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Assimilation

Emily Dische-Becker about assimilation
27.02.14
1 min
Post

Bassem*, the youngest of six, has an older brother who has been living in Bavaria for some 30 years. He refers to him as “German Brother,” and while I’ve met this brother many times, I can never retain his real name. German Brother, like many Lebanese expatriates in France who voted overwhelmingly for Sarkozy, has developed strong opinions about the undesirability of immigrants. Especially Turks. When German Brother returned to Lebanon last summer, as he does every year, he regaled the neighbors with stories from Germany over coffee in the garden. “This Turkish delivery guy – what an idiot,” he said. “We live in building 22B. The dude couldn’t find it. He kept calling and calling me, stumbling around the premise. He didn’t know that building B is always in the back! Can you believe that?”

The story didn’t resonate, Bassem reported. In Lebanon, they make do without street names and house numbers.

Lebensraum

Emily Dische-Becker about Lebensraum
24.02.14
6 min
Post

According to my mother, I had sworn off all forms of organized religion, and God’s very existence, by the age of four. Initially, the characteristic attributes of the Almighty were transferred to Mary Poppins, who I believed was all-knowing and vengeful. Our babysitter took advantage of this, sending us letters every day penned in the name of the indignant Disney nanny, detailing our misdeeds, compelling us to behave. Later, my fear of cosmic punishment grew amorphous, and so I tried to ward off misfortune by embracing standard commandments, such as Thou Shalt Be Generous Toward Strangers and Thou Shalt Not Be a Greedy Pig.

These, however, only apply on land. In the air, all social mores are naturally suspended; because flight is a matter of life or death. For this reason, and despite the extra legroom it affords, I always decline to sit in the emergency exit row on airplanes, where it is stipulated that one help others in case of accident. I have no intention of helping anyone get off a burning wreck before saving myself, but I’ve found that admitting this fact while the safety rites are being read will get you moved to an undesirable middle seat (my word processor tried to auto-correct this to undesirable Middle East).

On an airplane, I will shamelessly pursue any material gain to alleviate the discomfort of being sardined into a death trap with 230 wretched strangers.  And there are others like me: frequent fliers without the class benefits. Those of our ilk lie in waiting until everyone is seated, and then find a better seat or row, and occupy it. We recognize eachother’s darting eyes scanning the aisles before the airplane doors close, and salute each other after a brazen takeover.

Then there are the others not adept enough at flying who are left sandwiched in next to their sweaty seat partners. They are often embittered and  envious of our conquests.

And so it happened that one of these resentful passengers tried to intrude on the comfy lair I had arranged for myself on a recent flight from Berlin to Doha.

My original seat wasn’t all that bad  – a two-seat row  all to myself. But the adjacent center row boasted even better real estate: four empty seats. And so when the doors closed, I naturally moved there. An astute couple who had been seated behind me followed suit taking the row in back of mine. We bantered about our good fortune, and I soon got comfortable, stacking all the pillows on one side, wrapping myself in blankets galore, to try to sleep – and forget.

About 45 minutes into the six-hour flight, a young woman came and dropped her book down on the final seat in my row. Smack, it hit the upholstery. I raised my head and inquired as to what she was doing; she wanted to sit here (indicating with a sweeping gesture that she intended to seize the area that the bottom third of me was occupying) to “stretch her legs out a bit.” I  suggested she instead take the two-seater that I had vacated, where she could have the same amount of space all to herself.

She glared at me and her eyes narrowed: But I want to sit here. – But it’s really the same thing if you sit over there, I countered. She issued a host of excuses about a special meal she’d ordered and about not wanting to move her suitcase, which I volunteered to move for her, until she finally announced to the whole cabin in a shrill voice: I think you are SELFISH.

Fine, I said. Are you trying to teach me a lesson, or do you actually want a more comfortable place to sit? (willst du mich erziehen?)

I want to sit here! she whinged. – Um, is this your first time on a plane? I feigned curiosity. This isn’t a social democracy, you know.

