Mosques of Berlin

The Turkish influx to Germany began in the 1960s, when they were imported as guest workers to make up for the labor shortfall during the days of the economic miracle. Berlin today has a very large Muslim population and is often known as the second largest city of Turkey. No wonder then that Berlin has a very large number of mosques representing various nationalities and sects. We offered our Eid ul Fitr prayers in Masjid Bilal, a Pakistani mosque in a rundown place located at Drontheimer Strasse 16. The best way to reach this place is with the underground rail and getting off at Oesloerstrasse station. Walking up to the mosque took us less than ten minutes. The Khutba was in Urdu and the congregation was mostly working class Pakistanis. There was a separate hall for females. The mood was festive and everybody was in their best clothes. In the space outside people were selling eatables and distributing sweets. There will be food later, I was informed but we had other plans, so we moved on.

Towards the end of our stay in Berlin, someone recommended that we visit a historic Turkish mosque in Berlin. So one Sunday we took a bus and then the underground train and got off at the Der Platz der Luftbruecke or The Place of the Air Bridge next to the old airport in Templehoff. The air bridge is the name given to the aerial supply to the besieged city of Berlin from 1948 to 1949. The airport is no ore under use. A short walk brought us to the Sehitlik Mosque (Turkish: Türk Berlin Sehitlik Camii). It a restored mosque around a Turkish cemetery at the Columbia dam in the district of Neukölln.

Twenty Muslim soldiers had served under Fredrick William I of Prussia, at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1745, Fredrick II established a unit of Muslims in the Prussian army called the Muslim Riders and consisting mainly of Bosniaks, Albanians and Tartars. In 1760 a Bosniak corps was established with about 1,000 men. In 1798 a Muslim cemetery was established in Berlin. The cemetery, which moved in 1866, still exists today.

The new mosque was reopened in 1988 and expanded between 1999 and 2005. The mosque takes its name from the Turkish cemetery, which was created in 1863 as a diplomatic graveyard. Diplomats to the Prussian empire and soldiers can be found in the small graveyard. There is also a small monument in the memory of those who had died in the service of the Ottomans. The mosque is spread over 1500 square meters and the faithful prayer hall in the 1st Floor has an area of 365 square meters. The lower story is reserved for the ladies. The mosque has been constructed in the classic ottoman style and those who have travelled to Turkey will be reminded of its resemblance to Aya Sofia and other mosques in Istanbul. Inside the courtyard are graves of diplomats and soldiers dating back to the last century. Some tombstones indicate these to be the last resting place of Afghan and Iranian diplomats. The mosque is very well maintained. A Turkish center located next to the mosque. The inside is tastefully furnished with blue carpets, chandelier and an impressive pulpit. Advertisements outside announced to the faithful to buy animals for the Eid of sacrifice at the cost of Euro 150 only. The meet would be sent to Afghanistan. Some people sat in the small canteen sipping Turkish kehva. The atmosphere was serene and soothing.

Munich Shooting

We had just reached the home of our German friend in Bordesholm, a small town in the Schleswig Holstein in the district Rendsburg-Eckernförde, when I started receiving messages from friends and family about my safety. Apparently there had been a shooting in a shopping mall in Munich. I was far away from the scene of incident I assured everyone. Munich is in Bavaria in the South at a distance of nearly 900 km by road from Bordesholm. I then shared the information with our German host, who was taken by surprise. He became concerned about a Pakistani boy in Munich, whose welfare was close to his heart. He immediately rang him up to check about his whereabouts. The young man had left his office but was now stranded on the street. There was a lockdown in Munich. All public transport services had been suspended and taxis if available were not willing to give him a ride. Don’t stay in the open; the kindly German advised his charge. Go to a hotel and stay there until the situation becomes clear. Sometime later the Pakistani boy called back to inform his mentor that the hotel had refused him a room. He was agitated because he thought the reason for not getting the room was the color of his skin and his obvious ethnicity. The German friend started working on his phone. He began calling up his relatives in the area but unfortunately none was available. To everybody’s relief, a Russian colleague of the boy came to his rescue and took him to his apartment. The entire episode left the boy confused and angry. Through the dint of his hard work he had worked his way up the system and considered himself a responsible member of the society. He expected recognition and not rejection. He thought the Germans were over reacting and was unwilling to understand the German fears.

