Monday, January 29, 2007

Most Embarrassing or Most Effective?

January 27th marked the 62nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a day officially commemorated in Germany with memorial ceremonies, educational programs, and official utterances from high-profile politicians. Yet Lea Rosh, a publicist who rose to fame as the promoter of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, conducted a protest. She organized the protest in Berlin’s main train station Hauptbahnhof to demonstrate her dissatisfaction with Deutsche Bahn’s new plan for a memorial to the deportation of Germany’s Jews. She wasn’t protesting the company’s initiative, of which she approved, nor the location of the commemoration, which the firm has agreed to place in train stations right alongside contemporary travelers. Rather, Rosh was upset with Deutsche Bahn for taking too long. According to her, the announced “conception phase” of one year to review plans for the memorial and decide upon its design ought to be shortened.

Could it be that Rosh doesn’t believe that the Bahn could possibly need a whole year to develop a working concept? This explanation is unlikely, given that the monument Rosh brought to existence, commonly called the Holocaust Memorial, took seventeen years from conception to completion. Rosh witnessed multiple design competitions, presided over public forums about whether the plans should go forward, and campaigned no-holds-barred against occasionally resistant politicians to bring her pet project to light. She is intimately acquainted with the delicate and slow politics of commemoration, as well as with the belabored examination of every little detail of designs. So why is Rosh so set on telling the Bahn to speed things up?

To frame this question properly, one needs to know a bit more about the woman. Her initial career as a West German journalist was quickly superseded by her role as memorial-campaigner after she first proposed the idea during a panel discussion in Berlin in summer 1988. To further her cause, she had founded the citizens’ group “Perspective Berlin,” of which she made herself chairwoman, which later became the Association for the Promotion of the Establishment of a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Förderkreis zur Errichtung eines Denkmals für die ermordeten Juden Europas]. It sounds earnest enough in the telling, yet the crusader-like stance Rosh adopted repelled many who came to see her as a woman in search of a pedestal from which to preach. Some accused her of changing her name from the original “Edith” to “Lea” to sound more Jewish and called her self-styled role as “fighter” for the memory of murdered Jews self-righteous, asking how she could claim to speak for the victims. Her typical response was, “if not me, then who?” Yet her public image remained in question and the popular biweekly magazine Tip’s named her #1 of the “The 100 Most Embarrassing Berliners” in its 2004 annual survey.

Rosh’s behavior at the Memorial’s 2005 dedication ceremony also cast doubts as to how earnest she was in her desire to respect the dead, re-raising the specter of an attention-loving gadfly. Her speech concluded with the suggestion to bury an original cloth star of David and a molar she had found at the Belzec concentration camp in Poland within one of the concrete stele that compose the monument. Rosh had not previously announced her intent and since the monument’s building process revolved around planning, consultation, and group consensus, her surprise gesture was received as self-important and disrespectful.

It also offended the Jewish community for its taboo stance towards Jewish law. Albert Meyer, Chairman of Berlin’s Jewish Community [Vorsitzender der Jüdische Gemeinde], furiously responded that Rosh’s gesture violated the religious burial order that Jewish corpses and parts thereof only be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Rosh responded that her wish was in accordance with Jewish law and enlisted Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg to clarify that the law only applied to large body parts, and that single teeth could be exempt.[1] This could not deliver her from the rage of Belzec’s administration, who scolded that it was “strongly forbidden” to take “souvenirs” away from a visit to the camp.[2] The question remains whether such an astoundingly obtuse blunder, which managed to somehow offend everyone, was just a clumsy mistake, or evidence of Rosh’s privileging of her own self-styled crusader role respect for those she claims to represent.

Other evidence that Rosh puts controversy and public attention before the emotions of the Jewish community is her creation of offensive controversy in the form of posters proclaiming “The Holocaust never happened.” The posters, created during debates about the memorial and intended to raise her campaign’s profile by demonstrating the offensive nature of Holocaust denial, worked a little too well, offending survivors and Jewish groups. Rosh later removed the posters, but her defiant, entitled stance has remained a constant throughout her public engagement, as evidenced in this latest incident. When asked whether she had a right to protest on privately-owned land, that is, Deutsche Bahn’s train station, she responded with the flip assertion, “It would be unwise to throw us out.”