A silent staring match ensued, until she leaned forward and rang the bell to summon the stewardess, and proceeded to whisper in her ear in front of me. The stewardess looked puzzled, indicating that she couldn’t get involved in our dispute. And so, I laid my head back down and stretched out along the three seats; believing that I had deterred her, I fell asleep.

On planes, minor aggravations can quickly erupt into major confrontations. It’s like going home to stay with your parents for a spell, knowing in advance that you will helplessly regress, lose any sense of adult agency, and fall prey to ancient provocations. You can convince yourself you’re all grown up now and can defuse, rather than escalate, a silly argument over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher (compared with the other incorrigibly truculent members of your family), only to toss all good intentions to the wind.

And so it was on the plane. I would stay and fight for my seat(s) until the bitter end.

I was awakened when the armrest between the two center seats I was occupying slammed down on my leg. I waited a second, then pushed it back up again. She slammed it down again. This time I kicked it up. I felt her feet sliding along the seats and digging into my shins. A kick. I kicked back, and raised my head: “Have you lost your mind?” I hissed. “Listen, you little snitch: Stop kicking me. I have to work tomorrow and need to sleep.” I considered lying about my profession. I am a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, you monster! Children in field hospitals will perish if I don’t rest. She was seething with contempt, but replied in a saccharin little girl’s voice: “But why are you so bothered by me? I don’t mind sharing the space with you.”

This prompted an Austrian man to get up and announce that he, too, thought I was selfish. He turned to the woman and declared, with a breathless appreciation for her commitment to the good fight: “In my opinion, you are right.” This alliance, at once new and time-tested, didn’t help my mood. “I don’t give a shit what you think,” I growled. “Mob moralists.”

I laid my head down again, but didn’t sleep a wink for the rest of the flight, expecting other passengers to enlist in their campaign against me.  United by ancient contempt, my two enemies struck up a conversation that lasted until we landed. In the meantime, every time I dozed off, I was awakened by the seatbelt buckle clunking on my ankle, which I endured with a smile, or by the weight of a stack of books she’d arranged on top of my feet. Turning every once in a while, I’d toss the books off. She was not the type to be discouraged: lovingly, she re-arranged them, while chipperly conversing with her new Austrian friend. Neither of us slept.

When the lights went on and I sat up and returned to my original seat, the newly-found couple were planning a backpacking holiday together in Sri Lanka.

Emily Dische-Becker about Confessions of a bi-illiterate
17.02.14
3 min
Post

A few nights ago, I read a story I wrote for the launch of Block Magazin at a gallery in Berlin. As is customary to disclose, I informed the audience that the story had been translated from English – the language in which I write – into German. Afterwards, and certainly not for the first time, a man approached me and said that while he liked the story, he was irritated (“in the German sense of irritiert,” he qualified) that I had written in English, when I was so perfectly capable of reading in German.

What an inexplicable deficiency. Like being able to ice- but not roller skate.

I am admittedly irritated – in the English sense – by the frequency with which I field such queries, as if it were evidence of some embarrassing affectation or identity denial. I detect aggressive presumption, not curiosity in these questions. But isn’t German your mother tongue?Well no, actually it isn’t (and if I were to indulge my own presumptions: For reasons loosely pertaining to your Nazi grandfather, my mother was born and raised in New York…)

Until the age of sixteen, I lived in Berlin with my German father and American mother, and was raised and schooled in both languages. While I could certainly read English and German with ease, the bilingual school I attended in Berlin decided that, in lieu of disciplined dual language instruction, students would be reared in a parochial hybrid tongue whose utility did not extend beyond the campus grounds.

The John F. Kennedy Schule was established in the early 1960s during the Allied occupation as a flagship of bi-cultural good will. By the 1990s, when I was a student there, it was a lousy Cold War relic with a bloated bureaucracy resulting from the maintenance of dual German and American school administrations, despite an ever dwindling number of native English-speaking students. At JFK, you were free to write an exam in English, and if a word didn’t come to mind, simply insert its German equivalent. You could even apply German conjugations to English verbs! Subjects were taught haphazardly in either language, with instruction often switching each year. Phonetic approximations of words moseyed into my speech and writing; the resulting functional bi-illiteracy only further exacerbated by the limited vocabulary often favored by teenagers. This did not afflict me alone, but thousands of survivors of this institution.

