Donnerstag, 27. August 2009
‘Daddy, let’s ride to the ends of the earth,’ shouted Maus.
Suddenly the trail changed direction. A new, paved cycle lane cut across our path, curving away to north and south. Beyond it stretched empty fields, uncultivated and abandoned. The sense of freedom left me, either because of something latent in the air or because of my knowledge of the history of this place. Above us a sign read Berliner Mauerweg.
In 1961 the Berlin Wall was built by East Germany to stop its citizens escaping to West Berlin (3.5 million East Germans had fled their country over the previous fifteen years). The reinforced concrete barrier, with its guard towers, anti-vehicle trenches and ‘death strip’ -- completely encircled the democratic, western half of the city. Twenty years ago this November the Wall was opened and – in less than 18 months – the one-hundred-mile long barrier had been all but completely removed.
In 2002 the Berlin Senat decided to build a Berlin Wall Trail along the route of the former border fortifications. In places the cycle and hiking path runs on the patrol road used by customs officers in West Berlin, or along the border control road used by East German troops for their own patrols. It cuts through the heart of the reunified city, running by the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate, past Checkpoint Charlie and Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station, the only rail crossing point between the two halves of the city, with the so-called Tränenpalast – or Palace of Tears -- where countless farewells took place before 1989.
But it is the trail’s western sections, where the wooded periphery of West Berlin met East German farmland, that are less familiar to residents and visitors alike. Here one can cycle for hours, meeting only the occasional jogger, surrounded by trees and birdsong.
The Wall Trail is divided into 14 individual sections which vary between seven and 21 kilometers in length. Along the route there are more than 40 information points which offer details on the division of Germany as well as the construction and fall of the Wall. Photographs and short texts describe events that happened at the various sites, recalling political events and everyday life in the divided city.
In Berlin – so as not to lose touch with the past -- I often carry with me a 1972 city road map. On it the route of the Wall is marked as a livid red scar encircling old West Berlin. With Maus by my side I pulled it out of my rucksack and traced the line of the barrier for him. He listened to me and then slowly we started to ride north along the Mauerweg, between the once-separated suburbs and villages of Spandau and Staaken, Falkensee and Siedlung Schönwalde.
But after a few minutes Maus seemed to forget my little history lesson. As the sun flickered through the trees he started singing to himself. Then he stood up on his pedals and whooped again. The Wall did not exist for him. He was free to ride – with me at his side – as far as Hamburg, Amsterdam, even to the ends of the earth. In Spandau Forest I whispered a little prayer of thanks that West Berliners – and East Germans – are free once again to walk and ride as far as their hearts desire.
Donnerstag, 20. August 2009
The trial was a sham, the purpose of which was to ensure that she will remain locked up until after the May 2010 elections. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won the last elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power. She has spent 14 of the twenty years since that victory under house arrest.
Her continuing incarceration is despicable. Barack Obama has called for her ‘immediate unconditional release’. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, ‘She should not have been tried and she should not have been convicted.’ Germany’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Günter Nooke, stated, ‘This judgment is a slap in the face for all those committed to achieving freedom and human rights in Burma.… It’s therefore all the more important for the international community to be united in strongly condemning this action.’
In the UK Gordon Brown – responding to the public outcry over continuing Burmese injustices -- has called for further EU sanctions targeting the regime’s economic interests. But is this the only way to go?
For two decades the West has imposed sanctions on Burma. What have they achieved? The Burmese people have been further impoverished. Their leaders have become more ruthless and intransigent, brutally putting down two extraordinarily brave sets of pro-democracy protests in 1988 and 2007. China and North Korea have become favoured trading partners. Aung San Suu Kyi has not been freed.
Simply put, sanctions will never bring about change in Burma because its regime is supported by China. China needs Burma for its resources and, above all, access to the Indian Ocean. China’s strategic interests are more important – in their eyes – than the liberty of Suu Kyi and Burma’s other two thousand political prisoners. No surprise that it was China – along with Russia – which blocked a strongly-worded UN condemnation of the military government last week.
