In 1918, the world was in a bad way. The First World War had ushered in the European powers’ scramble to build empires and achieve economic and military supremacy at any cost. By the time a peace treaty was finally concluded, no fewer than four empires had vanished from the face of Europe, but hostilities were yet to cease. While the German, Habsburg and Ottoman empires were being dismembered and revolution was destroying the Russian one, a new war over territorial rights, which lasted until 1923, was erupting in the borderlands between Russia, Poland and the Baltic states. Millions of Jews who had lived in those borderlands for centuries became the target of pogroms and ethnic cleansing.1 In addition, Tatar and other Muslim minorities in Russia were also discovering that the new Soviet state that succeeded the Russian Empire was suppressing their historical claims to a religious and cultural identity.2
At the same time, the British and French were occupying large swathes of the former Ottoman empire – the British claimed Sudan, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan, and the French Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. North Africans and Indians who had laid down their lives to secure war victories for ‘their’ empires, discovered that, once the peace treaty was signed, those very empires had conveniently forgotten their promises to accord them citizen rights and self-government. Iraqi villagers opposing British occupation were subjected to aerial bombing. In 1919, British forces opened fire on a peaceful protest against the occupation of the Indian city of Amritsar, which ended with hundreds dead and thousands wounded.3
Amid this chaos, Germany became a focus for revolutionary forces. After its defeat in the war and loss of its empire, a feeble government, reeling from the effects of disastrous imperial policies and unable to establish itself in the capital, set up parliament in the provincial town of Weimar; and the population’s trust in the authorities dwindled to zero. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, between 1918 and 1923, attempts at uprisings shook the country. Expecting a communist revolution in Germany to break out at any moment, Moscow transferred the Communist International (Comintern) to Berlin. In its wake, a steady flow of Russian communists settled in the German capital and, in turn, attracted communist sympathizers to the city from across Europe.4 In Munich, Adolf Hitler gathered disappointed returnees from the front and roused them into bitter resistance.5
November 1923 saw numerous forces simultaneously coalescing. With the Soviet daily newspaper Pravda expectantly noting how ‘the air smells of revolution’, two well-stocked weapon caches intended to support the imminent uprising were discovered in Berlin.6 In the south of Germany Hitler was instigating his famous Beer Hall Putsch while, on the western border, the French were marching into the Rhine region to press their claim for restitution payments from Germany. As if this were not enough, a stock exchange crash of unprecedented magnitude was bringing untold financial instability and leaving middle-class families penniless overnight. Widely circulated reports were emerging of harried German citizens rushing to the shops with wheelbarrows full of banknotes. There were also reports of Germans plastering banknotes on the walls of their apartments.
Into this theatre of disruption Berlin received a stream of migrants and refugees from eastern Europe. Some 360,000 ‘White Russians’, having fled the revolution, sought temporary refuge in Berlin. In their wake came 63,500 Jews, who had been a target of both ‘white’ and communist attacks.7 Moscow dispatched
At the same time, another stream of migrants arrived from the Middle East and South Asian subcontinent. Envoys from Afghanistan and Persia, both of which countries had supported the Germans during the First World War, arrived at the border expecting assistance in return for their former loyalty.9 An uncertain number of Muslim travellers drifted between Berlin and other western European capitals rallying support for their anti-colonial cause, expecting sympathy and backing from the Germans, who had lost control of their own imperial subjects and were looking for ways of thwarting the British. Last but not least, approximately 5000 students from Persia, Afghanistan, the Arab-speaking countries, Turkey, Tatarstan and India arrived with the intention of completing their studies at German universities and engaging in the exchange of knowledge.10
Faced with few options, the Weimar government attempted to enact a treaty with Moscow that would normalize relations and clear the way for the critically needed export of German goods to the Soviet Union.11 Consequently, the Foreign Office turned a blind eye to any relationships that Muslim émigrés struck up with Russians. The diplomats responsible for monitoring the traffic between the students and Moscow contented themselves with observing that ‘the exodus of Egyptian students to Berlin’ was merely a result of intensive propaganda by the Egyptian National Party.12 They also observed that, although Persians sometimes acted as ‘Bolshevist agents’, they also pursued their studies in Germany,13 and that, true, Indians served as a cover-up for the sprawling communist network in Berlin but also opened doors for German exports to India.14 Urgent requests by the British to put a stop to what they considered subversive activities were simply ignored.15
It came as no surprise that the India Office in London judged these developments to be dangerous and London set up an ‘Interdepartmental Committee
The postwar German capital had become a city beyond such control. It was therefore possible not only to conspire and agitate but also to explore the in between spaces in which to mix, interact, engage with other cultures and exchange ideas. Unlike Paris or London, the allure of Berlin during the Weimar Republic grew for Muslim intellectuals eager to escape the constraints of the British Empire. In Berlin, Muslims from diverse places and cultural traditions met and engaged intellectually not only with Germans, but also with one another. A confluence of factors and conditions created an environment that was conducive to such contacts, that allowed them to engage in projects together and, often, to foster lifelong friendships.