When I left Berlin to move to Dublin, with no intention of ever returning, I began to read furiously in English in order to overcome my handicap, and purposefully neglected to do the same in German. Over many years – all the way through high school and well into college in the US – I struggled to rid my writing of grammatical Germanisms.

Having  recently moved back to Berlin some fifteen years later, I live in terror of a relapse. In German, I have the vocabulary of a sixteen-year old pot head. I consider it an act of consideration that I abstain from writing anything but emails in it.

The responses elicited by my stubborn refusal to write in German however beget other questions:

Why do the non-proficient choose to write in English, often on these very 60pages? Is fluent mastery of language subjective? Is International English, with its uninhibited disregard for grammatical conventions, such as correct preposition usage, a language in its own right? Freed from the rigors of German, is the experience of writing in English emancipatory? Does English perhaps in fact deserve to be bastardized, because it is the language of Empire, of globalized capital and culture?

The quibbling patient

Emily Dische-Becker about the quibbling patient
12.02.14
2 min
Post

I went to the ER this evening because of a pain in my left eye. The eye doctor on duty, a young bespectacled fellow with an extravagant quiff of blonde hair, wanted to test my vision by making me read a series of ascending odd and even numbers.

He pointed to the sign across the room and instructed me to cover one eye and read the top row, then the bottom. “What does the top row say?” he asked with contrived earnestness. I told him this wouldn’t work as a test, because I had already seen the numbers. “It’s not a test,” he emphasized, adjusting his spectacles. “I trust you.” – “But I don’t trust myself,” I explained.

This soured the rest of our interaction.

When he handed me my prescription and told me to go for a check up the following week, with my “regular eye doctor,” I replied that I didn’t have one. He interpreted this as disrespect for his craft, rather than for what it was: misplaced immodesty at my hitherto perfect vision.

In the car ride back home, I told Youssef* that the doctor hadn’t liked me. “Why?” he asked. “Because I said I didn’t trust myself, and he probably thought I was being snide. Maybe I was. He was younger than me. That’s only recently been happening.

Younger – but I still have better vision. I don’t need glasses yet,” I said squinting out the window through my remaining good eye.

Emily Dische-Becker
People

I first met Emily in Beirut in 2006. We were invited to the Levant in the context of a rather badly organized art event curated by a player in the Beirut art market. My partner and I were underwhelmed but as soon as we were introduced to Emily who was working and living in Beirut we were compelled and surprised by her serious yet often humourous reading of the communal political hypocrisies at play within the confines of the various elites. It did make for intelligent fun. This was amplified by her invitation to the South of Lebanon for a little trip. It was a terrifying drive – she drove – and with it Emily narrated a brilliant, funny and precise reading of the various propaganda posters and flyers that lined the walls and the lamp posts as she speeded down the darkly lit highway. She seemed to have studied the local politics to such an extent that was unusual for someone of her age (she was 23) as was and is the timelessness of her humour. In general she makes one think better and harder and after many years having met her again and again in Berlin New York London we are certain that she is not of this earth.

The asylum hostel

Emily Dische-Becker about the asylum hostel
11.02.14
3 min
Post

The cafeteria in Building A of the Gesundheits- und Sozialzentrum Moabit (GZSM), where refugees arrive to complete the first stage of the asylum process, knows its clientele. On Monday, the “World Food” lunch option consists of Rinderroulade Hausfrauen Art, Apfelrotkraut, Klösse (beef roulade à  la housewife, apple red cabbage and dumplings.) On Wednesday, in lieu of World Food, there’s a Mediterranean option: pork roast. Culinary assimilation precedes fingerprinting, but comes after a chest x-ray, to rule out a public health risk.

