Lost in Marseille

17 April, 2021

Catherine Vincent

I arrive in front of Hotel Per­on where I have an appoint­ment with Vin­cent. The façade is sub­lime, white and majes­tic, fac­ing the sea. I can imag­ine the sun-cov­ered bed. I hur­ry upstairs. I want to arrive before him so I can write “I was on the bed; I read, and I was smok­ing,” as Wal­ter Ben­jamin writes in his account. We had been promis­ing our­selves this ele­gant day­time ren­dezvous in a hotel for a long time, so we may love each oth­er pas­sion­ate­ly by day, and under the influ­ence of hashish.

Vincent Commaret and Catherine Estrade in front of Marseille's Hotel Peron (all photos courtesy of Farah Alimi, unless otherwise noted). Click each image to listen to a Catherine Vincent song.

Vin­cent Com­maret and Cather­ine Estrade in front of Mar­seille’s Hotel Per­on (all pho­tos cour­tesy of Farah Ali­mi, unless oth­er­wise not­ed). Click each image to lis­ten to a Cather­ine Vin­cent song.

I woke up star­tled in the mid­dle of the night. I did­n’t know where I was. Fright­ened, it took me a moment to find the lamp switch, but even light­ing the room did not reveal any­thing to me. Berlin, Dam­as­cus, Mar­seille? Lit­tle by lit­tle, the fear of not know­ing where I was turned into a sad­ness in real­iz­ing where I am. Too much smoke last night con­fused me. The evening comes back to me in bits and pieces. Moments, phras­es, laugh­ter, tears in my eyes. The walk in the desert­ed city in search of the restau­rant that Wal­ter Ben­jamin men­tioned, Bas­so, num­ber 5, Quai of the Bel­gians, where he went to eat alone after smok­ing hashish. The restau­rant no longer exists, and even if it did it would be closed in these times of pan­dem­ic and extreme san­i­tary mea­sures. I had let myself be lulled by the sound of my own foot­steps in the emp­ty streets, sud­den­ly fright­ened by the sight of a police car… We’re defy­ing cur­few to find accom­plices if we can’t hang out in bars.

In Berlin, where Vin­cent and I spent a month last year, we also lis­tened to our foot­steps. I wore heeled boots, which hit the pave­ment smart­ly, mak­ing it res­onate. We walked at night through the dim­ly-lit streets of Kreuzberg. Vin­cent showed me how to hold the recorder, how to ori­ent it as I record­ed my steps. We were hap­py with this son­ic find that would lat­er evoke our stroll. We used this sound to pace our con­ver­sa­tions about our char­ac­ter in the mak­ing, Jamel Ibn­tre­wan (an ana­gram of Wal­ter Benjamin).

Café in Berlin…(click here to listen).

Café in Berlin…(click here to lis­ten).

He’s the one we are search­ing for in Berlin, this Syr­i­an intel­lec­tu­al who had ded­i­cat­ed him­self to the Rev­o­lu­tion that shook his coun­try in March 2011, and who was forced to flee the regime’s repres­sion against him and all those who dared raise their voic­es against pow­er. He took refuge in Berlin where he was grant­ed asy­lum. It is Jamal Ibn­tre­wan who named our album “Jamel Ibn­tre­wan (Lost in Berlin).”

So we moved away from Mediter­ranean sweet­ness, its blue sky and bright light, and dived into the Ger­man cap­i­tal with its short days and pale glow. We were cer­tain that it was in this city that we would find Jamel Ibn­tre­wan. Wal­ter Ben­jamin had to flee Berlin, because he was Jew­ish and opposed to Nazism, and today it is home to thou­sands of Syr­i­an refugees. Since 2015, we have been impressed every time by the large pres­ence of Syr­i­ans in Berlin’s neigh­bor­hoods, from Schon­berg and Neukiln to Grunewald. In Jan­u­ary 2020, we hung out most­ly in Son­nenalle, “Street of the Arabs.” Every­thing remind­ed us of Dam­as­cus: the peo­ple, pas­tries, chicha bars, jew­el­ry stores, and restau­rants of course, where all of a sud­den we felt less for­eign because we could order in Ara­bic — we who do not speak German.

In cross­ing Tier­garten that marked Wal­ter Ben­jam­in’s child­hood, we find, on one side of the park, the build­ing that hous­es the archives on the sec­ond floor of a very aus­tere grey build­ing. On the wall of a cor­ri­dor hangs a large map of Berlin: the black dots indi­cate all the places in the city where Ben­jamin lived, and the white dots show the pub­lic places he fre­quent­ed. On the oth­er side of the park lies the Phil­har­mon­ic which offers free con­certs every Tues­day at 1 pm. The hall is reg­u­lar­ly filled with a het­ero­ge­neous crowd, relaxed but also very atten­tive in antic­i­pa­tion of a con­cert that lasts a lit­tle less than an hour. We loved the atmos­phere of this week­ly event, the sober décor, the hushed light of this vast building.

Catherine Estrade (Photo courtesy Judy Al Rashi).

