Paranoid in Berlin: a short story by Shada Mustafa

15 September, 2022


Sha­da Mustafa is the young author of the nov­el Things I Left Behind, trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Nan­cy Roberts and pub­lished by Ban­i­pal in 2022. Mustafa writes in a raw and hon­est style, void of clichés and false sen­ti­ment. She came to Berlin, she explains, because, “I had giv­en up on liv­ing in Jerusalem and Ramal­lah, and want­ed a place where I could feel more free and where I could have a bet­ter chance to devel­op pro­fes­sion­al­ly. I had met some­one ran­dom­ly in Beirut who told me the Ger­man lan­guage was beau­ti­ful and inter­est­ing, so I got the urge to learn it. Ger­many was also a good option for pur­su­ing my stud­ies — I applied every­where and Berlin was the only city that worked out, so it was real­ly chance that brought me here. What keeps me here is the fact that I had real­ized that every­where you go, there is some sort of soci­etal prison that awaits you, and Berlin’s prison feels like the most tol­er­a­ble for me. In a sense, it is the prison that keeps you more free. After fin­ish­ing archi­tec­ture school, and now my mas­ters in human geog­ra­phy in Berlin, I am look­ing into explor­ing design, as I pur­sue writ­ing. Berlin is also a great city for that.”



Shada Mustafa


You sit there in the U‑Bahn, with two peo­ple sit­ting across from you — well, not exact­ly oppo­site, they’re more on the right side. A man and a woman. The man is look­ing at you, lean­ing for­ward, the woman is lean­ing back, and only half of her face is vis­i­ble. You are look­ing at them, see­ing her try­ing not laugh. Then they look at each oth­er and laugh togeth­er. And then you won­der if they’re laugh­ing at you. Or if he was even look­ing at you.

The rea­son you’re in the U‑Bahn is because you’re going to your boyfriend’s place, unan­nounced, to catch him in case he’s cheat­ing. But you’re not think­ing about that. You’re check­ing your reflec­tion in the win­dow of the train. To see what’s wrong with you. If you look laugh­able. You won­der if it’s your neck lump, or whether you’re too fat it’s fun­ny. You final­ly reach your stop and you’re hap­py it’s over. You get up the esca­la­tor and stand in the mid­dle of the sta­tion look­ing for the right exit. You shouldn’t be look­ing for it, you’ve been here a mil­lion times before, you should know auto­mat­i­cal­ly where to go, but this time you for­get. Like the mil­lion oth­er things you’ve been for­get­ting. You find the exit, and think what on earth are you doing? Your boyfriend has proven to you, a mil­lion times before, that he is not lying or cheat­ing. But then what if you’re blind? What if you can’t see what is right in front of you? What if he’s too slick. Too nasty. Too much of a smart ass­hole, to do all of that. To real­ly go behind your back in front of your very eyes, take the girl to the toi­let of the train and fool around with her there. And you are too dumb to see it. You’re won­der­ing if he’s with her now? If some­thing hap­pened between them dur­ing the fes­ti­val, while you were there and then he lied about it. You’re won­der­ing he did take her num­ber? But then you think: “What am I doing?”

Things I Left Behind is pub­lished by Ban­i­pal.

You know what this is. You should stop. But your legs car­ry you for­ward. Almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly. With­out think­ing. You’re out­side. After check­ing the back­yard and the gar­den, you stand in front of the win­dow of his room and call him on the phone. And call him simul­ta­ne­ous­ly by his name, so that he can hear you through the win­dow in case he’s asleep. He picks up and asks why you’re there. “I came because I was in a meet­ing near­by and want­ed to see you,” you lie. You tell him to come down. He does. You head to the gar­den, and on the way, you tell him that you came because you want­ed to say sor­ry you got so jeal­ous yes­ter­day on the way back. That he was noth­ing but nice and car­ing and that you were hor­ri­ble to him, even though you can see that he is mak­ing effort.

He doesn’t reply. As always. Just shakes his head in agree­ment. Agree­ment on what? You just apol­o­gized for your errat­ic behav­ior. Again. But what can he say? He says noth­ing. And you walk to the gar­den. You sit on the bench and tell him: “I think we should talk about why I have these thoughts. I think it’s about my pre­vi­ous rela­tion­ship. That it involved cheat­ing, lying, and leav­ing.” That you are scared he would leave you. Hurt you. Lie to you. Prove you right. That this is not an episode. That this is real. Which would mean that all your fears are real. That your moth­er is real­ly plot­ting with your sis­ter to bring you back from Berlin. That your boss is real­ly plot­ting with your col­league to fire you. That you are real­ly ugly. That you are laugh­able. That the police are fol­low­ing you. That the Israeli gov­ern­ment is plot­ting against you. That this numb feel­ing you get some­times is real­ly you dying. And he assures you noth­ing hap­pened. He did flirt but noth­ing hap­pened. And then you get scared: “Is he going to leave me? Have I become too annoy­ing, too obses­sive, too intru­sive, too needy? Have I become unlovable?”

