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Summer 2016

Table Talk

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Joshua Weiner

By October 14th of last year I had already spent two weeks in Berlin talking to Berliners about the refugee crisis—shop owners, academics, artists and writers, musicians, anarchists, and left-leaning students who zip around town on bikes heckling anti-immigration demonstrators—German citizens, in other words, to whom bankrolled American reporters weren’t paying much attention in their rush to the borders where foreigners were losing their lives. During the previous spring, I had planned to be in Berlin with the idea that I’d work on my German, translate poetry, reconnect with friends, and cultivate the particular feeling of life in that city, which, despite gentrification and a pile-up of construction projects, still inspires improvisation within its jagged urban spaces, amid the tonal clash of cultural privilege, entrepreneurship, celebrated non-conformity, the rough glamor of ambitious down-and-outage, strong political art-making (especially, now, photography), and the city’s darker histories (poverty, exploitation, surveillance, murder). But by August I knew that, given the state of Europe, my poor enrichment itinerary was impossible. To be in Germany in the fall was to be at the center of only one flashpoint in the new flaring concatenation.

On my second day in Berlin, I bought a used bike from a Vietnamese couple who had immigrated to East Germany forty years before and now ran a souvenir shop along the edge of the Humboldt University campus. On my brand-new used bike, I started to explore and make my way into Moabit, the Berlin Kiez settled by eighteenth-century French Huguenots fleeing persecution, and still a district defined by immigration and refugees. It wasn’t too long before I found Lageso, the collapsed slang for the Landesamt für Geshundheit und Soziales, where refugees must begin the process in their single-file campaign for asylum status in Germany. That’s where I started conducting interviews with Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Lebanese, Palestinians, and others who were milling about in a state of keen frustration and anxiety in the courtyard created by this compound of government buildings.

October 14th was a particularly miserable day. The temperature had dropped into the low forties, but with the clouds pushing down and persistent rain, it felt five degrees colder. The damp somehow hugged your bones. Walking twenty minutes, you warmed up, but as soon as you stopped it grabbed you again. The kind of day the word miserable was made for. I had already conducted a set of half-a-dozen interviews, I thought with some success. Between English and German and a few words of Arabic I had crammed on the flight over, I had managed to talk to people and they to me. They were curious about who I was and what I was doing there, and eager to tell their stories of endurance, escape, and survival. I had decided not to use any new technology in conducting the interviews, but simply to listen and write quickly in a reporters’ notebook that a journalist friend had given me, lifted from the supply room of the Washington Post. Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter: I was certainly naive enough to play the part, though my gray hair and middle-age waist made the fit rather tight.

I headed back over to Lageso, this time on foot, the better to protect myself from the weather. Along the walk up Kirchstrasse, the restaurants were empty; the signs of gentrification had retracted like testicles hitting ice water. Beer-bellied uniforms stood outside government buildings pulling on smokes and staying dry beneath overhangs. I saw a dapper grad-student-type cut through a construction site I had been barred from entering earlier. He had the determined stride of one routinely running late. Five minutes later, I passed by him on a path that stretched the long length of the construction fence, behind which he stood, querulously looking around for an exit. My newborn little inner German grew superciliously erect. Dapper Man had broken the rules. Now he was trapped, ha ha, and would have to retrace his steps.

Lageso deepened the day’s misery. The grounds were mudflats, an infernal terrestrial cream of shit everywhere mixed with the rubbish of refugee existence, churned all day with the waiting wandering feet that stamped down to squeeze some cold off the toes. People were wearing thin plastic ponchos handed out by volunteers—essentially garbage bags. And some were wearing actual garbage bags on their heads for extra protection. Others sought shelter under the eaves of buildings, standing, huddling beneath wet blankets, and squirming uncomfortably in saturated dome tents. I tried my poor Arabic words: Marhaban

Kazim, a thirty-two-year-old Palestinian, worked in Damascus as an engineer. He had been waiting with his father for two weeks, having traveled to Berlin via Turkey, the Greek island of Samos, Athens, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Passau (in lower Bavaria). He was standing with Yasirah, a forty-year-old Syrian who worked in Damascus as a legal secretary. Her four-year-old daughter had been sick for two days with fever, but the volunteers stationed at the first-aid facility were not dispensing medication because they’re not doctors. And there were other sources of distress. I had learned the words like a chorus from earlier interviews: the waiting, the guards, the slowness, the cold. I tried to ask them more about their situations in Damascus before leaving home and their respective journeys to Berlin. But Yasirah didn’t speak English or German, and Kazim’s English was too rudimentary to get past the static of physical discomfort, the anxiety visible in their faces. Still, there was buoyant fortitude and humor—I mistook the pronunciation of “secretary” for “security” and asked Yasirah, incredulously, You were in security? They both laughed and pointed to the security guards at Lageso, who had exchanged their red fleeces for heavy red coats and moved from the central grounds to the marginal protection of a building overhang. I turned back to Kazim and Yasirah. Their smiles were genuine, deeper than their uncertainty and desperation. What can you do, said Kazim, to help us? Now his handsome strong smile had pain in it. All I can do right now, I said, is try to make people understand; I know it’s nothing. It’s okay, he said, and he held out his hand. I wished at that moment for an economy that could exchange the bodily warmth of his hand for a slip of official paper. But none exists. My regret at not being able to do more, an American in Germany, was too uncomfortable. I said good-bye. I had to leave them. They haven’t left me, but what can that feeling translate into; how and why could it matter?

Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish. His Berlin Notebook has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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