At the GZSM, unlike at the first reception camp where Bassel* was erroneously sent for registration, there are a wealth of Arabic-speaking caseworkers – likely, earlier waves of refugees from Iraq and elsewhere. They conduct an interview in Arabic to gauge asylum applicants’ biographical information; whether dependents, who might later have a claim to joining their families, were left behind; and, most importantly, how on earth these desperate people managed to break into the fortress.

We were discouraged from sitting in on the interview, but succeeded in tagging along anyway upon Bassel’s urging, and sat at an adjacent table. When the caseworker raised the issue of his travel route from Syria to Germany, I politely interrupted and asked whether this information would be used against him in his asylum application. The woman assured me that it wouldn’t. She lied.

And so, he told her: he had traveled overland from eastern Syria to Turkey, then onward to Greece where he spent almost two months waiting to board a ship. The most dangerous and expensive part of the trip was concluded from Greece to Italy, packed in to a crawl space in to the engine room of a tanker with a dozen other men. From Italy to France in a truck, and onward to Germany.

According to the Dublin Convention, asylum seekers who enter Germany illegally by land should be deported to their first point of entry into the EU. In Bassel’s case: Greece. But deportations to Greece have been halted, an advocate for refugee rights I spoke to said, as asylum seekers are not guaranteed basic rights there. And so the buck could pass to Italy, and from Italy to France.

Bassel repeated the whole story to a second caseworker when he showed up for his fingerprinting appointment a few days later. She again reassured him that his itinerary was of no import to his case. She, too, apparently lied.

Bassel is now being put up at a backpacking hostel, because the asylum facilities are filled to capacity. It is mandatory that he stay there for at least three months, possibly much longer, even if he has other lodging options. The state shoulders the cost for his hostel stay: 45 Euros per night, according to the paper I glimpsed, or 1,350 Euros per month  – about 3 times the rent for a decent studio apartment in a hip part of town. Bassel shares the room, which fits five double bunk beds, with ten other men (where the eleventh man sleeps? They hug each other at night, he jokes).

In other words, the hostel room costs the state a total of 495 Euros per night. According to hotels.com, that is roughly the going rate for the 60 m2 Executive Suite at one of Berlin’s most expensive five-star hotels, the Regent in Mitte.

West Berlin: childhood landmarks

Emily Dische-Becker about West Berlin childhood landmarks
06.02.14
2 min
Post

I grew up just a few hundred meters from the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, the most distinctive feature of West Berlin’s silhouette. The church bookends the city’s former main shopping artery, the Ku’damm. It is visible from our street corner, except in summer, when the trees obscure the view and you can only make out its serrated tip.

I used to pass the church on strolls with our babysitter. Occasionally, she would bundle my brother and I across the street to shield our ears from a woman who twice a week made the steps leading up to the church her soapbox. “Ficken! Fickt für den Frieden!” (Fuck! Fuck for freedom!), she shouted and gesticulated obscenely at the pedestrians.

Later, in my teens, I once procured hashish there at 4 o’ clock in the morning, a reckless and despairing act that only bore fruit when one of my adolescent companions dropped the name of my father (a criminal defense lawyer) to the edgy Albanian drug dealer. For years, I lived in fear of being found out, so ashamed of my petty corruption.

At some point  – I don’t recall how old I was – I visited the permanent exhibition inside the church for the first time. On display were photos of the church prior to its bombing by Allied warplanes. It had never occurred to me that its jagged, fossil-like roof was anything but organic, naturally eroded by time. The church’s previous incarnation, with its orderly surroundings, appeared austere by comparison – its narrow Gothic steeple a nagging symbol of the old Germans, who wagged their bony fingers and chastised young people for putting their feet up on the subway upholstery.

My confidence in the necessity of a war that had humbled German expansionism, while granting the city a monument of such timeless beauty, soared; an aesthetic byproduct of corrective bombing.

If not yesterday, when?

Emily Dische-Becker about asylum bureaucrat dialogues
03.02.14
4 min
Post

I called the asylum intake center (Asyl-Erstaufnahmestelle) in Berlin-Spandau today, on behalf of an acquaintance who had fled Syria and made his way overland to Germany under grueling circumstances.