So is Rosh truly a righteous crusader championing a cause many would rather just be done with? Or is she a muckraker in search of acclaim, clinging to an issue that turns heads? Does she aim to churn up controversy or remembrance? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The more engrossingly obnoxious Rosh’s public persona becomes, the more people read about her and pay attention to what she’s doing. As a consequence, her efforts at commemoration receive much press, and, as with the Holocaust Memorial, are one day actualized. Perhaps the realm of memory needs more people like Rosh, who rather than acting polite and appropriate, embarrass and annoy everyone into listening.

[1] Quoted in Claudia Keller, “Empoerung ueber Lea Rosh” 12 May 2005, Der Tagesspiegel. 14
[2] “Stelenspringer.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 May 2005
Top Rosh image courtesy

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Latest from the Hauptstadt
It’s time for a small rundown about the themes touched on in here in A New Yorker in Berlin:

First, the Schloss-saga. As discussed in posts from Nov. 19, & 26, Dec. 17, and Jan. 15, the city is struggling to explain where the money will come from to rebuild the Baroque palace that stood on the central Schlossplatz until the East Berlin government blew up its war-damaged remains in 1950. The structure that replaced the Schloss in the 1970s, the German Democratic Republic’s Palast der Republik, is now being removed amidst accusations that there isn’t sufficient funding to build its predecessor/successor.

Not so, says the municipal government, which has produced a new plan to build the Schloss without an attached luxury hotel, without an underground parking lot, and, most importantly, without the signature historical dome rising majestically above its wings. The plan does, however, remain true to its goal of creating a mix of exhibition and museum space for the study of other cultures, an educational space that recreates “the world in the center of Berlin,” to be called the "Humboldt Forum." This latest plan reduces costs enough to begin construction perhaps in 2008, and finish perhaps by 2012. There are also suggestions to maintain the river-facing side of the Schloss in the style of GDR architecture to commemorate each era the site has seen. How diplomatic, especially since the left-leaning municipal government isn't quite convinced it wants to contribute to the Forum's coffers.

As regards so-called "One Euro Jobs" (post Nov. 12), a new federal study (pdf link; for html see the institute's homepage) suggests that this federal initiative to combat Germany's high unemployment actually takes away jobs away rather than creating them, giving jobs on the cheap to those who qualify for such state-mandated labor rather than those who were trained to perform given functions at a higher minimum wage. In other words, the initiative is forming temporary positions for lesser pay rather than permanent opportunities; only 2% of the One Euro Jobs even come with the possibility of long-term employment. One suggestion to fix this situation is to have civil employees watch over and approve the One-Euro administration at job agencies. This could be a good solution; it would also in theory create more jobs.

The great competition between two companies to build jumbo-sized Ferris Wheels (post Dec. 1) is playing out to Western advantage. The Wheel at the old Zoologischer Garten train station is in the lead financially and according to a public opinion poll. However, the poll reports that 52% of those asked want the wheel, a rather slim margin. One wonders if Berliners will look back at the years from 1990-2010 with contentment or with resentment directed at many silly or socially destructive construction projects. While obvious scapegoats like New York’s much-criticized Robert Moses are currently lacking, history might find some. Then again, it depends on how successful the Berlin Republic ends up. As the new positively-slanted Moses exhibit in Queens shows, each era remembers a bit differently.

As reported on Dec. 6, Berlin’s new main train station has not arisen without growing pains, including a spat between architect Meinhard von Gerkan and head of Deutsche Bahn Hartmut Mehdorn, in which the former sued the latter for not following his plans to construct arched roofs in the lower level. To everyone’s surprise, he won the suit—meaning more costs and travel delays for a project already marked by such developmental hiccups. Yet from making headlines for the lawsuit, delays, and its much-touted glass roof that ended up unfinished, leaving first-class passengers in the rain, the Hauptbahnhof has now come to define debacle, making headlines for being simply awful. When the weather system Kyrill plowed through Germany on January 18, its hurricane-force winds knocks loose a steel girder on the station’s façade. In turn, the girder’s fall damaged a staircase and left structural weakness such that plate glass started to loosen, and the entire station was evacuated, stranding thousands of travelers. It re-opened the following day, only to close again 48 hours later due to heavy winds threatening the damaged structure. These embarrassing closures are taking place amidst the revelation that the apparently faulty structure actually cost 1.2 billion euros to build, not the single billion Deutsche Bahn had reported. Repairs will naturally also be costly. If only von Gerkan’s arched roofs had been built—then at least customers retreating from the station, on either day, would have had something to admire on the way out.

