It was October 1989 When Hossam Al-Sokkari, an Egyptian in his 20s, was in Budapest for a few days on his way from Egypt to the then West Germany where he was learning German and experimenting with modern techniques of cartoon drawing.
Al-Sokkari was faced with a very unusual scene for the Hungarian capital, still part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War: thousands upon thousands of East Germans from the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) were arriving in Hungary on their way to Austria just next door.
“It was not a scene to take lightly because even though citizens of the Eastern Bloc could usually move freely within the countries of the bloc, there were too many citizens of East Germany there,” Al-Sokkari recalled.
The astonishing image, however, was perfectly compatible with the political developments that Al-Sokkari had been following since he had been living in West Germany since 1988. Just a few months earlier in May 1989, Hungary and Austria had decided to cut part of the electrified fence that since the end of World War II had separated their countries since the beginning of the Cold War.
This, recalled Inas Nour, at the time chief correspondent of the Egyptian Middle East News Agency in Bonn, the then capital of West Germany, was “really part of the Iron Curtain”, the 7,000km physical barrier of fences, walls, minefields, and watchtowers that divided the countries of NATO from those of the Warsaw Pact.
As Nour argued, however, the events seen in May 1989 did not come out of nowhere, and of course they certainly did not end there. This was four years after former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the former Soviet Union with a new ideology not strictly in line with Marxism-Leninism.
It was also, she added, a time when West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher “had ideas about the long-debated issue of re-uniting the two parts of Germany that had split after World War II.” Al-Sokkari, also a freelance correspondent for publications in Egypt, was well aware of these developments. He could see that “something was going on,” he said.
However, none of the political indications that he had been following could have prepared him for that Thursday evening on 9 November 1989 when the Berlin Wall “started to fall” as he was sitting in his house almost at the corner of the wall on the western side of the divided city.
“There were endless stories about the urge of East Germans to be freed from the police state they were living under. There were numerous accounts of people trying to escape from the eastern to the western side of the city and of the ordeal they had to face in the crossing that at times cost them their lives when they were fired at by guards on the eastern side of the wall,” Al-Sokkari recalled.
Constructed in August 1961, the Berlin Wall was a heavily secured concrete barrier with guard towers, trenches for vehicles, and other defences. It was perceived by the authorities in East Germany as a protection from the ideology of the West, while West Germany called it “the wall of shame”.
Tearing down the Berlin Wall
“I guess that reflects the views that each side had, because in the western part of Germany there was an energy to life that would almost abruptly stop at the wall. This effectively cut through apartment buildings, with those on one side living freely and those on the eastern side too scared to even allow the antenna of their TV sets to be directed to West Berlin to catch West German TV programming away from the propaganda broadcast on the channels of the east,” commented Assem El-Kersh, former editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly.
El-Kersh was in West Berlin for a training course in 1980. Along with the other members of his group, he made a short visit to the eastern side of the city through the famous Checkpoint Charlie that divided West from East Berlin.
“I was possibly very influenced then by the western narrative, but when I crossed it all looked very grey in East Berlin,” he said.
The Nefertiti bust
IMPRESSIONS OF THE EAST: This was not an uncommon impression among the Egyptians who visited East Berlin at the time.
Heba Barakat, who crossed on a late 1979 summer day from Bonn in West Germany in a diplomatic vehicle with her father who was cultural attaché for Egypt at the time, remembers her trip as being one that took her from streets with cars of different sizes and colours onto streets where her father’s blue Volvo car seemed to stand out among vehicles that all looked the same.
But the gloom subsided once again when the Barakats were finally in West Berlin at the museum housing the famous ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. The Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg (a district in West Berlin) was anticipating an exhibition on Tutankhamun.
“We had to go through East Berlin to get to see Nefertiti,” Barakat said.
Sherif Mohieddin, a conductor, recalls his 1984 trip through East Germany to get into West Berlin to attend a musical performance by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a trip that transferred him “from one world to a totally different one, from the land of the West where diversity was the norm, to the land of communism where there were great arts and brilliant artists but there was always gloom in the air,” he said.
For Al-Sokkari, who made several trips from the western to the eastern side of the wall, it was simply “like going back in time, like stepping into a black-and-white film. Everything was grey, or almost everything. There must have been a few colours, but it was generally really grey,” he said.
In the independent Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk, Al-Sokkari has recently been dedicating his weekly column to recalling the days before the fall of the wall.
He has written of Checkpoint Charlie, of the ghostly underground metro stops that were closed by the authorities of East Germany to prevent people going from the east to the west, and of the fear that haunted those who crossed from the west to the east of doing something wrong, like perhaps talking with a citizen from the eastern side who could then be accused of espionage.
“It could be that bad at times, and it was really very strict in every sense of the word,” Al-Sokkari said. “Even the drawings on the wall on the eastern side were confined to traditional images of communism — nothing else was allowed. This was a striking contrast to the western side, where the wall had a wide range of colourful drawings,” he added.