Locating a number for the place was a feat even for an adept Googler. All I found were protest petitions and articles decrying the deplorable conditions and overcrowding at this notorious center (according to this Spiegel article from September 2013, 551 asylum seekers were being held there, 213 of whom were children. The place was slated to be closed by the end of the year. There are 3 showers for the hundreds of women and men, respectively, on every floor of the three-story building, and very meager meals. All this, costs the state far more than it would to put people up in apartments with an allowance. Asylum advocates allege that the miserable conditions are designed to persuade asylum-seekers to leave Germany again.)

Olga finally located a phone number. Here’s the conversation I had with the man on the other line (in English and below in the original German):

– Hello, my name is Emily Dische-Becker. I’m calling on behalf of a Syrian friend who recently arrived in Germany. He is an asylum seeker and he was told to come register at the center.
– Yes, well then he should come.
– Yes, he will come. That’s why I’m calling. Can he come tomorrow?
– Does he have a piece of paper that says by which date he should register here?
– Yes he does.
– What does it say?
– It says yesterday’s date.
– Yesterday??
– Yes.
– How long has he had the paper for?
– Oh, for about four days. But he’s been staying with us. We hadn’t seen him for ages, you see, and he had a terrible time getting here, so we insisted he needed to rest. Is it okay if I come with him tomorrow?
– No. He should have come yesterday.
– Yes I can see that, but that’s no longer possible, is it?
– Pffft. Then he must come immediately.
– Well I can’t take him there today. And I can’t just put him on the subway and tell him to get off in the middle of nowhere and to keep an eye out for a barbwire encampment. He doesn’t know his way around.
– Pffft. Well then his registration has expired.
– What does that mean?
– It means he’ll have to get a new registration form.
– Where does one do that?
– Well, here.
– Oh, great. So how’s tomorrow then?
– Well we’re not open for registration today anymore. And he needs a new paper. He should have come yesterday.
–  No problem, since neither today nor yesterday work for us. So tomorrow is fine? What time?
– Well I suppose so. Around noon.
– Okay great. See you then!

-Hallo, ich heiße Emily Dische-Becker. Ich ruf für einen Freund an, der vor kurzem aus Syrien angereist ist, und hier Asyl sucht. Er hat ein Papier bekommen, wo drauf steht, dass er sich bei ihnen im Zentrum melden soll.
-Ja dann soll er mal herkommen.
– Ja, das hatten wir auch vor. Deswegen ruf ich ja an. Wie sieht’s morgen aus?
– Hat er ein Schein gekriegt wo drauf steht bis zu welchem Datum er sich hier melden muss?
– Ja hat er.
– Und- was steht drauf?
– Das Datum von gestern.
– Gestern??
– Ja.
– Seit wann hat er denn den Schein?
– Ach, so seit vier Tagen vielleicht. Er war die letzten Tage bei uns, wir haben ihn ja lange nicht gesehen und es war eine ziemlich anstrengende Anreise, verstehen sie. Wir haben darauf bestanden, daß er sich erst ein bisschen erholt. Können wir denn auch morgen kommen?
– Nee, da hätte er bis gestern erscheinen müssen.
– Ja das ist klar. Aber das geht ja jetzt nicht mehr. Oder?
– Dann muss er sofort kommen.
– Ich kann aber heute nicht. Und ich kann ihn nicht einfach in die U-bahn stecken und ihm sagen er soll irgendwo aussteigen und nach ‘nem Stacheldraht-umzaunten Lager die Augen offen halten. Er kennt sich hier ja garnicht aus.
– Ja dann ist die Anmeldung aber abgelaufen.
– Und was bedeutet das?
– Dann brauch er eine neuen Registrierungsschein.
–  Ja und wo können wir das machen?
– Na ja, das machen wir hier.
– Ach gut. Kann man das morgen machen?
– Na, die haben schon heute schon geschlossen. Det geht mit der Anmeldung um diese Uhrzeit nicht mehr. Der hätte gestern erscheinen müssen.
– Ist okay. Wir können heute und gestern ja sowieso nicht. Also morgen geht’s doch? Um wieviel Uhr?
– Na ja, es geht schon. Aber gegen mittag so.
– Ja gut. Bis dann!