You strug­gle with the thoughts that can’t leave you even as words. You hang onto them. “What! Am I real­ly now going to ask these ques­tions?” You can’t. Because what if by ask­ing, you make what used to be thoughts real? What if by ask­ing, you become the annoy­ing, obses­sive, the intru­sive, the needy?

You won­der. But you know you’re bet­ter than that. Deep down, some­where, it is there. The prob­lem is you can’t find this place. You know it’s there but you can’t find it. Lost. You don’t know what to do? How to act, how to react, because what if you’re react­ing to some­thing unre­al? You just don’t know. “What if my deep­est fears are becom­ing true? What if I am turn­ing into an invalid? What if I am no longer capa­ble? What if I can’t go back to how I was? But how was I? Was this always with me? Did I live with it my entire life?” You don’t know, because you don’t know who are? Who you were? Who you will be? And there you get stuck between the past, the present and the future. You stand some­where. Nowhere real­ly and look onto all of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what might be. And you think, where am I? which sce­nario am I in? You don’t know the answer. You’re not even close.

You check your phone, maybe some­time away vis­it­ing a friend can do you good. You check for flights. Prices. Every­thing and then write the friend if you can vis­it. He sees you sit­ting there in gar­den play­ing with your phone and asks you to come? “Open your phone”, he says.” What were you doing?” he asks. “I was writ­ing my friend in Milan to see if I can vis­it.” He checks the mes­sages to see if it’s true. And then you ask, “what did you think?” And he says, “that you’re writ­ing your ex-boyfriend, want­i­ng to get back togeth­er with him.” And you real­ize it. You’re not alone. Some­one else has the same thoughts, same feel­ings, same fears. You check his phone too, like you’ve done before, but find noth­ing, as usu­al. And you’d think that would make you feel want­ed some­how. Loved. That some­one is scared of los­ing you. That some­one is let­ting you check their phone, invade their pri­va­cy, so you can feel good. Or bet­ter. But it doesn’t. You just feel bad you lost con­trol again. You gave in to the thoughts, even though you know they’re not real. But then the “if” comes in, and you won­der again. What if he delet­ed things? What if you’re dumb? What if you’re stuck some­where, you shouldn’t be? The “What if?” You ratio­nal­ize your way out of it, to find it loom­ing there at the end. And you begin the cycle again. And then you’re stuck. There in the mid­dle. Look­ing at all the pos­si­bil­i­ties around you, think­ing they can all be real. “But where am I then? Where do I stand?” You don’t know.

You final­ly get some sense back into your­self and say that you need to sleep. You say good­night and head to your place. You sit in the U‑Bahn, and see the two peo­ple again. Sit­ting there, laugh­ing again. And you won­der, “why are they laugh­ing at me?” “Why am I laugh­able?” But they don’t know. They don’t know that you put on weight tak­ing depres­sion med­ica­tion. They don’t know that you’re going to your boyfriend’s place because you were recent­ly diag­nosed with para­noid schizophrenia.

What they don’t know is that you don’t even know if they’re real. 

What they don’t know is that you wake up every day, won­der­ing about, regret­ting, antic­i­pat­ing, what hap­pened, what is hap­pen­ing, what will hap­pen? Because you don’t know. You don’t have a clue. And because no one can tell you. Because you can’t even ask. Or because they might lie to you. And this seek­ing the truth, to know what’s real, is there. And it is there every day, every sec­ond, with every sin­gle breath. It is there, all of it at once. The love, the hate, the doubt, the para­noia. They don’t know that. They don’t know that you escaped to Berlin, to find a home, that made you men­tal­ly ill. Or were you like that before? You don’t know. You just don’t know.


Shada Mustafa is a Palestinian writer, born in 1995. She graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at the American University of Beirut, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Geographical Development Studies at the Free University of Berlin. The Arabic original of her debut novel Ma Taraktu Khalfi (Things I Left Behind) was shortlisted for the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the category of Young Author. It was excerpted in Banipal 71 (Summer 2021), translated by Nancy Roberts. Photo of Shada Mustafa by Mario Khoury.



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