At the site of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, man-made life and wildlife happily coexist. Photo: Reuters
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Temple to nature: the disused runway that became a communal wonderland

After a rather shaky start, the old Tempelhof Airport has come to be considered one of Berlin’s greatest success stories; it is certainly an inspiring example of direct democracy in action.

I’m standing beside the south runway of the old Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, the city where my family and I will be living for the next 12 months. To my left, a vast meadow of wildflowers and false oat-grass provides shelter for skylarks, whinchats, red-backed shrikes, tawny pipits and other songbirds, as well as a surprising variety of insects (the rare cuckoo-wasp species Anteon flavicorne has been recorded here, for example). To my right, the runway itself has become a river of gliding, elegant bodies at play: cyclists, kitesurfers, joggers, go-karters and people of all ages on various types of in-line skates (including my two sons, who are already missing their St Andrews Scorpions roller hockey team-mates).

It’s a diverse and oddly fascinating mix of pleasure-seekers, from athletic skateboarders to the old man in a string vest and extremely baggy shorts who is guiding a radio controlled Sturmpanzerwagen in a zigzag pattern across the tarmac, driving it up to one group after another in an attempt to provoke a conversation, much as dog-walkers will do. In fact, it is clear that he feels the same pride and affection for his machine as any pet owner feels for his or her best friend.

After a rather shaky start, Tempelhof has come to be considered one of Berlin’s greatest success stories; it is certainly an inspiring example of direct democracy in action.

When the airport closed in 2008, the entire site (the vast, more or less brutalist, Speer-designed buildings as well as the 386-hectare field – imagine an area the size of Central Park) was threatened with a series of commercial and prestige developments. But it was then rescued by what can only be called people power, when public pressure forced a referendum on its future.

On 25 May 2014, over 60 per cent of the city turned out to reject the luxury development plans, sending a message to the Berlin city authorities that direct democracy can still work – despite a campaign of misinformation, scare tactics and an ambiguously worded ballot paper – and establishing an exemplary space for people and wildlife to coexist.

People and wildlife: how often they are discussed in terms of conflicting interests, and how unreal that conflict is. Given the right information to help them decide, people will opt for conditions that benefit our creaturely neighbours, even where they have no particular interest in larks or cuckoo wasps – because those conditions benefit us.

Officially, I am here for the roller skating (only as a spectator), but it’s not too long before I’m gazing off into the meadow, scanning for birds and insects – and I soon notice that, as a kestrel begins to hover over the nearest section of field, quite a few of the skaters have also paused to watch. Within minutes, we are all rewarded with a dazzling display of flying skills, as the bird hovers, dives, then rises once more to scan the ground a final time before dropping down for the kill.

This is a drama we all understand and, as the Turmfalke glides away, its prey clutched in its talons, I cannot help but think that we are all equally moved, both by the grace of the hunter and by the predicament of the prey. For a moment, even though we are mostly strangers, this has been a communal experience, one that could not have happened in the same way in a less democratic space.

It may seem naive, but I choose to believe that such experiences remind us of our fellowship, not only with other human beings, but with other animals, too. I believe that whenever we are lucky enough to witness these instances of grace, or pathos, whether alone or in company, our sense of the creaturely deepens – and with it, our understanding that what is good for the wild world is also good for us. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror