The photographic essay “Hotel Rossija” reflects the final hours in the existence of Hotel Rossija before its final demolitian in 2006. Opened in 1967 in Moscow; it was at the time the world’s largest hotel. The hotel was a monumental symbol of the Cold War era and, with its view over the Kremlin was frequented by diplomats, intellectuals, international television teams and prostitutes alike. After Glasnost and the fall of the Iron Curtain, despite great interest from real estate speculation, the building fell into a sharp decline.
SYRIAN REFUGEES IN LEBANON AND TURKEY
Syrians have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt to escape the violence and the shelling in their hometowns. There are now more than 562,950 as of 27 December registered refugees, according to the latest UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on Syria.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees “estimates that if fighting in Syria continues the refugee figure could reach 1.1 million by June 2013,” the report added.
Aid groups say hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the 21-month old conflict without registering with UN agencies.
For more coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, click here: “Lack of funds hits refugee health care in Lebanon” (IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis)
Syrian refugees in Wadi Khaled & Bekaa (Lebanon)
Concerning the Label Emigrant
By Bertold Brecht
I always found the name false which they gave us: Emigrants.
That means those who leave their country. But we
Did not leave, of our own free will
Choosing another land. Nor did we enter
Into a land, to stay there, if possible for ever.
Merely, we fled. We are driven out, banned.
Not a home, but an exile, shall the land be that took us in.
Restlessly we wait thus, as near as we can to the frontier
Awaiting the day of return, every smallest alteration
Observing beyond the boundary, zealously asking
Every arrival, forgetting nothing and giving up nothing
And also not forgiving anything which happened, forgiving nothing
Ah, the silence of the Sound does not deceive us! We hear the shrieks
From their camp even here. Yes, we ourselves
Are almost like rumours of crimes, which escaped
Over the frontier. Every one of us
Who with torn shoes walks through the crowd
Bears witness to the shame which now defiles our land.
But none of us
Will stay here. The final word
Is yet unspoken.
Berhold Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director. In 1933 the Nazis came to power, his books were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. He left Germany with his family one day after the Reichstag fire and a difficult period of exile began. During the years 1933-1941 he wandered in Austria, Switzerland, France and the Scandinavian countries, staying longest in Denmark. After this he went to the USA and remained there until 1947. He returned to East Germany in 1949.
Syrian refugees in Turkey’s southern Hatay province
The Power of Images
by Anja Pietsch
Why do people convert to Islam? There are no precise statistics on how many Germans convert to Islam every year, as this step can be taken very privately. There is no need for a public avowal of faith, nor is there an official register of conversions. The word itself is of Latin origin. Conversio, i.e. reversal or turnaround, means taking on new a religious faith.
Despite the almost 220,000 Muslims living in my hometown of Berlin, Islam had remained a closed book to me. When I moved to Damascus, however, I lived close to a Shi’a mosque. I gradually came to learn that there are different religious denominations within Islam, associated with different paradigms. As I hurried to work every morning, a stream of tired Iranian pilgrim women headed in the opposite direction. Swathed in black chadors and visibly exhausted by their long journey, they eyed me and wanted to help, thinking I had lost my way in the old city. The greengrocer in the Christian quarter Bab Touma also seemed to know where I belonged. “Where do you live?” he asked. He did not seem pleased at my answer: that I lived near Bab Salam, a mainly Muslim area. “You must come to us, here to Bab Touma!” he said. “That’s crazy,” I thought. “He thinks I’m a Christian but I’ve never even been baptised. And if I sat across from him on an underground train in Berlin I’d instantly assume he was a Muslim.”
Germany’s Religious Studies Media and Information Service categorises all those who come from a predominantly Islamic country or whose parents are Muslims under Islam. The Christian greengrocer, in other words, really would be counted as a Muslim.