1 Migrants and Minorities in the European Metropoles
Over the last decade, the phenomenon of Muslims travelling to the main interwar European metropoles of London, Paris and Berlin, as well as to some smaller European countries such as the Netherlands, Lithuania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania, has received fresh scholarly attention.19 In addition, a number of scholars have explored the subject of European converts to Islam in the first half of the twentieth century, thus pinpointing one possible European reaction to the presence of Muslims.20 However, a systematic comparison of the actors and of the political and societal settings in which they were received is yet to be undertaken. However, to evaluate the situation in Berlin, it
In London, the epicentre of an empire that presided over the lives of 98 million Muslims, the number of actual Muslim students was negligible. Around 1900, no more than 1000 Indians were allowed to complete their studies at British universities, a number that grew to a mere 7128 in 1932.21 The British maintained a strict watch on student agitation (no more than a few hundred are reported to have attended nationalist meetings in 1932);22 they also ensured the strict segregation of the Indians from the rest of the population.23 Persian students, whom the Shah regularly sent to European universities in an attempt to Westernize the country, were discouraged from settling in London.24
Apart from employing 70,000 unskilled North African menial workers, Paris emerged as the European base from which Latin American, Chinese and Vietnamese activists established organizations to prepare for independence. The civil rights advocate Roger N. Baldwin, passing through in 1927, saw ‘a huge mass of migrants’ and dubbed Paris ‘a hotbed of anti-imperialism with global reverberations’.25 Baldwin was sufficiently impressed to postulate that, ‘never in history have so many of them from so many lands found refuge in one place’.26 However, he overlooked an important fact. Although the French governed an empire on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean in which 20 million Muslim subjects resided,27 scarcely any Muslim students were permitted to study in the capital. In fact, the number of North African students in Paris never exceeded 270.28
Like the British, the French closely scrutinized the foreigners in their midst, be they ‘protégés’ or ‘anti-imperialists’. The French scholar of Islam Bernard Vernier systematically counted the number of Muslim students living in France
The German Empire, by contrast, governed far smaller Muslim populations and, apart from a handful of travellers to the Orient who brought back Romantic descriptions of mosques, Bedouins and mesmerizing deserts, the Germans seldom had any contact with them. Thus, when the Muslim students, almost all of whom were male,30 continued to arrive throughout the 1920s, the well-read middle-class population projected lofty images of ‘Oriental wisdom’ and ‘the meeting of East and West’ onto them. For their part, young German intellectuals sought reprieve from their humiliating predicament of having been defeated in a war and then labelled belligerents. The proclamation of the Weimar Republic following the Kaiser’s abdication precipitated armed revolt from both left and right-wing political activists. Amidst this national turmoil, German intellectuals opted for a middle road that allowed them to transcend the hard-edged boundaries that had emerged in the postwar European political imagination. Oriental studies and Theosophy became popular. The scriptures, religions and people from the East were regarded as ‘wise’ and a revelation. German intellectuals were likewise drawn to the study of Islam. In this setting, Muslim students, particularly from India, were received with much enthusiasm.31
The Jewish refugees lacked the powerful resources of the Muslim newcomers, namely social standing and money. The majority of eastern European Jews who arrived in the West were desperately poor. The only resources they brought with them were energy, intellect and the will to change their precarious situation.32 Nonetheless, the friendship that the Germans offered to the Muslims was not extended to the Jews. Not only in Berlin, but also in Paris and London they were viewed with that mixture of prejudice and distaste so typical of Europe’s history of anti-Semitism.33
Whether Tatars and Jews from Soviet Russia, or Muslims from various colonial empires, the newcomers wholeheartedly identified with Berlin; the Persians called themselves Berliniy-ha (Berliners)34 and the Indians likewise described themselves as Berlini.35 The Berlin air not only smelled of revolution, but also emitted a feeling of inclusive self-identification with an extremely diverse group of people, which certainly helped to create the ‘contact zones’ that soon emerged as sites of social and intellectual exchange.
