“Without the freedom to be provocative, living here wouldn’t be worth it”
Yasser Almaamoun is from Damascus, works as an architect in Berlin and is the designated “Foreign Minister” of the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, or Center for Political Beauty. For the Freiraum project, he is one of the Amsterdam Goethe-Institut’s partners with his initiative “Multaka: Museum as Meeting Point – Refugees as Guides in Berlin Museums”. In this interview Almaamoun talks about his activism during the Syrian revolt, about the differences between freedom in Syria and in Germany – and about the cultural bubbles he inhabits, which are very hard to reconcile.
Interview by Uwe Rada
Yasser, you are partnering the Goethe-Institut Amsterdam for the Freiraum project. How did this collaboration come about?
I went to an event in Amsterdam last May. An arts centre had invited me to talk about the reconstruction of Aleppo. I made the most of the opportunity to get to know the Goethe-Institut in Amsterdam. Based on my background – architect, Syrian, Center for Political Beauty – we talked about collaboration.
Which then materialized.
Yes, we got to talking early on about freedom, then we made the film to present our question at the big gathering in Warsaw. We put a very simple, and yet very complicated complex, question, namely: Does absolute freedom exist?
Does this question have anything to do with your history?
Yes, of course. And with those of other newcomers to Germany. The film shows how we guide newcomers through the German Historical Museum in Berlin, where they learn about the milestones of German history and how the idea of freedom has evolved over the course of that history.
The film is largely about the cultural divide. On the one hand, there is the historical experience which everyone born in Germany carries with them. This experience is displayed in the museum and provides a sort of backdrop to the very concept of freedom in Germany. Then there are the newcomers, who don’t have this background. So what is their conception of freedom, and how is it different?
Today’s newcomers experienced what freedom can mean five years ago, when Syrians rose up and said: We want freedom. Later they had to learn that freedom can be defined very differently – which has to do with the various rebel groups.
Which differences do you mean?
There were incidents during the Syrian revolution where everyone sympathizing with the secular and progressive rebels said: No, this is unacceptable. For example, when men said: I want to have the freedom to veil my wife, without anyone trying to prohibit me. Various Islamist groups called for that very freedom. And some people rebelled only because Assad is not Sunni. They had no problem with the system, the bureaucracy, the political situation. Only with the president’s religion. It’s clear from this, if nothing else, that there is no universal definition of freedom.
What was your idea of freedom at the time?
I was a bit influenced by the West. To me, there are two sides to freedom: rights, for one thing, and duties, for another. This is very important to me. It’s not just about safeguarding my liberty, but also the liberties of others. I tried to implement that at the level of Syrian society, as well as in a small circle.
Did you have any success?
Limited success. I met people who conceive of freedom in the same terms. But some had a totally different conception. It didn’t work with them. They saw me as an outsider, as an extravagant rebel.
Before you came to Germany in 2013, did you actively fight the regime in Syria?
Fight, no. My part in the revolution was rather small. I took part in small rallies in Damascus. Then I discovered there was a way of exerting influence as an architect. We held protests on the main streets of Damascus. The participants were assigned to positions, where they had to stand and look inconspicuous. At a signal, they’d all walk into the street, demonstrate for 30 to 40 seconds – it was all filmed and documented – then they all had to get back off the street. Those were the protests that first year.
Then things developed. We had a base in Damascus where we tried to help the rebels logistically.
I don’t mean the combatants, I mean the demonstrators. There was no war at the time, at least not in Damascus. There were only protests and arrests, but no bombardments. We were always trying to smuggle in equipment and cameras with which to film inconspicuously. Our goal was to document everything on Facebook and the web. Those were the last actions I was involved in in Damascus. Then I had to flee.
It was stupid of me: I was sitting with some people in a café and spoke a little louder than I should have.
What did you say?
We were just talking about what was going on at the moment. And what might become of the revolution.
And you were informed on by people at another table.
Exactly. Fortunately, I was friends with the waiter – who also happened to be a secret service officer. He walked over and told me I had three days to leave the country. Then he was gone. And that was that. When you hear something like that, there’s nothing to discuss. You’ve got to go. Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here now.
