Sudden Journeys: From Munich with Love and Realpolitik

27 December, 2021


The front yard of the home of the Abboushi cousins in Munich (pho­tos cour­tesy Jenine Abboushi).

Jenine Abboushi


My uncle Walid, now 85 years old, looks like Eqbal Ahmad but moves like my father, I thought in Munich on my birth­day this month, as I watched him dance gen­tly to Oum Kalthoum, arms raised. Oliv­er Jamil, my cousin, likes his father to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear Ara­bic, the music of his home­land, Pales­tine. My 17-year-old, Mil­lal, and I were final­ly able to go vis­it him and our Ger­man fam­i­ly he had found­ed, all doc­tors. Like both my father and my dear friend Eqbal (Pak­istani writer, activist, leader in the Alger­ian rev­o­lu­tion dur­ing his Prince­ton years), both now gone­, Walid is dark-skinned, gen­tle, with salt and pep­per hair, and a twin­kle in his eye despite his advanc­ing senil­i­ty. Oliv­er explained to him sev­er­al times who we were (“who is this schön frau?”), and when he found out again, he chuck­led, hugged and kissed us. Uncle Walid had the same chuck­le as my grand­fa­ther in Jenin when I was a child.

When Walid was young and mar­ried to Gudrun, the moth­er of his sons—fair and blond with much charis­ma and style—they made for a sexy cou­ple. The year before the civ­il war when my fam­i­ly lived in Beirut, Gudrun once smacked Walid’s arm with her clutch bag, stand­ing next to our table in a Ham­ra ter­race-café, which only added to their cin­e­mat­ic mag­net­ism. The grown-ups lat­er spec­u­lat­ed jok­ing­ly about what Walid may have done to upset her.

The two part­ed ways when their boys were young, and Gudrun now has Anto­nio, her droll and good-natured Ital­ian hus­band. He nat­u­ral­ly speaks to every­one in Ital­ian, and if we answer in Eng­lish he trans­lates for us. By his pres­ence, the fam­i­ly now speaks Ital­ian with­out hav­ing lived in Italy or stud­ied the lan­guage. Anto­nio quipped to Millal—during the Bavar­i­an din­ner that Oliver’s adorable wife Miri­am and their two daugh­ters prepared—that my uncle Walid will sure­ly die “con un piat­to in mano” (with a plate in his hand). This recom­posed fam­i­ly gath­ers reg­u­lar­ly for din­ners and outings.

Gudrun is now a live­ly 80-year-old and is still a prac­tic­ing doc­tor three times a week in Oliver’s pri­vate clin­ic. She oth­er­wise spends hours a day with her younger son Alexan­der Tarek, who is now tetraplegic with severe brain dam­age and 24-hour care after an acci­dent ten years ago. He had an aller­gic reac­tion to an antibi­ot­ic, fell uncon­scious to the floor in the Berlin hos­pi­tal where he worked as a neu­rol­o­gist, with “not one, not two, not three, but four” doc­tors sur­round­ing him, exclaims Gudrun, hold­ing her fin­gers up. Oliv­er told me that those doc­tors, used to treat­ing epilep­sy, mis­took Alex­is’ strug­gle as an epilep­tic fit and trag­i­cal­ly failed to resus­ci­tate him in time. His moth­er tells us that he can still say “mama” and “Naela” (the name of Oliver’s 11-year old). She knows he can see some light out of the cor­ner of his left eye, and can fol­low what we say. Oliv­er does every­thing for his broth­er, she explains, but he is more skep­ti­cal about Alex’s capac­i­ties. At one point dur­ing our vis­it to Alex that week­end, Mil­lal and I real­ized we should not talk about whether Alex can fol­low what we say. Per­haps for his moth­er the idea that he can­not under­stand is unbear­able, and for his broth­er the idea that he can under­stand, locked in immo­bil­i­ty, is unbearable.

In my mind’s eye I can see Alex at the lake we went to out­side of Munich with the fam­i­ly, when my daugh­ter Shez­za was five years old some years before his acci­dent. He was glid­ing her along as she lay bare-skinned on a surf­board in the sun­light, the both of them chat­ting and laugh­ing. We, their par­ents, looked on in delight of their mirth and beauty.

