By Kevin Hagen in Berlin
He will not stand for any ridicule. "I will defend the German flag," says Ibrahim Bassal resolutely, hitting the glass counter three times to make his point. Over the past few days he has been through a lot and what he has experienced has only strengthened his resolve. "I won't let anyone get at it," he adds.
Bassal is the proprietor of Bassal's Elektroshop, a store selling mobile phones and other electrical goods, in the working-class district of Neukölln in Berlin. No other neighborhood in the German capital offers such a diversity of cultures. Left-wing students rub shoulders with Turkish immigrants, while local businesses include the "Al-Hara" snack bar and the "Sultan" bakery. There are more than 160 nationalities recorded as living in Neukölln, and around 35 percent of the district's population are foreigners.
The interior of Bassal's store is somewhat chaotic. Empty cartons are stacked up on one side, on the other there are palettes holding bottles of fruit juice. The laminate flooring is worn. There are also little German flags scattered everywhere, the sort that one sees attached to car windows all over the city at the moment to mark the football World Cup. The back of the shop looks like a building site; the place is currently being renovated.
A Giant Flag Worth 500
A small stocky man with short black hair, Bassal, 39, leans over the counter. "We celebrate every football game out on the street. This is our own small 'fan mile,'" he says, referring to the specially designated areas set aside for football fans to watch games in the city.
"We have hung little German flags outside for years," Bassal explains. But this year, he and his cousins decided they would do something different. They placed a special order with a textile company, and soon a giant German flag worth 500 ($616) was hanging on the outside of the building where Bassal's store is located. Measuring 22 meters tall and 5 meters wide (72 feet by 16 feet), the over-sized banner covers five stories. For Bassal, a German with Lebanese roots, the flag is a symbol of cultural integration. "We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany," he explains.
Outside, a girl glances up as she walks by. "That's totally cool," she says, catching sight of the giant piece of fabric. But not everyone is happy about the monument to national pride over Bassal's store.
Over the past few weeks, ever since the start of the football World Cup, the neighborhood has been the scene of what local media are calling the "Neukölln flag fight." Left-wing activists have called on sympathizers to destroy the German flags which can be seen everywhere, arguing that they are a symbol of German nationalism. There has been a rash of thefts of small flags attached to car windows. Some of those who decorated their vehicles with flags say they now only display the flags when they are actually driving their cars.
As for the giant flag, Bassal and his friends, who have all donated money to the cause, have already had to replace their flag twice. Since they adorned the building in black, red and gold, the colors of the German flag, they have become the target of attacks, presumably from members of the radical left-wing scene, and someone even tried to set fire to the flag.
A Reminder of WWII Nationalism?
The first time the flag was attacked, a man tried to climb up the building and tear it down. The man yelled out that it was a reminder of World War II, Bassal says. That intruder didn't achieve his aim -- but two days later, someone else did. Ten masked men appeared unexpectedly during the night and tore the fabric down. But Bassal and his cousins would not be deterred -- they immediately bought another flag.
Only a few days later, however, the new banner was gone. The culprits had apparently climbed onto the roof of the house and tampered with the flag. In the meantime, a third version of the giant flag has been hung in front of Bassal's store. "It has now cost us 1,500," Bassal notes. And hostilities have not yet ceased.
During the day, Bassal says, people from the left-wing scene come into the shop and berate him. The other day a woman rushed in. She wanted to know how Bassal could hang the German flag up in a country with such a history, and said she wanted to round up another group to tear the flag down again. The only option was to call the police, Bassal said.
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