Phoneless in Filthy Berlin

15 September, 2022,
Street art in Berlin (pho­to cour­tesy Notes From Camelid Coun­try).


A sin­gle Pales­tin­ian woman attempts to sur­vive in Berlin with­out a cell phone.


Maisan Hamdan


I love Berlin. It is a filthy, com­pas­sion­less city that is def­er­en­tial to nei­ther its long-time inhab­i­tants nor inter­im vis­i­tors; to her all are tran­sient. I’ve always known, ever since my first vis­it in 2016, that I would return to her time and time again.

Only a year after that ini­tial vis­it, I was back. My sojourn car­ried the whiffs of a home­com­ing laced as it was with the ten­ta­tive aspi­ra­tions of set­tling down. I had trav­eled from Haifa, where I’d lived estranged in my Pales­tin­ian city that only revealed itself incre­men­tal­ly, and even then momen­tar­i­ly, to project an ephemer­al Pales­tine; one rel­e­gat­ed to dark cor­ners and nar­row alley­ways. And here I was, in Berlin, this refresh­ing place where every­thing and every­one appeared to be shroud­ed in for­eign­ness, all of us drifters, where I was nev­er required to answer ques­tions about who I was or what I was doing. A place where the truth of my beliefs was nev­er forsaken.

One day, as I sat in the Turk­ish mar­ket, locat­ed in Karl Marx Platz, a pigeon shame­less­ly defe­cat­ed on me, its drop­pings splat­ter­ing on dif­fer­ent parts of my body. I imme­di­ate­ly remem­bered that where I came from this was usu­al­ly looked upon as a good sign, but since I was now in Berlin, I won­dered whether such notions would still hold true. I can­not begin to com­pare the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of times I’ve been shat on by these pesky crea­tures to the dis­mal num­ber of times I’ve lucked out after each inci­dent. How­ev­er,  in that moment, pos­si­bly per­verse­ly buoyed by the heat from the warm shit seep­ing through my trouser leg onto my skin, I felt sur­pris­ing­ly hope­ful that good luck might just be lurk­ing around the cor­ner. Per­haps, I rea­soned, luck, like pigeon drop­pings, struck ran­dom­ly so that for all the times that I missed it, it could still find me nonetheless.

But, I also couldn’t for­get that for every fan­ci­ful lucky notion was an oppos­ing har­bin­ger for trou­bled times ahead. You see, as chil­dren we were taught to look for the mean­ings and signs behind cer­tain things, some­thing which has stayed with me, even though as an adult, I find it total­ly bogus. Where I’m from, a crow’s sig­na­ture caw por­tends mis­for­tune, and its black col­or fore­tells a death. And yet, here in Berlin, that con­demned raven has been my one and con­stant com­pan­ion, espe­cial­ly on gray, gloomy days, when the skies have been dense with clouds. This crow, one of many, would arrive to perch itself on the iron ban­is­ter of my high-rise apart­ment bal­cony, and with its squawk and the pit­ter pat­ter of its claws would delight me to no mea­sure. As soon as I saw it, I’d call out to it, imi­tat­ing its sound. Soon, though, I found I was per­sist­ing in the act even when there were no crows around. I cawed at my friends, alone at home, and even when I spoke on the phone.

Last sum­mer, my cell phone stopped work­ing as if it too wished to with­draw into obliv­ion. As with every­thing else, it aban­doned me with­out remorse, leav­ing no replace­ment in place. I feigned non­cha­lance, meet­ing its silence with my own and placed it in a draw­er to rest in peace among long aban­doned papers. I decid­ed not to replace it, unaware of the grav­i­ty of this brazen decision.

And so I set off to explore this city that regards every­thing tran­si­to­ry after a cur­so­ry check on the sound­ness of wan­der­ing around in a city, like Berlin, with­out access to a cell phone.

Under­stand­ably, I found no prob­lem nav­i­gat­ing the famil­iar places to which I had been many times before, thanks to the map appli­ca­tion on my phone. I had, in fact, mem­o­rized the names of cer­tain streets as well as those of train sta­tions along­side their num­bers and routes. I was able to recall the total num­ber of sta­tions between point A and point B and the actu­al time it took to get from one to the oth­er. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it was when I decid­ed to steer away from the famil­iar that things got more com­pli­cat­ed. How do I find where I’m going with­out get­ting lost? How do I let some­one know that I am going to be late because I’ve lost my way? (I don’t) How do I apol­o­gize for not show­ing up when faced with an emer­gency? (again, I don’t) How was I to get in touch with my fam­i­ly, friends or even col­leagues? (by email, and only when necessary).

It seemed as if I were liv­ing back in the days when hom­ing pigeons had been used to deliv­er and receive cor­re­spon­dences. I found that I was shock­ing­ly elat­ed.  And although my social life took a nose dive, recon­nect­ing with myself was doing me a world of good. I was final­ly lis­ten­ing to that inter­nal voice that had plead­ed with me, for years, to pay atten­tion to it and that I had allowed the bus­tle of life to override. 

