile to Arabic speakers, regardless of how many Falafel shops there might be. 

I didn’t expect to contend with my Arabness when I came to Berlin. My intention was to connect to my Maghrebi roots through the art and communities I was researching. But upon first visiting Share’ Araby, I immediately felt a deep sense of familiarity that I hadn’t experienced in years, and with it, a sense of ease. In a way, the street conjures the feeling of “back home,” with men crowding the sidewalks drinking tea or coffee, smoking cigarettes, and gossiping. 

Although Moroccan Darija is the version of Arabic I speak best, I was raised in an Arab immigrant community in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Egyptian and Palestinian dialects are familiar to my ears.  They remind me of a childhood spent running through the mosque hallways and sneaking earbuds under my hijab during Sunday school. 

When I walked down Sonnenallee, I tried to tune into the range of Arabic bouncing across the street. I walked into the shops selling Syrian and Palestinian sweets, the young men behind the counter smiling at my attempts to speak in Arabic. As I smell the pistachio-dusted desserts, I remember my Auntie Alia and her world-famous kunafa, trays of sweet cheese and spun pastry soaked in syrup. I remember her laugh, rippling from deep within her, how no matter how far away I found myself, she always reminded me that I wasn’t alone. Ramadan has never been the same since she passed. 

I walk past a Radio Shack equivalent aptly named Al-Aqsa. In the window are Palestinian flags and an LED light sign that says Free Palestine in Arabic. Further up the block, Palestinian flags wave proudly from every corner of a restaurant. There are shirts, hats, keychains, and scarves, all covered with red, white, green, and black, with Palestine written in English and Arabic across them. Some shirts with text like I will not forget you, Palestine, in Arabic. Kitschy displays of a flag that has been under attack in Germany for years

Even before arriving in Berlin, I had heard about the German state’s repression of Palestinian organizers for years. Both in 2019 and 2021, Nakba Day protests were banned in the capital. But there was also a much more insidious form of silencing Palestinian voices. In February 2022, the German media outlet, Deutsche Welle, fired seven Palestinian and Arab journalists for alleged anti-Semitic comments, a termination that was then ruled unlawful. Activists in Germany have been targeted and threatened with everything from exorbitant fines to deportation; in 2023, the German immigration services denied visa extensions to two Palestinian brothers for alleged “pro-Palestinian sympathies.” Writers have had their events canceled, and last year's curator of the Berlin African Book Festival, Guantanamo survivor Mohamedou Ould Slahi, was pressured to step down after being accused of “antisemitism.” 

Germany’s crackdown on Palestinians and their allies did not begin yesterday. The severity of Palestinian repression in the country is alarming, especially in a city like Berlin, which is often celebrated for its radical cultural spaces and progressive politics. What we have witnessed over the past few weeks has been steadily building up over the years. 

Ramsis Kilani, a longtime organizer in Germany’s Palestine Solidarity movement, sees the most recent escalation in repression as connected to a larger nationalist movement by the German state. A popular narrative around Germany’s role in supporting the Israeli settler state is attributing it to German guilt for the Nazi regime’s genocide against Jews, Roma, Black, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized groups, during the Holocaust. Kilani sees the real reason for Germany’s brutal crackdown as something more sinister: a fortification of a militarized police state Germany has been building towards for years. 

Challenging the popular theory around German guilt, Kilani elaborated, “Many people think it stems from German guilt. That Germans feel guilty and therefore crack down on a minority in Germany.” He believes this sentiment could be attributed to some Germans but not the government institutions facilitating repression. He points out that this crackdown is also “waged against Holocaust survivors and their descendants” and therefore has everything to do with nationalism, not feelings of historic guilt. Considering the sheer number of Jewish activists who have been targeted in the crackdowns in recent years, the idea that the German state is simply seeking to protect populations its governing predecessors massacred and displaced is questionable. 

In 2019, Peter Schäfer, then director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, was pressured to resign for sharing an article in support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement. Schäfer, a renowned Jewish studies scholar, was appointed director in 2014. In 2018, the Israeli government personally sent an official letter to then chancellor Angela Merkel demanding funding to the museum, along with other cultural institutions, for supporting “Palestinian terrorism and call for the boycott of the State of Israel.” As the Israeli regime has demonstrated in recent weeks, there is no limit to how far they will go to suppress the critique of the settler-colonial state. 

For Kilani, it’s quite simple, Germany’s crackdown is a way for the state to protect national interests. “This is about Supremacy… Nationalism… Germany has coldly calculated the geopolitical, economic, and ideological interest of becoming a world power, and that’s what it is about,” he said. “That is why they are cracking down on Palestine solidarity and activists in Germany because it’s against their militarization and world power ambitions.” 

Ramsis Kilani became active in the Palestine Solidarity movement in Germany after the 2014 onslaught on Gaza by the Israeli Occupation Forces. Kilani’s mother is German, while his father is Palestinian and had moved from Northern Gaza to Germany to study. When Kilani’s father returned to Gaza in 2002, he remarried and had five more children. In the summer of 2014, Kilani’s father, stepmother, and five siblings (who were between the ages of 5 and 12) were all killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces. Kilani’s family were all German citizens, but the German state didn’t do anything about the killing of his father or siblings. According to Kilani, the German government didn’t even formally acknowledge their murder at all. 

