Archive for the ‘Urban’ Category

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“All origins become mysterious if we search far enough into the past. And almost all peoples, when we look at their earliest origins, turn out to have come from somewhere else.” -Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History

A fierce north wind struck the boat, chilling us to the bone. Waves from an oil-tanker slapped the hull; the pilot boats taking it out to sea resembled the small fish that keep company with whales. Towering cranes lined the docks, their metallic arms reaching through air, loading and unloading cargo from around the world. Fishermen cupped cigarettes to their mouths, the thin nets of smoke sheering away in the wind. A grey sky skimmed the world.

A class of Polish university students huddled on the open deck, listening to a lecture about the historic importance of the port, the trade of nations that made its way through the waters, the momentous and violent events that altered the fabric of the city. We picked up fragments of the talk when one of the ship’s crew, a kindly mariner who wore his many decades at sea with a smile, brought us coffee and tried with a few words of English and motions of his hands and arms to explain the essentials. In light of our reason for being there, his considerably better German should in theory have been our common tongue. But between the three of us we couldn’t muster a sentence.

Szczecin, 2010

Szczecin, 2010

It was our last day in Szczecin, in northern Poland, and my parents sat across from me on the deck. Despite the cold, we rarely went down below to the warm comfort of the lounge while journeying around the city’s extensive docklands, shipyards, waterways, repair yards, cargo terminals, channels and lakes. Staying up top afforded us our best view of the city, a peek into its historic heart. But while the skyline and riverbanks drifted past we were searching for something else as well, something more elusive and intangible. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of its past.

Stettin, 1594

The layout of Szczecin’s harbour has changed little in centuries, straddling both sides of the Odra River since the Middle Ages. It’s a seafaring city, and always has been, shaped by the salt waters of the Baltic that mingle in the estuary with the river. These ties to the Baltic, for both better and worse, led to the city’s coronation as the port of Berlin, an ideal arrangement for a landlocked city only a 150 kilometres away by rail and road. Trade brought Szczecin a substantial wealth, but for its strategic importance it paid far more than it gained. By the end of the Second World War, more than eighty percent of the city had been left in ruins by Allied bombers seeking to sever its connection to Berlin.

Stettin, 1929

Szczecin, 2010

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes that, “when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one can know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back…” This is true in so many respects, but what of yourself can you find if the place you’re travelling to was known only by an ancestor? What memories and associations might linger over the years? And what meanings can we make from the traces? If the past is another country, can it ever entwine with today?

Szczecin, 2010

Before my great-grandfather jumped ship in South Shields, England sometime around the year 1900 for reasons that will never be known, he worked in the merchant navy out of the port at Szczecin. This was the place he belonged to, where whatever memories and associations he might have seeded from the first part of his life would be stowed. Only the city of his birth was called Stettin back then, and was German rather than Polish, behind a line on a map that moved after the war. Charles Hoffmann (as the family name was spelled at the time) was the son of a police chief, and about 26 when he left the city. So angry were his family at his desertion that they disowned him, and eventually he signed over his rights to inheritance, severing ties to his native land. Whatever his reasons for choosing to stay, the moment my great-grandfather decided against rejoining his ship as it sailed away from England many things were set in motion that he couldn’t possibly foresee. A cutting from the family tree began rooting a long way from its ancestors.

Szczecin, 2010

Stettin, 1936

Journeying around the harbour, my parents remarked upon how eerily familiar it was to the English coastal town they both grew up in, only a few miles down the coast from where my dad’s grandfather had landed. I find myself drawn to these similarities, these “memories and associations” conjured by two distinct places. Years ago, when we began tracing the family history, I was immediately struck by the resemblances, the fact that Charles Hoffmann had lived out the span of his life between two coasts. And yet port cities have long been gateways where sailors, traders and immigrants first landed, where languages and cultures coalesced and collided. To stay in a place that might have reminded my great-grandfather of his old home, and where his skills as a mariner remained useful, seemed obvious after only a short while in Poland.

