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An Ajeossi and His Robot (or, How Korean Film Dramatizes Disaster)

By Colin Marshall 

“Even better if you see it as a family,” exclaimed the ads for a movie that opened a couple weeks ago here in Seoul and has now made it to Los Angeles. The posters showed a middle-aged man hanging out with a diminutive, somewhat R2-D2-like robot and the title Robot, Seori (로봇, 소리). The film bears the official English title of SORI: Voice from the Heart, but I prefer the simpler, more literal translation I’ve seen used here and there: Robot Sound. In some respect it reflects the content more clearly, given that the story concerns a robot fallen to Earth, and specifically to the South Korean coastline, originally designed by the U.S. National Security Agency as a component of a satellite that records the sound content of and, using its formidable artificial intelligence, recognizes the voices in all phone calls made across the globe.

The robot lands at the feet of Hae-kwan, the fellow on the poster, a disheveled late-fortysomething nearly a decade into an increasingly hopeless search for his missing daughter Yoo-joo. “This is crazy talk,” he says in the words that also constitute the picture’s tagline, “but I think this guy knows how to find my daughter.” But the robot turns out not to be a guy, or at least Hae-kwan decides it mustn’t be one after rolling it into a clothes store (having borrowed his wheelchair-bound techie friend’s spare conveyance to cart his discovery around) in order to buy it some kind of disguise. He suggests a black hooded sweatshirt, but Sori (for the robot has by now taken as a name the Korean word for sound) wheels over to a pink one instead, which sets up, for me, the biggest laugh line of the movie: “You’re a woman?” shouts the flabbergasted Hae-kwan. “Yes?” responds the suddenly nervous girl minding the shop.

SORI has its moments of comedy, at other times plays like a geopolitical techno-thriller, and at other times still goes, as so many Korean movies do, for the melodrama. The tone, as well as the human-robot buddy pairing, remind me of Short Circuit, that tale of a gentle animal-handler and an experimental treaded military drone brought to wisecracking life by the strike of a lightning bolt. John Badham, the director of that film as well as others like Blue Thunder, War Games, Stakeout, and Bird on a Wire, lays fair claim to the title of one of the masters of 1980s Hollywood, whose sensibility mainstream Korean entertainment has recently rediscovered and begun reinterpreting. A broad but energetic buddy-cop picture called Veteran (베테랑) last year became the third highest-grosser in Korean cinema history, and at a Q&A after a screening I asked its director Ryoo Seung-wan what other police movies he likes; he cited Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS. as his direct inspirations.

Korea has also seen a string of popular film and television period pieces set in the 1980s, a time when Korean society (to use a phrase beloved of the textbooks here) came back into bloom. The controls of the dictatorship began to loosen (albeit with bitterly remembered and often violent clampings-down along the way), and waves of protests loosened them further still, to the point of forcing the introduction of democracy. The period infused works of art, no matter how popularly intended, with a reinvigorated spirit of societal criticism, another of the qualities I’ve come to expect in mainstream Korean films where I wouldn’t necessarily expect it — or at least would expect a more toothless variety of it — out of Hollywood.

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The story of SORI takes place for the most part in the recent past, the year 2013, and in the somewhat far-flung city of Daegu, a former pillar of industry situated in a valley almost 150 miles from the capital that remains known primarily for its American military bases and stifling summer heat. (I’ve heard some positive things about the place too. I once asked a well-known Korean writer if it wasn’t true that Daegu has the most delicious apples in Korea. “They were,” he responded. What about the widely held notion that Daegu has the most beautiful women in Korea? “They were.”) In any case, it hasn’t enjoyed much screen time before, so even if the prospect of a man befriending a stray robot didn’t appeal to me, seeing the rare Daegu movie would.

So what happened to Yoo-joo? Structurally, most of the movie plays like a detective story, with Sori using her accumulated information drawn from all that omniscient phone recording to lead Hae-kwan from person to person from her past, getting a scrap of information from each. Yoo-joo, we learn, had musical aspirations: at one point Hae-kwan comes across her guitar, and from one of his interrogatees he takes her sole extant demo CD. The daughter couldn’t have chosen a lifestyle more at odds with that of her father, presented in flashbacks before her disappearance — in other words, before the rigors of the search make him relinquish control over his appearance and behavior — as a representative of the faceless company men of his generation, cut as clean as possible, dressed as soberly as possible, and brimming with frustration and rage, every inch the stern, bland, middle-aged ajeossi (아저씨) figure of popular culture.

Sori waits until the very end of act three, cornered by authorities both Korean and American high above the dockyards, to reveal the whole truth to Hae-kwan in the form of a tearful voice message left by Yoo-joo on his old cellphone just before she perished in the subway fire of February 2003. That might sound like a spoiler, but every Korean watching this movie will have known it from the beginning, far sooner than Hae-kwan himself does — or at least, far sooner than he finally accepts the obvious. A Korean movie having a character disappear in Daegu in 2003 is like an American movie having a character disappear in Oklahoma City in 1995: sure, she could have vanished off to anywhere, but given the time and place, you have a pretty fair idea of what happened.

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The Daegu subway fire killed 192 people, two of whom remain unidentified, and it now appears in the litany of nationally embarrassing disasters, badly exacerbated by incompetence and irresponsibility (the driver of the flaming subway train, for example, ran and locked all the doors behind him), often recited to illustrate the problematic nature of South Korea’s rapid development. It happened eight years after the even deadlier collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Gangnam, which gave a basis to Kim Dae-seung’s romantic tragedy Traces of Love (가을로), and eleven years before the sinking of the M.V. Sewol, the subject of two documentary films so far which still awaits its own feature adaptation. As a friend very familiar with the Korean film world said when the subject of who might direct the inevitable Sewol movie arose, “I just hope it won’t be Kang Je-gyu,” a filmmaker famous for his high-profile, big-budget, simple and unchallenging crowd-pleasers.