You left your family behind?
My parents. For the rest, I was single and solo. Which is why it was possible for me to be an activist in the first place. Unlike my uncle and others who stayed home and said: We’re not getting involved because we’ve got family.
What was your vision of a free Syria at the time?
Along European lines. That you can say whatever you please: in other words, freedom of speech. That everyone has the same opportunities – which is definitely not the case in Syria. In Germany we’ve got the concept of “Vitamin B”: Beziehungen (connections). In Syria it’s not about Beziehungen, it’s about Bestechungen (bribery).
Freedom of corruption.
You can get whatever you want if you’ve got money. Syria was more corrupt than most other countries.
What about freedom of religion? Many non-Muslim minorities say Assad grants them freedom of religion.
I am for the separation of church and state – mosque and state. I’d be happy if we had a government that got the country back on its feet. And then we can discuss religion. But the claim that Assad – that is, the regime – grants us freedom of religion is utterly false. Actually, he is banking on his minorities to stay in power.
So he uses them?
Here’s an example: In the 1960s, before Assad came to power, there were hundreds of cinemas and theatres. There are only two or three left in Damascus now. They are guarded by soldiers. The number of mosques, on the other hand, has increased several times over. So there are more mosques than theatres, which was the other way round fifty years ago. Is this freedom of religion? It’s just an act with Assad.
Are you religious?
No, I’ve been an atheist for twenty years.
What changed your mind?
Two reasons: When I left middle school, we all had to go see the Mufti of Syria. He said two things that terrified me at the time – I was 12. He told us about his second wife, who was 18. He was 63. And he cracked a joke: She asked him over the phone when they’d have kids, and he said, Well, never if we don’t get off the phone. Everyone laughed. I thought to myself: he’s 63, she’s 18, something’s wrong here.
And the second reason?
He told us what a good Muslim is. For important decisions, you should always consult a sheikh or imam: before travelling, before getting married, before deciding whether to take a job. At the time I was already working with computers, and it was clear to me that an imam would tell me that doesn’t go with religion. That’s how I personally realized that religion – or rather religious institutions – are there to control people. And I don’t want to be controlled. Neither by the state nor by the church or mosque.
So what did you do?
When I got to college at the age of 18, I came out and said I’m an atheist.
Your very own conception of Freiraum. And what was it like when you had to get out? Did you think: Now that I’m no longer threatened, I’m free? Or did the threat simply take other shapes?
There was a phase between fleeing Syria and arriving in Germany that was a little dangerous for me. It was three or four months. I couldn’t feel or enjoy any freedom during that time. I was in Turkey and Qatar. It wasn’t until I reached Germany that I made up mind to start a new life. That’s a process that’s still ongoing, but with far more freedom than I had before.
Is it also a goodbye to Syria and what’s going on there?
Yes, that is far away now. The first few months I was constantly on Facebook trying to find out what the situation was down there. Then I discovered that there’s a diaspora in Berlin, newcomers trying to make it, that that was an opportunity for me to do something there. After a year and a half, I discovered the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty), and that’s where my activism started anew.
You came at a time when there were still very few Syrians in Germany. In 2015, when many refugees came, did it ever occur to you that your liberty might be curtailed because the public image of Syrians was changing in Germany? Because they were suddenly perceived as much more of a menace, as unwilling to integrate, as potential rapists?
What helped me was the language. Whenever I start speaking German I can see how the faces around me relax.
When did you start learning German?
Shortly before I left Syria. I already knew Berlin before leaving too, I’d been to Germany for a month in 2008 on a college trip. Berlin was my first city outside of Syria. It was culture shock, but fascinating. So when I came back to Berlin, I already knew what it’s like to take the U-Bahn, I knew Alexanderplatz, I was no stranger to the city anymore. I didn’t have to get used to it. That helped me a lot at the outset.
Getting back to the Freiraum project: you took part in the very first workshop in Amsterdam. When you heard the project was about freedom, did that immediately strike a chord?