Semitic noses & sanctioned stereotypes

Emily Dische-Becker about sanctioned stereotypes
03.02.14
4 min
Post

A few years ago, a Norwegian couple – academics, if I recall – attended a dinner party in Beirut. They, eager supporters of the Palestinian cause, were discussing the work of archaeologists in the West Bank, whose excavations aim to uncover evidence of ancient Jewish settlements and hence, justify Israeli seizures of Palestinian lands. Haig*, an Armenian-Lebanese who was seated next to the couple, inquired how these archaeologists could know whether skeletal remains were Jewish or not. The Norwegian woman quipped: because the skulls have big noses!

Lana*, who was present at the dinner, later relayed the story to me. “It was meant to be funny. But it was like: Hey, let me try to bond with the Arabs by making slightly racist jokes,” she said. “Yeah, and saying that to Haig of all people who has a massive schnozz,” I replied. “I guess they don’t realize that that’s a European stereotype about Jews that doesn’t really exist in the Arab world.”

Lana concurred: “Exactly! And at the end, she said: so the solution is to kill all the Israeli archeologists! and laughed. My blood curdled. I resent that she feels she can say this stuff to us.”

—————————-

A recent feature in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) about the plight of two fixers in Lebanon describes one of the two protagonists – Mohammed Ali Nayel – as having a “markiert grosse Nase” (a markedly large nose.) Nayel, a well-respected journalist in Beirut, substitutes his income as a fixer enabling foreign correspondents, most of whom don’t speak the language and often know very little about the country, to report from Lebanon.

The entire description of Nayel as an adrenalin-chasing, fidgety drifter seemed off, as if the reporter had a fixed narrative in mind and desperately wanted the two characters to fit a single mold. Nayel in fact wrote to the reporter and complained that he was grossly misrepresented in the story (he will publish his own response to her, which I will update and link to).

I myself am quite partial to large noses, but Nayel’s is – I’m sorry to say – quite unremarkable in size. Even if it were true, why is a “markedly large nose” considered a distinguishing feature among Semites to write home about? Do reporters parachute into parts of Africa and describe the “markedly dark skin” of the natives they encounter?

Stock image of an Arab.

I left the following comment under the article on the NZZ’s website (the original is in German below), stating that I found:

…the descriptive choice of “markedly large nose” not only inaccurate but also of questionable taste (and I am pretty sure that the editors of the NZZ would rightfully consider such a description exceedingly dubious if it were included in a reportage about Israel.)

The comment was published by the NZZ, albeit without the sentence where I suggested that the editors would flag such an observation were it written from Israel i.e. about Jews.

The incident, I believe, highlights a number of issues:

Foreign correspondents can pretty much write whatever they want about the inhabitants of countries where they don’t risk libel or any repercussions to their reputation or career (which is also clear from Nayel’s correspondence with the reporter after her piece was published, which he shared with me). This is neither ethical, nor does it make for very good or rigorous journalism.
The preoccupation with Semitic features hasn’t entirely been quashed, but perhaps rather transferred to a population outside of our sanctioned sensibilities. Indeed, the German-language press appears to have far fewer qualms about using language (fifth-columning, othering, construing as threatening to European values, etc.) that is generally considered anachronistic, as long as it describes swarthy types that weren’t the primary victims of Nazi racial theories.

(You can read Moe Ali Nayel’s blog here and google an image of his nose.)

—————————————

Comment I submitted to the NZZ website, part of which was omitted:

Ich kenne Herrn Nayel persönlich und erkenne ihn hier leider überhaupt nicht wieder. Zappeliger, kettenrauchender Adrenalin-Junkie der unbedingt nach Amerika auswandern will? Nayel ist ein ausgeglichener Mensch und respektierter Journalist, der seit Monaten versucht seiner Ehefrau nach London nachzuziehen. Seine erste Reise nach Syrien Mitte-2011, über die er ausführlich schrieb, war kein Rausch-jagendes Abenteuer, sondern ein Versuch auszuspüren wie sich die Proteste in Homs, wo es ein Media-Blackout gab, enfalteten.

