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In German Museums, Insights from Arab Refugees

BERLIN – The Mshatta Façade is among myriad artifacts from the ancient Islamic world that draws more than 700,000 visitors to the Pergamon Museum in this German city every year.

Dating from the 8th century in what is now Jordan, the façade was an outer wall of the winter palace of the Umayyad caliph, whose empire stretched from Spain to India. The façade came to Germany in pieces in 1903 and, after surviving the destruction of two World Wars, wasn’t fully reconstructed until the 1950s.

Today, the traces of the restoration are only noticeable to trained eyes like Hussam Zahim Mohammed’s, an archaeologist who immigrated to Germany from Iraq in 2005. Mohammed views the artifact as a metaphor in cross-cultural understanding that applies to Germany’s modern challenge of integrating almost 1 million Syrians and other Middle Eastern refugees.

“There are old parts and there are new parts, and we can always learn something from the old parts,” he said.

Since April, Mohammed has been one of the project directors of Multaka, an integration initiative that places refugees and other immigrants from the Islamic world at the helm of guided tours in some of Berlin’s most popular museums.

What began in December of 2015 as a small tour led once a week by a handful of rotating guides has grown into an expansive project with around 24 participants.

These docents lead free, Arabic-language tours of four of the German capital’s most popular museums twice a week for refugees and other immigrants from the Arab world. Paid tours in German can also be arranged.

The project doesn’t end with the tours. It also runs 18 intercultural workshops where both native Germans and refugees meet to discuss and create art together during lessons in glassmaking, photography and carpet weaving.

“It’s a form of integration because we bring people together to talk about their own culture displayed in the museum as well as European culture,” said Mohammed.

Hussam Zahim Mohammed, project leader of the Multaka initiative, explains a piece of Islamic art to two refugees on a tour at Pergamon Museum, Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin.

Multaka has been successful on a small scale. But achieving widespread, cross-cultural dialogue between native Germans and the country’s newcomers is a lengthy process that requires patience on both sides, said Thomas K. Bauer, chairman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration.

Bauer estimates that it could take as long as seven years before this new class of refugees in Germany becomes fully integrated into society.

But in the meantime, Multaka is a prime example of the integration process at work, Bauer said.

“Only when the community in which refugees immigrate understands them and their cultural traditions can one really begin to integrate,” he said. “Both sides learn understanding, they learn how each other thinks and which traditions and cultures one and another has.”

Daisam Jalo, 33, was a resident of Damascus until he fled the Syrian civil war in 2012. He joined Multaka to gain insights from museums like the German Historical Museum that might help him learn how countries recover from war.

“One has to learn how to analyze the past, and that’s something we’re able to do here,” said Jalo, a doctoral candidate in musical ethnology at the Franz List University of Music in Weimar. “We’re seeing how the Germans rebuilt their country, which helps us to understand their society.”

Like the other tour guides in the group, Jalo participated in Multaka’s weeklong training process to familiarize himself with some of the museum’s collections. The guides come from all walks of life–some are trained archaeologists, like c0-project director Mohammed, while others are artists, painters, or music theorists, like Jalo.

The guides are encouraged to relay the provenance of the artworks and artifacts through the lens of personal experience, Mohammed explained.

“I’m from Iraq, and I know a lot about the objects and culture in my country that many here don’t know at all,” he said. “It’s an obligation to my culture, to my people because, here in Germany, I should be able to contribute to society using my own skills and experiences. After 11 years here in Germany, I have to give something back. That’s my mission.”

To learn more about the museum program, watch the short video below by Viktor Witkowski.


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