The Intruders and the City

15 September, 2022,
Noor Bah­jat (b. Dam­as­cus, 1991), “Abstrac­tion 5,” 100x120cm, oil on can­vas, 2019 Dubai (cour­tesy Noor Bah­jat).

 

Sev­en years in Berlin and still a stranger, writer Rasha Abbas finds the city is made for strangers.

 

Rasha Abbas

 

When seis­mic changes take place around you, it becomes more dif­fi­cult to scru­ti­nize the self, to switch from your own per­spec­tive to that of some­one on the out­side look­ing in. This is equal­ly true of writ­ing. Arab writ­ers are end­less­ly asked, at pan­el dis­cus­sion after Q & A after inter­view, how exile affects our work, but there are so many inter­twined issues that it’s hard to say. The strange­ness of grow­ing old­er min­gles with the strange­ness of being in a new place while all the time sens­ing the shad­ows of the old place and won­der­ing what might have been. You try to step out­side your own skin so as to observe your­self from a dis­tance, by turns appeas­ing, resist­ing, with­draw­ing, and strug­gling. The unap­peal­ing sight of the self inter­act­ing with its sur­round­ings — doing its best to com­mu­ni­cate in bro­ken Ger­man, open­ing let­ters from the tax office and hav­ing loud phone con­ver­sa­tions in Ara­bic by the harsh light of day, or turned in on itself and sur­ren­der­ing to defeatist thoughts by night — hard­ly encour­ages you to con­tin­ue your jour­ney of self-scrutiny.

An entire life took place before the one I’m liv­ing now, but it’s buried in the sands like it nev­er even exist­ed. I pos­sess no infor­ma­tion about my rela­tion­ship with that life which would make it worth hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about with some­one else.

Amid this swirl of thoughts, I find myself pulled towards a cof­fee plant. I pick it up, turn it around. It has large berries. I’m admir­ing it when I notice sev­er­al plants I’ve for­got­ten to water for months; there’s always one house­plant left unwa­tered on some dis­tant shelf, estranged from all the oth­er plants. I start to real­ize what’s hap­pen­ing. There’s only one thing for it, and that’s to do what I always do. I make a run for the win­dow and then leap up and out and into the air, and for a few sec­onds I’m in con­trol of my move­ments before I sur­ren­der my body to the pull of oth­er forces, leav­ing it to rise and freefall at veloc­i­ties I can’t judge or even feel. The last thing I see this time is the image of a dog star­ing at me from the dark­ness of an alley­way as I’m sucked into the ground.

 I’m brought back to con­scious­ness, men­tal­ly grasp­ing for a sense of the dimen­sions of the room around me, by a bang­ing sound some­where in the build­ing. Primed for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a break-in at any time, my hand goes straight to my phone. I’ve been men­tal­ly pre­pared for this moment ever since I moved into a ground-floor flat near Gör­l­itzer Park, a place with a sketchy rep­u­ta­tion. I have two action plans pre­pared, both equal­ly pitiable: one, shout to Siri to call the police, or two, quick­ly write to whoever’s online on Mes­sen­ger ask­ing them to send help (which at this late hour would pri­mar­i­ly rely upon my com­pa­tri­ots in the Amer­i­c­as because they’re the only ones like­ly to be awake). It’s not such a bad plan — I just need luck on my side and an intrud­er decent enough to give me a few min­utes to con­tact the rel­e­vant people.

It takes me a few moments to come to in the dark, which is illu­mi­nat­ed only by the faint glow of my phone screen, and final­ly I real­ize that the bang­ing sound, too, belongs to the night­mare from which I’ve just awok­en. It fades as I begin to make out the famil­iar sounds of the oth­er flats in my build­ing: a chair being dragged across the floor, a tap being turned on. I depend on strangers for safe­ty; this is Berlin, where being a stranger begets famil­iar­i­ty. No intrud­ers tonight then. Break-ins, like house­plants killed by neglect, only ever hap­pen in my dreams. Men appear out of the dark­ness and attempt to force their way in while I rush to slam win­dows and doors in their path, always at the very last moment.

These intrud­ers are repressed thoughts attempt­ing to creep into my con­scious mind. The dream recurs more fre­quent­ly when I’m in a rela­tion­ship, a fact which isn’t hard to explain. An entire life took place before the one I’m liv­ing now, but it’s buried in the sands like it nev­er even exist­ed. I pos­sess no infor­ma­tion about my rela­tion­ship with that life which would make it worth hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about with some­one else. Inti­ma­cy ter­ri­fies. It’s not sur­pris­ing that men should leap out of the black of night in my dreams, aim­ing for the doors and win­dows of my home, while I toss and turn in bed beside anoth­er per­son, afraid to break the silence and will­ing to drag any top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion into the space between us, if only it will save us hav­ing to touch that buried thing. So far, I’ve always man­aged to stamp on its trem­bling fin­gers if ever briefly it finds its way to the sur­face, and to save myself when it appears in my nightmares.