Szczecin, 2010

Stettin, 1931

But something else sparked my fascination while we trawled the waters of Szczecin harbour. I don’t know whether it was the open sea that the Odra River ran into, or the flags of countless countries rippling above ships, but I became aware of how common an experience my great-grandfather shared in. All across our planet people are moving this very minute, led by wanderlust or economics, out of love or out of fear. People are leaving homes and crafting new ones, slowly, surely, spurred on by optimism or desperation, moving a little or wandering far, searching with determination for a place that seems right.

The reasons for movement are immeasurable; it’s what our species has always done from the moment it spread out from Africa, crossing vast, forbidding seas and inhospitable deserts, pushing on over land bridges and funnelling down through continents, migrating, dispersing, gathering in unexpected ways. And with each movement a line is altered, a lineage like a vine encouraged in a new direction. The world shifts a little each time, is remade by our steps.

Szczecin, 2010

Szczecin, 2010

While the contemporary photographs of Szczecin are mine, the historic images are taken from postcards bought in the city. The original photographers are unfortunately not attributed. The pictured airship is the Graf Zeppelin, famous for its round the world journeys, and from which the overhead image of the Odra River was also taken two years later.


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“Berlin is a city condemned always to become, never to be.” – Karl Scheffler, 1910


Perhaps no other city has taken up as much imaginary space over the last century as Berlin. It is a city forever in flux, not in the gradual, accumulated ways of most urban spaces, but with sudden, violent reinventions. Berlin is a place without definition, occupying a landscape unmeasured. It shifts endlessly between memory and forgetting, between future and past; it encircles the span of dreams.

In 1927 Fritz Lang made his great silent film Metropolis, an Expressionist dystopia whose cityscapes were both futuristic and fantastic. Emerging from the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic – an exuberant age of cultural and artistic flourishing that also gave us the architecture of Bauhaus, The Threepenny Opera by Brecht and Weill and the early Marlene Dietrich – Lang would have had little idea how equally dystopic Berlin would become in less than a decade. Like many others in the early 1930s – Jewish artists, German writers, concerned scientists, leftwing politicians – Lang emigrated with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party and the dark night of the Third Reich fell upon Berlin.

Hitler’s Berlin became the focal point of the Cold War in the aftermath of its destruction. The idea of a divided people, sundered by a concrete wall stretching over 150 kilometres through communities, families, transport links and shared history, fastened itself to the turbulent age, embodying the stark reality of the ideological conflict. The Berlin Wall stood in the collective imagination as much as in the real city; a symbol of totalitarian oppression. Remnants remain in place, as does a memorial line of differently coloured stone embedded into the pavement along its former route.

I walked the streets of Berlin for the first time this past autumn. Stepping over that line in the brilliant October sunshine, nothing happened. Nothing physical or easily discernible at any rate. But I felt a strange emptying, a falling away from the sure things of my life towards a space that was uncertain: the haunting of a place where lives were taken. I tried to replicate in my mind what the Wall entailed – the death strip, the towers –  but could offer nothing to the scene. The emptiness of the place was its measure.

The fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of a divided Europe, as well as the healing of a broken city. Since reunification, and the return of the German capital to Berlin, a process of astonishing reinvention has again swept over the city. From the glittering excesses of Potsdamer Platz to the wondrous and soaring cupola added by the architect Norman Foster to the ruins of the Reichstag, a city is rising and reborn. A Berlin condemned always to become: a place of ash, a world divided, a city of glass.

Much of modern Berlin is constructed of glass, so that the city was being continually reflected in my direction. But each sharply lit surface revealed an unusual angle, a hidden pattern of light and cloud, an unseen perspective of buildings and streets, a man or woman standing unexpectedly by my side. The glass unveiled another world, parallel but unreachable.

In Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire, angels descend from the heavens as men to wander the streets of Berlin, walking amongst its people and witnessing their joys and sorrows while only being visible to children. There is a sense of something ethereal about the city, something present but unseen, in the shadowing reflections. Whether it’s the ghosts of Berlin’s past, angels from its present or an unsettled fate in its future, an essence of the city’s spirit flickers in the glass.

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Two things were of particular interest to me when we travelled to Tetovo in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and they both concerned longevity. While one was a religious building that had withstood a devastating 17th century fire, armed ethnic conflict and the changing fortunes of shifting political borders, the other was a religious order that had endured the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Communist ban on worship and the suspicions of its co-religionists. And little held the two things together.