As a result of the gravity of the injustice he and his family suffered, Kilani became more active in organizing for Palestinian liberation. But the conditions in Germany are not easy. “I wish that people understood that many things are tested here in Germany,” he says. Kilani cites the accusations of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn in Britain as an example. “We had similar developments in Germany for a long time within the left.” Kilani believes Germany can serve as an example for others in Western countries, so paying attention to the different tactics deployed by the German state is critical. As we witness crackdowns across the U.S., from the systematic silencing of students to the censure of members of Congress who are vocal against the ongoing genocide of Palestinians to the complete lack of justice for Shireen Abu Akleh and her family, the renowned Palestinian-American journalist assassinated by an Israeli sniper last year, Kilani’s warning feels timely. If the repression in Germany feels alarming, it’s only a matter of time before the same draconian laws are voted for there. 

But despite mainstream media depictions, Kilani doesn’t believe that most Germans simply support Israel blindly. “Most Germans are just afraid to speak out because [they] will be labeled and smeared as an anti-semite, which of course, in Germany with its past and history, is a very, very, very severe accusation that can cost you everything, your job, your existence… So Germans keep silent out of fear mostly, not because they are convinced.” 

Kilani and his fellow organizers are working towards breaking the climate of fear created by the German state through punitive repression. 

Kilani chuckled, remembering the way police had to “work like painters” to paint over the Palestinian flag at Hermannplatz. He told me police were  “climbing up trees to pull down Palestinian flags” in Neukolln. These acts may seem trivial, but considering the “Occupation-like” approach taken by the police force during October, symbols become more than powerful imagery, but active forms of resistance. For the graffiti writers choosing to spray paint their message across the walls of Berlin, this creative resistance serves as a reminder to continue speaking back to the state powers that demand silence. 

When I arrived in Berlin in August, I immediately noticed the writing on the wall upon visiting Neukölln. It wasn’t because of the graffiti itself (as Berlin is covered in street art), but rather because of what was said and in the way in which it was said.  One of the first pieces I remember seeing simply said Save Gaza. But when I looked closer, I noticed that someone had taken a black marker to the white paint, adding the words From Hamas Terrorists. 

I remember the deep irritation I felt. It was a retort I’ve experienced for as long as I can remember and was always said by someone when I’ve spoken about the Occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. For 15 years, those three words have been spit back in my face in one form or another. Here I was, in Berlin, and the walls were also hosting the same rhetoric, which has long been used to distract the public from the Israeli regime’s 75-year-long genocide against Palestinians. 

I wanted to write back. I wanted to fill the walls with all the stories I held in my memory. Stories passed on from grandparents to my friends, who then shared them with me. Such is the role of memory-keepers in the diaspora. Even if I wrote in the same size down that block, I could not fill the walls with all the names of all the martyrs. 

A wall down the street from where I lived in Kreuzberg was constantly painted over. It was a strategy I was familiar with back home in Oakland, where the city spends thousands of dollars covering up graffiti for the sake of… who knows what. But here, in the middle of Germany, it was different. It felt pointed. Walls were covered with graffiti and scrawled tags throughout the city, especially in the eastern districts like Neukölln and Kreuzberg. So when I first saw “Free” written on the wall, seemingly alone in a sea of different colored cover-ups, I knew that the word that followed had been purposefully erased. Indeed, it likely was when a few days later, “Palestine” returned, completing the phrase.

Where this back-and-forth was most visceral and violent was in Hermannplatz, the main subway station in Neukolln. Hermannplatz was the central point, the meeting spot for friends connecting in the neighborhood. It was where I met friends to catch the train to other parts of the city or before heading to the park a few blocks away. It was the station that led me home after a night at a popular gay club where a dear friend invited me to find sanctuary among other Arab and Muslim queers. 

The first time I noticed the large painted Palestinian flag on the statue of Hermannplatz, where the surrounding area would turn into a bustling market some weekdays, I took a photo. Zoomed in and of poor quality, it was mostly to document something I had been taking note of across the city: images of Palestine. The Moroccan-German friend I was with laughed. For her, the Palestinian flag was normal. When she met with other local friends in Neukolln, someone would usually say let’s meet at the Palestinian flag, signifying the spot by Hermannplatz station. 

However, over the course of a week, the Palestinian flag at Hermannplatz underwent a series of changes that culminated in it being totally covered up. It seemed like every time I walked past it, a new response had been made. As new and significant as it felt to me, everyone else seemed quite used to it. When I asked Yara about it, she said this was quite normal, the flag had undergone so many changes in just the two years she had lived in the neighborhood. 

The last image I took of the flag was the morning after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. By the time I arrived at the airport three hours after taking the photo, a friend from the neighborhood shared another one: the flag had been wrapped in plastic by Berlin police. Since then, the flag has been painted over once more. This time, blatantly, by the police in the middle of the day. This seemingly mundane act of censorship is indicative of a larger apparatus of censorship facilitated by the Zionist state. A censorship apparatus that spans the globe giving Western governments cover as they greenlight genocide against Palestinians while brutalizing and silencing Palestinians in the diaspora who speak out. 