Over the past few months I’ve been in touch with Thant Myint-U, historian, author and grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. In July he told the Economist that we’re wrong to depict Burma as ‘a kind of velvet revolution gone wrong’. The paranoid regime’s inward-looking cast has been conditioned by centuries of invasions, among them by the British and, after independence in 1948, by American-backed Chinese Nationalists. Sanctions – stated the Economist – ‘have helped bring about no democratic transition in Asia—on the contrary. So imagine if the West reversed policy, dropped sanctions and pursued engagement. The generals have already looked at the development paths blazed by China and Vietnam and said they want to follow… Development (in Burma) could bring about swift changes to the political landscape, as eventually happened in Indonesia. Development, in other words, could be the fastest path to democracy.’
Thant Myint-U told me, ‘I’ve been in Burma a lot this past year, talking to everyone, and I’m absolutely convinced we need to do a lot more on the humanitarian/development side. It’s (1) very possible (2) urgently needed to help ordinary people who are in increasingly dire straits and (3) without economic improvement, I don’t think any political change will go in the right direction (nor will any democratic transition be sustainable). It’s the missing piece - and I think the pro-democracy campaigners are shooting themselves in the foot by not allowing for a more development-oriented approach from the outside.’
I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon while researching my book ‘Under the Dragon’. She told me of the importance of maximizing courage and minimizing fear. She spoke then, and at other times, of the need for dialogue. ‘Dialogue is the only way out of the problems we are facing here,’ she said.
Two decades of Western sanctions have brought about no dialogue, no freedom from fear for the Burmese. In moral terms sanctions are justified. But in practical terms – because of China – they are doomed to fail.
During election campaigns politicians often make political capital out of current events. In the run-up to next month’s German elections candidates may be tempted to promise draconian sanctions or, at the opposite extreme, propose opening a German investment office in Rangoon as several leading German companies tried to do a few years ago. Instead going for a sound bites, politicians should encourage the EU to conduct a transparent assessment of the impact of twenty years of sanctions as a means of opening up a proper debate. Then Germany and the international community should use targeted incentives to stimulate dialogue, and to bring an end to the regime’s blatant abuse of human rights.
The UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has said that Suu Kyi is ‘absolutely indispensable to the resumption of a political process that can lead to national reconciliation’. That is correct. As Winston Churchill said, ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’ Germany – along with the rest of the EU -- can help to start the dialogue.
Donnerstag, 13. August 2009
In addition as we never referred to the different lines in English, Maus first learnt to count in German. His first German expression was the oft-repeated ‘Einsteigen bitte’ (Step in, please). He even taught himself to recognise the different models of U-Bahn by the sound of their motors, identifying an approaching train before it reaches the platform.
So no surprise then that we joined tens of thousands of other Berliners this weekend to ride the ‘Chancellor’s U-Bahn’. The new line, which has been thirteen years in the making, is the shortest in country…and Maus has been looking forward to its opening day for months.
The U55 runs from the Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) to the Brandenburg Gate with only a single stop in-between –Bundestag. And as it doesn’t yet link up with any other of the city’s underground lines, it’s all but useless for most Berliners (apart from the Chancellor – or members of the Reichstag – who want a speedy get away from their offices to the Hauptbahnhof).
The journey from one end to the other takes just three minutes and covers 1.8 kilometers, making every meter of rail worth around €178,000 (the total cost of the project was € 320,000,000). In fact the mini-line was almost never built. In 1999 the bankrupt Berlin Senat ordered work to stop. It only resumed when parliament gave the city an ultimatum; finish the line and honor existing contracts or pay back millions in development aid.
Its limited use aside, the greatest disappointment is the design of the three stations. They are more open and user-friendly than other stations on Berlin’s 146 kilometer underground network, but they have none of the grandeur of new stations on London’s Jubilee line or of stunning Line 14 – especially Châtelet -- on the Paris Metro. Even with civic accountants cutting back imagination and expenses, the project still overran the original budget by 25%.
Yet none of this bothered Maus. He happily rode the single shuttle train back and forth, overheated on the bouncy castle outside the Bundestag, cooled down with mango ice cream and took in a clown show at the BVG (Berlin Transport) stage. He even collected four Playmobil U55 U-Bahn figurines, dated 2004/2006 (probably the original completion dates and kept in store since then).
