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If not yesterday, when?

Emily Dische-Becker about asylum bureaucrat dialogues
4 min

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
4 min

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
3 min

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.”

Carry a bomb umbrella

Emily Dische-Becker about bomb umbrellas
3 min

Google-chats with my mother. From Beirut.

July 26, 2006

me: bombing beirut like crazy
right now
pound thud pound thud
boom boom boom
like an upstairs neighbor having an orgy
bam bam bam

August 9, 2006 me: i have to have to buy a cake and wine
and candles
and gas for the stove
and af ew other things for mo’s birthday Ma: are they bombing?
are bombs falling?
me: now>?
Ma: where bombs>
south b.?
please be careful.
do you have to go outside?
me: yes i do
this is old news
gotta go
Ma: oka
will you be back later?
me: yes
willb e back around 1am my time
Ma: oka
have fun
be careful
dont get bombed on
carry a bomb umbrella
they must sell them on every street corner
me: nothing of the sort
i wil take a cab
Ma: xoxox
me: bye byebye
i adore you
me:  i adore you ma
i’m happy to be alive
Ma: thats the nicest thing youve ever said! about being glad to be alive i mean
i take that as a compliment
me: really?
Ma: since i forced it on you
me: that makes me feel like i dont say a lot of nice things
you did!
24 years ago

May 20, 2007

Ma: hi, what the fuck is going on?!
me:  hi momma. big explosion
caught me on the shitter
was just pulling down my pants
trotsky died on the toilet
that was my first thought
i was pulling my pants down to pee!
i peed a bit on my leg
i didnt care though
shook the whole house
Ma: where was the explosion
me: its the mall by my house
ABC mall where I always shop
You had a bad pedicure there once
One min walk from the house
we are on the roof now.
Ma: what was it about?!
me: horrible smell in the air
some group. wannabe al qaida apparently. whatever that means
Ma: can you please get out of there now>?
me: dont worry
we’ll see what happens
in the next few days
ma: don’t wait! Leave tomorrow!
me: i was happy to know that i wasnt imagining it
its funny that every loud noise sounds like a bomb until you hear a real bomb and then you know its real
ok i gotta go now
you there, momma?
good that i shopped at that market this afternoon and not just before midnight
Ma: yes!
me: we always park right where it exploded. assholes. never parking there again.

[Insert Gandhi quote]

Emily Dische-Becker about fake Gandhi quotes
2 min

I drink to make you seem more interesting, Hemingway famously said.

At least this is what I think he said. It may have been Orson Welles. Or some other sardonic lush. (I should probably google it.)

I blame my brother Leon, not imperfect memory or marijuana, for my inability to retain quotes and their respective authors. Leon doesn’t reach for a bottle to lubricate social interaction. Rather, he amuses himself by peppering conversation with quotations and facts, some of which happen to be deliberate half-truths or outrageous falsehoods. He does this with snooty strangers – and with me, his older sister.

Einstein discovered the theory of relativity in a moment of madness, while recovering from syphilis in Baden-Baden.

When asked what “nuance” means during the 2008 election campaign, 35 percent of Americans said it was the name of “a famous French president.”

Saw a poll recently: For a person growing up in rural Britain after the war, falling into a ditch was the greatest imaginable humiliation.

I am what I am, you can like it or love it – as Gandhi originally said.

Leon, who happens to be more well-read than I, does this with such a seamless air of authority that I have come to doubt pretty much anything I presume to know as fact. I must google. Without Google, I flounder.

His aim, I know, is not for me to appear unknowledgeable when reciting his fabrications to others (for I, too, can feign authority; and thankfully, no one has ever huffed: Gandhi didn’t say that. You idiot.)

Rather, he appears to relish the occasions when I unwittingly relay some fiction back to him as hard fact. Then he may press me, his tone tinged with skepticism, about how I know that the average teenager in Taiwan discharges an average of 2 emoticons every waking minute.

All that remains is a vague impression that the story originated with a highly reliable source. Big names, erudite publications come to mind.

I am sharp enough, though, while racking my brain in his presence, to detect a trace of mischievous satisfaction across his face. And so I play along, concocting an elaborate case for the false story. Ah yes, Gandhi said that to a BBC reporter, while on hunger strike at the Aga Kan’s palace where he was imprisoned in 1942.

