By Joshua Weiner
“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.
This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.
Sunday, 11 October
Pedaling through the Tiergarten on a bright Sunday in October, you would expect to see plenty of others enjoying the day; but today the park is teeming with thousands of stragglers still in town after yesterday’s massive demonstration against the US-EU trade pact (TTIP/CETA). Hundreds of thousands came out, by the literal busload. The speeches and music floated up several kilometers and over the roofs of the Naturkundemuseum and the new CIA building to tickle my ear through the open window.
I stayed inside, working on these journal entries, studying some German, and losing myself in Joseph Roth’s Weimar-era writing about the city (collected under the title, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, translated by Michael Hofmann). Though these dispatches originally appeared in newspapers, they transcend their immediate genre. As flâneur, Roth was not only observant, sympathetic, ironical, and intrepid, paying close attention to the lives of struggling immigrants, displaced Jews, and homeless in the mechanical metropolis with its seedy glamour—his vision is penetrating, his comprehension indelible. “Phenomena and atmospheres and experiences differ,” he writes, “not in their essence, but in secondary qualities like scale.” Everywhere in these reports from the streets of Berlin, Roth shifts the scale so that we can see what otherwise we’d walk right by, “to learn that a slightly bent hand can hold in it the misery of all time.” The novelist is always awake in these sentences. Roth was paid for each one, but a personal relish for the startling detail and comprehensive sweep animates every phrase.
But one cannot always be observing firsthand; one must also stay inside and reimagine, sift, refine, and sharpen sentences. Such was Saturday. And with such a massive demonstration, I would get lost in the scripted sentiments, the replicated postures. But you couldn’t escape the gist: “STOP TTIP/CETA für einen gerechten Welthandel”(“STOP TTIP/CETA for a world of fair trade”). Today, red and green flags still wandered the Tiergarten, the demo anti-corporate/pro-environment/pro-labor/pro-consumer/pro-democracy vibe sustaining a feeling of positive lift.
I pedaled through the aimless political drift zigzagging my way to the Chinese poet Yang Lian (or, as one would say in English, Lian Yang) in Schöneberg, my old Kiez from two years ago. The hookers of Kurfürstenstrasse were already out on a Sunday afternoon, a block or so from Lian’s conspicuously renovated stretch — such is Berlin, where prostitution is legal. They all looked like immigrants from the East, some having perfected their slow sexual strutting, others merely standing in the street as if they were saving a parking space for a friend. Bright high-cut shorts hugged flesh-tone tights—it was getting colder — and made theatrically explicit the parody of flashy mating dance. Maybe women hooking from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia, Macedonia had the relative privilege of working in the brothels . . . was I seeing a societal labor sub-class? Note to self: ask a German guy in a Kneipe near Oranienstrasse (another street, in Mitte, where I’m living now, also known as a district for sex workers — they hover around the historic Neue Synogogue).
Two years ago, when I was living in Berlin, Lian and I had worked together on translating his verse triptych about Nabokov’s exile in Berlin (1922-37). I hadn’t seen Lian since, though we’d stayed in touch. He and his wife, the novelist and painter, YoYo (Liu Youhong) had lived for many years in exile themselves (first in New Zealand, then London, and now Berlin) having fled Beijing with the growing violence that led to the collapse of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Lian is a lot like his poems, full of expressionist intensity and phrasal bursts. Words seem to shoot out of him; he’s like a walking language gun.
Lian and YoYo live in the kind of high-ceilinged pre-war apartment building with big well-lit rooms that were demolished all over the East for their bourgeois decadence. Although they had some difficulty renovating it — Berlin subcontractors, seeing they were Chinese, assumed they were therefore super-rich, and tried to rip them off — it’s now a lovely, warm, spacious flat. Exile has become home.
As we settle on the couch behind steaming cups of tea, I can tell YoYo is antsy as Lian and I slowly lose ourselves in poetry talk. She is getting ready to show her paintings — colorful impressionistic abstract work on large paper, with strong calligraphic elements — to a gallery owner coming later. She excuses herself. Lian and I plunge into our shared obsession — poetry, its cultural history and global reach. Lian, deeply read in several traditions, makes the kind of connections that frame poetry as a trans-historical practice. He carries himself with an elegant modesty, and is instantly recognizable in a crowd with his shoulder-length mane and quick smile. In China, he is famous for joining a native tradition with European modernism, something he shares with other poets from the so-called “Misty School” of late 20th century poetry in China, whose metaphorical language communicated feelings and ideas to Chinese readers that the state deemed verboten. However, as with much of the poetry in communist bloc eastern Europe, the language of poetry is often difficult for the state to prosecute: it’s hard to say, in a court of law, what it means, exactly. The poetry flourished there in its stylistic ambiguities; still, because its subversiveness was understood, it had to be suppressed. Since the collapse of the democracy movement in 1989, Lian’s body of work has grown in significance; a standard collected works is in preparation in China, and he is translated and published the world over.