That’s exactly what we discussed at the first meeting in Amsterdam. And we brainstormed. Since newcomers were an issue from the get-go, we had a lot to talk about on the subject of freedom and Islam. Such as the fact that in Europe we are free to criticize and challenge certain developments in Islam. Which isn’t possible in the Arab world.
Was that also an appeal to the new arrivals? Along the lines of: You’ve got this opportunity here, so use it?
The consensus was more that it’s too dangerous. So we decided to open up the question. To look at freedom as a whole, rather than focusing on criticizing religion, to make it only part of the question.
Why should asking only about religion be dangerous? Who would be a threat to you?
We would to each other.
Each with your own mental divide?
Yes, and that bothers me enormously. We all talk about it in secret, but not in public. There were also arguments with the organization. But maybe it’ll ultimately help that we’ve opened up the concept. And a bit of the original idea is still left after all. The film shows us walking through the German Historical Museum, and standing at one point in front of the Auschwitz model. I made sure that exact scene was shown in the film. I’m often constrained whenever the subject of the Holocaust comes up.
By the newcomers, not the Germans. They ask critical questions about the Holocaust – even right there in the German Historical Museum.
With an anti-Semitic background?
Yes. But I don’t know if it’s good to talk about that now – that might just end up helping the AfD. It would be confirmation for them, then they say: We knew it all along. But not talking about it would also be a constraint. I live in two different bubbles, one Arab, the other German. I have friends in both. And I’m constantly thinking about ways to build bridges between the two worlds. I do that at work and in cultural projects, but it’s very difficult in my private life, where everyone says what they please and exercises all the liberties they have – which can be dangerous. When I bring two people from the two bubbles together, that can give rise to big flare-ups.
The bridges are very rickety?
Unfortunately, these bubbles aren’t just my bubbles. They are constructed, imposed from outside. I’m surrounded by both societies. And of course you can’t just get up and leave either of them, you have to live with both. With their bad and good sides.
The idea of Freiraum is to have your own issues reflected on by a counterpart you can’t pick yourself. Changing perspective, in other words, as a prerequisite for building a bridge, for bringing about a dialogue. But now you say hardly any dialogue is possible between these two bubbles.
Maybe I’m describing an extreme situation: the chasm between my fellow architects at the office and the people in the Arab bubble.
As a Syrian nonbeliever, are you accepted by your devout Arab friends? Or do they see you as someone who doesn’t belong anymore?
As a nonbeliever, I already had a feeling of not being accepted by society back in Syria. It’s similar here. People may be somewhat more restrained here. After all, we’ve got rights here, the police here are not corrupt. When someone threatens me, he’s the one who’s got a problem. Not so in Syria, where you have to pay money to get out of prison. So that broadens the horizon of freedom I have here.
Politically speaking, you certainly do take liberties. At the Center for Political Beauty you provoke people, sometimes with controversial methods. Do you sometimes feel you’re trying the tolerance of a country of which you wish to become a citizen? Or do you see Germany as giving you the freedom to be provocative?
The latter, I think. If the freedom to be provocative were not guaranteed, living here wouldn’t be worth it. But my image of Germany is that it is worth it, and I’d like to hold on to that image.
Because then you can travel abroad, outside Europe.
The question worked up in Amsterdam and Berlin – How can we use freedom as a tool which includes and does not exclude, and which challenges our ingrained thinking? – is to be answered not by you yourself, but by your tandem partners in Naples. You met them in Warsaw. How did the Neapolitans react to your question?
It was strange for them to see our film because it’s so candid. So we had to do some explaining. But our discussion was then actually more about the format of the project we have in mind. Because our partners in Naples are Bianco-Valente, two professional artists who put on terrific exhibitions. We tend more towards happenings and performance art.
Are you going to realize a joint project? Or two different ones?
We haven’t decided yet. We’re going to meet up soon and talk it over.
The question from Naples is: How do we organize our living environment as a function of others? This seems an obvious question for such a densely populated city. I suppose that as an architect you can well understand that.
Before the population of Damascus was diminished by war and exodus, I lived in a city one quarter the size of Berlin but with triple the population. I guess the question from Naples suits us better than ours suits our Neapolitan partners. (Laughs) At any rate, I’m really looking forward to making something of it.