As much as Islam is present in the German media and public discourse, specific knowledge about the faith is minimal. Anti-Islamic sentiments are socially acceptable in every European state, summarise the authors of the study Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination, commissioned by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Approximately half of the Germans questioned for the study considered Islam an intolerant religion. Diverse populist parties in the whole of Europe have positioned themselves against an alleged hostile takeover of Western civilisation by Islam, fanning the flames of the debate. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders, also popular in Germany, claims for example, “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam.”
All these debates about Islam barely mention the psychological function of images and symbols, yet these have a major effect on the way we form opinions. Whether we like it or not, our very concept-led perception is constantly intermingling actually perceived images and situations with our expectations. That means our actual perception can never be truly objective and thus soon leads to false images and indeed false perceptions. A constant stream of certain images has led to these images now being perceived as representative of Islam itself and individual Muslims.
The omnipresence of negative images makes it almost impossible for the observer to find understanding for the religion. The interpretation of these loaded visual impressions prompts an unconscious inference in the observer, which can often not be rationally justified but is nevertheless regarded as fact. As a consequence, individual Muslims are spontaneously attributed with characteristics that usually have little to do with them. As I mentioned above, were the Christian greengrocer from Damascus on a train in Berlin, around half of his fellow passengers would consider him a radical Islamist. No dialogue takes place.
Understanding and dialogue go hand in hand. Yet many debates on Muslim identity take place more in the form of a monologue. Germany’s debate on headscarves was ultimately more focused on majority sensibilities than contributing significantly to our understanding of Islam.
Isolated radical Islamists are perceived in the public eye as representative of the religion as a whole. A mix of debates, commentaries and opinion polls has played a key role in the emergence of a visual archive on Islam in Germany’s public consciousness, filled with negatively associated images and icons. Like a cipher, these pictures have branded themselves onto the collective image memory. Every photo of a girl in a headscarf instantly evokes concepts such as oppression of women or even forced marriage in the observer. It seems barely possible to view images in a manner that allows an open, unprejudiced dialogue between the subject and the observer. There appears to be no room for an everyday, normal Islamic life alongside these all-powerful symbols.
Concerning the power of images, the visual culture theorist W.J.T Mitchell wrote that every history actually consists of two histories: “(…) the story of what happened and the story of the perception of what happened.” For Mitchell, the first type of story focuses on facts and figures, and the second on images and words, which determine the framework within which the facts and figures attain their significance.
It is on this mined territory that Lia Darjes works. Her photo essay “konvertieren” (converting) takes us into new visual spaces that have nothing to do with our existing perceptions and expectations. For these, the phenomenological view of Islam is already consolidated in a comprehensive visual archive, from which Western observers find it difficult to escape. As Islam has its origins in a different culture, we cannot fall back on any aesthetic model. So in order to create the prerequisite for viewing Islam in a different visual context, Lia Darjes arranged still lives and portraits in the tradition of Christian visual language. By alluding to Baroque and Renaissance painting, she employs a canon of Christian images that Western observers can actually refer back to. These epochs in art history, which played very consciously with allegories and symbols, thus encourage the observer to make associations in order to understand what they represent.
Darjes is more concerned in her work with creating a blurred artistic memory for the observer to pick up upon, however, than with specific images. She found the motifs for her still lives mainly in the Qur’an and through observations. The pomegranate, for example, is surrounded by myths and stories like few other fruits. It is mentioned a number of times in both the Old Testament and the Qur’an. Referred to as one of the fruit in paradise in the Qur’an, it stands for the promise of that paradise. Christian iconography often depicts the Virgin Mary with a pomegranate. In Matthias Grünewald’s Stuppach Madonna, for instance, Mary is handing the infant Jesus a pomegranate, the key to the interpretation of the picture’s statement that Mary is the mother of the church.
Why is it, though, that Germans of German ethnic origin have converted to Islam and exposed themselves to all the questions, prejudices and expectations? The reasons can be as varying as Islam itself. For this aspect of conversion, describing the person who has gone through the conversion rather than the process as such, we have a synonym of Greek origin. The converted person is called a proselyte (Greek προσήλυτος), which can be translated as newcomer. Lia Darjes work tells us stories about this new arrival.