It was common knowledge that Palestine was not to be spoken about in Germany. Even among people of color with strong beliefs, it was important to remain silent—or at least neutral—while in public, knowing that the consequences for Palestinians and their supporters were tangible. In German, this phenomenon is known as kontaktschuld, which translates to contact guilt or guilt by association. An atmosphere of fear of association similar to what was manufactured in the United States during the 1950s under Senator Joe McCarthy during the “Red Scare'' and criminalization of communism. McCarthy’s fear-mongering led to the loss of employment for some and witch-hunt-style persecution of marginalized people, which echoes the atmosphere Ramses Kilani organizes under in Germany. 

Censorship of Palestinian activists is not new to me. Even in a U.S. context where freedom of speech is allegedly the law of the land, I grew up in the aftermath of the Al-Aqsa Five. Members of my mosque were targeted and harassed by law enforcement for organizing for Palestine. A friend's mother had to teach her how to engage with FBI agents, who frequently knocked on their door questioning her father’s political work. Still, what I witnessed in Berlin felt different. In a city that is globally celebrated for progressive politics that borders on radical in contrast to others, the culture of silence around the Israeli Occupation of Palestine facilitated by the German state felt particularly extreme. 

The brutality unleashed by Berlin police officers against the Palestinian and Arab community in Neukolln has been documented extensively since the Israelis began carpet-bombing Gaza in October. Police in Berlin have engaged in deliberate and blatant acts of racial profiling, detaining and physically assaulting Palestinians and their allies. I felt immense guilt as I followed the news, knowing that any day, a friend's face could be bloodied and bruised. I feel even more guilt as I think of the Palestinians being massacred in Gaza, as media outlets and governments attempt to cover it up.  

While we walked around Neukölln that sunset on Oct. 6, Yara pointed out pieces I had missed. Stenciled pieces with messages I wasn’t privy to. Much of the writing was simple, sprayed quickly, reminding me of those more conscious of being watched and chased by cops. Yara shared that it was a style that reminded her of street art back home in Palestine. Yara has been documenting street art throughout Palestine for years, starting with her home in Ramallah. As we walked up and down Sonnenallee, she shared her observations. Messages she understood that I had completely missed with my rudimentary Arabic and lack of cultural context. 

The morning I left Berlin, I attended a ceremony commemorating Black victims of the Holocaust, their names inscribed in the golden stones known as Stoplerstein. I knelt by the stones, reading the names inscribed on them, wondering what they might say to my generation as we face a global rise in ethno-fascism and Evangelical nationalism. Their descendants—many of whom reside in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe—spoke to the 50 or so people gathered there. Although I didn’t understand what was shared with the audience, I felt the weight of the emotions and history woven through their words. While I listened to the descendants of these victims of genocide, I couldn’t help but think of the friends I grew up with, Palestinians whose families were spread across the globe, forcibly exiled from the lands their grandparents were born in. Some of them were considered stateless and forbidden from returning to tend to the earth that held their forefathers’ bodies. 

After missing the train, I took an Uber to the airport. The driver, Wisam, was Palestinian by way of refugee camps in Lebanon. We spoke in a combination of Arabic and English as he patiently waited for me to find the Arabic buried in the recesses of my memory. He told me about his experience as a Palestinian father to German-born Palestinian children. How he struggled to bolster their love and enthusiasm for Palestinian liberation, with the very real fear of what happens to Palestinian children and their parents who are vocal about the inhumanity. He shared stories of friends who dealt with institutional repression and about how he has to constantly remind his younger son not to say anything publicly or at school. The risks weren’t simply a suspension but the possibility of having the German equivalent of child services called to his home under the guise that he was indoctrinating his child with terrorist rhetoric and activity. He was worried about his youngest son, who was quick to passionately defend the land his grandparents were expelled from. 

His words reminded me of my mother, who often warned me against speaking out angrily when it came to state violence inflicted on Black people, particularly Black Muslims in the U.S., especially when I used to wear a hijab. My emotions were to be tempered and contained into bite-sized diplomatic talking points. I learned to smother my rage until it became a kind of depression that haunts me to this day. 

I think about Wisam’s 10-year-old son. I think about what the last several weeks must have felt like as he sat in classrooms where teachers didn’t acknowledge the ongoing massacre of his people or were downright hostile to them. I think about the Palestinian child who carried a Palestinian flag to school and was physically assaulted by a teacher in Berlin. I think about how the student was immediately suspended while the teacher who attacked him continued to be allowed to teach. I think about how intentionally, cultures of silence are refined in order to make genocide permissible to the general public. I think about all of the different Holocaust memorials I visited across Berlin and all of the different ways I heard the echo of Never Again

At the airport, over a dozen people wore shirts, pins, or patches to bring awareness to the ongoing war in Ukraine. One shirt said I Want My Home Back, with a large yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag underneath. How quickly might Berlin police have arrested him had that flag been red, black, white, and green instead?