The cities of Beirut and Berlin have both been spatially divided into Eastern and Western parts, as a result of political conflict. While these boundaries have been formally removed, the idea of geographic division and the construction of spaces and borders has continued to shape both cities. In the exhibition, “Invisible Borders – Beirut Berlin,” which is on view in Berlin at the Malzfabrik from May 24 until June 17, 2018, my co-creator, documentary filmmaker Alfonso Moral, and I demonstrate how dramatic episodes of conflict and urban division have affected people in both cities across generations.
The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 and destroyed much of Beirut, a cosmopolitan city that had been a symbol of diversity for centuries. The so-called green line divided the metropolis into a mainly Muslim West and mainly Christian East. Similarly, during most of the Cold War, a wall separated Berlin into two distinct political-ideological spaces: the Western part was the isolated enclave of the Federal Republic of Germany, while the Eastern part functioned as the capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1990) formally ended the cities’ division. Today, the separation is barely noticeable, with many direct physical manifestations, such as the Berlin wall border, largely dissolved. But what of their continuing emotional and psychological impacts? How far have these physical and imagined walls penetrated the minds and daily lives of locals? Are the streets and citizens of Berlin and Beirut still oriented around this segregation? Is the idea of “the other” that separation necessitates still present?
As our project reveals, the inhabitants of both capitals continue to suffer from the consequences of those old divides, in one way or another. The physical manifestations of separation may be a thing of the past, but invisible borders continue to shape lives.
Between “us” and “them” – Testimonies of the Past and the Present
Some Beirutis who live in Eastern neighbourhoods rarely step into the Western part of the city, and vice versa. Similarly, some Berliners tend to move within only one part of the city. In both places, it is the generation that experienced the physical division first-hand that is most conscious about crossing or not crossing to the other side. Peter, a former Stasi prisoner tells us that “The scar of the division appears all the time, it means that for me it is still a wonder that I can cross the Brandenburger Tor by bike, where you slammed against a wall twenty seven years ago. I have to think about it always and I don’t cross it without being aware of it. And sometimes I ask myself if young people realize it too.”
Assaad, a fighter in the Lebanese Civil War, is now a peace activist. According to him, for some who experienced the war, it is still difficult to pass through areas where the political and religious beliefs of most inhabitants are those of their former enemies. Crossing the old line of separation creates anxiety for these individuals – a fear and mistrust they often pass on to their children.
But not everyone shares Assaad’s feelings. Sisters Katia and Carole were born next to the former green line shortly before the end of the Civil War. “Our mom was pregnant when there was the green line. It was in the middle of the events and she used to tell us a lot of stories when she was pregnant, that it was difficult to move around, especially with all the militias. It was not easy,” Carole says. For the two sisters, moving through all of Lebanon is neither a source of fear nor concern. They are proud of being raised in a multi-confessional environment and have friends from every corner of the country. Nevertheless, they remain aware of the old borders, even if they do not consciously dictate how they lead their lives.
In Berlin, the physical division is more visible than in Beirut, since the wall physically delineated two different political and economic systems that were separated for several decades. In some neighbourhoods, the architecture, the pavement, and the public transportation are still different, even after the so-called reunification and Westernization of the city. But there is an even deeper, non-physical division. David, a psychology professor who lives in East Berlin, says his friends from the Western part of the city often comment, “you are really far over there,” when they come to visit him. As David observes, however, the distance between East and West is not actually that far. It is, instead, an illusion created by the continuing fantasy of crossing to the other side.
Hopes and Fears Beyond Division
There are both similarities and differences in how the post-reunification process played out in both cities. In Beirut, around the green line and particularly north of the downtown district, there are many abandoned buildings, a large highway, and basically very little happening. By contrast, in Berlin, the downtown area, as well as the area around Mitte, where the wall used to pass, have become popular tourist attractions. Nevertheless, as David describes, while “downtown Berlin and the neighbourhoods around it are mixed with people, as soon as you leave the center of the city and the quarters around it, Berlin is and remains an endless, divided city.”
Divisions that last decades cannot be overcome easily, particularly if they are normalized. The schooling system in both countries has helped perpetuate this normalization by largely ignoring or glossing over the period of separation. George, a young student from Beirut, says that, while they are supposed to learn about the history of Lebanon and the Arab world in ninth grade, the curriculum does not cover anything after 1975: “We speak about it between our friends or with our parents, but we only hear their point of view, we don’t have the whole picture. And I’m guessing other families from other regions would tell different things about the war,” he says. Commenting on the consequences of this information vacuum, George’s friend Karl says, “It [Beirut] is divided unconsciously”. We don’t stay here on purpose and they don’t stay there on purpose when we go out, it became like that and it just stayed like that.”
Johanna, who did not experience the division of Berlin, learned very little about the GDR in school. “Of course, the history was taught at school, but I have always the feeling that I know so little about it,” she says. While Lea, a young student from Berlin, does not think in East-West dichotomies, she is also unable to imagine what life was like behind the wall, whose remains she sees every day.
In times of uncertainty and social change, people can become vulnerable to fear and ignorance. “Invisible Borders” allows us to immerse ourselves in a historical time when visible divisions between communities where created. In doing so, it reminds us of the need to appreciate and value different realities and perspectives. In a moment where walls are still actively being built around the world, this project encourages us to try and build bridges instead.