So here I am, along with oth­ers like me who are also run­ning from things they’ve buried. Isn’t that why we’ve all end­ed up here? Faces appear and dis­ap­pear before you can reg­is­ter their fea­tures, mov­ing hur­ried­ly and even aggres­sive­ly through the streets and the U‑Bahn. House­plants are fer­ried eager­ly from nurs­ery to home. Bod­ies entwine in the club; bound­aries feel a lit­tle soft­er here, where dark­ness draws her cur­tain across bat­tered hearts, than they do by day. I trip on my way to the bath­room. I’m oblig­ed to share the stall with a group of peo­ple doing coke off a mobile phone screen. The guy mak­ing the lines is using his AOK health insur­ance card. I sit down to pee while they dis­agree over how thick the lines should be, and let my gaze wan­der over the chaos of stick­ers and graf­fi­tos on the back of the door, all of them pre­dictable and repet­i­tive: adverts for a fes­ti­val, a draw­ing of a vagi­na with a fem­i­nist slo­gan, things scrib­bled in Ara­bic — there are enough of us here that it’s start­ing to show — like jasa­di mil­ki, “my body belongs to me.” Only one thing real­ly catch­es my eye, and that’s a dec­la­ra­tion of love in the clas­si­cal style: Ken + Sarah = <3 for ever.

The sen­tence bears all the hall­marks of a teenage author, which I find deeply strange in itself. Berlin is such a dark city, a city so made for strangers, that I dis­ap­prove of the notion of any­one actu­al­ly grow­ing up here. It’s like a com­ic strip where the artist has only drawn twen­ty-some­things and mid­dle-aged peo­ple, both equal­ly lost and mis­trust­ful. Hence this sen­tence is prac­ti­cal­ly a hole in the Matrix, a sud­den dis­tor­tion of real­i­ty, like com­ing across an entire kinder­garten class walk­ing in dou­ble file across a pedes­tri­an crossing.

Ear­li­er this sum­mer, I vis­it­ed Cata­nia, Sici­ly. The intense heat didn’t both­er me or pre­vent me enjoy­ing the beau­ty of the port city. What did were the scenes I saw that dis­turbed the buried thing. They were famil­iar; they resem­bled the past life I pre­tend nev­er hap­pened because that’s the only way I can go on with the life that exists now: sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of a fam­i­ly strolling togeth­er through a mar­ket, or men of var­i­ous ages sit­ting at cafés as my father used to do. As I moved past these sights I tried to push away fear­ful thoughts of aging, alone and in the Berlin tem­plate that was so dif­fer­ent to this one, with­out the net­work of fam­i­ly that I’d once tried so hard to escape and yet still pur­sued by ques­tions over my ties to it. There’s a dan­ger I’ll end up as that crazy per­son, scream­ing a lifetime’s worth of accu­mu­lat­ed dis­ap­point­ment in the faces of inno­cent passersby.


When I first moved to Berlin, I want­ed to see all the sights. My enthu­si­asm waned as I accli­ma­tized psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly to the city, my atten­tion turn­ing to the ordi­nary, repeat­able ele­ments out of which I could con­struct a dai­ly rou­tine. My friends and I got into the habit of ask­ing guests vis­it­ing the city to use Google Maps to take them­selves to what­ev­er it was they want­ed to see; we’d quick­ly got sick of repeat­ed trips to Check­point Char­lie and the Bran­den­burg Gate, the lat­ter of which I haven’t even walked past in sev­er­al years. Only two of the city’s attrac­tions have sur­vived this mass cross­ing-out of every­thing on the tourist’s to-do list: the TV Tow­er at Alexan­der­platz and the Max Lieber­mann Villa.

I’m always glad to have the excuse of accom­pa­ny­ing guests to go for a walk around the TV tow­er and talk about its his­to­ry and that of East Ger­many. I tell them how its design­er Her­mann Hensel­mann took inspi­ra­tion for its shape, at the height of the Sovi­et-US space race, from the Russ­ian satel­lite Sput­nik 1, nev­er for­get­ting to point out what’s known as the “Pope’s Revenge,” a gleam­ing cross that appears on the ball of the tow­er in bright sun­light, which believ­ers con­sid­ered a divine retort to the GDR government’s repres­sion of the church. The tow­er was delib­er­ate­ly designed to be 365 meters tall so that school pupils would have no trou­ble mem­o­riz­ing the figure.

These impuls­es — the urge to instil adu­la­tion of the sym­bols of nation and ide­ol­o­gy in ten­der hearts — tick­le me, caus­ing me no resent­ment as they rub up against dis­tant mem­o­ries of their Syr­i­an equiv­a­lents and a child­hood boo­by-trapped with praise of the nation and nation­al values.