Marie Louise Pratt introduced the term ‘contact zones’ to describe the fluid fields of cross-cultural interaction in colonial India, in which, according to her analysis, it was possible ‘to move suddenly and unexpectedly from a position of similarity to one of difference’.36 In the context of Berlin in the interwar period, such contact zones might well have functioned in a contradictory way. In other words, it was possible ‘to move suddenly and unexpectedly’ from a position on the outside to one on the inside. In fact, there is ample evidence to support such an understanding of Berlin in the interwar years. The Jewish communist Ilja Ehrenburg, for instance, resorted to a biblical reference to describe his surprise at discovering that meetings that would have been impossible anywhere else just happened in Berlin. As he put it, ‘there was a place in Berlin that reminded me of Noah’s Ark because it peacefully gathered good and bad. It was an average German coffee house, where on Fridays Russian writers met’.37 Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who was himself a refugee from St Petersburg, used the word Berlintschik to describe the refugee scene.38
As we shall continue to see, in some of the case studies Indians interacted with Jewish communists from Russia and other European countries (Chapters 6 and 7), whereas in others they engaged with German Jews and the transnational Muslim scene (Chapters 3, 4, and 5). Some of those engagements developed against a horizon of revolution and anti-colonial political activity, while others, using the instruments of the ‘modernists’, and reformist Islam, focused
Although there was nothing inevitable about Indians, German Jewish intellectuals, eastern European communists and Muslims from around the globe engaging with one another, certain factors clearly made it easier. To begin with, Muslim travellers from India and the Middle East were not attuned to Europe’s history of anti-Semitism because, in the Muslim world, ideas about religious coexistence and sharing religious spaces differed from both one another and from those that were prevalent in Europe.40 In addition and equally important was the fact that the German Jewish middle classes had developed a keen interest in the Orient
The most important factor, however, the one that set the levers for the emergence of a zone of contact, lay in the Islam-centred politics of several generations of German politicians. The imperial politics of former times had established an ideological framework in which Muslims were encouraged to opt for Germany, and Germans – be they Jewish or Christian – eyed the newcomers with curiosity. Weimar politicians continued along that path by establishing an infrastructure for the Muslim newcomers, which included not only housing, building plots and tennis courts, but also student grants, language courses and joint chambers of commerce with Bukhara, Egypt and Persia. What the Muslims encountered at university and in the homes of their German hosts, what made them feel welcome and ready to establish and maintain friendships, was the special affinity that the Germans had long promised to people in the Muslim world and which will be described in the following pages.
2 German Imperial Politics
In colonial matters Germany was a latecomer and the ways in which it attempted to expand its territory and power mirror this.46 When, in 1884, the leading colonial powers carved up the rest of the world between them, the Germans were given some territories in sub-Saharan Africa and far eastern New Guinea. However, as offshore territories to which to export goods, these acquisitions fell far short of German expectations. Given that the British had
Cultivating friendships with Muslim peoples across the globe while simultaneously building an infrastructure for emerging nation-states in the Middle East appeared to offer a promising alternative. For that reason, from the beginning of the German empire to the end of the Second World War, a succession of German governments engaged intensely with the Muslim world. At the beginning of this period, Germany signed treaties with the Ottoman Empire to modernize the latter’s army and develop export structures, while simultaneously offering assistance to the new nation-states emerging to the south, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. When, in 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm ii visited Jerusalem, he famously also visited Damascus to swear eternal friendship on Saladin’s grave to all the Muslim peoples.
The First World War marked a shift in this outlook. The German and Ottoman empires became comrades-in-arms and pan-Islamism advanced to a key stage in German politics. Their joint declaration of jihad against the British was a strategic attempt to raise the masses against the enemy (it failed); wherever Muslim soldiers appeared on European battlegrounds, their prisoners of war were treated cautiously.48 Everywhere in the Middle East, Germans were supporting local insurgents behind the enemy lines, giving them training, weapons and information. The Nachrichtendienst
Contemporary observations clearly spelled out the stakes.50 As the influential Orientalist Hugo Grothe (born 1869) observed, ‘shared German–Turkish interests … are vital for our future. They are neither accidental nor a constellation
Consequently, the infrastructure was constructed to pave the way for an extensive population exchange. In 1916, the newly founded German–Turkish Society enrolled 300 Turkish apprentices in German schools. It likewise took care of 350 orphans who received free schooling and education in German workshops, and 450 skilled workers were selected to receive additional training in German industries.54 The society, backed by Ottoman war minister Enver Pasha and German commanders-in-chief Liman von Sanders and Von der Goltz Pasha, and flanked by German industrialists, envisaged that from 1918 onwards, the hundreds of arrivals would become thousands. In addition, the exchange would not be limited to the groups already under consideration, for university students and nurses in training were scheduled to follow.55 Once again, the two governments concluded official treaties to solidify the proceedings.56 A mosque built in Berlin’s old city centre (Kupfergraben) and financed out of the pockets of the two sovereigns, was to symbolize the bond.57
However, events did not turn out exactly as envisaged. With the arrival of American soldiers onto European battlefields, the Germans and Turks lost the war and their respective empires. The local Muslim insurgents behind the British enemy lines, whom Germany had previously supported, were suddenly abandoned and forced to fend for themselves. The ‘national committees’ no
This was the moment in which young intellectuals from all over the Muslim world, perceiving Germany to be their friend, migrated to German-speaking cities. Their first destination tended to be Berlin, but other university cities like Munich, Vienna, Stuttgart, Zurich, Geneva, Frankfurt, Bonn, Hamburg, Leipzig, Breslau and Königsberg also attracted sizeable foreign student populations.62 In contrast to Paris and London, these were cities without residents from the colonies. In fact, as we know from memoirs and private letters, the Muslim students were often the very first foreigners from outside Europe with whom Germans mixed. An amalgam of political and personal reasons informed the students’ choice. It was a widely held belief that Germany was an avowed friend of ‘the Muslims’ and its universities were considered among the best in the world. The country possessed advanced technology and industry and German thinkers, especially Goethe and Nietzsche, appeared high on the students’ reading lists. With the doors to social and intellectual exchange within the German-speaking realm open, Muslim intellectuals travelled there readily.
