- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

BERLIN (AP) - It may be the primary language on the artifacts, but Arabic is a language rarely spoken by the visitors to Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art. That’s about to change, though.

The museum is one of four in the German capital training refugees from Syria and Iraq to act as guides for others who have come to the country seeking shelter from war and hardship.

“They have to start right at the bottom rung of the ladder to find a way into German society,” said the director of the Museum of Islamic Art, Stefan Weber, explaining why his institute decided to take part in the project. “When you’ve lost everything, you shouldn’t lose your cultural identity as well.”

Tours of its collection, which is part of the world-renowned Pergamon museum, emphasize the centuries of cross-cultural exchange that occurred among Islam, Christianity and Judaism that saw ideas of philosophy and science flow back and forth between the Middle East and Europe.

Sometimes those cultures mixed in a single place, such Qasr Mshatta, the winter palace built by an 8th-century caliph in what is now Jordan. While much of the complex lies in ruins, parts of its impressive facade rest in Berlin, the result of an Ottoman sultan’s gift to a German kaiser some 120 years ago.

On Wednesday, a dozen refugees listened attentively as their guide, a young Syrian architect, explained how the facade’s intricate designs illustrate the wide range of artistic and cultural influences present during the early Islamic period.

“I was really deeply touched with their reactions,” Zoya Masoud said after her tour had ended and the group she was guiding had dispersed to explore the rest of the museum on their own.

Many on the tour expressed surprise at the wealth of Islamic artifacts on display, while some found comfort in familiar patterns of pottery or Arabic script. “The idea that they are meeting their own culture here in Berlin is really very nice,” she said.

Masoud, who came to Germany four years ago, now works for the Syrian Heritage Archive Project, which seeks to document the country’s historical treasures even as they are being destroyed by war and looting.

Her work as a guide, sponsored using public and private funds, is a way of helping some of the estimated 1 million asylum-seekers who have come to Germany this year find their way in an unfamiliar country.

“It’s a first welcome to take them a little bit away from their stressful daily life now because they are applying for asylum and it’s a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork,” said Masoud. “The second thing is to integrate them in a new country.”

Among those taking the tour was Tamader Almaftah, a trained archaeologist from Aleppo. The Syrian city is represented in the collection by early 17th-century wooden paneling from the home of a Christian trader that is known as the Aleppo Room.

Almaftah described it as “another example of how the cultures came together, and how … the religions united in one thing, and that’s art.”

The museum project, called multaka, which means ‘meeting point’ in Arabic, reflects a broader effort in Germany to avoid repeating mistakes the country made with past waves of immigrants, who were at best tolerated but rarely respected.

“It’s important for us that people understand they are valued here,” said Weber, the museum director.

He noted that many of the trainee guides were particularly interested in learning about their new home, especially Germany’s early history of religious wars “that were really about power” and the period of post-war reconstruction in the 20th-century, richly described at the nearby German Historical Museum.

“They grew up thinking of Germany as a flourishing country and then they see the pictures from the end of World War II. They see that war isn’t the end of history but that there’s hope for rebuilding their own country someday,” Weber said.

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Multaka project on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MultakaTreffpunktMuseum

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