Sunday, 28 June 2015

Walking the City 1 - Berlin, Friedrichsfelde

A new city is like a wrapped parcel. There's the excitement of peeling off the layer of packaging, to reveal what lies beneath. But there is a sense in which you have to assemble it yourself. You have the map as your guide, but where do you begin to unfold the buildings and the contours? Arriving at the Zentral Bahnhof in Charlottenburg, I felt like a mole, emerging into dazzling light, unable to arrange any kind of meaning until I had walked the streets myself, linking one area to another.

The area where I was staying and returned to in the evening, was between Lichtenberg and Friedrichsfelde. Quiet and peaceful, it was a delight to come back after the noise and bustle, the traffic sounds and busy streets of the city centre.


This home territory was easy. From Zacherstrasse I walked up Metastrasse and if I turned left, there were the brightly painted façades of the square blocks of houses and the street leading to Lichtenberg station, Einbecker strasse.


If I turned right, I would come to the U Bahn station of Friedrichsfelde. Here, the trees lining the pavements became more dense and leafy and across the street from the underground station, there was an old building, set like a jewel, catching the evening sunlight on its plaster cornices, its steep-sloping tiled roof its delicate windows and protected balconies. Like the prow of a ship the streets split like waves on either side of it. Providing relief from the rectangular blocks of buildings and the right angles of the streets.


Walking on past the underground I turned off down a narrow pedestrian lane, but lined with fencing on either side. Inside the fencing were garden plots teeming with plant life – rows of vegetables and whole bushes of colourful flowers. And in all of them, there was what looked like a small house. Wooden structures, painted and decorated, half hidden under trailing green creepers or vivid white, yellow and pink blossoms, these were too grand to be called huts but perhaps too small for people to live in, too miniature in scale, yet they appeared like the home of the guardian of each plot, an air of habitation, the decked-out and benign intelligence of the garden. A kind of plant-concierge, protective, flower-strewn keeper of the sanctuary.

This scale of intimacy contrasts strongly with the massive architectural statements elsewhere in the city – palaces, Reichstag, universities, cathedrals, domes, the gold needle of the Siegessaule (victory column) and the endless government buildings, with their uniform windows, tiny as spy-holes. These require time even for the eye to travel up and across their dimensions, never mind focus on details and encapsulate it all into some kind of meaning.

These gardens, complete with spirit-residencies have emerged on the other side of communist structures with their smooth façades, the regular windows, so small as if they were afraid of letting in the light. From imperial pomp to intimidating light-shunning uniformity, now, individual decorative taste has been at work on the residential buildings, with their vivid colours and flowering gardens. And here, in this row of plots, the wooden houses with their profusion of

plant growth look like fairy tale versions of magical cottages in enchanted forests, transposed into city suburbs.


Ship's prow building, side view

Turning back towards the residential area and exploring different streets, I have to head back to Friedrichsfelde to gaze at the ship's-prow building, pale blue in the evening sunlight. My eyes needed its ornate façade, the architectural equivalent of the scent of acacia blossom after rain, or the sound of piano music drifting from an open window, in a quiet street.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Forty Pillars of Memory by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

When a piece of writing describes a place, a landscape, or city streets, it is of course through their eyes, and accompanied by their own mood, their feelings, perhaps thoughts arising from their surroundings or an association that is brought to mind. It depends on the writer how much subjectivity is consciously brought in and explored.

But even if it is very little, even if it seems to focus entirely on the outer and the objective vision, it is still their eyes through which we are seeing the land or the streets, it is their selection, their highlighting, their pauses, and necessarily, their imagination that is colouring what they see and which to my mind anyway, makes it so fascinating, for we are learning about this person who is writing.

These are the twin attractions after all, what is being described, the voyage or story that is unfolding, and the person who is making this description, the sense you get of the particular consciousness which is shaping the perceptions, how they are handled or unfolded, how they are drawn together, the colour of the ink in which they are dipped.