Ho-jae lee, the director of SORI, has made a mainstream movie indeed, though not, to my mind, an oversimplified one. But viewers unfamiliar with the sensibilities of Korean cinema may find its indictment of Korean society, which deals with the poisoned relationship between the generations, rather stark. Hae-kwan’s cohort came of age at a time when South Korea, still in many respects a developing country, could for a little while longer credibly hold out the promise of relative prosperity in exchange for untroublesome compliance with the national program. Yoo-joo’s peers find themselves in a different reality altogether, one with far fewer guaranteed returns on hard-working and conformity — a conformity that, so one narrative has it, got in the way of the older generations creating a country where the younger ones could prosper.

SORI doesn’t come as the first movie in circumstances force a prosperous, set-in-his-ways ajeossi (Hae-kwan has a cellphone in 1990, which even in America would have set him apart as a hot-shot) to the realization that his children’s generation doesn’t live in the same world he does. In 2013, Yang Woo-suk’s The Attorney (변호인) found great success telling the ostensibly fictional story of a Busan tax lawyer in the early 1980s who sees enough light to defend a student against trumped-up charges of sympathy with the communist North. But anyone could clearly see, through that flimsy veil, an early chapter in the life of Roh Moo-hyun, who would go on to serve as one of the few South Korean presidents of whom anyone under age forty still approves.

Big Korean movies don’t generally mystify their allegories. SORI, though, despite all its ajeossi-robot banter, clouds of technobabble, and typically goofy acting by whatever “American” actors the production could turn up (one of whom plays a character called Major Mike), strikes more directly than most. The last view Hae-kwan gets of Yoo-joo, he sees out the window of his car, having just thrown her out of it after what might have been an argument between any number of millions of conflict-prone fathers and daughters in Korea, the former seeing the latter as reckless and impudent, the latter seeing the former as rigid and unwilling to understand anyone but themselves. Hae-kwan demands that Yoo-joo get out at the entrance of the Jungangno station, where, moments later, a disabled and unemployed cab driver (a fellow ajeossi, although one who saw the system as having failed him) would set catastrophic fire to a subway train — and thus one generation literally casts another into the flames.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.


The Greatest of Motivations

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.


Tuesday, 6 October

The weather has turned grey and the temperature has dropped without the sun. At Lageso men and women stand about in heavier coats and hats, hoods and scarves. A man walks by wrapped tight in a bedsheet. A security guy in red fleece and a close cropped Mohawk trails him for a while with his eyes. I’ve been rehearsing my few words of Arabic on the way in. A young fella with a pleasant aspect stands nearby. Marhaban, I say, atadhir, min fadlik (Hello, excuse me, please) . . . Do you speak English? Yes, a little bit . . .

Marwan has been living for the last two years in the adjacent Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where Nabokov spent his years in exile and Walter Benjamin his turn-of-the-century childhood. Marwan is here with his cousin, Sami, who arrived from Damascus three weeks ago. Sami appears by his side, suddenly made visible to me by virtue of my learning his name. In their mid-twenties, Marwan would like to continue his university studies in business (he had finished one year in Damascus before fleeing), and Sami has hopes of continuing practice as a lawyer. Marwan has just completed a two-year state-sponsored language course. (We speak in a mixture of German and English.) Sami’s English is not as good as his cousin’s; it will be difficult for him, I think, at age 26, to learn enough German well enough to practice law in Germany. But maybe I’m simply projecting my own experience trying to learn German — after all, he’s obviously smart and well educated; he has family connections here, and the greatest of motivations: survival and necessity.

We are joined by a friend, Bassel, also a lawyer, who made the journey three weeks ago with Sami. Fearing conscription into Assad’s army in Syria, they each sold their car to raise the 5,000 or more euro to pay the traffickers. I love Syria, Marwan says, we all want to go home. He is thinking of the long journeys here, through Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan . . . But we must stay, he says, until the war is over. So you are here now, I say, and you’ve been here for two years, and you’ve learned German, and you want to continue studies at the university — so, let’s say that happens — when will you return, in two years, in five years? Maybe in ten years, he says, or twenty years, or thirty years, when the war is over — I have to think in terms of my children . . . (What children?—he is imagining his future German-born children . . . Will they want to return, should it ever be possible?)

What’s it like here, waiting, I ask.   It is terrible, of course, says Bassel. Marwan explains. They are only calling twenty numbers a day now, he says, gesturing at the console displaying nine brightly lit amber numbers. And these security guys are Turkish, he says, they are very cruel. They pushed a woman down, with her baby, and killed her. Where, I ask. Right there, he gestures to a central area in front of the console. Why, I ask. Who knows, because she was asking about something and he didn’t like it. You saw that happen, I say. No, but I heard about it; it happened. The Turks don’t want us here, he went on, the German people are very good, they try to help, but the government is too slow. Why do you think they’re so slow, I say. Because, he says, they want to discourage more people from coming.

Fathi, another friend, joins us, a 23-year old engineering student from Damascus, who walked for a week without sleeping to get to Berlin. Sami looks at me from under a hoodie he’s wearing beneath a bigger coat. Excuse me, he says, but where are you from? I’m from America, I say, from Washington DC; I’m trying to write about what’s happening here so that people will understand. Sami looks at me with a wry little smile. I am sorry, he says, but America has been part of the problem. I know, I say, that’s why I’m here. What do you want the U.S. government to do now? Marwan breaks in. Russia will not help the situation, he says. Putin is not really fighting IS [Islamic State], he is with Bashar [al-Assad; but they all refer to him as Bashar]. The U.S. only has to fly planes over Syria, he continues, and the army will shake with fear and go underground. That would help? I say. They only have to show they are present, says Marwan. So, you want the U.S. to show its potential for using force in the region, I add. Yes, he says, that would make some difference. Sami looks at his phone. Excuse me, he says, and walks away.

You all have phones, ja? I say. They nod. Where are you charging them every day? Marwan says, I bring a portable battery I charge at home. I scan their faces; they’re a sweet bunch. I can feel the strength of their comraderie, their determination and courage. I have to go, I say, what would you like to say today to Germany? Give me a number, says Bassel, I want to work. Marwan writes down his e-mail address on my notepad. Shukran lak (thank you), I say. We shake hands.