3 Contact Zones in Berlin
There was one neighbourhood in Berlin that helped the encounter more than any other place in the capital. This was the borough of Wilmersdorf, which was
Unencumbered by any of the traditional or religious structures that commonly dampen the emergence of social dynamism, the cultural and religious infrastructure that materialized in Wilmersdorf was something of a novelty in Berlin. By the middle of the 1920s, 13.5 per cent of the newcomers were Jewish and no fewer than five Jewish schools opened their doors. A municipal synagogue was erected on Prinzregentenstrasse and a large number of secular Jewish organizations moved into the side streets of Kurfürstendamm.64 Jewish families became a well-known fixture of Wilmersdorf street life, and Egyptian, Persian and Indian students moved in as their neighbours. The Islam Institute, a self-organized body of Muslim students headed by Muhammad Abd-an-Nafi Shalabi, was assigned a villa on Fasanenstrasse along with a government subsidy.65 Indians fixed their missions in the still empty spaces. An Indian from Lahore, Sadruddin undertook to build a mosque on a garden plot behind Fehrbelliner Platz that the municipality had offered to the Lahore-Ahmadiyya organization.66 Johannes Steinmann and Baron von Barany, acting on behalf
From reading across different sources, it is clear that Wilmersdorf and the adjacent quarter of Charlottenburg harboured a number of Muslim and Jewish organizations and meeting places, among them a mosque, a Sufi Lodge, several synagogues, umbrella organizations, student bodies, cultural and commercial clubs, as well as numerous bars, restaurants, jazz clubs and other places of entertainment.70 Vibrant entertainment, at which the Egyptians excelled, was available to the left and right of Kurfürstendamm. A jazz musician, Abdel-Aziz Helmi-Hammad ran the renowned Carlton Bar at Uhlandstrasse 171, a stately building with a portico and four sturdy pillars facing the street. Other jazz establishments with in-house orchestras were the Ciro Bar run by Mostapha Ciro and the Sherbini Bar run by Mostafa Sherbini.71
The bohemian watering holes – Café Josti, Café Léon, Café des Westens and the Romanisches Café – were in the lower parts of Kurfürstendamm around Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche. The Soliman family, circus artists and tight rope specialists by profession, controlled the upper reaches of the boulevard. There, Abdel Aziz ran a ballet school, Omar produced a children’s show and Mohamed had set up Berlin’s first ever wax museum and cinema complex. Some of the many cinemas that the Soliman women ran only closed their doors 1961.72
The iron laws of financial necessity dictated how first contacts were established. Agnes Smedley, a renowned international communist who worked for the Indian Bureau in the 1920s, claimed to have seen Prussian heads of family approaching foreign-looking young men in the street to enquire if they still needed a room73 because, after the financial crash, erstwhile wealthy families, sorely in need of foreign currency, were having to take in foreign boarders. For the Marcus family, the crisis began when Poland nationalized all the Prussian factories within its borders. As I mention in Chapter 5, by 1921, Hugo Marcus was teaching German and philosophy to Indian students. Being one of those Germans who could explain the work of Nietzsche to them, they brought him to the mosque and, once introduced, Marcus and his group of Indian students became enamoured with one another and thus began many long friendships. Some years later, the same pattern of events occurred in the Oettinger family when its female members began their lifelong friendship with Dr Abdullah. The photographs in Chapter 3 convey the awkwardness and intense curiosity that accompanied their initial encounters.
A study of the many and detailed lists of addresses in the registry files reveals that Indians, Persians and Egyptians preferred to reside in rooms in either Wilmersdorf, or on the opposite side of Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg. The Indian novelist Vikram Seth describes just such an arrangement in a moving account of his great uncle Shanti Seth. When he first arrived in Berlin, Shanti was clutching a slip of paper containing an address on Mommsenstrasse that another student had given to him. When he went to find out what the address held in store, he stumbled upon the Caros, a secular Jewish family who provided him with a room and a place at their dinner table, and who wholeheartedly adopted him as friend of the family. From then on, Shanti shared their sailing tours and tennis matches in summer and skiing holidays in winter.