This blog may contain half-truths.

Maryam Zaree
Hakan Savas Mican

We have not met in months. We fix a meeting via SMS. You make a little fuzz at first because I want to meet you in my neighborhood. You write this SMS: “I also always ask my friends to meet me right infront of my door”. I laugh a lot. I know that this is your kind of irony and that you laughed yourself when you wrote it. You always make me laugh. I sit in Café Dresden and wait for you. You will of course tell me – at great length and with great joy – all about the movie you have been shooting in Istanbul. You have the main role in a Turkish movie. We have practised, and you were perfect with the Turkish text – what a shame that in the end the dubbed you. It is summer and the sun is shining. I am still waiting for you. I don’t particularily like the movies of this Turkish director, but you will be gorgeous again, for sure. Soon you will star in a Belgian movie talking French. This will be easier for you. You can switch without any problem from English into German into French and – if necessary – also into Farsi. You are not that good in your mother tongue, you keep saying, but I am convinced that your Farsi is better than my German. I ask myself why you are being cast in so many international productions. First, you have this incredible presence infront of the camera which not a lot of actors have. I know you feel good now! Second, and I think this is much more important, you are in the true sense of the word a citizen of the world. This is very rare, but in your case I feel somehow that there is no special link to any particular nation. This is really strange, I think, but there is nothing German about you, your sense of humor is much to good for that (sorry, guys). And left from your Persian side are only some memories of your childhood. You are a sensitive, critical, political person you thinks about everything that happens in the world. That’s why I always tell you to write! Because you are such a good observer. You arrive. A guy from Kreuzberg tries to sell us a stolen Peugeot racing bike. You ask him: “Where did you get that bike?” He wants to act smart: “From France. They are much cheaper over there.” We laugh a lot. It is a beautiful day.

Marcia Farquhar

She reminds one of the black-haired girl from the café in Lindsay Anderson’s film “If…”, holding a machine gun and shooting from the cathedral’s roof of the university at the fleeing professors below.

Marcia Farquhar burns endlessly. A star on rocks brought by the mothership emerging from Earth’s incendiary core. Artist and performer by trade and vocation, she never stops: life, imagination, impromptu and stage blur in one stream of time. She is always right on, whatever the situation she provokes or stumbles into. Her performances are open, perhaps even open-ended, shape-shifters, meteopathic, and engaging like a feast or a funeral.

It has been suggested that her acts have the candid, coruscating quality of punkishness, consciously approximating a level of training, be that flamenco dance, fashion catwalk, psychoanalysis or tour guiding, in a “self-assured amateurism”. This is why the beauty she gives out is never cold. Raw and infectious, her work reaches interstitial places that sizzle. And immediately everything is throbbing, humorous, uncomfortable and disinhibiting; crevasses of truth are opening, flashing at everyone, for an instant. Her metaphors are pulling at the realities she knows so well: high bohemia and bourgeoisie, domestic and institutional lures and horrors, different generations forced in the same piece of clothing, stardom, loneliness, loveliness, ridicule and fame.

Her work, if not in real time, can be also viewed in Marcia Farquhar’s 12 Shooters, where 14 artists shot her performances in 12 critical acts and contributions to the book.

Clara Meister

I call Clara Meister Sugar Glider. Early in our affair of the heart and mind she showed me a video where the little creatures poke at jello, much as clara (S.G.) has been poking at me ever since. It is very cute and very disconcerting to see this footage and realize you’re the jello. (The fact that she’s the sugar gliders gliding from tree to tree, fancy and free is notable not least because ethos is about her.)
Simply, Sugar Glider is the kind of person who can keep a sweet morsel of jello in her hands for years, infecting it with new life, keeping it on its toes, laughing at and with it, keeping it fresh. The jello doesn’t feel like it is slipping through her fingers but rather a perfectly cut cube vibrating with energy. Most people would have eaten it or kept it safely out of reach in the freezer. I don’t know anyone that is both careful enough to do this and open enough to keep at it.
S.G. is not afraid of anything as far as I can tell. Not even me apparently. Her control comes from her speed. She thinks faster than I do, even about not thinking. Sometimes she knows that we have nothing to say to each other and orders another drink for the both of us. This sounds so banal but as she’s always trying to get at what is really interesting about life her ability to rest with grace becomes tremendously valuable too.
I could have skipped all of the above and just noted that Clara is the only woman who got away, straight out, more or less ever. We’re speaking about a truly superior being.
Someone else should write this. It is embarrassing how much I care for her.