On the way back to the S-bahn station, I stop at a Jehovah’s Witness stand on the sidewalk right outside the Lageso grounds. I’m struck by the cover image of their pamphlet in Arabic, a photograph of a happy modern Arabic family (the mother is not in hajib, the father not in robes, the children’s digs are from any fashionable catalog or outlet—they could be a secular family anywhere in the West). Posed together, they smile into the father’s smartphone as they take a family selfie. I pick up a copy and start leafing through it. A white German guy in tweed—he’d fit in at Oxford or Cambridge—begins to tell me about the contents: Lots of good information about how to manage money, be a good parent, a good husband and wife . . . Are Muslims trying to register at Lageso showing much interest, I say. Oh, yes, they really are, he says. They know about us already because we have people in Syria. But here, he continues, Arabs who were afraid to show interest in Christianity are free to ask questions and come to our meetings. And some Arabs are already Christian, I say. Oh, yes, they really are, he agrees, and we have so much practical information to help them get started in German society. Are you getting many converts yet, I say. Oh, yes, we really are. The Arab people who come to Germany are very interested. I find the cheerful optimism grotesque given the situation of the refugees; the modern family depicted in their literature, pure fantasy, has no resemblance to anyone or anything in Berlin—Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or of any faith. But the Jehovah Witness’ prohibitions (no interfaith marriage; demonization of sexuality outside of marriage, including homosexuality and masturbation), and their control of congregants’ lives, does dovetail nicely with Sharia control of individual personal life. Even their corruption of sacred texts (the Bible, the Koran) as fundamentalist codes of conduct share a common set of ambitions. Maybe the guy’s not exaggerating.   And with the 165,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany living peaceful lives . . .? There could be, and are, worse influences . . . (Though the history of the Jehovah Witnesses appeasing of Hitler is a different story).


I Was Born in a Refugee Camp

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.


Monday, October 5

A typical Berlin night, my friend Susanne said with a short laugh, when I told her about my escapade.  But we don’t do it anymore — we are too much in our routines, we make arrangements now to meet each other at precise times. So, she added, nothing ever happens. We were on our way down to the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (Lageso), the first place of registration in Berlin for all the refugees; in a way we were retracing the route I had take from Tegel International through Moabit the previous week. It was another beautiful fall day in Berlin, leaves starting to turn, quite warm in the sun, a little cool in the shade. As we walked up Kirchstrasse, just a few blocks from the Lageso complex of buildings, midday diners sat at sidewalk tables eating Vietnamese, Italian, or traditional German fare, such as Maultaschen (a kind of filled dumpling, like ravioli, a specialty of the south). Cafés were full, people were buying books in a local store. It was difficult to imagine what we would find at Lageso given the happy promenade here. We tried cutting through a construction site and were promptly scolded by a hardhat perched on cinder, drinking from a thermos. As we turned round a fenced off corner, Susanne said, you know, I was born in a refugee camp. What? Ja, she said, (the vowel sound floated away like a bubble), I was born in a refugee camp.

Susanne Gerber, a Berlin-based artist, was born in 1949. Her mother was German, her father Czech, but his German family roots made him one of a minority in Czechoslavakia. It was therefore not a stretch, with the advent of World War II, for him to join Germany’s mobilization. He made his way into the SS. After the war, many Germans outside of Germany were being sentenced to prison; Susanne’s parents were forced to flee Czechoslovakia. They reentered Germany as refugees and settled into a camp in Kornwestheim, near Stuttgart. Susanne was too young to develop many memories stronger than impressions; but she remembers the men who, with no work, whittled away the time talking, smoking, and playing chess. The idle talking was an important influence, as the men, confronted with the vast emptiness of idle hours, often talked to little Susanne as well as losing themselves in the wandering exchanges of those with too much time on their hands. She thus learned to speak early. The general feeling she had there in the camp was of not being quite properly looked after; she was often left on her own. Remarkably, she says, in Stuttgart she never felt marginalized as a refugee; she never internalized that perspective herself. But being a refugee is a strong part of my identity, she said, being a stranger in the world is completely clear to me. When later I saw Büchner’s Woyzeck, or the first production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, she continued, I found myself in there, the origins of my story. I still feel that I am never a local person, but someone from everywhere, from somewhere else.

Once we hit Turmstrasse, the Lageso street, the scene changed. Bourgeois diners and shoppers disappeared, replaced by bands of four to six single men, clearly refugees by their worn dress and stressed postures, walking down the street talking to each other with urgency, or on their phones. Refugee families with small children in strollers passed by. Everyone’s eyes were focused somewhere in the distance, everyone’s gait had an urban quickness and conveyed a 360-degree alertness. There was nothing but immediate purpose, immediate need. We knew we were getting closer. Soon low-price stores disappeared, and set back from the street, behind a set of fences, two very large white convention type tents, with separate free standing toilet facilities between them, provided shelter in bad weather. They stood with the same proximity to the sidewalk as any storefront, and abutted the first set of official buildings. These buildings along the street marked the beginning of the Lageso complex; soon we entered its mouth with dozens of others. Buildings shadowed us on both sides of a small avenue into the opening of the courtyard belly. In this Lageso courtyard, we passed a food tent in which volunteers were ladling hot minestrone soup and handing out Brötchen. Nearby, an elderly volunteer wearing plastic gloves spryly filled plastic cups with water from a cooler cabinet with several taps. Boys climbed on top of a flat-roofed shed next to a Röntgenmobil (for x-rays) and a truck from Zentrum für Tuberkulosekranke parked beneath chestnut trees. The food tent and trucks stood opposite a set of official buildings, further defining the waiting area. At one end, hundreds of people, mostly men, stood in a mass that grew denser towards the front, where a digital console on a tall pole displayed a set of nine brightly lit amber numbers. Women and children sat on blankets to the side, eating, sleeping. Children drew or played a game their parents had grabbed for them in quick preparation to flee. A boy with a cane made his painstaking way along the perimeter. Another passed in the opposite direction in a wheelchair. A jacketed man in his thirties sat sleeping in a bassinet stroller, his legs splayed on either side, heels digging in to keep him propped up—even in a dead sleep his body bound in effort. Some wore hospital face-masks. A few guys in their twenties stood around an iPad, laughing and knocking each others shoulders. Boys chased each other through a slalom course of standing adults, kicked soccer balls, or tried to catch falling chestnuts. Having been fed, they were doing what they lived to do, exerting themselves in play, improvising the day within its terribly narrow confines. A dozen voices shouted in excited cheering—someone’s number had appeared on the console. Susanne and I moved slowly and freely through the grounds, stopping here and there to listen and observe. No one stopped us, no one asked us what we were doing there. We were obvious in our privilege. Security in red fleece milled or stood in fixed positions. Green vests speared trash. A long line snaked outside an office. A woman in a lilac head-covering and dressed in pinstripes emerged with a thick set of files in her arms. She walked over to where we were standing near an exterior wall and leaned against it to rest. Susanne began a conversation in German.