On the streets, at home, in seminar rooms, jazz bars and the mosque, a multi-layered contact zone soon grew up around these people’s many shared interests. First, it was essential to secure foreign currency. There was also a need for private German lessons. There were families who adopted foreign students into their midst; there were clusters of friends who played tennis or went sailing at weekends; and there were Muslim political and religious events to which Germans were invited. Besides, as we shall see in the next chapter, the Indian missions promoted a form of reformist Islam that endeavoured to elicit a real contribution from the local population. Whoever participated in it, the contact zone offered many opportunities to move ‘suddenly and unexpectedly’ from the position of being an outsider to one of being an insider. In later chapters, I shall examine more closely the strategic advantages of making that move. In the meanwhile, the internal Muslim perspective still needs looking into before moving on to the perceptions of the neighbours.
4 A Muslim Ecumene in the West
Whatever opportunities there might have been to meet their German neighbours, the Arabs, Afghans, Persians, Tatars, Turks and Indians first and foremost engaged socially with one another; what they discovered was a substantial Muslim community deriving from practically every corner of the globe. On 29 May 1922, Eid al-Fitr was celebrated at a military base 30 miles outside Berlin where a small wooden mosque remained from a former Muslim prisoner-of-war camp. In preparation for the festival, Jabbar and Sattar Khairi, the two revolutionary Indians in the ‘Indian National Committee’ during the war who afterwards were marooned in Berlin, issued invitations. In response, it would appear that every Muslim who happened to be in Germany at that moment, whether the remaining Turks, former prisoners of war, newly arrived students, businessmen, political exiles, stranded revolutionaries, or the Turkish, Persian, Afghan and Egyptian ambassadors and their personnel made an appearance.75 Abdul Jabbar Khairi, the initiator and founder of the Berlin Islamic Community, afterwards claimed that no fewer than ‘42 different Muslim nations’ had
Acting as imam, Abdul Jabbar Khairi informed this audience of his plan to launch a Muslim organization that would further Muslim interests in Europe, a plan to which all present readily agreed. Thus, the Islamische Gemeinde Berlin (Muslim Community of Berlin) was born. What is of interest here is the shuffling that followed for positions.78 The ‘first choice of delegates’, arrived at through consultation (shura
During the 1923 Eid al-Fitr, the struggle to establish a shura
In the years to come, an incremental process of discovery and inclusion became the established pattern for Muslim cooperation, one moreover in which Tatars advanced as the leading force to keep the global dimension afloat. Although there were the inevitable quarrels and fallouts, it is remarkable to what lengths the different national groups would go time and time again to accommodate one another. Towards achieving that aim, establishing proportional representation was considered key but difficult. The Uzbek scholar Alimcan Idris (1887–1959) seems to have been the leading force behind that initiative,88 which a number of Muslim organizations supported. Its workings are best explained by looking at the proceedings of the Berlin branch of the Al mu’tamar al islamiya al ‘amn
Taken over a period of eight months, from October 1932 to May 1933, the minutes show that, after ten years of experience with a transnational but continuously fluctuating Muslim community, a certain inclusive routine had been established. To set up the Berlin branch, six representatives of the Islamische Gemeinde Berlin and four from the Lahore-Ahmadiyya mosque organized a founding meeting, at which their first act was to appoint the Arab religious scholar Dr Said Ali Chodscha as an independent president.90 The group then reached out to renowned Tatar scholars who lived in exile in Berlin. It won over Dr Rahmati91 and Musa Carullah92 as acting theologians, asking them to draw up a list of rotating preachers for the Friday Khutbah (held in the Ahmadiyya
Looking back on this odd transnational mix of religious scholars, linguists, diplomats, students, journalists and political entrepreneurs, in which Shi’ites peacefully rubbed shoulders with Sunni Muslims, one is impressed by their will to establish a durable Muslim infrastructure in the West. Their aim, or so I suggest, was not to fight Western hegemony but to create a place outside the empire, outside the reach of the conservative ulema, in which to launch the mission of Muslim reform; Europeans were invited to join them provided their presence furthered their aims. Seema Alavi’s discovery that transnational Muslim configurations consisted of much more than anti-Westernism validated this suggestion.96 However, whereas Alavi presents Mecca as the centre of Muslim renewal, Muslims in interwar Berlin embarked on an attempt to place the German capital on the Muslim map. The discussions that took place in the Ahmadiyya mosque on translating the Quran were an integral part of this venture.97