Pippin Wigglesworth-Weider

It was just before Viertel Nach Handgelenk was published when I met Pippin for the first time in a mansion above the lake of Constance. We used to call it G7, since the owner had a G in his name as did the street, and it had a gate with the lucky number seven on it. You could say we had a business relation since we both worked for the SZ – the Schwäbische Zeitung for some time, not simultaneously but through the same coincidences and conjunctions that brought us together again in a hotel room during Distortion in Copenhagen around June 2009. And also, a year before that, in an apartment of a sincere cosmopolitan and common friend. We were part of a scheme, planed out by Leander Gussmann, our very good friend in common, who used to work for Distortion. He flew us in for those five distorted days and nights as acquired ‘Media Service’ or whatever you want to call a bunch of ecstatic amateurs back then. The year before that, we arrived in Copenhagen as ‘artists’ or gentrificators for some suburban dreams outside Ørestad. Within no time and without any proper material, Pippin worked day and night without sleep. He created a catwalk called ’15 seconds of fame’ out of wooden boards, sensors and light bulbs, that were activated if anybody walked over it. In both years we had a ball, diving from submarines and the MS Stubnitz to Shakespearian castles and trees and after parties or 5 minute raves on lifting bridges and over and over again until the very moment where Distortion was over and we had to ride our bikes back to the hotel, Pippin sleeping like a child in the bike stroller after being awake and active for most of the 24 hours, times four. While we waited for the metro, an elf with bow and arrows waited with us. She was on her way to a Live Action Role Play Day in the woods, while we only wanted to was rest after all the excitement. Now we’re here, another year, another scheme and I’m looking more than forward to see what he’s up to nowadays and for these 60 days.

Van Bo Le-Mentzel

Growing up somewhere in the middle of the second post-war generation in Germany came along with the experience that people around you more so avoided rooting their lives too much in the past, but rather tried to emancipate themselves from any sort of familiar tradition or historical burden. And, thus, the pursuit of life seemed to only happen beyond the present, never behind. Having your roots somewhere else, whatever the past might have been, seems to be different. You look back as if there might be something that you certainly wouldn’t want to loose on your way forward or ideally transform to the contemporary equivalent, and use it as an ingredient to shape your individual future. When I first met Van Bo some three years ago, he introduced himself as Prime – yes, the mighty figure from Transformers. A pseudonym he, the rhyme maker, rapper and sprayer, chose while growing up in Berlin’s traditional working class and immigration district Wedding at a time when people weren’t yet discussing whether it’s upcoming or may be never would. I still hear the sound of how he pronounced his name, with the defenceless pride of a child, a bit odd though for a grown up person I thought. But when I watched my little godson unwrapping one of his birthday gifts in London I witnessed how much of a globally relevant figure Prime actually is, and the oddness faded away. And so is Van Bo to me. There lays no contradiction between his past, when his family flew from Laos and landed in Wedding, there is no loss of the past when he explores his very own way through the present, when he, the architect, the designer, the activist constructs and builds, and – most importantly – shares his construction plans, his house and even his shoes with people who are in any sort of need, whether you call them working class, design community or just the crowd. It seems he has never lost how it felt to long for something because that might be the same as just being curious. If there is anyone I would dare to associate with the worn out word Karma, Van Bo certainly is. Google it, if you need prove, if you believe me, just stay curious about what he will share with us.

If not yesterday, when?

Emily Dische-Becker about asylum bureaucrat dialogues
4 min

Semitic noses & sanctioned stereotypes

Emily Dische-Becker about sanctioned stereotypes
4 min

No coffee in fortress Europe

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

Carry a bomb umbrella

Emily Dische-Becker about bomb umbrellas
3 min

[Insert Gandhi quote]

Emily Dische-Becker about fake Gandhi quotes
2 min