Uncle Walid’s wife Gudrun and her daughter-in-law.

In turn, Mil­lal and I talked to Alex dur­ing our vis­it, and he did seem to focus in on our words and pres­ence. I told Mil­lal to touch Alex’s shoul­der while talk­ing to him, because he can­not see. We all sat around a table in front of large win­dows over­look­ing a yard with leafy trees. Anto­nio and Gudrun showed us a video of Alex giv­ing a lec­ture at the inau­gur­al con­fer­ence of an inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tion he had found­ed to explore the con­nec­tions between neu­rol­o­gy and aes­thet­ics. The sub­ject is sur­pris­ing. We dis­cussed how the psy­cho-emo­tion­al work of abstract con­tem­po­rary art is intan­gi­ble, pow­er­ful, prob­a­bly hard to map in the brain, and per­haps neu­rol­o­gy is a sci­ence of sim­i­lar forms of pow­er. I won­dered briefly, look­ing over at him, how he feels when he hears his own voice from long ago. I saw that he had dozed off briefly. And I thought of his wife, as he was mar­ried at the time of his accident.

Gudrun hand­ed me the descrip­tion of the asso­ci­a­tion, writ­ten in Eng­lish, and I start­ed to read it aloud. Alex lis­tened intent­ly and Gudrun tapped on our arms to say, “see?” And yes, as Mil­lal lat­er described, Alex closed his mouth and sat up to lis­ten to what he had once writ­ten. We were at once moved and dev­as­tat­ed. His moth­er told us that he has got­ten bet­ter and he will still. “Ten years!” she exclaimed, gaz­ing at me in her pain, and I leaned over to catch hold of her arm.

Soon Oliv­er arrived to fetch us to go to town with Miri­am and the girls, Naela and Hele­na. We took leave of Alex. Oliv­er clasped his arm, and we told him we loved him. He straight­ened his body rigid­ly in his wheel­chair, and squeezed tears out of his eyes. Stunned and heart­bro­ken, Mil­lal and I fol­lowed Oliv­er out­side. We remain in awe of their devo­tion and love, all of them. It com­mands such respect, is rich with mean­ing, and con­jures up our own love and sense of belong­ing. Our Ger­man fam­i­ly lives in a pret­ty area and with­in a five-minute dri­ve of one anoth­er. The girls play hock­ey and music, sleep over at Gudrun and Antonio’s house reg­u­lar­ly, and the adults have suc­cess­ful, sat­is­fy­ing careers. Each morn­ing the girls rush to their Christ­mas cal­en­dar with the lit­tle hang­ing gifts. They open that day’s pack­age, put togeth­er their new toys, and we eat break­fast while watch­ing the two kit­tens attack the wrap­ping paper strewn on the floor. And they all lead con­tent­ed lives that hold a tragedy, and dis­cov­er ways to tend to all mem­bers of their beloved family.

The Ohel Jacob Syn­a­gogue in Munich is built with Pales­tin­ian paving stones.

Walk­ing around in an open down­town mar­ket, Mil­lal eat­ing a deli­cious pick­le wrapped in paper, the girls sip­ping fresh juice, we came upon the town syn­a­gogue, Ohel Jakob, built 68 years after the Nazi destruc­tion of the orig­i­nal syn­a­gogue on Kristall­nacht in 1938. “The stones are from Pales­tine,” remarked Oliv­er, “stolen.” Yes, the struc­ture seems some­how famil­iar, I respond­ed. But the stones were also defa­mil­iar­ized here in Munich’s Jakob­splatz, far from home, and dif­fer­ent­ly cut and mount­ed. Stand­ing next to the impos­ing ver­ti­cal rec­tan­gles of this mau­soleum-like struc­ture, we must have felt that we, too, par­take in its ref­er­ence to destruc­tion and loss. We took a fam­i­ly pho­to in front of the mil­len­ni­al stones that here embody our hid­den Pales­tin­ian his­to­ry. They are the chalky, traver­tine stones that form the hous­es and build­ings of our peo­ple, and now lend an authen­tic facade to Israeli set­tle­ments and mon­u­ments, quar­ried from Pales­tin­ian land and built by Pales­tin­ian labor.

