• Books
  • Exiles, revisited: Author Stuart Braun on Berlin “the only place I’ve ever felt at home”

Books

Exiles, revisited: Author Stuart Braun on Berlin “the only place I’ve ever felt at home”

Stuart Braun reflects on what has changed in Berlin since his 2015 book City of Exiles was published - and what hasn't.

City of Exiles was conceived in the wake of a brutal first winter in Berlin. It was nudging minus 20 degrees and yet the whole world seemed to be in town, newcomers from Spain, Greece, Sweden, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico, Palestine, Portugal, Australia, Japan. What were they all doing here, I wondered? And why was I here?

We were soul searchers and artistes and economic refugees and our ilk had been finding their way to Berlin for a long time I soon realised. From persecuted French Huguenots and enlightened Jewish philosophers to the Russian surrealists and queer British literati of the Weimar years, to the postwar German radicals who fled to a demilitarised enclave city, I began to plot a history of Wahlberliner—Berliners by choice.

Berlin bleibt Berlin (Berlin remains Berlin). I still don’t know how I’m going to get out of here.

The book somewhat romanticizes exile in Berlin with some bold claims that somehow still hold.

Anyone can be a Berliner. The forever unfinished city is forgiving, tolerant, is porous in the same way it’s built on sand—New York by comparison sits on granite. Whatever hierarchies have existed, Hitler and his crew among them, tend to dissolve into said sand. Berlin’s mythical free feeling is born of its human ebb and flow, the continuous trading in new perspectives and ideas.

When City of Exiles was published in 2015, I imagined it as a parting gift. By trying to understand why so many dissidents and dreamers had sought sanctuary in Berlin across the centuries, I could reconcile my own reasons for coming—and perhaps even find a way out.

That obviously didn’t happen. But why am I still here, 13 years after arriving with the intention of staying a few months?

Sure, sometimes I need to escape this gray, filthy, landlocked swamp of a city. I need to go to the sea. The mountains. To Australia when I can.

But it’s always a relief to get back here.

Perhaps I stay in Berlin because I remain a stranger. No one cares who I am or where I work and went to school. In this amorphous borderland one can still resist classification, can be accepted at face value for whomever they choose to be.

Or I stay because I’ve never needed a car. Because Berliners rally for housing rights and the expropriation of real estate companies and carbon neutrality by 2030. Since the pandemic, it feels like half the car lanes have been ceded to bicycles. I like that Berlin is stubbornly unregulated, that we still use cash, that you can smoke in bars, can visit the Spätkauf or general store and buy a cheap drink and hang outside on trestle tables with your friends till 4am, that clubs are open non-stop from Friday till Monday afternoon.

Why am I still here, 13 years after arriving with the intention of staying a few months?

I like the time the club scene threw a citywide street party to counterprotest a rally by a rising neo-fascist political party. Or when a beloved Kreuzberg bookstore—that supported City of Exiles from the start—was served an eviction by a shadowy developer with a Luxembourg postbox address and the locals marched and lobbied to stop it. Public pressure forced a compromise: the home to small and often radical publishers lives on up the road. Displacement is rampant but the old resistance survives.

I’ve become a father since City of Exiles was published, have moved southwest from the inner city Kreuzberg district that backgrounds much of the book. It’s quiet out here. Yet it’s still Berlin, is another series of interconnected villages.

I like the other parents I meet at my son’s daycare who hail from Latvia, Bulgaria, India, Israel, Russia, Syria, the many languages I hear on the boulevards. I like the elderly dog walkers I encounter with my pup in the local park and square, the surviving classlessness of the communal tenement streets—Berlin’s distinct urban blueprint endures despite rapid development, as it did after bombs fell for years from the sky.

Much survives but so much has also changed.

Through the vast windows of the library where I wrote much of what follows, construction cranes lord over the metropolis, puppet masters of transformation—and gentrification.

Many old friends have recently left. Many new ones have arrived as Berlin grows faster than at any time in almost a century.

The year City of Exiles was published, a hundred-odd thousand refugees ended up in Berlin as war devastated Syria. The latest wave has flowed in from a besieged Ukraine as blue and yellow flags hang across the city.

A journalist recently contacted me to discuss Berlin’s peculiar concoction of outsiders—born and bred here, he was surprised by my own detailed accounting of Wahlberliner. He focused an article on the political exiles fleeing strong men in Turkey, Iran or Hungary who have built diasporas here.

One Hungarian academic who escaped Victor Orban’s regime told him of Berlin: “Here you can be new and still belong”. As the holder of a Hungarian passport, I can relate.

Germany has its own problems with xenophobic populism. And other cities might historically have bigger migrant populations. But many have become fortresses who leave asylum seekers waiting at the gates. Berlin’s doors remain relatively open.

Creeping globalization has not dinted Berlin’s renown as a refuge from the treadmill of late capitalism. Young freelancing creatives from the four corners are still driven in by the myth that they can do their thing in Berlin. Even if many dreamers end up working the same zero contract, gig economy jobs that have transformed work everywhere, there is still this existential motivation to seek out the city.

Daniil Simkin, former principal dancer with New York’s American Ballet Theatre, came to work in Berlin for the relative lack of competitiveness.

“In New York, time is money—and that reverberates through all aspects of life”, he said in 2020, adding that artists take fewer creative risks as a result. But in Berlin “you feel like you have more of a life … there’s less pressure in the sense that the winner takes it all. And everybody I talk to is in love with Berlin.”

Berlin’s voids might be filling with global capital and its rents might have doubled. But 85% of residents still rent and few wear suits on the commuter train. The capital remains relatively isolated from the big banks and corporations that fill Frankfurt’s glass towers.

A lot of people contacted me after reading City of Exiles. It seemed I was able to articulate a kind of universal yearning to find neutral ground, a space to reconcile your confused identity, to act on deep disillusion with the institutions you once trusted.

Others contacted me about their own Wahlberliner research. Like Egyptian writer Amro Ali, who was writing about the potential for exiled Middle Eastern intellectuals to create an enduring hub in Berlin in the wake of the Arab Spring.

“Berlin is not just a city. It is a political laboratory”, he wrote, where “a new type of beginning” is possible.

Pakistani American writer and journalist Bilal Qureshi interviewed me for his NPR documentary on Alain Locke, a queer Black intellectual who traveled to Berlin from segregated 1920s America to reinvent himself “in the city he loved most.”

I talk in the book about how Berlin’s Black German community forged an identity in Berlin alongside African American poet and activist Audre Lorde. It’s been inspiring to see a new generation working to decolonise the city, to rebrand streets named after racist Prussian colonisers of southern Africa and instead honour Black German icons like poet May Ayim.

Everybody I talk to is in love with Berlin.

The book lists some 200-odd exiles who fill its pages. But there’s so many I missed. Like Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck of Exterminate All the Brutes fame who studied film in Berlin in the 1980s and made his first feature here. He has described a formative time, the “incredible international solidarity” among exiles from Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Iran, the African National Congress members fighting apartheid from Berlin.

I stay in Berlin because I too feel that solidarity. Many exiles cannot even vote and yet they belong, are part of a city they created for themselves.

I stay because Berlin is the only place I’ve ever really felt at home.

“In Berlin the Russians feel even more at home than in their homeland”, said the surrealist Russian poet and novelist Andrei Bely a century ago. Writer Franz Kafka also sought out Berlin from “unhomelike” Prague.

So as an old saying goes: Berlin bleibt Berlin (Berlin remains Berlin). I still don’t know how I’m going to get out of here.