Places in Berlin

The Monkey Enclosure at the Bikini Mall

I’m not ashamed to say that one of my favourite places in Berlin is in a shopping mall, the renovated mid-century modernist Bikini complex. The Bikini is a place of chain restaurants, lifestyle stores, pop-ups, and other metropolitan consumer vanities. But on the ground floor there is a surprising wide-angle picture window, with a view into the monkey enclosure of the Berlin Zoo.

The baboons inhabit a mountain. Well, it’s not as big as a mountain. If it were, then these old-world monkeys would be huge beings, simian giants. I’m still glad they are behind glass. I hope the glass is shatter-proof. Especially since the monkeys appear volatile today. They are racing around their alpine enclosure. Three energetic ones bound over the rocks. They are excited: their hooked tails are perky. Their enormous pink bums are enticing, and they follow one another.

I sit down in the mall’s window box, where there are also cushions, and wonder why are we better behaved? Shouldn’t we be having more fun?

On this side of the glass, a woman repacks her shopping bags––rationalising countless bags of candies. A hipster couple sit very close to the window, separated from it by a carton of a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts. Are they really going to eat them all? An elderly lady with thick glasses wrings her hands, her back to the baboons; she is enclosed in a vintage two-piece suit and scowls and keeps glancing at her watch. Three young women sit in a circle, coffee cups between them, and gesticulate and gossip, while simultaneously checking their phones. And then there are the passer-bys, weighed down by shopping bags, who stop for just a moment and point, momentarily amused, wide-eyed, because of the unexpected spectacle of the animals. Then they continue into the other rooms of the building where they can exchange more papers in their pockets for other objects that they will put inside other paper bags.

Poor monkeys, they can’t go very far. Or maybe they don’t want to, or don’t care. Or maybe they pity us, always wanting to be somewhere else.

Monkeys in the Berlin Zoo as seen from Bikini Berlin

Maybe the baboons are watching us too. But I suspect they are oblivious to our presence. They hardly ever look in our direction. Or, having had a good view of us for a long time now, they don’t find us entertaining. Why should they notice us when they can pick insects off each other instead? A baby crawls onto his mother’s back. One beast puts his finger into the other’s ear. And, as the light fails over behind the zoo’s mountain, a few shake out their enormous earmuff hair so it stands on end. The ones who are not carousing sit very very still. Certainly much calmer than anyone on this side of the glass, and I wonder whether these monkeys understand something better than we do.


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.