Ishan Wahbi, a Lebanese woman in her mid-40’s, came to Germany over thirty years ago. She volunteers as an appointed legal representative for those too compromised to navigate the registration process on their own. She’s currently representing a single mother from Yemen who crossed the Mediterranean with four small children and a newborn. Are all those files for them, I asked. Frau Wahbi nodded, yes. Several hundred people are waiting in line, about two thousand are on the grounds, with 500-600 arriving daily. She is waiting for the mother to meet her there, having recently been released from the hospital.

Talking about the refugee situation has created some kind of tension in her that is now an uneasy barrier; we don’t know what it is, but we sense it. Susanne and I thank her and move off.   A man wearing a backpack is arguing with a security guy in front of the office entrance. Voices spike, hands gesture with agitation. Susanne becomes a little nervous, so we walk to a more open area under some yellowing lindens, where the people waiting there on the lawn, on blankets, on benches, could be, in another context, pick-nicking or hanging out at a festival. They have relaxed into the interminable boredom of waiting for their number, waiting to take the next step in the process of being granted asylum. And today is a nice day. There are pockets of rest to settle into momentarily before the next push. We head out. I’ll come back tomorrow.


Where Were the Refugees?

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, October 4 

Severe hangover. Head throb pushes me out of bed. I move through the morning routine and get out the door to find a strong schwarzes Kaffee at Karaca, my local joint on Chauseestrasse. The guys who own and run the place, four or five of them, are always hanging out and kibitzing. The café is like a business-cum-frat house for them; it draws people in.   I get my coffee zum mit nehmen (to go), and welcome the fresh air. Beautiful fall morning in Berlin to look for a shop that can remove my head and replace it with a pumpkin. Passing the Brecht Hause, I duck into the adjacent park to find a bench and mentally lick my brain.

Within about 30 seconds I realize I’ve wandered into a cemetery. Empty of pedestrians, the only ones here are prone. The sound of my feet on the small gravel paths is a kind of acoustic cereal for my ears, oddly soothing.   I find Brecht’s grave, then the stones for Hegel, Fichte, Heinrich Mann, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Paul Dessau, Hans Eiler, Ruth Berlau . . . I’ve unwittingly dropped into the Friedhof of the Dorotheenstädtischen Gemeinde on Chauseestrasse, probably the most celebrated cemetery in Berlin. I find a stone bench.

Where were the refugees; who are they; what stories do they have to tell, what songs and poems do they carry with them in memory; what nightmares; what dreams, what hopes, what sorrows. To capture the force of their movement, I only ever hear one metaphor used, that of water — a flowing, a stream, a wave, a tide, a torrent; water moving so fast and hard it’s impossible to stop and difficult to control. And new moving water has no name; it is merely the sum of its parts, anonymous, ahistorical, and once in motion inexorable. My companions here in this plot devoted themselves to thinking about the force of history and the emblematic lives that expressed it, added to it. What was there to add? God, my head hurt. So I sat there a while, very still, in the sun, with the famous German dead.


Reunification Day

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.


Saturday, 3 October

Late in the afternoon I headed out to a reading and talk at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, (a cultural center near the Reichstag) titled ‘Time’s Attack on the Rest of Life: Revolution,’ with the German writer Martin Mosebach and the Chinese poets and writers Yang Lian, YoYo (Liu Youhong), and Guo Jinnin.  I was intrigued to hear this panel discuss the history of Chinese revolts, and how experimental non-linear literary forms that disrupt our conventional experience of time can play a subversive positive role in workers’ resistance. It sounded somewhat grand, but I was game for anything.

As I pedaled along Invalidenstrasse on my brand new old bike, I came up against a set of police blockades on the stretch in front of the Hauptbahnhof. People with rolling bags and kids in tow were rushing to get through the manned entrance to the train station; it was quickly being closed off by cops reluctant to let people through. I turned around to retrace my route but found myself between barriers. The only detour led in the direction opposite to where I needed to go.

I approached an officer. What’s happening? Demonstration. Of the left or of the right? This is Berlin: of the left and the right. Where’s it happening? Right here. When? Right now. From around the corner of the train station several hundred demonstrators marched behind a large banner: ‘Wir sind für Deutschland / Wir sind das Volk’ (‘We are for Germany / We are the nation’). White haired women in sensible shoes walked alongside chicksas in spiked heels; guys in army jackets and leather jackets, wearing jeans or dressier slacks; young and old, yuppies and geezers, all were marching in a right-wing demonstration against immigration. From out of nowhere ten or so young men and women rode up on bicycles wearing t-shirts that read ‘Refugees Welcome’ in English, some wearing string bags with the same logo, a yellow silhouette on black depicting a fleeing family. The anti-demonstration protestors started screaming anti-fascist slogans, some in English, some in German: ‘Say it now / Say it clear / Refugees are welcome here!’ ‘Nazis out! / Gegen Nazis!’ The demonstrators responded by singing patriotic songs. Birds were flipped and screams exchanged. As the march left the train station area, the cycling leftists took off in the opposite direction, obviously hip to the detours created by the blockades and determined to navigate around the streets of Mitte in pursuit of the nationalist xenophobic parade. I followed.

