Nourhan Tewfik: Of/On Berlin

(1)

A cloudy haze slowly subsides, making way for less blurry vision. Everything is opaque white. The 35m2 studio, the walls that make up its confines, even the ceramic wall tiles that adorn the open kitchen. The white-painted wooden desk neighbors the open kitchen. It looks onto a mini-balcony with a view of a small patch of greenery. It occurs to me that the yellow-turquoise color combination gentrifying the façades of nearby buildings is a grave mismatch, especially with the oliveness that commands the space. I push my sluggish body out of the side bed and onto the parquet floor whose hue is a confused mix of hazel and grey. My feet brushing against the ground is a daily exercise in groundedness. In my mind it is so intertwined with the whiff of floral spice that always follows minutes later. Tchibo’s African Blue brewed in a French press. I make my way to the grey couch, ceramic mug in one hand, a slice of Spinat-Knoblauch Quiche in the other. I don’t have much time this morning. It’s a busy Monday and I have two classes to attend at Freie Universität. I like being in Berlin, getting up early to read snippets from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah, discuss theories in Arabic Studies, and study patterns of city making in the “Muslim” world. I am struggling with my Deutschkurs. I don’t like the academicness dictating second-language teaching. I despise the words Hausarbeit, Test and even the kleine Pause, together they enshrine language-acquisition in a chronic anxiety. To me, acquiring a language is a deeply personal endeavor. It is the danke, tschüss and bitte that despite being inundated with the “wrong” accent grant me a temporary, maybe fake, sense of integration. Luckily, Berlin knows better than to single anyone out on account of ignorance of German, or so I think. I give way to cowardice and make temporary peace with my verbal ineptitude.

50 minutes and a bus ride later, I arrive at FU and hurriedly make my way to the building where I’ll be reuniting with fellow aspiring Arabists this morning. Minutes later, our professor shows up and directs us to the introductory pages of the Muqadimmah. He asks for reading volunteers and we fall silent. Despite our different backgrounds and equally different proficiency levels, we are terrified of Arabic. It is not the language that petrifies us per se, but rather our fear of linguistic blemishes. It is only with the third call for volunteers that some of our more courageous colleagues reluctantly raise their hands. They start uttering the words, the professor, for his part, listening through and patiently correcting clumsy slips as they ensue. We reread and discuss, punctuating the text with our multiple understandings of it. If there’s a hint of magic, it’s here—in the moments when stiffness recedes making way for the playfulness of the alternative. When our own stories collapse into the reading moment, dictating and in turn dictated by what we read and how we read it. Class is over and we’re ready for our two-hour Pause. We decide to escape the Mensa’s dull food for a change and make a detour to Ristorante Galileo instead. Perhaps I should try Rossella’s most cherished Panzerotto today.

(2)

Day three in Berlin. I get off the U-Bahn at Rathaus Neukölln and follow my Google Maps directions as I try and find the way to Wolf Kino in Weserstraße. It’s a fine early October afternoon. It’s not so cold, at least not yet according to the many Berliners who keep stressing that “winter is coming”. I’m shivering with excitement. I reminisce about Cairo, particularly Adly Street where, two years earlier, in December 2015, I met with the Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla, one of Akher Ayam El Madina’s key characters, for a long interview. His new feature film The Narrow Frame of Midnight, directed by the Moroccan-Iraqi filmmaker Tala Hadid, had just made its Cairo debut at the Panorama of the European Film of that year. We met at Eish + Malh, an Italian-style eatery opposite the synagogue, and talked film, Cairo and revolution.

“In den letzten Tagen der Stadt.” I get my ticket and wait. Hanging on one wall is a big board exhibiting dozens of film stills, each with a designated space for audience feedback. I snap a photo and post it on Facebook. My elation at finally seeing this film is ineffable. I feel the urge to announce it to the virtual world. Minutes later, we are led into the mini cinema hall. The words Akher Ayam El Madina, in English In the Last Days of the City, adorn the film screen. For the next couple of hours, I take off on a cinematic voyage to Cairo, specifically Downtown, led by the talented director Tamer El Said. When one scene talks Cairo and Beirut, I immediately recall the following words by Etel Adnan, excerpted from her 2005 memoir In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country: To think of Beirut, dream of Palestine, miss Baghdad, be reminded of the impossibility to be ever totally where one is.” And so I improvise: To be in Berlin, long for Cairo, miss Beirut, be reminded of the possibility to be anywhere one longs to be. A transcendence of space, whereby Berlin becomes the capital of Arab cities, even if momentarily.

On my way out of the movie theatre, I decide to make a stop at Sonnenallee, otherwise known as Sharea al’Arab or Arab Street, for a quick bite. At Azzam restaurant, I order a hearty plate of fattet hummus as I sneakingly eavesdrop on some of the Arabic conversations unfolding around me. Restlessness takes over. Home is no longer intact, I think to myself. It is blurred by the murmurs of disquiet and the moments of unrest that have piled up over the years.

I bring out my phone and start planning my trip home. From Azzam I walk to the nearby U-Bahnhof Rathaus Neukölln and take the U7 to S-Bahnhof Neukölln.

 

(3)

Today may easily be my unluckiest day in Berlin yet. My destination is Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg. Google Maps tells me I need to take a bus, followed by an S-Bahn, then another S-Bahn and finally a bus to get there. The trip should take a little over an hour. I arrive at the bus stop on Breite Straße. It’s a little chilly out tonight. I wait for 20 minutes, sipping my Club Mate for a quick caffeine fix before the 186 bus finally arrives. I utter a “hallo” to the bus driver and swiftly show him my student card, to which he nods. I grab the window seat and notice that the bus is empty, except for three quiet passengers. When we finally approach the stop at Grunewald where I’ll be taking the S-Bahn to the next stop on my route, the driver says something in German and I try to keep up with his pace, to little avail. I gather that he’s telling us to get off here, citing temporary changes in today’s bus route. I freak out a little. It’s only been a month since I arrived to Berlin and these unplanned adventures still catch me off guard. To make things worse, my phone refuses to react to my desperate attempts at locating a different route. So I walk to this guy who just got off the same bus and ask if he knows the way to S-Bahnhof Grunewald. He’s wearing a short ponytail, with sharp facial features and emerald eyes. He says he’s going there too and suggests we walk together. And so we do, for the next 10 minutes or so.

 

Where are you from?

Poland.

Nice.

I’m Egyptian.

Ah yes yes, the Pyramids.

And yourself?

I can’t speak Polish no.

Teach me a word or two.

In Arabic you say, esmii kaza.

What’s your name btw? Ah, nice. What do you do for a living?

Not at all, your English is very good.

So what brought you to Berlin?

Ah, gottcha.

Two more minutes?

Cigarettes?

Not sure, but I guess there’s a spätkauf close to the S-Bahnhof.

Ah, finally!

 

We run to catch the S-Bahn but miss it by seconds. The next one arrives in ten minutes. So the conversation continues, an unsettling combination of familiarity and awkwardness. It is with the arrival of the S7 that my anxiety subsides a little. We hop on and I tell him I’m getting off at the next station. I thank him for his help and we wave goodbye. I message my friend apologizing for what I figured would be a 20-minute delay and cite transportation hurdles. I arrive at Westkreuz and run to take the S41. It occurs to me that we should have at least exchanged numbers, that stranger and I. Berlin is so lavish with its friendship opportunities but I keep missing them. Time after time. Or do I?

 

Text and images by Nourhan Tewfik