Then I need­ed to get a rapid Covid test. I arrived at the lab unan­nounced, and pushed through the door as if I were about to sur­prise my fam­i­ly with my sud­den appear­ance. How­ev­er, judg­ing by the receptionist’s unwel­com­ing reac­tion, you’d think, in fact, that I had been break­ing an entry.

“Hel­lo! Where are you head­ed? Do you have an appoint­ment?” the recep­tion­ist hollered.
“Can I make one?” I asked, feign­ing a calm and gullible demeanor.
“You’ll have to reg­is­ter first,” she said.

I made to head to her desk to do just that but she soon put a stop to that.

“First, you need to go out­side, scan the QR code to access the reg­is­tra­tion page. After that’s done, you can log in to the sys­tem to sched­ule an appoint­ment,” she explained.
“Hmm,” I mut­tered. “I haven’t got a phone,” I said.

The woman looked at me in bewil­der­ment. It seemed like she couldn’t com­pre­hend what I was say­ing. Recov­er­ing her pro­fes­sion­al demeanor, she explained that the process could only be car­ried out elec­tron­i­cal­ly, although it still required my actu­al ID card. Luck­i­ly, I had brought that with me.

Suf­fice to say that all my attempts to per­suade the woman for an appoint­ment amount­ed to noth­ing. The oper­a­tion could not be com­plet­ed. The employee’s adamant resolve that things could not take place, was fur­ther proof that in today’s dig­i­tal age, in which robots and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence rule, log­ic and com­mon sense were noth­ing but anti­quat­ed con­cepts of bygone times. We now lived at the mer­cy of a con­fus­ing era that allowed no depar­ture from the rules, and opt­ed to squash all dis­si­dents and deviants that chal­lenged authority.

I returned home defeat­ed and deflat­ed, know­ing that I would not be able to go out again. It was turn­ing out to be a lone­some and tough day, one suit­ed only for stay­ing in, and con­tem­plat­ing my state of affairs. All I desired was to be alone with my thoughts. Besides that, a feel­ing deep inside me wished to latch on to this pecu­liar predica­ment — insti­gat­ed by a rebel­lious phone — as fur­ther excuse for my con­stant intro­ver­sion where I could safe­ly observe the world from afar. For in dis­tanc­ing one­self from real­i­ty, one is bet­ter able to under­stand it and there­fore to respond to it.

One fine day, I remem­bered that my friend had gift­ed me a toy, one sim­i­lar to the one we used to play with as chil­dren. It was a small flat and rec­tan­gu­lar encase­ment, made of plas­tic, that housed five tiny round beads. At its base were five tiny slots and the whole thing made a beep­ing sound each time I moved it. In order to win the game, I had to maneu­ver the con­trap­tion in such a way so that each bead would move to occu­py an emp­ty slot. Once all five beads were placed in the avail­able slots, the game was over. It was an infu­ri­at­ing game, since no soon­er did I man­age to get one bead into its posi­tion, than anoth­er one escaped, after which, frus­trat­ed, I would have to start all over again. I look back and observe how alien­at­ed and alone I must have felt on Berlin’s crowd­ed pub­lic trans­port heav­ing with pas­sen­gers glued to their phone screens, as I in turn was trans­fixed to my own beep­ing ver­sion of a screen, strug­gling to home those beads.

Soon though, the beep­ing sound became a famil­iar one. As I walked around the city, I could hear the muf­fled ding ema­nat­ing from inside my hand­bag. I always car­ried the toy with me and when I switched bags, I always made sure to take it with me. With time, the ding­ing rep­re­sent­ed com­fort and reas­sur­ance, espe­cial­ly on those nights when I walked home alone. Like the bell a shep­herd hangs around a goat’s neck to find it when it goes astray, I won­dered, whether I too, would be found in the midst of my wan­der­ing, shep­herd­ed back to safety.

I love Berlin, but some­times I for­get that I live in Germany’s cap­i­tal. I for­get I live in a large, filthy, and sav­age city, scant of bright cor­ners of relief. And, I for­get that I reside under a cold gray sky that tit­il­lates the deep recess­es of my mind.

I for­get all this, and when I remem­ber I become confused.

I con­sid­er Berlin a warm and inti­mate place. The friends I’ve made here come from lands I can only dream of vis­it­ing because of the banal­i­ties of bor­ders, pass­ports and the stu­pid­i­ty of those who decree wit­less laws. And yet, from this small place, a part of me feels that I’ve already been to all these places and expe­ri­enced them through the eyes of my friends and the sto­ries that they tell.


Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Rana Asfour.


Maisan Hamdan is a Palestinian writer, cook and activist born in Haifa and based in Berlin. She is interested in fiction and food cultures.

Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.


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