In the winter of 1924 and 1925, Ahmed Zeki Velidi Togan (1890–1970), a linguist and renowned expert on central Asian manuscripts, was on a tour of western European capitals and made a stopover in Berlin. During his stay there, both the Tatar and German scientific communities went out of their way to accommodate him. Alimcan Idris threw dinner parties at his home, where Togan met many students from Turkestan. He received invitations to speak at the Oriental Club, and leading German Orientalists, among them Eduard Sachau, Theodor Noldeke, F. W.K. Muller, Albert von Le Coq, and Gotlieb Weil, the director of the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) Oriental department,
In advance, the translator, Georg Pimonow, himself a Finnish convert to Islam who received financial and other assistance from the merchants Zinahtullah Ahsen and Imadeddin, prepared 57 questions on topics relating to his translation of the Quran for which he still sought answers. A working group formed in the Ahmadiyya mosque, in which the aforementioned Uzbek Alimcan Idris, the Tatar Dr Yakub Sinkevic,98 the Indian Sadruddin,99 and the Persian Seyyed Hassan Taqizadeh100 were invited to assist Togan in this important task. When Togan suggested that the Finnish Tatars also invite Professor Noldeke, who after all ‘was in Berlin and alive’, their translator retorted, ‘I read the writings of Europeans, among them Noldeke and Goldziher; there is nothing I can learn from them. It is important for me to learn the ideas of Muslim Intellectuals’.101
The translators’ questions all targeted the historicity of the Quran. They were, as Togan phrased it, ‘of a Mu’tazili
Having made the Quran available as a text to European audiences, one can safely conclude that the transnational Muslim community in Berlin, represented through its leading scholars, felt sufficiently confident to lift the art of Quranic interpretation to the level of modern historical scholarship, and that they did so without the assistance of the German specialists in town. Togan, for his part, was satisfied with the outcome. As he noted, ‘Pimonow’s translation was published in a good package by Zinahtullah Ahsen. According to those scholars who speak Finnish, it is one of the best Kur’an translations in Europe’.105
5 Echoes in Berlin Society
Did any Muslim religious activities feature in Berlin’s daily papers? The answer is yes, but with reservations. Muslim public life was only visible to the German public gaze if it was glamorous or involved a scandal of some sort. The Foreign Office and building authority archives, plus Lisa Oettinger’s private possessions, contain substantial collections of paper clippings that report on such events. When, for instance, Mubarak Ali, the representative of the competing Ahmadiyya branch in Qadian in North India, who had been posted on a mission to Berlin, was preparing to lay the foundation stone of what was to be a representative mosque in the centre of Charlottenburg, the daily papers were clearly very interested. Journalists commented on Mubarak Ali’s personal appearance (‘elegant, modest, and sympathetic’) and on his affluent style (‘the renowned millionaire’). They described his far-reaching plans for what was going to be a centre for Muslim students, with libraries, study rooms and separate dormitories for Muslim women, with an attractive restaurant for the general public and, of course, the majestic mosque itself, replete with domes and minarets.106 The papers carefully noted that the Afghan and Turkish ambassadors, the German secretary of state, and several Berlin University professors had honoured the ceremony with their presence. Amid the unrest that held Germany in its grip, the capital was experiencing a rare global moment and, as the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung noted, ‘the exotic flair of Berlin is now in progress’.
Unfortunately, Mubarak Ali had to postpone his building operations shortly thereafter because he lost all his capital in the crash and, within just a year, his mosque project had been consigned to history. However, in 1925, the press closely followed the erection of another mosque, that of the Ahmadiyya branch from Lahore, this time on garden land in Wilmersdorf. Once the dome of the mosque was visible, the Berlin daily papers regularly reported on the annual Muslim festivals that took place within its walls. From 1930, these festivals were also broadcast on the radio. The newspapers carried photographs of sheep being slaughtered in the mosque garden, of hundreds of shoes at the entrance to the mosque, and of an exuberant mosque community on its steps.107
Although little understood, the press relished any public quarrels among the Muslims. It so happened that the Egyptians strongly opposed the Ahmadiyya building venture, not because the Ahmadiyya community supported Muslim reform of a kind that had already received a good deal of criticism in India, but because they initially broadcasted their thoughts in English, a language that the Egyptians associated with the British oppressor. Accusing the Ahmadiyya of British sympathies, the Egyptians therefore craftily disrupted the foundation laying ceremonies and did not stop shouting until the police stepped in.108
However, what counted most among the Muslim community, its transnational character, the steady creation of religious infrastructures, and the translations of the Quran into European languages, were bypassed. At best, the media depicted Muslims as the bringers of international flair to the city, at worst as troublemakers who should best be sent home. At close range, the Muslim ‘friends’ were treated cursorily. Moreover, by the time the First World War had ended, any former fond memories of German–Turkish friendship had fallen into a black pit.