Ubiq­ui­tous on T‑shirts and sou­venirs, the TV tow­er is kitsch, I know, but on a deep and prim­i­tive lev­el, it fills me with a sense of peace and secu­ri­ty when­ev­er I catch sight of it through the win­dow of a taxi tak­ing me home late at night, illu­mi­nat­ed in the dark sky, or glimpse it through swollen eyes as I leave a club at nine in the morn­ing. In the sim­plest terms it is a sym­bol of the only place where I have known free­dom, safe­ty, and the dig­ni­ty of iso­la­tion with­in a life that is noisy and full, and where I have watched myself change and grow. Berlin.

One of the peri­ods of my life in Berlin which I remem­ber with most warmth was the time when I lived in a sev­enth-floor stu­dio flat on Hein­rich-Heine-Straße. The cor­ri­dor faced the tow­er direct­ly, as well as over­look­ing a night­club which like most of the city’s clubs was housed in a for­mer fac­to­ry. The build­ing was a big Sovi­et-style block con­tain­ing dozens of flats, like the pre­fabs on the out­skirts of Dam­as­cus, and the lay­out sug­gest­ed that the lava­to­ries had once been in a com­mu­nal area. It stank of hash, my neigh­bours had mul­ti­col­ored hair, and tech­no fil­tered gen­tly in from the sur­round­ing flats and the night­club. I had no trou­ble sleep­ing, even though at the begin­ning I had to sleep on a heap of clothes on the floor because I’d rent­ed the place unfur­nished, adding fur­ni­ture bit by bit with the help of friends. The neigh­bor­hood was qui­et in the morn­ings and after­noons, but at night it was live­ly and bustling because of all the night­clubs. Until I bought stuff for the kitchen, a dön­er place down the road was my only refuge. It must have been its loca­tion next to a busy, cen­tral U‑Bahn sta­tion that saved it, because nobody who had any choice would have want­ed to eat there twice.


The oth­er place I’ve per­sist­ed in vis­it­ing ever since mov­ing to Berlin, the vil­la of the painter Max Lieber­mann, is in the south­west of the city. Now a muse­um, it sits on the shores of Wannsee, almost next door to the build­ing where the Wannsee Con­fer­ence was held and the ter­ri­fy­ing “final solu­tion” planned. The Nazis expro­pri­at­ed the vil­la from Liebermann’s wid­ow, and it under­went var­i­ous trans­for­ma­tions — mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal, bar­racks, dor­mi­to­ry for female SS mem­bers — before final­ly return­ing to the artist’s estate. Today the muse­um only pos­sess­es a small por­tion of his work, most of which was also expro­pri­at­ed and remains unac­count­ed for. In place of the stolen paint­ings, emp­ty rec­tan­gu­lar spaces in a con­trast­ing col­or have been paint­ed on the wall as a con­stant reminder of the pres­ence of their absence. I’m accus­tomed to stand­ing before these rec­tan­gles now. Resem­bling an old crime scene, they’re one of the many lessons this city likes to teach its vis­i­tors about deal­ing with the past. In the encounter between the indi­vid­ual and his­to­ry, frus­tra­tion and anger and res­ig­na­tion and defeatism are all jus­ti­fi­able, but mov­ing past the hor­ror to some­thing more con­struc­tive means not dis­avow­ing but acknowl­edg­ing and reg­is­ter­ing them, pulling them out of the wreck­age and car­ry­ing them care­ful­ly to a place of safe­ty along with the sur­vivors, so they can serve as a mon­u­ment and a memo­r­i­al. Maybe in some future time I’ll be brave enough to apply the same insight to my own past, to prod at that painful buried part of myself and let it see the air, to walk around my flat open­ing the doors and win­dows to the peo­ple in the dark­ness so they can enter as guests, not intruders.

 

Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Katharine Halls

Arab writersBerlinDamascusGermanymemorySyriaSyrian civil war

Rasha Abbas writes surreal short stories, combining dream and hyper-realism with a punk aesthetic. A Syrian writer and journalist, she has been based in Berlin since 2015. Her debut short story collection Adam Hates TV was awarded at the Damascus Capital of Arab Culture Festival. In 2016 her much-noted collection The Invention of German and her Christmas story "A Lonesome Red Glass of Coca Cola" were published in German translation by mikrotext, where she also published her short story collection The Gist of It in German. Abbas is currently working on a novel inspired by her family’s history.

Katharine Halls is an Arabic-to-English translator from Cardiff, Wales. She was awarded a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Haytham El-Wardany’s Things That Can’t Be Fixed and her translation, with Adam Talib, of Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace received the 2017 Sheikh Hamad Award and was shortlisted for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. Her translations for the stage have been performed at the Royal Court and the Edinburgh Festival, and short texts have appeared with World Literature Today, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Adda, Africa is A Country, Newfound, Critical Muslim, The Common, and Arts of the Working Classes, and in various anthologies.

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