Bitte, I called out, pulling alongside a hale lefty chap riding with his girlfriend to the next parade point, ‘Ich bin ein amerikanisher Shriftsteller, ich versuche über die Krise schreiben. Sprechen sie englisch? He spat back, Nie! ’Schuldigen! They sped up. And why would they want to talk to a bulky American writer pushing the pedals? Determined, I pursued from a block behind, and when I caught up to them they had unfurled a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner of the same design as their shirts and bags. The activist swag made it look like a team sport. I thought of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Casualty,’ and his noting the graffiti scrawled on a wall in war-torn Derry, keeping track of the deadly score: ‘PARRAS THIRTEEN, the wall said, BOGSIDE NIL.’ Another war with too many sponsors. Well, not a civil war here, not yet, one hopes not ever; but the proxy wars of the Middle East, political and often divided along religious lines (as it had been in Ireland) now intensified with Russia on the scene in Syria.

As if it weren’t murderous enough. A mixed group of young and old leftists moved en masse into the street and lay down, the demonstration still several blocks away. Thirty seconds later, police picked them up and moved them aside like sacks of potatoes. I had never seen so many cops and vans for such a modest demonstration; it seemed as if a cop was there for every two marchers. A line of them created a human fence between the right-wing marchers and the leftist protestors. From a short distance I peered into the neutral cold eyes of the most stunning policewoman I had ever seen. Without a helmet, her glossy brown ponytail created an athletic look, sehr sportlich. I noticed that the thick power-beard on the stony face of the policeman next to her made a good match. A handsome couple. I pictured them on a sunny day at an open air firing range. I tried my bad German again with a different set of young protestors on their bikes. Yes, they spoke some English. Yes, I could talk to them. Yes, following them was okay. (We spoke in a mixture of English and German.)

There’s no single umbrella or even sizable organization of activists in Berlin; everything is improvisation as the situation develops, small groups posting information on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, with very short notice, from distributing the marching routes of nationalist demonstrations, to regrouping the Oplatz effort, opening up homes to refugee families, picking them up in Hungary in private cars and driving them across the border, to protesting the very idea of national borders altogether—Keine Grenzen! Are you guys putting up refugees in your apartments, I asked. Philip and Johanna, both in their mid-twenties, gave little smiles at my naïve question. No, we don’t have room to do something like that, said Philip, we don’t have the space or the money.   I am doing an internship and she is a student. Our friends are the same. Do you think, I said, that the crisis, die Krise, is creating new feelings against immigrants, or is it waking up feelings that have always been there. The feelings are old and new, he said, but they have always been there, deep down. Do you see more young people such as yourselves joining the right in their efforts to stop the refugees, I asked. Yes, always more young people are joining the right, they are open about it now. I pointed to a cop carrying a large video camera. Even the cops are filmmakers now, I said. Oh, ja, everyone likes movies, he said. They looked at each other. We’re going now, he said.  And they rode down Ackerstrasse, further south into the tough East Berlin neighborhoods of Friedrichshain.

I looked around. I was in the area between Alexanderplatz and Rosenthalerplatz that Alfred Döblin brings to life in his 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a physically brutal and idiomatically vital story unlike any capital-centered work in Anglophone modernism—the rough pathos of Frank Norris, the camera-eye technique of Dos Passos, and something like Joyce’s feeling for city life at street level. Döblin’s talent consummate with his environment, he was one gold standard in the measure of adequate attention.

Powerful thick rock music, abrasive fast melodic, was blasting from a single large stereo speaker on Ackerstrasse pointed at the demonstrators marching along Torstrasse. I listened for a minute and approached a leathered-up sixty-something guy in horn rims and with a gray ponytail standing outside the storefront where the speaker was plugged in. What’s this music, I said, it’s great. Ja, this is a band, he said. My German is bad, I said, but I’ll try. He smiled faintly; he’d humor me. What is the band? Freygang Band, he said. I don’t know it, I said. Oh ja, he said, started in the DDR; it’s playing here tonight. I looked up at the sign over the club’s door, Shockoladen (literally, Chocolates). What time?   Eight. I looked at my watch. It was only five. Are you in the band? Yes. He gave me a little smile. What instrument do you play? Lead guitar. His head angled toward the door. Do you want to come in, he said.

The club owner popped a Berliner Pilsner, a local favorite, and put it in front of me. Egon downed a shot of vodka and lit a Galouise. (We spoke in a mixture of German and English). So, you’re a writer, he said. I’m a poet, I’m trying to write about die Flüchtlingekrise, I said, I think you probably have a good perspective. When did the band start playing, I asked, opting for a crabwalk towards my agenda.

Freygang Band is the kind described as seminal. Although it came together in 1977 in East Berlin, inspired by American bands such as the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and MC5, they were instrumental in more than one way in broadcasting the energy, attitude, and style of American music in East Berlin at that time. From behind the wall, der Mauer, American music of the 1960’s and 70’s was hard to hear, but once heard impossible to forget; and it inspired Egon Kenner to somehow find an instrument and play it. He still plays the guitar an American musician gave him in 1973. The band is a seductive fusion of rock & blues, hardcore attitude, political lyrics, and an open free approach to playing without any jaded irony. Freygang Band is still earnest, serious, straight ahead. But, as I would hear that night, they don’t preach, they just destroy through total commitment and conviction. The structures are simple, the execution resolute, the vision epic with an awareness of history’s long view; but like great poetry, it starts with the sound. (The sound and the sentiments that fueled it earned them persecution in DDR-days that only amplified their bona fides as artists deemed verboten by the state).

With a second round my German was definitely improving, as was Egon’s English.