There was, however, one exception. While still a city reporter tracking down curious or pitiable refugees, newcomers and other city dwellers, Joseph Roth also sought out the group of 5000 Ottoman subjects who remained in Berlin after the war had been lost. His sketch, ‘The Club of Poor Turks’, opens a window onto a world otherwise ignored by the German press:
There are very many rich Turks in Berlin. They live in the western part of town. They visit the stock exchange between eleven and twelve in the morning and make a lot of money. Between eleven and twelve at night
you can trace them to the liquor dens of West Berlin where they spout the Quran and get rid of their money again. Even more money is lost in the opium dens, where they study the comings and goings of the harem at their leisure. I know a Turk who came from Constantinople to Berlin especially to observe life in a harem. And he swore to me that Constantinople is not nearly as Turkish as Berlin.109
With his ethnographical descriptions of the Turks of west Berlin, Joseph Roth deftly captured the nightlife around Kurfürstendamm. He also traced the remnants of the skilled workers who had been sent to Germany some years previously to receive additional training. He assured his readers that, ‘sure, there are still Turkish craftsmen around’, but that:
Those people are simply not Turks but Berliners. Because their stork knew nothing about architectural styles, they so happen to have been born behind the Aghia Sophia instead of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). These stray Berlin Turks marry German women, resole German shoes, and sing ‘the God who made the iron grow’, just like the Germans do. I personally know an Egyptian, Abdul Rahim Miligi, of the famous Miligi clan in Cairo, who is as dark as the darkness of his country and an orthodox Muslim, who leads a bourgeois and happy family life in Berlin with a pious, white Dutch woman, with whom he has blond, Lutheran children.110
Joseph Roth, the Jewish author who dedicated a large part of his life to describing the poor and dispossessed Jews of eastern Europe, found in ‘the Turks’ (the Ottoman Empire once stretched from the Black Sea to Egypt) a curious contradiction that set his imagination in motion. The Muslims he stumbled upon on Kurfürstendamm had adjusted to Berlin in ways that most eastern European Jews would never accept. The Turks, as Roth noted, had become Berliners. They looked, sang, spoke, and yes, lived exactly like their neighbours. Before the arrival of the Persians and Indians, even before the arrival of Russian Jews, the Ottomans identified with Berlin.
6 On Being Neighbours
It is time to ask what that peculiar notion of a Berliner really meant. What elements went into its construction? Why did Persians and Indians refer to themselves as such? Despite all its chaos, Berlin seems to have been a city in which people immediately felt at home. As Ilja Ehrenburg had noted, it functioned as a kind of Noah’s Ark in which people from very different backgrounds could coexist peacefully. Berlin had the capacity to transform people. It gobbled up foreigners and spat out a species of homo sapiens wishing for nothing more than to marry and settle down with a German woman. In due course, staff members of national committees, former inmates of disbanded Muslim prisoner-of-war camps, students and political activists were added to the artisans about whom Joseph Roth wrote in the Berlin daily newspapers. Even the religious leaders, of which better-known examples include Seyyid Hassan Taqizadeh, Schükry Bey, Abdul Sattar Khairi and Hazrat Pir Inayat Khan, shared the wish to intermarry.
Indeed, a good proportion of the Muslim immigrant population seemed to be following a trend to settle down in German society by marrying into it. Wherever one looks, in registry files, memoirs and not least the private archives that form the basis of this book, the reader comes across Muslim men anchoring themselves through marriage and German (European) women eager to break conventions by marrying Muslim men. Love certainly played a part but, for the Germans, a desire for the exotic was an additional factor. Hugo Marcus, for whom women were not an option and homosexual relationships illusory at best, placed the concept of desire high on his list of philosophical explorations. His texts clearly spoke from the heart to a good part of the community (Chapter 5).
In her path-breaking article, ‘Making the empire respectable’, Ann Stoler draws attention to the supremacy of the white male, which was widespread in the colonial world. Only white Western males, Stoler concludes, were entitled to dominate indigenous women sexually, or, as she put it, ‘sexuality illustrates the iconography of power’.111 In this colonial powerplay, indigenous males were considered sexually dangerous. Whether Indian or African, they were accused of ‘primitive’ sexual urges and ‘uncontrollable lust’.112 Approaching a white woman carried the risk of a public flogging. Although outside the colonies, in
Not so in Berlin. While Indians, Egyptians and North Africans may have been penalized for such behaviour in their home countries, in the German capital they were greeted with open arms. Intermarriage, which had nothing to do with German politics but derived from the Romantic ideals of the German middle classes, rose significantly after the First World War, from approximately 3.5 per cent in 1910 to 6.5 per cent in 1925.113 Although a number of different nationalities engaged in such marriages, there were certainly many Tatars, Indians and Egyptians among them. Intermarriage helped them to adjust to their foreign surroundings; it turned them, as Joseph Roth readily noted, into Berliners.
Nonetheless, the issue of intermarriage split public opinion. Although Muslim–German marriage was an example of the extent to which German society was willing to accept the foreigners in its midst, German registrars did their utmost to prevent such marriages taking place. Match-making across boundaries was met with racist eugenic reservations, especially if Islam were involved, and registrars did everything in their power to prevent such marriages taking place.114 The Civil Registrar (Der Standesbeamte), depicted Muslims as members of a semi-civilized nation, and marrying them was deemed ‘highly undesirable’. German registrars even felt it their duty to warn ‘foolish German girls’ and save them from ‘an utterly gloomy future’. Miscegenation with Muslims, the journal repeated time and again, was ‘not in the interest of girls of white race and culture’.115
The registrars may have warned the couples, but they could not prevent them from marrying – and marry they did. A curious fact came to light at the beginning of the Second World War, when, faced with the British military authorities in Egypt having taken high Nazi officials into custody, the Germans registered the Egyptians in Germany with a view to selecting hostages to exchange.116 During the registration it came to light that every single one of the 400 Egyptians who remained in Germany had married a German woman.