Finally, in recent news, Kochstrasse in Kreuzberg will be renamed Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse. As discussed in the latest post from Jan. 20, the seemingly banal matter of street names is a political firecracker in Berlin, igniting tempers and conjuring up historical squabbles. The suggestion to rename a small strip of one street after a student activist and liberal thinker riled up those who saw him as a “revolutionary,” including the nearby Axel Springer press, a notoriously conservative outfit against which Dutschke had campaigned. After a neighborhood-wide poll, forced by the controversy at a cost of 200,000 Euros, it is clear what the people want. Or is it? Apparently approximately 75% of voters living right near the street in question voted against changing the name. As well, in an always-changing city like Berlin, there are newly-created streets up for grabs alongside construction projects, meaning an older name needn’t be sacrificed. The irony of erasing a contemporary bit of memory (the name Kochstrasse) to propose a better memory we will like more in the future (the name Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse) is yet more proof that Berlin may not be the prettiest city in Europe, with a broken train station, vacant lots rather than palaces, and kitschy Ferris wheels to come, but it is the most interesting.

Ein-Euro-Jobber image courtesy Dutschke image courtesy

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Word on the Street

Tomorrow residents of the Berlin district Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain will vote on whether or not to rename a local street, Kochstrasse, as Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse, in honor of the leader of Germany’s rebellious student movement of the 1960s and partial founder of the Green party. The current honoree Johann Jakob Koch was a baker, and according to members of the Christian Democratic Union, a party that opposes the renaming, his service to the city oughtn’t be forgotten. Along with fellow opponent and current Kochstrasse resident Axel Springer Press, against whose conservative papers Dutschke protested, the CDU accuses Dutschke as having been an anti-democracy revolutionary. It is the CDU’s signature-collection initiative to block the renaming that gave rise to the need for a citizens’ vote: after the neighborhood parliament had already decided in favor of the renaming, the CDU was able to prove minority dissent with the signatures. Residents will settle the matter once and for all in the polls tomorrow.

The controversy has split the neighborhood, with signs proclaiming alliance hanging in shop windows. The liberal newspaper taz, which originally proposed the renaming in late 2004, is gearing up for a victory in what it sees as a campaign for justice and proper remembrance. Meanwhile, opponents invoke not only political but also pragmatic objections, calling the measure costly and impractical since companies will have to order new letterhead, among other measures. The taz initiative has already made a concession to the municipal transit authority, which claimed the cost of renaming the underground stop on Kochstrasse would be too high. In response, the suggestion was altered such that only a piece of the street would receive a new moniker. If this sounds silly to American readers, it is the norm in Berlin, where what looks like one street on a map may change names two or three times over the course of several kilometers.

The amount of hullabaloo over a street name might also be foreign to Americans, who live in a country of usually bland public monikers. This has a lot to do with America’s history of expansion, in which surveyors turned “uncharted territory” into a grid of salable land, relying for simplicity’s sake upon numbers to order the terrain. Despite the existence of verbose personalities such as Henry David Thoreau in their midst, surveyors also tended to be a fairly unimaginative lot, sticking to simple, inoffensive names like “Main” or “Oak” when drawing up their maps. They were, however, business-savvy, frequently numbering the streets starting at ten or even twenty-five to leave room for coming expansion in all directions. In this regard, surveyors were either spookily prescient or self-actualizing purveyors of the contemporary sprawl phenomenon.

Then again, Americans miss out on the arguable cultural flavor of local names. In Berlin, each street also has a plaque somewhere in its stretch that notes the birth, death, and profession of its eponym. When they are singular and denote short stretches, names also become tied irreparably to a place. For example, one justification the Berlin government provided to critics of its decision to build a fifth Rosa Luxembourg monument was that the socialist reformer would otherwise be remembered as an actress: her eponymous plaza lies in front the famous Volksbühne, or People’s theater.

In New York, attempts have been made to bring in the folksiness and character of interesting street names, but how many people know that 84th street in Manhattan’s Upper West Side is also named Edgar Allen Poe Street, after the one-time resident? One would be hard-pressed to find a business or residence that inserts the supplemental name on its letterhead. Even a wide-ranging change such as Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas in 1945 is frequently overlooked by natives who go right on calling it, well, Sixth Avenue. It sits in between Seventh and Fifth, does it not? In New York, pragmatism trumps romanticism, it seems.

Yet Berliner Markus Domsch, owner of the local organic grocery “Laib und Käse” [Loaf and Cheese] and neighborhood resident for twelve years, also expresses a practical outlook.

“I’m not voting tomorrow because the name really doesn’t affect me,” he says, referring to his store’s location approximately two kilometers from debated block. “It’s up to the people who live and work there to decide. Whatever they choose democratically is their right.”