And what about the refugees? Things are changing always, he said, the most important thing is solidarity. No one can say what’s going to happen. 200 years of colonialization of one kind or another have led us to this moment. But when immigrants come, he continued, the insularity of ethnic groups also becomes a problem. Andreas Kick, the keyboardist, joined us. I asked him what he made of the reports of violence between Syrians and Afghans in the crowded shelters in Leipzig, Bonn, Hamburg, Kassel, and elsewhere. Of course, he said, they will fight, it is too crowded. Now the right can say, you see, they are violent, we must control them. This is just the way it happens, he said. I said, young people forget this history. Egon smiled wryly and added, old people also forget this history.

More of the band showed up, along with the merchandise. Egon gave me a copy of their new cd, Tanz Global, and I unfolded the lyric sheet. There I found a photograph of the legendary East German poet, Bert Pappenfuss, and a poem with his long lines lapping any of the other lyrics penned by the band. Why, I asked, is there a photograph of Bert Pappenfuss and a poem by him on the lyric sheet? Oh, said Egon, he is a good friend of mine; we’ve set many of his poems to music, we sing them all the time. But not tonight: too many words. Would you like to meet him, he asked. Pappenfuss is little known in the US, but his work (translated by Andrew Duncan) jumped out at me from the pages of Rosmarie Waldrop’s anthology, 16 New (To American Readers) German Poets. Later I discovered—late again—that he was one of the heroic figures of the alternative art scene in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg Kiez, publishing underground magazines, playing in rock bands, and re-vitalizing East German literature before the Mauerfall. I looked down at the little photograph. Electric eyes peered out from under a plain cap brim and a thick nose bridged to a long fuzzy beard a la ZZ Top. I looked up at Egon. Sicher, I said, for sure. The next day Egon would text me the phone number. (I would write to Papenfuss, but he would decline to respond).

At some point they had to get ready to play, and they left me. I helped myself to some salami and cheese on buttered dark yeasty bread and remembered the stunning judgment of a French baker who set up every weekend in the open market in Winterfeldplatz near where we lived two years ago in Schöneberg: Don’t tell anyone I said this, said the Frenchman, but the Germans make the best bread in the world. I looked around. This small club had filled with a couple hundred people. Time had gone down smoothly with the pils. I moved through a room of foosball and waiting musicians, past the barroom, to the stage area, packed with fans. Smoke from cigarettes folded, furled, and uncurled in the red stage lights. Ann Jangle, the opening act from South Africa, introduced herself and launched into a ferocious and beautiful set of folk rock accompanied on her acoustic guitar by Cami Scoundrel on electric bass.  Jangle’s voice hung in a middle range, capable of dynamic and dramatically meaningful changes. She had an impressive tawny lion’s mane of hair. The duet played with sympathetic joy and personal relish.

Then Freygang Band took the stage. They killed it that night, and for the first time I felt the great positive energy of Reunification Day, not between East and West, and certainly not between left and right, but between musicians and their audience. Teen fans slammed against fans dating from the Mauerfall, and devotees from the band’s earliest days welcomed the physical contact from the pit’s periphery. Everyone sang along, wet with each other’s sweat and the sporadic fountain of beer from an over-jostled bottle. The music ended promptly at 10. This well known club for alternative music and culture, that had started as a squat in 1990, has had its unruliness trained back by gentrification: new neighbors insisting on the German institution of the 10 pm curfew (I thought of the scolding notice in the laundryroom of my building: No Washing After 22.00 Uhr).

Cooling off outside the club, Eric, a young man who had introduced himself earlier, approached me. Hey, American guy, I want to ask you something. Wide eyes and a wide smile played on the most animated expressive face I had ever seen on a German. He could’ve been an actor (maybe he was one). Hey, let me ask you: is war the last opinion? What, I said. He repeated the question. I repeated the question, not quite sure what he was asking. Is war the last opinion? Was he asking me if war is the last word in an argument between nations? Or if history, in order to be written, requires war, and victors in war to tell their side of a story? Whatever, I got the drift, given the context of the evening; there could only be one answer.

No, I said sincerely. The back of his hand gently thumped my chest. Everywhere I go, he said, around the world, in Europe, in South America, I ask this of Americans, ‘is war the last opinion.’ They all say, ‘yes.’ You are the first American to say ‘no.’ Well, I said, I think you’re hanging out with the wrong people; I’m not the only American who would say that. Yeah, he said, but what kind of country do you live in? There’s no democracy there. Everything is controlled by money. Your democracy is controlled by money. You can’t even vote for who you want to, he said, you can only vote for the names on the card. That’s not true, I said, but I couldn’t deny that the political system was appearing more like a plutocracy, what with Trump still leading the run for the Republican nomination and billionaires funding super-PACS to protect their interests. Is Trump your next president, he asked. He had a crazy smile on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was being friendly and ironical, or menacing.

No, I said, but right now he is our Berlusconi. What about the refugees, I said, exercising my prerogative non-sequitur, I’m trying to write about what people think here, and nobody’s asking people like you. Oh, Mann, he said, I should take you to my parents, in Saxony, in Dresden. My father is an engineer. When the wall came down, he lost everything. Reunification ruined him. Now he’s spent 25 years paying into the new system; and the refugees, they want to come here and take. And he says, That’s my money, they want to rob me! Hey, American guy, we are going to a very alternative party, you must come. But I have only my bike here, I said. You’ll get it later, come with us. A taxi pulled up. This is our taxi, he said. I got in with him and four other friends.

I couldn’t make out in what direction we were heading; I had gotten turned around too many times in pursuit of my two-wheeled anti-nationalist protestors. Maybe we were heading south into Kreuzberg’s more derelict bar scene.   The mood in the taxi was frothy, though the German jumping between my five party Virgils was too fast for me to follow. Eventually we pulled into an apartment lot. The door opened. Ann Jangle and Cami Scoundrel, the musicians from South Africa, were standing there with drinks in hand. We’re leaving, Ann said, this party sucks. The others de-cabbed, and Ann and Cami got in. I stayed seated. I had no idea where we were, at least I was in a taxi. The door closed and Ann punted an address to the driver and we took off.