Der Vierzig Säulen der Verinnerung/The Forty Pillars of Memory

Several articles written during Annemarie Schwarzenbach's journey with Ella Maillart to Afghanistan in 1939 were published in the Swiss newspaper National Zeitung, (and later published in book form with the title Alle Wege sind Offen/All the Roads are Open.) But these highly personal pieces collected in The Forty Pillars of Memory were never published in her lifetime. As she said herself “These latest fruits of my labour...cannot really be described as articles or simple travel accounts. …. but there is no doubt that they are the most important and sincere writings I have produced during this long journey....I wrote what was in my heart.” 


Annemarie on the Caspian Sea, en route to Afghanistan. Photo credit Ella Maillart

I've just finished translating one of these pieces – Die menschliche Landschaft/The Human Landscape, and the excerpts below are from that. It mixes cherished memories of the land, the people and the beauty of the landscape with her present feelings, and there's a sense of desolation that wraps her as she writes, because of the immanent parting.

Now that a decision has been made and already talk has turned to the time of departure – now,  companions, it seems to me that we should let the past be and have a modest celebration, practise forgetting and play innocuous games, on animal skins and gorgeous rugs, on the banks of the Kabul and Logar rivers still clothed in soft sunlight and intoxicating colours.  Do you know this delightful place?
I know it so well! Let me for once speak from the heart (for I love this land, Afghanistan), let me be frank.

As she said herself, this is a different kind of writing from 'simple travel accounts'. These pieces are an outlet of expression for her powerful feelings. There is a sense here of her needing to provide witness and testament to her own feelings; it is also a lyrical and haunting description of a place that she has come to love, and which she is preparing to leave. 

The Hindu Kush! - Do I remember? – I only have to close my eyes, just as in a good dream..... Haibak, the gardens of Shibargan, the groves of nut trees in Ghazni or Istalif, the powerful rushing sounds of the windmills of Shabash, driven by the north wind, snow on the camels’ backs and on the roofs of Hamadan, snow turned red by the desert sand, snowfall at Shibar,  making no sound – but in the end it blocks the road – and the lurking wolves, the tyre that spins, the helpless dread – the end. But I am wide awake, as awake as anyone could be.  I would like to rebel, protest, recant, call it off, allow myself to slip into righteous anger, and there is no righteous anger.  Besides, I am tired.

And then? What will happen then when these days come to an end, tomorrow and the day after? Needing consolation, to believe still in – the possibility of grace? They point the way with their fingers – the summit of the Khyber Pass.

For it is not just a time of farewell to the person who she feels so much for, (Marie Hackin, wife of the archaeologist Joseph Hackin) but also to Afghanistan, a country as she states quite clearly, she loves, and in the way that you come to love a place or person that you have spent time with, shared challenges, painful and joyful experiences with –  a place or person in short, that you have travelled with. 

In describing these essentially interwoven places and feelings, she is documenting a process that is painful and also courageous. She is indeed mapping part of the human landscape, a spiritual path that others can view, recognize and be grateful for. She was also very much part of the historical time, and of the spiritual, emotional and physical struggle of Europe during these years. 

Our afternoon walk, silent companion, led us to the long crest of a mound like a slain dragon turned to stone, the little road disappeared among the ruins of walls and old graves. - To right and left in the low lying areas and the distant valleys swathed in softness, they have diligently hollowed out canals and cultivated the earth, a white turban fluttered in the field, in the winter pasture black oxen browsed, a village nestled among silvery poplars –  the mountain, rising up above the vineyards, crowned with snow, is unforgettable, etched in memory.

Shortly after writing this, Annemarie left Afghanistan at the end of 1939, and after spending some time with Ella Maillart again in India, she returned to Europe, feeling that she could not abandon her country in the war that had just broken out.
A fierce opponent of the rise of Fascism, during the 1930s she had written articles documenting the abuses of power and how they deeply affected people, particularly Jews.

Joseph Hackin was head of the French archaeological team in Afghanistan. He and Marie returned to Europe in 1940 and, based in London, they both became senior figures in the French Resistance. In 1941 Marie and Joseph Hackin were drowned in a boat that was sunk by the Germans off the coast of France.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach with Marie Hackin (on her right) Jacques Meunié and Joseph Hackin of   DAFA, picnic near Kaboul, autumn 1939. Photograph by Ella Maillart.                                              Credit: Fonds Ella Maillart au Musée de l’Elysée de Lausanne