Not everyone feels that way. The proprietor of a nearby second-hand bookstore who preferred not to be named displays a large “Vote NO” (to the decision not to rename the street) poster alongside rows of dusty volumes. “He was an important political figure. It’s a shame if they decide not to honor him. It should remain Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse,” she says emphatically, referring to a name the street does not yet officially bear. Her answer hits at one possible linguistic consequence of tomorrow’s vote. Just like New Yorkers to whom “Avenue of the Americas” is a fictional place, Berlin fans of the political activist may refer to the street as Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse regardless of the outcome.

Kochstrasse image courtesy: Dutschke image courtesy:
Postcard image Poe image courtesy:

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Decadence and Salvation, Looking Good

There is a bit of Berlin in New York these days, in the form of grotesque caricature, riveting sexuality, and hypnotic self-doubt. Yes, self-loathing can be alluring—“Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 19th, shows us how, with portraits of an era of social mayhem routinely labeled as utter decadence. Here are Weimar Berlin’s decrepit prostitutes, despairing intellectuals, and repulsive military personnel, pompous officers and wounded cannon fodder both, as seen by the likes of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz, among others.

The show has tongues wagging in a variety of tones. ArtForum speaks clinically of the paintings’ intent to “intensify Dada’s anatomical operation---suggesting…an entire culture driven by an ongoing cycle of corporeal assault,” while Newsweek enthuses “There's not a trace of ‘my kid could have done that’ modernism in this show. These guys could really draw and paint.” Whether issued from the Ivory Tower or phrased as pure populism, reviews all find the exhibit mesmerizing, which begs the question of why societal dysfunction is such a crowd-pleaser. Is it as simple as the canvases’ visual vibrancy, their bright-yet-forbidding coloration, gripping compositions, navel-gazing intimacy? Or is it more of a rubber-necking syndrome evincing the fascination of decay, with everyone equally enthralled by the warped figures, arrestingly ugly faces, and in-your-face genitalia?

As it turns out, both. This “amazing show” earns such a pronouncement from the New York Times by delighting with Beckmann’s technical virtuosity and Dix’s innovative, decorative touches. It is beloved in a comparatively naughty review in New York magazine because it “cheered [the reviewer] up to no end…There is a wicked joy…to be found in skewering the human animal…Sometimes, screw ‘em all.” As this author astutely points out, the renaissance of such a style--dubbed Verist in its search for the truth behind society’s ugliness--in contemporary America could lead to some interesting depictions of Bush, Cheney, and cohorts. Beyond the vicarious delight of mentally ripping into our world with the aesthetic language of between-wars Berlin, the show also provides well-written wall texts, an extensive catalog, and unfussy, straightforward arrangement. Decadence has never looked so good.

Meanwhile, in California, the future has never looked brighter--literally. On January 10th, SunPower, a corporation which manufactures solar cells and panels, acquired PowerLight, a smaller yet equally dynamic firm that specializes in the systems and plants that utilize the cell technology. PowerLight is a quickly-growing shining star whose major projects include airport hangars, jails, and even real estate developments, while SunPower is a giant in the field, with the world’s most efficient solar cells and the innovation to drive the technology forward. One enthusiastic goal of the merger is to reduce the cost of solar energy by 50% by 2012.

A visit to PowerLight’s headquarters in south Berkeley, a neighborhood itself in transition with eco-home stores alongside bait shacks, reveals a buzz of change already taking place just days after the merger. Smartly-designed posters that incorporate each firm’s logo are going up throughout the office. Magnets are already in place on filing cabinets. Nearby, a wall displays PowerLight’s solar achievements already in place, including the Solarpark in Bavaria, Germany, where rows of panels nestle in the hills like a modern-day reinvention of the pastoral vineyard. (This image is not terribly far-fetched: PowerLight has also worked with wineries to design systems that save money by using solar energy at hours of peak prices on the grid.) Unlike in the United States, where solar subsidies come only at a state level in places like California, keeping the cost prohibitively high in non-subsidized regions, in Germany solar is federally subsidized. Germany believes firmly--if a bit frantically, as anyone who has read the press' recent Weltuntergang global warming assessments can attest--in the importance of a cleaner, more environmentally-sound future

A peek inside PowerLight’s headquarters is refreshing without the schadenfreude. It provides a bit of hope. It seems obvious to suggest that one reason "Glitter and Doom" is so entrancing is that societies on a slow path south love to gaze on other fallen civilizations, perhaps explaining the current American craze for the late Roman empire. Yet it is equally compelling to imagine how we can save ourselves. Under the relentlessly sunny California sky, an image of positive things to come nearly outstrips the carnival of oddities on the New York gallery wall. Nearly. Like yin and yang, sweet and sour, downfall and upswing form a pleasing duet. Here’s hoping “Glitter and Doom” travels far and wide so that all may enjoy it, that it flies ultimately to Berlin—in a solar-paneled jet.