Cather­ine Estrade (Pho­to cour­tesy Judy Al Rashi).

Jamel lives in Berlin, dis­ori­ent­ed in his exile, lost in his painful mem­o­ries, and he won­ders how this city that suf­fered so much dur­ing the war could pro­vide him with a sense of pro­tec­tion he need­ed. And this wel­com­ing home, the Phil­har­mon­ic, is one of his favorite places of refuge.  The old Opera House was destroyed by bomb­ing in 1944. By this time Wal­ter Ben­jamin had already left the city. He’d even been dead for four years. Today the Dam­as­cus Opera House, named after the Syr­i­an dic­ta­tor, is still stand­ing in Umayyad Square. If the Syr­i­an cap­i­tal is almost intact, from its sub­urbs and out­wards through the entire coun­try is noth­ing but ruin. Bashar al-Assad and his allies bombed wher­ev­er the wind of revolt was blowing.

Walter Benjamin circa 1928

Wal­ter Ben­jamin cir­ca 1928

I don’t think Wal­ter Ben­jamin attend­ed the Mar­seille Opera House, but he cer­tain­ly passed near­by because he stayed down­town, just 300 meters from the avenue La Canebière. I live in Mar­seille, and since I have had Wal­ter Ben­jamin in mind, I won­der all the time: did he come here? Did he walk these streets? Did he stop in the mid­dle of the Christ­mas mar­ket at Café Prinder where the date 1925 still reads above the counter? We know that he did not lim­it him­self to down­town, that he went as far as the Saint Louis dis­trict, rue de Lyon, Boule­vard de la Jamaïque in the 16th (of the quartiers nord) where, as he wrote, “the deci­sive bat­tle between city and coun­try,” between agaves and lamp­posts, build­ing tow­ers and plane trees, still rages on.


Night is falling. On the hori­zon, the hills of the blue coast on the oth­er side of the har­bor of Mar­seille remind me of Dam­as­cus. I know it has noth­ing to do with Damascus—only the urge to think of it. And yet it is I find myself still sus­pend­ed in mem­o­ries of Berlin. That mem­o­rable evening with R and F, two Syr­i­an friends, spent in shisha bars. We had been there with F for some time and I was observ­ing. There were only Arab men, all dressed sim­i­lar­ly, wear­ing tai­lored gar­ments to high­light their very mus­cu­lar bod­ies, sleeked-back hair, well-cut beards. When R, who lives in Berlin, joined us, I asked him the ques­tion in Ara­bic. How is it that there is not a flag of the rev­o­lu­tion, a poster, some­thing to indi­cate the polit­i­cal col­or of this café? And his answer came in a voice even more hushed than I used to ask my ques­tion: they are all pro-Hezbol­lah here! Fright­ened, the three of us took a leap back­wards and our reac­tion made us burst out laughing!

Berlin, city of exiles; Mar­seille, city of emi­grants. Are these emi­grants the exiles of yes­ter­day? In 1940 Wal­ter Ben­jamin had come to Mar­seille for the last time. He who had loved to vis­it was this time only pass­ing through. The city was teem­ing with for­eign­ers flee­ing Europe, who were wait­ing for the many per­mits need­ed to leave. Hav­ing not obtained the exit visa from France, he crossed the bor­der clan­des­tine­ly to Spain. Arrest­ed by the police in Port­bou he chose to com­mit sui­cide so as not to be hand­ed over to the Gestapo.

Catherine and Vincent stroll along the Corniche.

Cather­ine and Vin­cent stroll along the Corniche.

Vin­cent chose the Moroc­can room. He want­ed for us to stay for the night as well. The mis­tral blows hard today mak­ing the light raw­er and more beau­ti­ful than usu­al, but it will be dif­fi­cult to keep the win­dows open to avoid smok­ing-up the room. I pre­pared a joint in advance. I’m slip­ping off my shoes. I’m lying down. I light it. I’m hold­ing my book. I’m on the bed as I read and I smoke.


This essay is writ­ten with four hands by Cather­ine Vin­cent, a folk­song duo based in Mar­seille, with Cather­ine Estrade and Vin­cent Com­maret. Their duo was born in Dam­as­cus, Syr­ia, where they lived in the ear­ly 2000s.

Click to listen…

Click to listen…

In Jan­u­ary 2021, their lat­est album Jamel Ibn­tre­wan (Lost in Berlin) was released, a musi­cal and sound ride that takes us from Berlin to Dam­as­cus via Mar­seille and Port­bou, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of a Syr­i­an exile, Jamel Ibn­tre­wan, ded­i­cat­ed to the rev­o­lu­tion that shook his coun­try in 2011. His des­tiny mir­rors that of the Ger­man thinker Wal­ter Benjamin.



Rec­om­mend­ed Reading

Books by Wal­ter Benjamin:
A Berlin Child­hood Around 1900
On Hashish
Reflec­tions: Essays, Apho­risms, Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Writings


About him:
On Wal­ter Ben­jam­in’s Lega­cy in the Los Ange­les Review of Books
La vie de Wal­ter Ben­jamin wbenjamin.org


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