After several sojourns around the Eastern Bloc, including in the Soviet Union, and after living for over a year next to the wall that he had crossed several times, Al-Sokkari heard that Gunter Schabowski, the leader of the East Berlin Communist Party, had given a press conference to announce a plan to ease travel restrictions and slow down the floods of East Germans going into Hungary and from there into the Western Bloc.
“There was a high level of tension, and obviously the authorities in East Germany were getting worried about the country’s best professionals flocking to Hungary. So, there was a meeting of the party’s political bureau against this backdrop, and everyone was just following the news,” he recalled.
But even as he was following the news, Al-Sokkari could not have expected the tide of events to unfold so fast.
“We are talking about a very restrictive regime that made a very simple mistake when Schabowski told reporters that he was expecting the easing of travel restrictions to the West to go into effect immediately. Thousands of people then headed to cross the wall,” he said.
“It was an amazing moment —people singing and praying, carrying candles, and opening champagne bottles,” Al-Sokkari recalled.
At the same time, Hala Barakat was studying in Frankfurt in West Germany. She heard the news on the radio and rushed out of her rented studio. For her, it was a moment that led her to recall the sombre images from her quick journey through East Germany to Poland from France.
“I arrived home and switched on the TV, and there I saw people trying to knock down the wall. I was totally amazed,” she recalled.
Barakat’s landlords did not seem to fully share her puzzlement. “They somehow saw it coming. I don’t know how, but they seemed to have thought that it was impossible for Germany to remain divided for good,” she said.
In Bonn, Nour, who had been following the political momentum that had led to that moment, was no less mystified.
“I had reported so many stories that indicated that things were going in this direction, and it is not that I was not expecting it to end, but when it happened, I was completely mesmerised. I don’t know if this was the impact of the fall of the wall or of the beauty of the people out there singing and dancing,” she said.
The front page of Al-Ahram daily newspaper led the news with the fall of the Berlin Wall, 11 November 1989
REACTIONS TO THE FALL: In Cairo, Salwa Habib, a journalist on the foreign desk of Al-Ahram, had to rush back to the office from her house to write a story for the front page on Friday 10 November.
Habib was in charge of covering news of the Eastern Bloc, and 1989 had been a busy year for her: there had been many stories from this part of the world, including the visit of Gorbachev to Bonn, of the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria cutting part of the Iron Curtain in June, and the news of the Chinese repression of the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the same month. Then there was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Habib was not surprised by the news, however. She did not expect a replay of the Soviet coercion of the East German uprising in 1953 or of the 1968 demonstrations in Czechoslovakia.
For her, it was clear that what had happened in Beijing could not be repeated in Berlin. “Things were different in Europe by then. In fact, in the first week of November I wrote an article anticipating the end of the division of Germany, and my editor passed it though he thought I was going a bit far,” Habib recalled.
On Friday morning, Maha Al-Said, a professor of English literature at Cairo University, learned of the news that had taken place the previous day. “I am not sure now if I heard it on the radio or read it in the press. I only remember that the one thing that came to mind was that perhaps now the families that had been forced to split because of the wall could reunite,” she said.
It was in 1969 at an intense moment of the Cold War that Al-Said had visited West Germany and ended up in Berlin.
A child of nine at the time, Al-Said was haunted by the image of an apartment building that had been split in half. “As a child, I got quite scared, and I thought what if there was a girl in one room on one side of the city and her mother was in another room on the other side of the city,” she said.
Such disturbing images of split cities and split families were things that Al-Said had thought of in the Palestinian context where some families had been divided between the two sides. So, every time she read something about split cities, she recalled that image of the split apartment building by the Berlin Wall.
“It was a traumatic recollection really, because next to that house there was a church [the Chapel of Reconciliation] with a bombed-out tower. But when I got into the church, I could see that the statue of the Virgin Mary was untouched, and somehow that was a spot of light in the middle of the darkness,” she said.
On 10 November 1989, Al-Said also thought that maybe the church would be restored. Earlier this year, almost 30 years to the day of her childhood visit, Al-Said was back in a Berlin that is now no longer divided.
“West Berlin itself was not at all gloomy. But the wall and what one thought was behind the wall was certainly gloomy, especially for a little girl,” she said.
Mohieddin, the Barakats and Al-Sokkari all went back after the unification that took place in October 1990. They all went to see a country united after the ordeal of separation that still carries its weight today.
“There were problems right from the beginning in relation to the unification of the currency, employment issues, and so on. But still it is beautiful to see how the call for freedom could take over everything else,” Al-Sokkari said. “Back in 1989, nobody knew exactly how it would happen,” he added.
The fall of the Berlin Wall also faced diplomats in Cairo with questions about the fate of the entire Eastern Bloc, formerly a close ally of Egypt, as of many other Arab countries.
“Egypt had already under [late president Anwar] Al-Sadat shifted alliances towards the West in the wake of the 1973 October War and the 1979 Peace Treaty, but we still had good relations with the countries of the Eastern bloc that were supportive of the Palestinian cause,” said one retired Egyptian diplomat.
He added that the “really big moment” for Cairo, as for most other Arab capitals, came almost two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in December 1991 with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: ‘We had to cross the wall to see Nefertiti’