Our conversation turned to the refugees. I asked him what he made of the situation given his experiences living in political exile for the last 25 years. Exile, he said, is the grammar to connect people across time and space, it is the grammar of poetry. The real story is the most powerful thing; no one can invent that experience in real life. Tiananmen or Syria now, everyone lives in history, really. We need to see that it is the same story in different countries in order to understand the situation — not only is it their situation, but it is our situation: that’s the most important point. When people talk about China, they often recycle Cold War ideology, black and white — but recycled talking points do not meet the deeper layer of reality of the situation. So in reference to the refugee crisis now, he said, I feel that the reason for the crisis, how IS [Islamic State] has squeezed the internal space within Arabic culture — that’s a real source of worry. Inside of those countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, even Turkey) the liberal space is getting smaller and smaller. The only hope for the world is that one day a real modern transformation will happen. It has to happen, he says. In 2003, Lian continues, Adonis [the Syrian poet, recognized around the world as one of the great modern Arabic writers] said to me, “I am anti-Islamic because religion is always used to compel people to believe and to behave.” This was so great and such a relief to hear. I see in him, said Lian, one great individual, in his body, speaking for the awareness of this need for this kind of individualism. This kind of thinking has to happen more often with more people. That is the only hope. History goes like that. One person can really decide the direction of history. But we have to think when we see refugees, we are refugees too. We live in a peaceful time and place, but the violent situation driving them from their home is so close to us. I say, said Lian, exile is a grammar crossing time and space — and, really, from our experience after Tiananmen massacre, that grammar helps us to see ourselves and the refugees, both walking here in Berlin.
Why did you guys move to Berlin and make your home here? With our experience in Beijing, said Lian, there is a direct link between Tiananmen Square and the opening of the Berlin wall. The blood in Tiananmen Square [spring 1989] served as the textbook of days for Europe and Berlin [fall 1989]. Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing [that spring] brought students into the street. [Gorbachev was viewed as a figure of increased liberalization, which ran counter to Chinese communist party hard-liners, but excited those involved with the democracy movement]. So all the international TV stations were in Beijing, Lian continued, and that called the world’s attention to Tiananmen Square; and when the massacre happened, it was the first time in front of all the world’s eyes. Tiananmen Square — Berlin Wall: it is almost like one pair of words, each made up of three characters in Chinese, like coupled lines in a poem.
We discussed some of the differences I was hearing at Lageso between the desires of those from Syria and from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s experience is longer, said Lian, with the question of what can be a stable home. First the British, then the Russians, then the Taliban, then America [took control of the country] — the meaning of home keeps changing — you can live in exile at home. And home is also in this, our body, he gestures to himself, Afghanis are clearer about this than those from Syria, he says.
Why is it so important, I ask, for you to live in exile; after all, at this point, you could go back, right? After Tiananmen Square, says Lian, so many Chinese writers were living and writing in exile. But now, most of them have gone back to China, or to Chinese-speaking areas. It’s a strange feeling. But it is so rare to have a real Chinese writer with open international experience and therefore a larger understanding; and to put in the hand of Chinese people the possibility of a modern transformation of Chinese culture, and to push it. You can be a greater force for change in China, I said, by living outside of it than if you lived there. Lian responded, I don’t want to lock myself in the small space of living in China, but pushing for change from here. We have been called “the Insider Outside and the Outsider Inside.”
Would it be safe if you returned, I asked. For many years, says Lian, when I landed in China and turned on my phone, the first call I received came from the secret police. “Oh, Mr. Yang, you are here again, welcome. We hope we can sit down soon and discuss matters.” In other words, you are being watched. But this has stopped. But this does not mean I feel safe. On the other hand, where is safe? In the West there are commercial pressures, and a huge culture that keeps changing day to day. Always you feel you are a stranger. But I am quite proud to be a stranger. Every new poem makes me stranger and stronger. I abandon my old self to write a new poem. All these challenges make us stronger individuals. I hope this can be shared with the refugees from Syria, but also for those born here, and living here for many generations. It feels like before World War I right now, he said, before the world became separated by two big ideas, capitalism and communism. Exile links everything. We have to be the active Other — that is the point of awareness, he said, the attempt to understand others is part of your own ego, part of your understanding of yourself.
On my bike ride home I thought of the first televised images I saw in 1989 of the Mauerfall. My paternal grandfather, Sam Weiner, had just died, and I was in Hollywood, Florida, for the funeral, and helping to sort out my grandparents’ apartment. Watching Germans from East and West climb the wall, and try, without much effect, to hammer and chip at it . . . It was the end of one era and the beginning of another, especially in light of my grandfather’s own boyhood flight from Russia and his eventual journey into the US through Ontario. With both sides of my family hailing from Russia, I had to wonder about my last name, Weiner: it’s a straight-up German name (related to Wagner, or meaning wheelwright, or in Yiddish, wine merchant). Maybe the Weiners were part of the immigration wave from Germany to Russia in the 18th century (to the Pale of the Settlement, where Jews were allowed to live) encouraged by Catherine the Great. What seemed then like an emancipatory promise of opportunity became a Russian labor grab . . . Is that what we’re seeing today with the German encouragement to migrate here? Demographics suggest something like that possibility . . .
Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.