Dresden’s 'Monument’ artwork: The protective barrier

Manaf Halbouni commemorates war and destruction with buses next to the Frauenkirche. The forecourt has become a place for communication.

People gather at the 'Monument’ on Monday Foto: dpa

DRESDEN taz | As people hold hands in Dresden, Manaf Halbouni sinks into a chair in his art studio. He pulls off his cap – he believes that nobody recognises him when he’s wearing it. “Crappy day“, he says, “crappy mood“. They are waiting to catch him alone, he is sure of that. ‚They‘ being the agitators, rabble rousers and nazis who know his face; so he withdrew from the place where his most imposing artwork to date is standing. It consists of three buses that Halbouni has errected in the square in front of Dresden’s Frauenkirche. He wanted to ensure peace, and yet today war prevails in Manaf Halbouni’s head. “Sometimes I wish that I had made such a colourful fuss that people would just say: 'how beautiful’“.

It is the evening of 13 February, the day on which people in Dresden commemorate the victims of the 1945 air raids. And it is the seventh day that Manaf has been provoking them with his art. Halbouni, 32 years old, is a small man with the face of an adolescent; he often wears a hat with a battered brim which is meant to conceal that face, and evokes the artist Joseph Beuys. And the artistic colossus Christo, with whom Halbouni has been compared for days by those who see great art in the three buses.

Others see Halbouni as a terrorist – not because there are signs of this, but because it is a fitting narrative. Neumarkt, Frauenkirche’s forecourt, is for the Germans a place of survival and overcoming the past. Why should Syrians be commemorated here as well? That is the question that many ask in the square.

The Syrian victims

It all started with a photograph. Aleppo, an urban canyon and three buses standing upright; a protective barrier against snipers. The people, as shown by the photos, scurrying along behind it, the scrap metal making life possible. Halbouni decides to imitate the protective wall. First he convinces a small museum, then some of the region’s important charitable trusts and finally the Mayor of the City. Then a mob appears at last week’s unveilin. They roar “shame“ and “traitor“, even when the pastor of Frauenkirche is giving a speech. Later the mayor, Dirk Hilbert, receives a death threat. Since then policemen have been guarding Hilbert’s residence, and Manaf Halbouni’s phone doesn’t stop ringing.

They are circulating on the Internet and everyone in Neumarkt knows about them: pictures of the buses in Aleppo, and a flag is waving on top of them – a flag from the militia Ahrar ash-Sham. Germany classifies them as a terrorist organization. Then they investigate Halbouni’s earlier works and find maps showing European cities with Arabic names. It is a thought experiment – how the world would look if the Ottomans had colonised the world, instead of the Europeans. “He wants Europe to submit to Islam,“ claims the mob and then even the people in front of the buses follow suit.

“It's incredibly brave that the city has decided in favour of it“, says Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz about the monument. She is the artistic director of the Kunsthaus, an urban gallery in Dresden. She was convinced by Halbouni’s idea and organised the realisation. She believes it takes courage to bring the Syrian war to Germany, to this place – especially on those days when the city disputes, year after year, how to commemorate the victims of the bombing attacks on the city. For Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz the installation is about artistic freedom “for which we have worked so hard“, she says. “For a long time it has not been self-evident in many European countries“.

She worked with Manaf Halbouni in 2015 for the first time. Back then he was a student and Pegida was still a new movement. Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz feels that the mood in the city is changing and beginning to address the new issues. Halbouni, then, comes along with a packed car that symbolises escape and the few things the fugitives have left, alongside the marches of the far-right. He calls it 'Saxons on the run’. However, Pegida is growing and Dresden is becoming a symbol of rowdy far-right populists. Art cannot do anything to put a stop to this.

The artist defends his piece

It's Sunday, the fourth day since the unveiling. Manaf Halbouni gets onto a concrete block and 150 people cluster around him, looking at him. “No“, he says, he is not an Islamist – after all, he does drink German lager. Laughter ensues. No, he does not want to interfere in politics. After all, politics is complicated and he just wants to remember war, peace and Aleppo. This peace could stop, he says, so young people should not forget that. People applaud. He apologises for not having noticed the flag during his research. It is a rare moment: the artist defending his work of art. After all, when was the last time, when a work of art attracted so much attention? Saxony’s economy minister argues with citizens in front of the artwork, satirist Jan Böhmermann pokes fun at the protests and journalists bring the story to the whole world. Halbouni’s father calls to say that his neighbours have heard of the buses. He lives in Damascus, in the midst of the war which his son is now commemorating in Germany – Syria is Manaf Halbouni’s birthplace.

Manaf Halbouni and his hat with the battered brim Foto: reuters

In 2008, he decided to leave his land. Like every student, he had to do his military service after graduation. He did not want to spend two and a half years in Assad’s army. He uses his German passport, comes to Dresden, his mother’s hometown, and is assessed by the German Armed Forces; the Syrian State would still recognise this military service. Then he is waiting to be called up for service, but instead of an invitation the Army writes a letter to him, saying that he is currently not needed. Therefore Halbouni must remain in Germany longer than planned. He begins to study and work again, until civil war breaks out.

Two men are standing in the sunshine, in front of the installation. One talks to the other and speaks of 'those darkies’ who have everything given to them and get away with everything. There is a piano on the other side of the buses, its music spreading over the square. A father takes his two daughters to the square. They eat candied apples while he tells them that they would not get a high mark at school for such work. After all, they are neither Syrians nor Afghans and the buses are not even originally from Aleppo, yet people make so much fuss about it.

The German perpetrators

Something is happening in the square. People come and take pictures, attach flowers and light candles, even at night, in the freezing cold. Strangers are engaging in dialogue, initially because they often agree that the installation is wrong; then they talk about their own stories. About life on benefits. About the changes that have taken away their sense of security. About sickness, unemployment and anger towards a society that ignores their sense of hopelessness. About a time when Dresden was burning and they endured days in their cellars – and about the many years, when Neumarkt was just a pile of rubble.

Two students with flyers from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland must heed the warning words of a survivor: that Dresden’s victims must not be remembered without thinking of the German perpetrators. The old man who talks about 'darkies’ so loudly is rebuked by a young man into reconsidering his language. And so Dresden’s people stand together behind this wall of old metal sheet, talking and arguing for the first time in two years. The buses have also become their protective barrier.

The war in Syria has made Manaf Halbouni an artist with thoughts on the major social issues, but it was Pegida that gave him a voice. Dresden, says Halbouni, is like a black hole for him; it sucks him in. He, who was the German in Syria and is now the Syrian in Germany, makes a subject of discussion out of the suffering of foreigners in front of the Frauenkirche. It inspires him to use big words: „The atmosphere at the monument reminds me of the ancient world, when philosophers and citizens came together and talked about art and the world“.

It’s been hours since night fell. A man stands in front of the Monument and throws light on the undersides of the buses with a slide projector. A peace sign, a dove of peace. The mayor’s statement that caused plenty of outrage: Dresden is not innocent. And so he stands there, on his own and without an audience. “We have to do something about the situation,“ he murmurs and then he goes home. He wants to print more slides.

Original in German/auf Deutsch: Der Schutzwall

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