Neukölln was the first neighbourhood I lived in in Berlin. Truth be told it felt like home: since I had Arab and Turkish shopkeepers on all sides, and shisha cafes and Arab hair salons everywhere. This was important, particularly the hairdressers, since there is no room for the slightest mistake resulting from a mistranslation between you and the person cutting your hair. Hairdressers usually make mistakes even when they speak your mother tongue, even after you’ve given them a detailed explanation of how you want your hair to look. For instance, they will insist on interpreting, “I just want a couple of millimetres taken off my split ends,” to mean: I want you to cut off every last strand of my filthy hair, this reminder of all my mistakes, this nest of Medusa’s vipers. I want to punish myself for all the sins of my former life by mutilating my scalp.”
The point is not the neighbourhood where I lived, but rather the bewilderment I’d feel whenever relatives and neighbours in Syria would ask me strange questions about my life in Germany: “Is it true that Germans are racists?” “Is it true that if you ask one of them a question in English, they’ll refuse to answer even when they speak it?” “Is it true that the streets there are cleaner than our hospitals?” “Is it true that if someone drops dead in the street in Germany, no one turns round?”
The questions astonished me, especially the ones about German racism. I had no answer to give because I genuinely had no idea where these Germans were supposed to be. I mean, I never saw much of them in my neighbourhood. I saw Arabs like myself, Turks, some Italians and Spaniards and a few Americans, but I knew precious little about Germans. I’d only ever run into them by chance, and infrequently at that, and so I had no idea if racism was common among them or not. To me, Germans remained a nebulous presence. I was once obliged to travel to the outer reaches of East Berlin, which meant I had to take a train which would deliver me to a station on the S-Bahn 7 line.
A friend offered to come with me and together we got onto Train 7. Gazing at the great quantities of blond hair clumped thickly round the carriage I felt deliriously happy. My God! These must be Germans! I’ve heard so much about you guys! My friend broke me out of my astonished, statue-like trance and pulled me over to our seats. I was still gaping happily at the passengers. There was an old lady sitting opposite and staring back at us, but not so happily, seemed. I turned to my friend to discuss the steps needed to complete an application at the job centre. He gently shushed me and whispered: “Don’t say its name in English because they know what it means.” I looked around and saw that he was right. The looks of disgust were on the rise. I thought how it must look to them: a pair of brown-skinned people, apparently foreigners (and even worse, immigrants), talking together in a strange, violent-sounding language, and then all of a sudden a single, comprehensible phrase, “Job Centre”, springing from their lips. For the rest of the journey I kept my mouth shut. I later learned that this issue had troubled many more people besides myself. I noticed that other immigrants I met, on public transport, municipal offices or at school, had devised coded phrases to avoid having to say the provocative words “Job Centre” out loud. Some simply compressed it to “Job”, while others would say it in Arabic (adding, “Do you understand me?” just in case). Still others would use the word “group” to reference it, as in: “I went to the group,” or, “the group asked me to…” However this last option, it seems, came across as considerably more suspicious than “Job Centre” itself because it hinted at some shadowy link with an extremist organisation or, at best, with drug dealers.
As it happens, it wasn’t limited to concealing a phrase from ordinary citizens so as not to annoy them. When the flow of Syrians to Europe began in earnest, many didn’t want it known that they were intending to apply for refugee status, or that they had obtained residency permits as refugees. This was particularly common in circles that could be considered “intellectual” in some shape or form, in which being a refugee was regarded as shameful. Oddly enough, all the Syrians I met when I first arrived said they were in Germany on work or study visas, dismissing the very idea they had applied for refugee status while saying that, “of course”, they didn’t blame “ordinary people” and those “who had no choice” from doing so.
After we had got past the stage of concealing our refugee status, after it became common knowledge that we were all at it, we started to up the ante in other ways. It was almost like a competition: “Who is the least refugee-like?” I’ve overheard conversations in which one person boasts to another that they have a five-year residency visa, rather than a three-year one, which in their view means they are a “guest” rather than a refugee (even though there is no such official category). The boast is designed to aggravate the other person who only has a three-year visa and who is also looking to get on the scoreboard. So he might respond, for instance, by saying that he is employed (“thanks be to God”) and pays his taxes and doesn’t have to depend on the job centre for his living (“as some do”: meaning the first person), which is why he will get nationality faster than others. And so on.
There is another important competition, under the heading, “Who is most assimilated?”. This is usually won by the competitor who can claim the greatest number of German friends and the fewest Syrians, or at least is prepared to claim this is the case. His addiction to this dangerous game drove one man to almost miraculous lengths, he was able to attend parties at any time of day or night. Whenever you met him, whatever the time, he would volunteer the information that he had just got back from a party “with his German friends”. Such behaviour is only rarely associated with an inferiority complex. The fact is that there’s a worrying custom whereby those who reached Berlin earlier greet new arrivals with phrases like: “I keep myself away from the gossip and lies and negativity you find among Syrians. I only ever run into them by accident. Most of my friends these days are German.” With a little experience I learned to be suspicious of those who harped on this particular theme, since within the course of a single day you’d find they were the most likely people to have reported the contents of your conversation to every Arabic speaker inside the German Republic and neighbouring countries.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger
PDF of the entire short story collection: https://lb.boell.org/en/2017/01/26/launch-abu-jurgen-german-ambassador-and-i-and-invention-german