This episode unfolding before me was disturbing to say the least. Lately, there had been a spate of incidents in Europe and North America in which fringe lunatics bearing Muslim names had gone on a killing spree. Most of them had been second generation progeny of immigrants, who had been misfits in the adopted homelands of their parents. They had not been practicing Muslims, had criminal records or were suffering from psychological problems. Only in the case the Afghan teenager, who had attacked passengers in a passenger train with an axe in Wurzburg, had been a recent refugee. Unconfirmed evidence would always suggest that the attacker had shouted Allahu Akbar before he ran amok. The IS had been quick to own up the attacks and the politicians in the US and Europe had raised concern about the threat that militant Islam posed to their open societies. This time too messages started pouring in from the Whitehouse and all over the world condemning this act of terrorism. For those of us coming from Islamic countries, such incidents put us, in a very painful and embarrassing position. Defending our faith and trying to distance ourselves from the act of a crackpot is more often than not met with skepticism.

Back to the incident in the Olympia Mall in Munich, after the usual statements by national and international leaders vowing to make their societies safe and the freedoms intact, a strange silence descended on the media. As bits and pieces of information started trickling in, it transpired that the attacker was a German-Iranian teenager, with a disturbed past and with no connection to any terrorist group. In fact his role model was the unrepentant Norwegian white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik, who had killed nearly eighty people in 2011. The boy, who the police had now started identifying as David S. had converted to Christianity and was mentally disturbed. He had actually killed Turks, Kosovars and Greeks by luring them to a free meal in a MacDonald’s fast food café in the mall. Next day there was no front page news of the incident. It appeared as if nothing had happened at all. There had been reports of shootout in a mall in Cologne about a month back and this news had also fizzled out.

There are some lessons from the Munich shooting. There are problems of integration among second and third generation immigrants. The state and immigrant communities have to join hands to work together towards resolving this issue. There is a need for a very stringent gun control so that everybody cannot lay hands on weapons without due diligence by state authorities. The international media needs to play a positive role by not creating an anti-Muslim hype, whenever a shooting incident takes place. This only gives free publicity to militant organizations like the IS to take credit and add this to their log book. The killers are always mentally disturbed people and this is one reason that they are easily seduced by those preaching violent ideologies.

Blue Danube

Danube is not blue; it is muddy brown because it makes a long journey passing through nearly ten European countries before falling into the Black Sea. It is only shorter than the Volga. Originating in Germany it was once upon a time the border of the Roman Empire.

Blue Danube is a famous waltz composed by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss in 1866. Commonly known as Blue Danube in English, the original title in German is An der schönen blauen Donau or By the Beautiful Blue Danube. I first read about Blue Danube in one of the books written by Shafeeq-ur-Rahman, the quintessential author of the timeless age of youth, laughter and romance.

Danube famously flows through Budapest (pronounced Boodah Pesht) the capital city of Hungary, dividing it into two parts. Buda is the hilly part and Pest (pronounced Pesht) is the one on the plains. Part of this fairy tale city’s mystique comes from the River Danube. You will most likely find a hotel room in Pest. If you can afford, you can select one like the Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m sure you’ve seen the very entertaining movie by the same name. If you haven’t I would highly recommend that you see it. From experience I can tell you that Budapest offers many affordable places to stay and food on a good budget. You should if you want to sample the cuisine of the city, try the goulash. I must confess I found it a bland watery version of our aloo gosht. If you don’t want to be adventurous, you have wide choice of doner kebabs with beef fillings. I cannot vouch that they serve halal meat but some vendors claim to do so. Hungarian is a difficult language but people are friendly and often try to give directions in English.

Budapest by all accounts is a wonderful city with an eclectic mix of history and culture. It has many historical monuments, natural thermal baths, exciting cultural activity and a very vibrant musical scene. It’s without doubt one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable cities. Due to its scenic setting and its architecture it is nicknamed Paris of the East. In 1987 Budapest was added to the UNESCO World heritage UNESCO World Heritage List for the cultural and architectural significance of the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue.