Images courtesy, (solar complex in Arnstein, Germany) (Bavaria Solarpark)
and Top image detail of Christan Schad's Count St. Genois d'Anneaucort (1927), below is his Self Portrait (1927). Female is Otto Dix's The Dancer Anita Berber (1925). Group is Dix's Skat Players (1920).

Monday, January 15, 2007

Trading a Palace for a Castle

“Thanks a lot, Schlossverein, for making it ever clearer, that Ossis [those from former East Berlin] have nothing to add!”[1] proclaimed an angry letter published in the liberal biweekly magazine Zitty in Winter 2005. Even two years ago, invoking the Us vs. Them, East vs. West rhetoric in the Berliner Schloss debate was beginning to sound a little old since the Palast der Republik’s tear-down was a foregone conclusion for years (see Posts Nov. 19, Nov .26, Dec. 17). It was, however, logical: a survey by the Berliner Morgenpost at that time showed that 55% of West-Berliners clearly supported the Schloss’ reconstruction, while only 34% of East-Berliners could say the same.[2]

Now that the federal government has announced it will not fund Schloss reconstruction and financial dire straits have caused whispers that it may never be rebuilt, it is worth examining the symbolism of the Palast der Republik to understand why some are so upset about its removal. That no ersatz architectural showpiece is arriving any time soon makes grieving and resentment for what will obviously be missing even more compelling. So what is being mourned? As historians Godfrey Carr and Georgina Paul write, “It was here the citizens of East Berlin were married, celebrated birthdays, and took part in a range of leisure pursuits, all at very little cost. It was open and affordable to all. As such, it represented a much appreciated facility for urban cultural and social life unparalleled in the west of the country.”[3]

However, if the Palast’s central, community feel was unparalleled in the West, its openness was also unparalleled in the East. That is, its cultural offerings came as close to permissible western-ness as possible; it was here that the government finally caved to pressure and let musicians perform “degenerate western music,” that is, rock and roll (as long as lyrics were previously submitted for review). Although post-reunification Westerners have tended to see the building as a symbol of an oppressive Communist regime, they may have missed the irony that under the German Democratic Republic the building also stood for a certain sort of Western influence.

Nevermind that the Palast was originally supposed to be part of a huge building complex, including an enormous tower of rising 130 meters above the Palast’s roof, and a manicured parade ground for 400,000 people—a project for which the GDR did not have enough money and curtailed in the 1960s.[4] Although the Palast stood alone, a golden cigarette carton fronting a sprawling, wind-raked parking lot, it still represented a sort of comfort, pleasantness, and ease atypical for life in the GDR. A tale from a former Wessi elaborates this claim:

“Coming from the West, my first stop would often be Palast der Republik, because after such a long wait at the border, one often had to use the bathroom, or get a coffee, and here was one of the only known places to do this. There were lights, and mirrors, and music from the cafes. Abba, in fact! There were comfortable chairs, and attractive places to eat. You have to understand what the GDR was like: The overwhelming first impression was grey. Everything was this depressing grey. And the Palast der Republik was an island in the grey,” she explains. “An island of color and music in the grey.”[5]

The second great irony of Eastern resentment about what is perceived as largely Western embrace of the Prussian aesthetic is that at the root of many citizens’ connectedness to the structure lay aesthetic reasons: a relationship to the place was developed because it was pretty and nice. By ripping down the Palast, one of the few symbols of the GDR that can be thought of as pretty and nice is also obliterated. In the spirit of reconciliation for those who deeply perceive the East-West tension as marking the Palast issue, those at whom resentment and ire is directed should at least be comforted by knowing that the resentful and wrathful share a central concern for aesthetics, and that what they struggle to preserve was once nearly symbolic for what they now reject: excess Western influence.