Ausserdem finde ich die Auswahl der Beschreibung “markant grosse Nase” nicht nur unzutreffend sondern fraglich geschmacklos (ich bin mir ziemlich sicher, daß die NZZ-Redaktion mit Recht solch eine Beschreibung bei einer Israel-Reportage als äusserst bedenklich erachten würde.)

No coffee in fortress Europe

Emily Dische-Becker about no coffee in fortress Europe
01.02.14
3 min
Post

In Mahmoud Kaabour’s documentary “Being Osama” (2005), which follows six Canadian men who all happen to carry the first name Osama, one of the protagonists describes his undue detention at a Swiss airport (at 1:20 mins):

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“In the Swiss airport, they put me in the room for eight hours – without charge. No coffee, no…..nothing!”

A dearth of coffee can indeed exacerbate a humiliating experience, as I discovered on a recent trip to the Berliner Ausländerbehörde (foreigners’ office). There, Yousef*, a Syrian who had been granted asylum in Germany,  and I spent five hours loitering in a corridor. There was no coffee, no nothing – no chairs, for example, so we alternated between leaning against the dirt-smudged wall and squatting until our feet began to feel numb. A multi-generational family of about seven or eight people, who had arrived before us, were doing the same thing. We spoke in hushed tones, until one of many doors that dot the corridor would open and a stubby woman perched on impossibly high heels emerged, carrying a single sheet of paper. We watched her as she tottered down the endless corridor, until she reached her destination: another door.

After about four and a half hours of waiting, my blood pressure had sunk dangerously low, and I stepped outside to scavenge for something to drink. Outside, a man pointed me toward the cafeteria, located in another building within the complex. But the cafeteria was shuttered, and in lieu of coffee, I found an official seated in a booth.

One apparent job perk for petty bureaucrats is the opportunity to relay bad news. The official informed me – with the unmistakable satisfaction of someone who has been waiting all day to reply to a question with a resounding “Nein” – that the cafeteria closes at 11am (oddly, because the foreigners office stays open until 2). I asked where, at this ungodly hour, I might buy something to drink (it was just after noon). I’d have to walk all the way to a supermarket outside the industrial zone that houses the agency – a fool’s errand, she implied. Better bring something with you next time, she called after me.

Two women from the family who had been waiting alongside us in the corridor were standing outside smoking. I borrowed a lighter and we struck up a conversation. They were Syrian-Palestinian refugees who had arrived in Germany two months ago and had already made many visits to the Ausländerbehörde. They had come prepared, and insisted I take a bottle of water and a packet of crackers to share with Yousef. I accepted gratefully, and we smoked, discussing the situation in Yarmouk camp from whence they had fled, and lamenting the unnecessary hardships inflicted by German official institutions.

Back upstairs, I handed Yousef the crackers and explained the coffee situation.

“You know,” he said, tearing open the package, “back home, when you get called in for questioning [by the secret police], they offer you coffee. Even if, an hour later, they’re going to be beating the shit out of you. First, there’s coffee.”

Assimilation

Emily Dische-Becker about assimilation
27.02.14
1 min

Lebensraum

Emily Dische-Becker about Lebensraum
24.02.14
6 min

Emily Dische-Becker about Confessions of a bi-illiterate
17.02.14
3 min

The quibbling patient

Emily Dische-Becker about the quibbling patient
12.02.14
2 min

The asylum hostel

Emily Dische-Becker about the asylum hostel
11.02.14
3 min

West Berlin: childhood landmarks

Emily Dische-Becker about West Berlin childhood landmarks
06.02.14
2 min

If not yesterday, when?

Emily Dische-Becker about asylum bureaucrat dialogues
03.02.14
4 min

Semitic noses & sanctioned stereotypes

Emily Dische-Becker about sanctioned stereotypes
03.02.14
4 min

No coffee in fortress Europe

Emily Dische-Becker about no coffee in fortress Europe
01.02.14
3 min