Budapest has one of the most elaborate traffic systems in Europe. Its underground boasts of being one of the oldest in Europe. We bought a three day travel pass and we could travel in the bus, train, metro, tram and boat. This was cheaper than the hop on hop off tickets being sold to the tourists. A boat trip took us to the island in the Danube, where we were entertained to a show of musical fountains dancing on the tunes of some good music. We also experienced music and dance in front of the art museum located in the royal palace and fort. The palace is beautifully maintained and during the Ottoman reign it also had a mosque. The natural baths in the city also owe their existence to the tradition of the Turkish hamams. One of the most exquisite views that one can get is from the funicular that moves up and down the hill to the palace by means of cables, pulleys and levers. Another place to view the city especially at night is from one of the bridges. The most famous bridge is of course the old suspension or chain bridge. The boat and barge traffic moving up and down the river provides a very nice view. At night it is an out of the world experience as you view buildings like the parliament house, the royal palace, the churches and temples and the old citadel brilliantly lit up and giving a dreamlike substance to the city.

The city is so full of places to visit and few days that we had planned were not enough. Some of the must see places are the old Basilica (also experience it by night), the Hero’s square and the House of Terror documenting the resistance of the people against the Soviet invasion in 1956 and the subsequent communist rule. You may also like to visit the Central European University in the heart of the city if you can squeeze out some time.


What if the West had lost Cold War?

Berlin has the distinction of being the final battleground of two wars – the Second World War and the Cold War. National Socialism was defeated here in 1945 and communism in 1989. The Berlin Wall has been torn down and the only vestige of the terrible barrier that separated the two German nations is a symbolic line of stones etched on the floor of Berlin. It is discernible at a number of places and is quite visible if you visit Berlin’s iconic landmark, the Brandenberger Tor. As a visitor to reunified Berlin, I often wonder what if the West had lost the Cold War.  Whenever I wonder aloud, I’m told quite authoritatively that it wouldn’t have been possible. The reasons that are quoted are as follows: The communist system was too controlled. People were oppressed and wanted freedom. The capitalist system despite its flaws gives people more choices and a way of life according to one’s own liking. True, but what if the West had lost and the communists would have won? The counter narrative is missing because history is often written by the victors. I was particularly moved, when I saw two monuments each celebrating a different memory, one in Berlin and the other in Budapest. The memorial to the fallen Soviet soldiers of World War II at Treptower in Berlin is massive and is spread over acres of land. It is embellished by statutes and stones carrying patriotic slogans. The memorial to the fallen Hungarian patriots of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet intervention is smaller and is restricted to a house called the House of Terror in Budapest.

The Soviet War Memorial and military cemetery in Berlin’s Treptower Park commemorates 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945. It was opened on May 8, 1949 and served as the central war memorial of East Germany. Three more Soviet memorials were built in Berlin. One in the Tiergarten memorial became part of West Berlin and the other is in Schönholzer Heide. The focus of the Treptower ensemble is a 12-m tall statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword holding a German child, standing over a broken swastika. It marks the deeds of Sergeant of Guards Nikolai Masalov, who during the final storming of the center of Berlin risked his life under heavy machine-gun fire to rescue a three-year-old German girl whose mother had apparently disappeared.

Before the monument is a central area lined on both sides by 16 stone sarcophagi, one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics with relief carvings of military scenes and quotations from Joseph Stalin, on one side in Russian, on the other side the same text in German: “Now all recognize that the Soviet people with their selfless fight saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs. This was a great achievement of the Soviet people to the history of mankind.” At the opposite end of the central area from the statue is a portal consisting of a pair of stylized Soviet flags built of red granite. These are flanked by two statues of kneeling soldiers. Beyond the flag monuments is a further sculpture, along the axis formed by the soldier monument, the main area, and the flags, is another figure, of the Motherland weeping at the loss of her sons. As a poignant reminder of their heroic deeds of their countrymen, the Russian citizens of Berlin still come to lay flowers and burn candles at the main sarcophagus and offer a silent prayer and wonder if the course of history would have been different.

House of Terror museum located at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary contains exhibits related to in 20th century history of the country under the communist regimes. It also serves a memorial to those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. Built after the collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of Eastern Europe to capitalist ideology it is meant to castigate communism and fascism and contains material on the nation’s relationships to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On the roadside is a display of the fallen heroes of the 23 October 1956 uprising against the Russian intervention. Imre Nagy, the country’s prime minister’s defiant address in the face of the Soviet takeover is emblazoned in bold letters. The exhibit inside is related to Hungarian organisations such as the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist ÁVH (which was similar to the Soviet Union KGB secret police). Part of the exhibition takes visitors to the basement, where they can see examples of the torture chambers. There are of course critics to this exhibition, historians, journalists, and political scientists, who argue that the museum revolves plays too much upon the victim-hood of Hungary under foreign occupation and ignores the contribution of the Hungarians themselves towards the perpetuation of the communist rule.