Much to the chagrin of the Nazi government, some of the wives applied for permission to leave Germany and ‘return home’, as the letter writers put it. Having been apolitical all their lives, they did not want to be drawn into it now. Other women argued that their husbands should be left alone because of their loyalty to the Nazis.117 However, whatever the couples’ political position, the moment of their visibility also became the moment in which cosmopolitan Muslim Berlin, with its many institutions and attempts at Muslim reform, with its lively panoply of entertainment and intellectual exchange, disappeared from the city for good.
No structural moment of encounter between Tatars, Persians, Egyptians and their Jewish neighbours in Berlin could be discovered. That is to say, no Tatar, Persian, or Egyptian organizations, either religious or secular, were creating spaces into which to invite Jews. But many Jewish families had Muslim lodgers, neighbours ran into one another at the cobblers or carpenters. Young Jewish Berliners visited the jazz clubs and liquor dens, as did the Egyptians. As Joseph Roth’s story illustrates, it was not too difficult to meet. Jews and Muslims became friendly and some young people married across the religious divide.
Under the extreme duress of the Jewish persecution, new friendships were formed and some Muslim Berliners helped to rescue Jewish Berliners from the Holocaust. In that respect, there is a clear indication that Persians, Afghans and Egyptians, although supporting the Nazi Regime, did not join the Nazi frenzy but kept their own standards of human behaviour. In the chapters ahead, the engagement of Muslim Indians with European Jews will be discussed in detail. This chapter may be concluded by mentioning the names of those Egyptians, Persians and Afghans who helped save Jewish lives.
First, jazz musician Mostafa Sherbini, the owner of the Sherbini Bar, was married to Yvonne Solman, whom the Gestapo identified as a Jew, but because she held an Egyptian passport she was allowed to leave the country. Likewise,
In 1941, during a nightly air raid, Afghan diplomat Abdul Dowleh met Ursula Heidemann in a bomb shelter on the corner of Uhlandstrasse and Düsseldorferstrasse in Wilmersdorf. It was reportedly love at first sight and, although Ursula was Jewish and earmarked for deportation, the Afghan embassy obtained official approval for the couple to marry and, although remaining in Germany, they somehow survived.119
The year 1941 was also when Laura and Hosein met.120 Laura was on the verge of being deported and Hosein, an attaché in the Persian embassy was desperately keen to marry her. Since their initial encounter had taken place at a reception thrown by Mufti Al-Husseini, the Palestinian leader whom the Nazi government had entrusted with training Muslim army chaplains, they turned to the Mufti for help. Al-Husseini was the face of Muslim support in Nazi Berlin. Apart from his engagement with Muslim soldiers in German armies, he headed the Islamic Central Institute (Islamische Zentralinstitut), the organization the Nazis had set up as a platform from which to organize their Arab collaborators and Al-Husseini served as the Friday preacher in the mosque after the Ahmadi missionaries had left the country.121 More than any other Muslim, he was in a position to pull strings and so he did. The couple acquired official permission to conclude a Sharia marriage in the Ahmadiyya mosque and they eventually survived the war.
Perhaps following their example, in 1943 jazz musician Abdul-Aziz Helmi-Hammad, owner of the Carlton Bar, secretly married Jewish Anna Boros at a night-time Muslim ceremony in the home of his good friend Dr Muhammad (Mod) Helmy, with Ahmed Muhamed Riad and Hamed Al-Safty, board members of the Islamic Central Institute, as their witnesses. By then, Anna had already gone into hiding, but was still working as a nurse in Mod Helmy’s
Stretching out a helping hand to people in distress is a sign of good neighbourly relations and, in that respect, the Solimans played a pivotal role. Myriam Mahdi, the last survivor of the Soliman family in Berlin, remembered how her aunts Myriam, Hamida and Fadila, the owners of three cinemas in West Berlin, used to warn any Jews in the audience whenever they sighted the secret police nearby.123 These were the years in which young Jews in hiding spent their days in the cinema, a dangerous practice that the Soliman sisters went along with but that the Gestapo used to its own ends.124 There are letters of thanks in the Soliman archive testifying that the sisters helped to ensure the survival of William and Ruth Baum and of the Baron family. Rosa Tannenbaum, an old school friend of one of the sisters was, however, discovered and deported on 4 March 1943.125
It is noteworthy that the names quoted above surfaced by accident, either in the context of local acts of remembrance or as part of a privately nursed family memory. Perhaps more names will surface in the future. The relationships that Afghans, Egyptians, Persians had with Jews may have been accidental but they were no means unfriendly. It seems more relevant that the Jews and Muslims of this chapter recognized each other as Berliners, and engaged in the tumultuous city to a greater extent than their German neighbours.