Tetovo sits at the foot of the Šar Mountains, an imperious range that separates Kosovo, Albania and FYROM. In the days of Yugoslavia, often recollected with great nostalgia by citizens of the region, it was a popular resort for skiing, but much of the allure has drained away over the course of conflict, coupled with the fact that Tetovo became the de-facto home of the ethnic Albanian resistance movement. Arriving in the city, I was surprised by how quiet and unassuming its character seemed, home to two enduring Ottoman relics.

The Šarena Dzamija, or Painted Mosque, was built in 1459 and paid for by two women, Hurshida and Mensure, whose graves are located within the grounds. While the 17th century fire destroyed much of the town, the mosque survived with its eccentric elegance intact. The Painted Mosque resembles a deck of ornate playing cards laid side by side over the facade. More than 30,000 eggs were used to prepare the paint and glaze that went into such elaborate decoration; it is an exquisitely rendered piece of religious art, commanding attention amidst the drab, Titoist surroundings. But it remains of practical purpose as well. The mid-morning call to prayer brings men and women streaming into the grounds, carefully setting shoes aside to step into the place of prayer, having done the same for centuries. Along with the stone bathhouse beside it, and the richly latticed woodwork that adorns the entranceway, the mosque complex is a tribute to a meticulous and enduring craft.

Not far from the mosque are the grounds of the Arabati Baba Bektaši Tekke, home of another enduring belief. The Sufi equivalent of a monastery, the tekke belongs to the Bektaši order of dervishes. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam and the dervishes are popularly known for their whirling, trance-like meditations, although in actuality only certain orders perform them and they comprise a small part of a much greater system of belief and ritual.

The Tetovo tekke was founded in the late 18th century, though the Bektaši presence in the area can be traced back to as early as the 16th, and is one of the most important remaining monasteries in the Balkans. It was the seat of the Bektaši order until 1912; until that time tekkes were a common feature of the Ottoman landscape in the Balkans. But with the collapse of the empire the Tetovo dervishes fled, no longer secure amidst the changing ethnic and religious composition of the land. Even in Turkey their demise was swift and decisive; in his drive towards a secular state, Kemal Ataturk had tekkes throughout the country, three hundred in Istanbul alone, closed as of 1924 and the Sufis’ practice of mystical rites was forbidden. Ironically, the whirling dervish performances have been revived, and are a much-touted, and often expensive, tourist attraction in contemporary Istanbul.

Many of the Tetovo dervishes fled for Albania where the Bektaši order retains a strong presence, and by the Yugoslav era the grounds and buildings of the tekke had been converted into a hotel, restaurant and disco for the ski tourists arriving in the Šar Mountains. The lodge finally returned to its original purpose in the early 1990s when a law was passed restoring property nationalised by the socialist state, and a small number of dervishes live within its walls.

The baba, or priest, of the tekke was a giant of a man, tall and gentle, with a long ginger beard tapering to his chest. He’d been working in the garden when we arrived, so we were seated at a table and brought Turkish coffee and sweets. A young man, a dervish in training, acted as the baba’s translator when he eventually joined us. The baba spoke thoughtfully of his belief in tolerance and equality, of having no barriers between faiths; he talked of how the tekke, that complex of gardens, cemetaries, meditation halls and prayer rooms, was the perfect place for him to pursue a connection with God, a divine communion. But he also spoke of unresolved problems with the more traditional Islamic communities that use the Painted Mosque, who regard the mystical element of the dervish orders suspiciously and have been trying to usurp the usage of the tekke.

The young dervish, who had chosen his vocation when still a boy, showed us around the grounds. I asked him how he saw the path of his life progressing.  “When my training is complete, I will be sent where my teacher, the baba, believes I will be best able to help others on the Sufi path.”

“Where will you go?”

“I don’t know. Turkey maybe. Albania. Maybe the Middle East.”

I then asked the young man if he would miss the place that encircled us, the enduring gardens and prayer halls, the wooden sleeping quarters that had housed his predecessors, the Ottoman fountains – simply the peace of being there.

“I love being here, but it doesn’t matter to me where I am. Here is no different from there. This place is the same as that place. They are all God’s places, so they are all one.”

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