For someone growing up in the Cold War era and experiencing it first-hand these memorials serve as important reference point and reinforce the question, what if the West had lost the Cold War?





Pakistani Street Vendors on Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin is a very happening place. On a warm summer day it is thronged by dozens of tourists out to enjoy the square abuzz with a lot of bohemian music and art activity. Artists with chalk or coal are drawing masterpieces that may last only so long as the next rain or cleaning up by the municipal authorities. Budding musicians are playing conventional instruments or just creating music by banging at pots and pans. Punks with needles piercing their lips and nose and hair garishly colored laze around, while lovers cling to each other in varying degrees of passion. Shirtless men with tattoos and pet dogs on the leash have cardboard signs declaring that they are shelterless and would you please kindly spare a penny, so that they can no doubt meet their quota of booze. Kiosks sell ice cream, while men carrying trays around their waist do brisk business selling cheaply priced wurst. Among this riot of color, song and music, you can see vendors selling peak caps, leather tank men caps, fur hats and gas masks belonging to the Soviet and East German armies. The newness of the caps is a fair indicator that these are not relics of a bygone era but newly made to attract the fancy of the tourist or the curious collector. By their appearance, the men selling the trinkets of the communist era seem to be from South Asian descent.

I walk up to one of them to find who he is. Ali can be between somewhere between mid-thirties to early forties. He is dressed smartly and is wearing sandals. We make small talk. How is business doing? Not bad given that there is an economic crisis. He can’t really complain and can make upto a thousand euros but then how much is enough? He wonders philosophically. He has been in the business for the past 5 years. Previously the Germans would buy stuff from him but now it is mostly tourists looking for souvenirs or students wanting a fancy headgear for a party. On a good day he can sell upto ten caps and knows how to get their price worth. He is from Mundi Bahauddin in the Punjab and so are all the other ‘colleagues’ of his on the square. They come from Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and even one from Bhai Phero. He has been in Germany for seven years. He is married to a cousin, who has been in Germany before. One can only make out that he got his legal status by marrying her. He has children and they visit Pakistan every year. You can’t say anything to the children in this country because they can call the police and they can take them away and put them in the custody of the government. This is not his only grouse. People in Germany consider Pakistan very poorly. They even rank them below the Afghans. What a shame, after all we brought the Berlin Wall down. This place that is humming with activity wouldn’t have been there, if it hadn’t been for us. Our leaders are bad. They cannot stand up for their people and make a case for them. The Afghans are also an ungrateful lot. We did so much for them and now they speak ill of us. Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle? Yes, the Germans are very hardworking people. They are very well organized. They can do their work quickly. They only keep the minimum staff to get their work done. They work for five days and for the remaining two days they party. But you work seven days? Our case is different, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. Of course you can take a photograph of my caps but please keep me out of the frame. Would I like a cup of coffee? No thanks I say. He smiles broadly and I move on wishing him and my other countrymen working on Alexanderplatz well.


Why there will be no coup in Pakistan?

We have just witnessed high drama in Turkey. A segment of the military tried to briefly takeover the government but failed to do so. The elected government asked the people to come out on the streets in their favor and the rebellious soldiers fled in the face of street power that they hadn’t reckoned with. Pakistan and Turkey have a common history of coups. In both countries the military considers itself the custodian of the nation’s physical and ideological borders. In both countries the military has the licence to give a course correction, whenever it is felt that the system is going awry. This right – a constitutional one in case of Turkey and legal one under the doctrine of necessity in Pakistan – has produced long periods of military rule. Turkey has been free of martial laws since the end of 1980s, while Pakistan saw off its last military ruler in 2008. Counting out the recent attempt to disrupt democracy, Turkey has made considerable progress as a stable democracy. In Pakistan democratic traditions are still fragile, there is a skewered civil-military relations and each instance of political turbulence makes the rumor mill run amok predicting that a military putsch is around the corner.

