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