That evening Oliv­er and Miri­am invit­ed us to dine in a chic Asian fusion restau­rant sur­round­ed by some of their friends and acquain­tances. They took my uncle Walid along, as they often do, and he sat near Mil­lal and I, eat­ing con­tent­ed­ly, look­ing around at the giant, red-black pho­tographs of boys’ faces lin­ing the back wall, lis­ten­ing in half-com­pre­hen­sion to whomev­er leaned for­ward to talk with him.

A lawyer who accom­pa­nied Oliv­er to Jenin, and lat­er helped with the Ger­man tax­es fol­low­ing my uncle’s land sale, came to sit next to me and chat. He was friend­ly, and start­ed up a polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion. Had the Pales­tini­ans just tak­en what was offered, he argued, been less resis­tant, they would have lost less land. They mis­cal­cu­lat­ed. “Would you not rather go back to 1975, when you had more land and there was no wall?”

I was not sure I felt like dis­cussing with this lawyer. It is not that the Arabs and Pales­tini­ans did not make dis­as­trous mis­takes and fol­low wrong-head­ed poli­cies along the way. But this is not what exiled us from Pales­tine. What has led to the dis­in­her­i­tance of our gen­er­a­tions is Israel’s expan­sion­ist project, U.S. finan­cial and mil­i­tary sup­port (on a scale unmatched in his­to­ry), and the impuni­ty with which the Israelis con­tin­ue to rob and destroy. I respond­ed that even par­tic­i­pat­ing in our own dis­pos­ses­sion has not stopped the Israelis. Look at the work of our ful­ly col­lab­o­ra­tionist Pales­tin­ian author­i­ty, I said, and the Israelis accel­er­ate, if any­thing, in land, prop­er­ty, and water theft. The lawyer informed me that I am mak­ing a moral argu­ment, and yet I must know that strong, mod­ern coun­tries will choose to sup­port Israel for strate­gic reasons.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, moral alliances do not have much pow­er, insist­ed the lawyer again, and prag­mat­ic pol­i­tics has no use for defeat­ed peo­ples the world over.

Mil­lal tried sev­er­al times to say some­thing, but the lawyer ignored him. (“I’m not used to peo­ple not giv­ing a shit about what I think,” he remarked lat­er as we walked out.)  The lawyer’s line odd­ly remind­ed me of a self-defense class we sat through in high school in the States. If we are sex­u­al­ly assault­ed, the instruc­tor explained, we should know that resist­ing could get us killed. Bet­ter to note your aggressor’s height and the col­or of his hair so as to be able iden­ti­fy him lat­er. This shocked me at the time. I was recent­ly relieved to read Vir­ginie Despentes, who ques­tions why we are not encour­aged to kill our aggres­sors, even at risk. She won­ders whether rape would be as wide­spread in this case.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, moral alliances do not have much pow­er, insist­ed the lawyer again, and prag­mat­ic pol­i­tics has no use for defeat­ed peo­ples the world over. This star­tling ver­sion of Realpoli­tik indeed jarred with our spell­bind­ing fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence that week­end, to say the least. Mil­lal and I held each other’s gaze as the lawyer made this final point about hope­less pop­u­la­tions, and we stood up to leave. I slipped my hand through my uncle’s arm as we head­ed out. The lawyer walked in front of us with his gal, who sud­den­ly held up a wood­en skew­er, pulled the last piece of chick­en off with her teeth, laugh­ing, and flung it to the ground in front of the line of wait­ers near the door. They were as stunned as I was, and I quick­ly bent down to pick it up, hor­ri­fied that the wait­ers would be forced to do so. One took it from me as I stood back up, and we exchanged glances before I caught up with my family.

We left Munich, Mil­lal and I, grate­ful to bear wit­ness to and share in our family’s qui­et, remark­able lives.



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