I am no sage but in my opinion there is no imminent possibility of any political coup taking place in Pakistan like Turkey. The reason is quite simple. The Army in Pakistan is strong and doesn’t need to remove a weak and pliant civilian government. From experience it has learnt that it is better to pull the strings from behind the curtains instead of being in the front and be cursed by the common man for his daily miseries like power outages and corruption. Each military dictator had to relinquish power in face of popular unrest after having failed to resolve the country’s multifarious problems. After the return to civil rule it has been fairly smooth sailing for the military. The previous civilian government simply did not interfere in their affairs and gave the powerful army chief and the intelligent head extensions in their tenures of service to keep them happy and out of their hair. The present government lost its political clout when it was jolted by street power demonstrations in 2014. Thereafter it ceded so much space that it simply could not recover. Army occupied the vacuum created and the civilian government just did their bidding. The Army chief became extremely popular and the prime minister plagued by financial scandals just took a long leave of absence on medical grounds and nobody missed him for more than a month.

In Turkey as well in Egypt military coups were launched after extensive foreign propaganda against the elected government. In Egypt the government of Muhammad Morsi was kicked out after merely a year in power because his Islamic credentials and method of governance became repugnant for the people and world at large. The Egyptian military gladly rebounded and resumed from where the previous military strong man Hosni Mubarak had left. In case of Turkey, President Erdogan was also becoming increasingly autocratic and there were reports in the international media condemning him for his strong arm tactics against his political opponents. There are also allegations of foreign sponsorship of the coup makers by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen. In case of Pakistan there is a lot of domestic bad press against the current political leadership but neither the international media is hostile nor are there any known foreign sponsors. At most international leadership is dismissive about the present prime minister but there is no suggestion or encouragement of military interference.

So why should the Army to interfere with a political government that hardly poses a threat to it and creates no problems in its working? In any case it has its hands full with Operation Zarb-i-Azab launched over two years ago to root out terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The present Army chief wants to leave behind the successful completion of this counter insurgency campaign as his legacy.  Seen from this perspective, the civilian rule under the watchful gaze of the military is likely to continue in the foreseeable future without recourse to martial law.



Goodbye Lenin

The city of Berlin has many ghosts to exorcise. During the last century it was possessed by demonic spirit of Nazism and then it became the battleground of competing ideologies of communism and capitalism. At the end of the Cold War, a new and unified nation emerged from the ashes of the past. It may have been the triumph of capitalism but not everyone exulted when the wall came down. Party apparatchiks and high ranking cadres were left confused and befuddled. For fifty years what had become a life style was suddenly destroyed and torn asunder. Those dedicated to the former communist regime were left jobless and without a purpose in life. Goodbye Lenin is a movie that poignantly brings across the tragedy in the lives of those, who were raised in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and who came to believe in the Party ideals.

Described as a tragicomedy, Goodbye Lenin is a movie in German language which was produced in 2001 and released in 2003. It can be seen with English subtitles and is considered a classic that truly sums up the change that visited German around the turn of the last century. Directed by Wolfgang Becker, the cast includes Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, and Maria Simon. Most scenes were shot at the Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin and around Plattenbauten near Alexanderplatz.

It is a story of a woman in East Germany, whose husband has apparently deserted her for the allure of the West to raise her two young children, a son and a daughter alone. As the political scene in Europe moves towards a dénouement, the son takes part in a demonstration against the communist regime is hauled up by the East German police. The mother sees her son being beaten and arrested and suffers a heart attack. Her condition worsens and goes up into deep coma. The boy is released in the evening to visit her mother. There he comes across a young nurse, whom he had met at the demonstration. The two fall in love. The mother remains in deep sleep for eight months and wakes up after the Berlin Wall has broken down, Erick Honecker is gone and socialism has given way to capitalism. By this time the son Alex has lost his job as a TV repairman and has been hired by a West German cable TV company and is paired with a young West German, who is an aspiring film maker. The daughter Ariane leaves her studies in the university to become a Burger king drive through attendant.

The doctor warns the family that the mother should under no circumstances be shocked or she would suffer a relapse. Thereafter with Alex in the lead it becomes a struggle for the family and their friends to resurrect former East Germany for the mother to let her lead a life that she has always believed in. It is humorous to see how the house is restored to its former austerity and how bits and pieces of the old products brought into the house to keep the mother from learning about the changes that have taken place around her. Fake TV programs and news reports are made and eating products repackaged to keep the charade alive. In between the long lost father is also found and it is learnt by the children to their utter chagrin that he had not abandoned them but that their mother had actually refused to open the letters that he had been sending to them. There are a number of hilarious escapades but in the background the hurt and the loss felt by the East German keeps playing out as the mother finally dies happily in the state she had always believed in.