Hey, I said, you guys were fantastic tonight. You speak English, Ann said, oh thank god, where are you from? Washington D.C., I said. Oh, man, I’d love to play there, said Ann. Well you should, I said, you were great. Where are we going? To a bar in Kreuzberg, she said. A flurry of chitchat got us acquainted and I explained why I was there. Where are the refugees, I asked. Oh, man, they’re everywhere, said Ann. But where? Just look around you, she said, human misery is everywhere in this city. Go to Warschauerstrasse or Hallesches Tor, she said (two metro stops in East Berlin), you’ll find them. (I would go there the next day, but I never saw any refugees there, only grimy career bums, young bushy beards with dreads hanging or roped back, playing guitars, drinking beer, and hanging out on narrow strips of trashy grass with happy well-behaved dogs).   You’ll find them, said Ann, the situation. Cami has to leave in two days because of her passport situation, she added. Borders. There shouldn’t be any borders. You shouldn’t need some piece of paper to go where you want, where you need to go. (A world without borders. It sounded like an anarchist theme, but I’d hear it over and again, more centrally au courant in Berlin now–and of course the existence of the EU was predicated, to begin with, on loosening control of the borders).

The bar was a simmering warm Kreuzberg scene, crowded, edgy, friendly. Everyone seemed to know each other but to come from radically different sectors of society. At one table, a beefy goth guy in studded leather, make up, spiked hair and a metal bolt shooting out of his chin was talking to a thin dapper cat in a cardigan and tie. Girls on the lam from American sororities rubbed shoulders at the bar with broad, thick-handed guys in durable work shirts. At least in the bar it seemed to be a world without borders. I asked Ann and Cami where they were living. Nowhere, was the answer. Where were they sleeping? In the flats of friends, or on a park bench. On a park bench? Yeah, said Cami, I woke up on one this morning. Were you guys paid for the performance tonight? Yeah, said Ann, fifty bucks. Fifty bucks for both of you? Yeah, and I sold a few cd’s, but we’ve already spent that. She handed me a Mexicali shot. What’s this, I said. It’s for your health, she said. We clinked and bottomed up.

Ann turned to play a dice game with a huge guy at the bar who looked like he had just walked off a Fassbinder set, Expressionism itself sitting at a bar, killing time as civilization waned into darkness. I asked Cami about her life and her music, what inspired her in each, and she told me about Cape Town and the music she loved, such as Fuzigish (the ska punk band from Gauteng) and the slam poets, Kyle Louw and Roche du Plessis, as well as her grandfather, who emigrated with such resourceful determination to South Africa from Lithuania. Are you sure you guys have a place to stay tonight, I said, you shouldn’t be sleeping on park benches (I was showing my age and sheltered lack of experience). Another round and Ann and Cami were reciting their poems to me, egging me on to do the same.

I had now been drinking slowly but steadily for eight hours. Some things simply are not possible at that point, at least for me, and one of them is calling up any of my poems to memory (a real poet’s memory, of course, would only be turned on by drinking . . . Will there ever be a time, I thought, when you won’t feel like a poser). Cami patted me on the head and looked me in the eye. I see a lot of white, she said. I was being told my age. At some point the two of them disappeared down a staircase. My offer of shelter no doubt having looked like a proposition, they had properly ditched me. I sat and studied the bartender as he tried with some difficulty to light short candles set in glass that he then haphazardly slid along the bar. Berliners love candles, a fetching impulse in a dark city. A sign on corrugated cardboard cut from a box was sloppily taped to the wall. ‘How to Survive Kreuzberg,’ it read. Clocking in at 3 am, one suggestion stood out, ‘Don’t open a map.’

Eric of the bright eyes and broad smile had walked in 30 minutes earlier, but I couldn’t bear another political entanglement, I was fried. I went to say goodbye. He jumped up. You going? He gave me an enormous bear hug. I will look you up on Facebook, he shouted across the two-inch chasm between us. A taxi and a bike ride later, I walked into my Scheunenviertel flat and stood at the window for a while, staring blankly at the shadowed bulk of the new CIA in Berlin.

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.



Being a Refugee Is Not a Profession

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.


Friday, 2 October 2015

Barbara Gügold, the director of the Institute, shook my hand and led me out the door. We chatted pleasantly on the way to a favored lunch spot in one of the many barn courtyards of the neighborhood—an upscale joint that served cuisine. I ordered the octopus. Is the flat okay, she asked. Oh, it’s great, just what I needed. Those dark stone buildings behind you . . ., she said. That make the courtyard? I asked. Yes, that is the new location for the CIA. It’s probably the safest street in Berlin. It’s not a dangerous city, I said; we smiled. And so what about the refugees, I said—(this would soon become my favorite non-sequitur)—Where are they? Oh, they’re everywhere. Well, what do you think of their coming to Germany? Oh, Germany must take them, we must, and they are very welcome here, she leaned forward, very welcome. But we need to make distinctions between those truly seeking political asylum and others who are coming for economic opportunity. From Albania, Serbia, Macedonia—these people cannot stay. Their lives are not in immediate danger from imminent threat. And they are coming with the Syrians because soon the EU will declare those countries ‘safe’ and asylum will not be available to them. You mean politically ‘safe’? Yes, politically safe. The pulpo was excellent. The atrium-like dining alcove was empty but for us, with muffled acoustics, warm and luxurious. My family were refugees, she continued, Hugenots in the 17th century; they fled here from France. Gügold: my surname is a Germanized French name.

When we warmly shook hands goodbye, she pointed out the direction to nearby Humboldt Universität, where I would later be giving a lecture; she handed me an issue of Der Spiegel about the refugee crisis and a program directory for the much-touted Robert Wilson extravaganza of Faust (both parts) with music by Herbert Grönemeyer, the largest selling German pop star who also famously played the war correspondent in Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Das Boot. As she would be launching on a month-long recruiting trip in the U.S., we wouldn’t see each other again.