Or perhaps it did bother him. Since the weekend he hasn’t once mentioned the U-Bahn – which has come as a big surprise. In a city which usually embraces architectural experimentation, it is a shame that an opportunity to thrill young and old alike has been squandered.
But all is not lost. The official plan is for the line to be extended east under Unter den Linden, Museum Island and the Rote Rathaus and linked with U5 at Alexanderplatz. At least three new stations have to be built. Perhaps the BVG’s architects will find the courage – and their bosses find the funds – to create stations worthy of their historical surroundings. Only time will tell. In any case I’ve promised Maus we’ll be at the opening of the extension – which is scheduled for 2017.
Donnerstag, 6. August 2009
Two weeks ago I wrote about Shafqat Kadri, a remarkable, 29 year old university linguistics tutor at the University of Sindh in Hyderabad. As a young man Shafqat taught himself English and late last year began to teach himself German. Why? Because he believes that German literature can help Pakistanis to heal the divisions in their country.
I am writing again about Shafqat because of his determination and speed of action. last week he began to offer free German tuition at the university, even though he has not yet mastered the language completely (not least because a language is an ever-evolving thing). Now his first pupil has signed up to the course, a twenty-seven year old man who is – according to Shafqat – ‘a positive fellow and in Heinrich Heine’s words, a soldier of humanity’. Shafqat has given him his dictionary and Sprachkurs Deutsch course book. In one fell swoop Hyderabad, a city of 1.5 million people, has doubled the number of its (aspiring) German speakers.
‘I have made it clear to my German student that I am no master of the language and am just a co-learner with him,’ Shafqat told me. ‘At present we are holding four lessons a week, and aim to complete Sprachkurs Deutsch 1A in three months.’
Why has Shafqat identified himself with the German language and thought? I asked him this question and he replied, ‘I have read the great masters of French literature from Diderot, Voltaire, Balzac and Hugo down to Camus and Sartre. I have also read the great Russian masters. I have learnt from them how to keep on doing what you must in a world where a free mind can be a personal
liability. Germany was salvaged by its thinkers. It won the world through the mind and the pen. That is why I, a man from a remote corner, identify myself with German thought more than the other European nations.’
He goes on, ‘I must tell you that the common people of Sindh find my writings and translations good and inspiring. Last year I wrote a biographical sketch of the free-thinking Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno. This type of writing is rare in my part of the world owing to the so called ‘blasphemy’ law in force in Pakistan. Needless to say, people who want to understand do understand. My translation was warmly welcomed.’
But pronunciation is a problem in his small German language circle. Nowhere in Hyderabad can Shafqat hear spoken German. Hence in the next few days he plans to travel to Karachi and buy a German pronouncing dictionary.
‘I have got the money now,’ he assured me. ‘It is my daughter’s birthday this month, but we are not going to celebrate it this year. Instead I am going to use the money to buy the digital dictionary. I do not count, nor does my daughter. What counts is the fight for freeing the minds.’ Again Shafqat quotes the words of Heine, ‘Ewigkeit, wie bist du lang…
Eternity, how long you are, Years, a thousand, sooner pass.
For a thousand years I’ve roasted,
And am not yet cooked, alas!
‘This device will enable me – and now my first pupil -- to overcome certain handicaps regarding listening. We will at least be able to correctly pronounce German words.’
Shafqat needs up-to-date tuition books and dictionaries as well as ‘German poetry, literature, history, philosophy books for translation and reading’. He asks for people to advise him about resources on the web. Any offers of help can be posted here on the website, and I will ensure that messages are forwarded to Shafqat.
‘As you know I want to create a German cultural club in Hyderabad, and to achieve this goal I must first develop both the material and the human resources. I have a first co-learner now, and in a year he will be able to read the language and then we two can expand this circle. It may take five years, ten, fifty or a lifetime, but, to me, this is the basic work we must engage ourselves in.’
photograph copyright Danielle Ali Shah