Saturday, May 07, 2016

Temple of Hope

Tempelhofer Feld was operating as an airfield as early as in 1909, however, its designation as Berlin’s main airport and its expansion began in the 1920s, which took on a whole new meaning following the establishment of the Third Reich, as Nazis decided to turn it into a ‘large airport’, dovetailing their ‘great’ idea of Germania. Situated in the south of central Berlin, in the district (Bezirk) of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, it was famously used by the Allied Powers for an airlift in 1948-1949 to come to the aid of residents of West Berlin whose access to crucial supplies were blocked by the East German authorities. Through those 11 months, the residents of West Berlin’s only hope of survival was goods received from the air, and Tempelhof provided the necessary base.

Long gone are the days of divided Berlin and the site, referred to in official Berlin maps as the ‘ehemalige Flughafen Tempelhof (the former Tempelhof Airport) was turned into a massive public space, a green refuge in a city that does not otherwise lack green space all that much anyway. It has remained popular with locals who use the site for various activities ranging from barbecuing, flying kites, or playing mini golf. It was my local running spot when I lived in Neukölln in the Spring of 2013. 

The ‘Tempelhof Question’, the challenge to come to a collective decision on what to do with a site of such significance in scale in a very central location in Berlin, a city whose 1990s oversupply of housing in the hopes of making the capital great once more, is acutely falling short of providing shelter for its diverse and ever growing population has caused much controversy in the recent past. The Tempelhofer Feld visitors enjoy 386-hectare of open space (1.5 times the size of Monaco) and the park is home to urban gardening beds, sitting adjacent to a major mosque and public pool. A public referendum in May 2014 turned in favour of those trying to protect the site from any future development by putting in restrictions for planning consent but the discussions were already at their peak shortly before I ended my 3-month long Berlin stint at the end of May 2013. Berliners decided to rid the city officials and their business developers of a very profitable deal.

And as soon as I moved back to London, the protests in Gezi Park erupted in Istanbul and I found myself reflecting on this very recent Tempelhof experience. Gezi protests had come at the tail-end of a streak of incidents where spaces frequented by the public with embedded memories were being streamlined to redevelopment programmes, stripping them of their former qualities: in most cases limiting public access and as in the case of Gezi Park, completely transforming the former functions of what is one of a handful of parks in central Istanbul. I was able to observe the developments around Gezi Park just as closely, in flesh and in spiritual solidarity, as I was for Tempelhof.

Today, a discussion barely registered in the public domain in 2013 is surrounding Tempelhofer Feld. The hangars of the former airport are now homes to around a 1,000 refugees who have fled from conflict zones, primarily from Syria. Last night, I attended an evening of performances by three teenagers who live in the makeshift, temporary housing allocated for the refugees. Titled ‘1.2 Square Meters’, the performances, theatrical insofar they were on a stage and the audience faced them, and otherwise very real, were a combination of spoken word, some singing and dancing, and a recitation of a scripted text reimagining the ages old pan-Arab dream in the embodiment of the Palestinian Uday, ultimately rejected by Abdulrahman and Moamen, the Syrian kids whose survival reflected a simple hope of survival in a foreign country.

The evening was organised by Alexander Schröder, an actor, director and a drama teacher at the Universitaet der Künste, Berlin, who revealed he sneaked into the refugee encampment to ‘seek out his neighbours with the honest and a great feeling of curiosity’ adding that it is this ‘curiosity that would help people integrate with one another’ as against a top-down dicta of what integration means and how it should be achieved.

For the past two months, I have been volunteering as a performer to the ‘immersive theatre’ experience called You Me Bum Bum Train, a show in which I took part as audience in 2011. An audience member goes through ‘scenes’ that reflect real-life situations and put the audience member on the spot, to react to the environment surrounding them — one of the scenes mimcking the the painful and often disastrous journey many migrants resort to between Calais and Dover, in the hopes of a better life.

The testimonials from audience members who go through the experience all reflect one thing: they could not have imagined being put through such stress in real life. They immediately sympathise with the plight of people who seek refuge in a foreign and largely a hostile environment. I was proud to take part in a minute role in this mega-production, whose producers are now dismantling the set and the props and will donate tonnes of spare materials to people across campsites in Calais.

After the end of the 1.2 M2 performance, we took a quick break and re-emerged at the performance room of the DTK Wasserturm. A 130-year old building that served as a source of life for Berliners in this part of Kreuzberg nowadays houses a youth and culture centre and were generous enough to allocate the Theatergruppe Tempelhof space to practice and perform. We heard Alexander’s introductory speech and had a chance to ask questions to the kids. The excitement with which they put their performance together and the childish mockery they make of each other and the world was clearly observed. They were enjoying themselves and said they all wanted to ‘continue doing more theatre’. The challenges are profound: they are struggling to be ‘formalised’ through paperwork which is causing them all sorts of logistical problems. They are being shuffled across different areas of the camp with each attempt to best manage the limited shelter resources; some of the kids now have access to schooling (though they, like all kids, do like to skip classes), and there are curfews in place to make sure they get back to their shelters before too late. While intra-community issues seem to be at minimum from what we’ve heard, separation of boys’ and girls’ lives also mean they cannot often come together to play, and train. 

While the audience, probably all very curious about the journeys these kids have had to go through, tried to keep the focus of the questions on the performances, one audience member couldn’t help but ask what the kids ‘felt towards the people who smuggled them on boats from Turkey to Greece’, which, by that point, as we learned, was the way most of them made their way here. The interpreter who has a shared destiny with the boys mainly shrugged her shoulders but the kids were not shy about revealing the hard truth that is clear to all of us: they were harassed, exploited and exhausted. They all shared one sentiment, too: they missed their mothers. They were sent by their families, probably in order to resist being taken up by Daesh or suffer from conflict, but also to seek hope for the rest of their lives, just about starting in earnest.

It was a humbling evening to finish off a week-long trip to Berlin that started with a stag weekend and included frequent visits to meet old friends, make some new, and places that bring back tremendous shared and personal memories in a city that I have always had very special connections to. At the nearby ‘Kneipe’ we deliberated questions raised by the audience and tried to understand a little more about these kids’ worlds, helped by Malte who has been working with them for the past three months. Exposing kids to such traumas and confronting them with questions might have come across more disturbing to us than it was for the kids actually. Their focus seemed to be getting on with the rest of their lives — however, as they had claimed in some of their spoken words, they have so far not found the ‘heavenly spoils’ they were expecting from Germany. But then as Aisha put it bluntly, they haven’t really seen much of the world except for Tempelhof, though Alexander is now trying to take them on tours across the city. With open eyes and minds, they’ll hopefully be cherishing each and every moment.

Tempelhof, a temple of hope, is also deliberating its own future, once again. Only three years after securing public backing in restricting development on the parkland, a new question looms large: should the restriction be lifted so that permanent structures can be built to accommodate the ever increasing number of incoming migrants? Or would this open the floodgates to nullify a legacy of collective decision-making and legal ownership of public commons, i.e. a new era of laissez-faire for future developments across Berlin’s held dear public land and properties? Opinions are divided and politicians use them to their will: ‘hippies who want to protect Tempelhof won’t help migrants’ is a potentially cynical incursion, and a tough one to stand up to. Perhaps, the new neighbours will start weighing in on the issue — after all this area has borne hopes of survival for many, across generations, and it will continue to do so.