[1] “Jetzt fehlt nur noch Koenig: Ein Brief an die Freunde der Schloss-Rekonstruktion.” Giuseppe Pitronaci. Zitty feb 21?
[2] “Stadtschloss: Jeder zweite Berliner fuer wiederaufbau,” von Stefan Schulz. Berliner Morgenpost 21 January 2005, p 13.
[3] “Unification and its Aftermath” Godfrey Carr and Georgina Paul, in German Cultural Studies: An Introduction Rob Burns, ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
[4] “So haette as DDR gebaut…wenn genug Geld dagewesen waere.” Von Hildburg Bruns. BILD Berlin, 22 January 2005, p. 6
[5] Dr. Christine Wolf, Landesdenkmalamt, Senatsverwaltung fuer Stadtentwicklung, Interview with author, Berlin, Germany, 4 February 2005.

Schloss image courtesy

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Gelobtes Land—Two Sorts of Charm
In summer 2006, 4,000 rockets fell on northern Israel from Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon. [1] Today, barely five months later, my visit to the Hula Valley, a rich agricultural strip on the western shore of the Jordan River right below the border with Lebanon, reveals few signs of destruction. Although less targeted than more populous areas like Kiryat Shmona, the area nonetheless received rockets, a fact belied by its current undamaged appearance. Our guide can only point out the smallest traces of war: here is a bunch of yellowed trees that burned when a Katyusha fell nearby; it was aimed at a bridge slightly farther upstream on the river, which is more of an irrigation canal tamed into a straight line than the mythic, war-causing waterway its name calls to mind. And over there--the guide gestures out the window of the Jeep--another rocket fell, but the farmland has been more or less smoothed out and one must squint to convince themselves they see an undulation in the landscape.

To compare apples and oranges, the former East Berlin bears much more obviously the scars of war. While districts of former East Berlin are now central city today, vacant lots from the post-war era remain, as do long, wide, ghostly strips of what was no-man’s land alongside the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. These lots look like dollar signs to investors, even as new projects and dreams then fail, leaving more holes in the cityscape. While growth and change are characteristic of all metropolises, in few do they stamp the city with such vivid pockets of emptiness, a forlorn patchwork mystique.

In contrast, even the military fortifications in the pastoral Hula are picturesque. Pontoon bridges are nestled in the eucalyptus groves alongside the river in case the permanent bridges are ever damaged; their fatigue green paint and patches of red rust match the trees’ light leaves and rich-hued bark. The ruins of Syrians command centers and bunkers only half-destroyed by the conquering Israeli army in 1967 are similarly charming. Bunkers, command centers, and border-crossing customs tollhouses dot the slopes that look down on the farms. They are composed of partial walls and collapsing ceilings, large chunks of grey-yellow cement crumbling down into soil speckled with grey-yellow boulders, as though the layers of military conquest are yet another geologic process slowly taking place on the ancient landscape.

However, the aesthetic of pastoral charm doesn’t always supercede that of metropolitan creation-and-decay. Berlin’s gritty ugliness has enchanted just as many as it has repelled; residents call it an “interesting” city rather a “beautiful” one. To decode this rag-tag geography, to follow the constant physical developments in the city—the breweries and airports slated for demolition, the new condominiums or office complexes scheduled for construction—is to feel like not just like an insider but also a fellow-traveler through a process compelling in its demonstration of temporality. When buildings are so frequently here today, gone tomorrow, one is keenly aware of existing in a particular, short time window, aware of their own impermanence.

Yet, a variation of this feeling also permeates the Golan Heights, which begin on the Hula’s eastern side. The Hula lies along the pre-1967 border with Syria, and to cross it and ascend the rocky slope on the other side is to tread land that once belonged to another country—a country still calling for it back. The Israeli-occupied Golan is a moonscape of rocky soil and snowy hilltops, fertile pockets of land with white-walled villages tucked inside, and land-mines zones and tanks lying alongside roads. Visiting such terrain is to be reminded of the fragility of borders, of peace, and of personal existence.

In both Berlin and the Golan, inhabitants fight to maintain their land and their identity--for example, the Syrian minority refuses to adopt Israeli citizenship despite that government’s pressure, while former-East Berliners protest the rapid gentrification of their environs and draw boundaries between themselves and their neighbors (see post Dec. 23). Yet, as mentioned, such a comparison is like that between apples and oranges: occupied mountains versus a free city, countries versus neighborhoods, decades of mutual injustice versus the changes of modernity. Maybe. What is certain is that each variety of beauty is fiercely clung to, scarring the landscape it enhances, its allure giving rise to territoriality, its vulnerability a product of its appeal.

[1] Steven Erlanger, “The Mideast Crisis: Aftermath; Reservists in Israel Protest Conduct of Lebanon War,” The New York Times, 22 August 2006, p. A11.