I had read so much already about Humboldt-Universität and heard so much, before I ever set foot in the building. But I was surprised all the same when I first got there. This is a museum, I thought to myself, gazing at the statues standing guard in front of the main building, protecting the dreams of its students.
Hewn in stone, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt sit outside the low wall in front of the building. Day in, day out, they watch young people walk into the university they founded. Because they are so close to the avenue of Unter den Linden, they can eavesdrop on the tourists walking along to the Brandenburg Gate. Many of them stop to take a selfie with one of the brothers. And some actually dare to walk in and take a look at the building that has gone through so much — dark times as well. During the rule of the National Socialists, while World War II was raging, and under the occupation of the Soviets, the humanist values and the ideals of teaching and research that were the university’s trademark receded deep into the shadows.
I go to the university often, sit down in the courtyard, take a look around at the statues and at the faces of the people, leaf through the second-hand books being sold on the sidewalk in front of the fence. And then I’ll think about Wilhelm, the great philosopher, and his brother Alexander, the explorer. Sometimes I have the feeling they’re talking to me. It’s a pity that I cannot understand what they are saying. They speak German and I haven’t learned to speak the language yet.
Once, I took up all my courage and sat down in an auditorium. One student after the other came in. Then the professor walked in, a nice man, not one of these super-serious professors we have in Damascus, the guys who think they’re God’s gift to the world. And he was friendly all during his entire lecture. I was afraid he might ask me who I was and what I was doing here — just as happened to me twenty years ago in Syria, when I had sneaked into the Art School and got caught by a professor. He threatened to call security and have me arrested. I swore that I was just a recent graduate from school, and that I had only wanted to see a university from inside. I pleaded with him and begged him to let me go my way, which eventually he did.