As I crossed the famous Unter den Linden avenue and walked onto the campus of Humboldt, I spotted a sturdy used bike for sale locked to a crowded bike rack. It looked like the kind of bike for rent in Berlin, with strong wheels and thick tires for cobblestones and broken glass. I took down the address for a shop nearby.

The Behrenstrasse souvenir shop owned by a Vietnamese couple was typical, with postcards, Berlin bags, t-shirts, hats, and knick-knacks, and it was bustling with tourists. The couple was busy, one running the register, the other re-stocking. I asked them about the bike. We haggled a little over the price and I settled for the asking, with a lock thrown into the deal.

Mih emigrated to DDR Berlin from Vietnam 39 years ago, a move from one communist country to another. He was trained to be a machinist and engineer. Mih and Lienny’s children had studied in the U.S., done well, and could take advantage of the advanced degree programs offered to academically high performing German students. They were very proud, and I was admiring. And what about the refugee crisis, I asked. (We spoke in German; I asked them to speak slowly.) When they come here, Lienny said, they will have a hard time finding work, there are too many. They will become criminals. Also four thousand of the refugees from Syria are terrorists.   Where did you hear that, I asked. On Facebook, she said. Mih added, there are too many coming. When I came here, he continued, it was the DDR. I was trained, I worked hard, I learned German. We integrated into German society. With the Muslims this will be a problem.  Mih, I said, I would like to ask you a question, do you feel that you are German? He smiled and gave a little laugh. No, no, he said, I am not German.

Before I rode off I made sure the front and rear generator lights were working properly — the police will ticket you otherwise. Mih pointed out the quality Shimano generator on the front wheel. If you have a problem, he said, come back, I will fix it.

Berlin is flat as a coin. With little effort on a bike you can fly ahead, out-manoeuver traffic and get anywhere you need to go in the city. There’s nothing like slipping through the narrow space between cars and pulling ahead to spike a sense of superiority. The friction of air against the body wakes you up, the body having effectively joined the machine at five points of contact to become the moving parts of a light-framed locomotive. You are one of the rushing corpuscles through the arteries of Berlin, and you feel every rapidly changing contour of its paved and cobblestoned surface.

I was headed for Oranienplatz in the Kreuzberg district of East Berlin, some kilometers away. I had heard that 500 refugees and activists had taken over the square and occupied it since 2012. Many were from Ghana and had come to Germany through Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.

At a red light I saw a poster: ‘Flüchtlinge ist kein Beruf’ (‘Being a refugee is not a profession’), and a website; I jotted it down before the red turned green and took off.   Physically exhilarated, I wondered if there’d be anything to find at Oplatz (as its called). But there wasn’t. The tents and makeshift structures of dryboard and wood had been bulldozed by the city months ago, the refugees pushed off, in some cases physically carried off, into hostels or shelters, the activists sent packing to regroup online, in cafés, and on the street. The square, once the site of a fixed protesting eyesore, a kind of stationary march where Berliners could gather to mobilize hearts and minds and bodies, had been quietly re-inhabited by neighborhood folks. Elderly men and women sat on benches and talked, young men sat on the grass drinking bottles of beer, moms rode through slowly on their bikes with kids strapped in back seats. Dogs sniffed around and lay quietly near their owners, off leash, totally obedient; I watched one, a huge shepherd mix, lick his owner’s hand. The dogs of Berlin are the best-behaved dogs in the world.

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at BODY.


Nuha American Colony

Waiting for Nuha

By Joanna Chen

I’m waiting for my friend Nuha at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. A favored haunt of foreign journalists, I clocked up many hours sitting in the leafy center courtyard over iced tea when I worked for Newsweek.

The American Colony, nestling in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, has always been an oasis of tranquility in a city that is anything but tranquil. Built in the late 19th century, it has hosted countless peace negotiations and secret talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Lawrence of Arabia met here with American reporters, and John le Carré, is one of many writers who have stayed here. Mostly, the hotel buzzes with UN officials and foreign diplomats. Today, it’s quiet. The only occupied room in this sprawling stone building is the lobby, where guests lounge in chintzy armchairs near the lit fireplace. A loud voice booms out across the room. An Israeli sitting with a Palestinian, closing a business deal. They speak in Hebrew and from time to time the Palestinian makes a phone call on his cell phone, murmuring into the phone in Arabic. They lean towards each other, the Israeli in a blue shirt, unbuttoned at the top, the Palestinian in a moss-green sweater. Across from them is a group of American journalists drinking coffee out of tiny ceramic cups, and a woman in an ethnic poncho wanders up and down the pink flagstones, her heels clicking on the polished surface.

I settle in to a high-backed armchair and order tea. Nuha will be late because she’s working with journalists and you can never tell how long an assignment will take. My tea arrives in a little white pot, mint leaves floating in the steaming water. I take out my laptop and begin writing.

The meeting between the two businessmen comes to an end and the Israeli rises to his feet and asks where he should pay. The Palestinian says, forget it, I’ll pay. The Israeli laughs uncomfortably, and they shake hands. The American Colony was a pickup point back in my Newsweek days. I would sit here, making phone calls, waiting for people to show. From here we would travel to the West Bank, to illegal settler outposts and Palestinian villages. It is from here that Nuha and I set out to visit a Palestinian woman fresh out of jail for attempting to carry out a suicide bombing, and it is from here that we set out to visit a little girl from Tul Karem who captured our hearts.

Nuha Musleh worked with Newsweek for years, functioning beautifully as an interpreter and fixer, setting up appointments and guiding us through all our interviews on the Palestinian side. We often traveled to the West Bank with Mustapha, a burly, laughing taxi driver, who owned an immaculate Mercedes and drove like a maniac along the narrow roads of the West Bank, sounding his horn, Arabic music blasting from the stereo system. I would invariably get a headache on the way home.

It was also here that I met Mike Hastings, an American journalist, who stayed at the Colony before his first trip to Baghdad, on assignment with Newsweek in 2007. It was here, in the dim bar in the basement of the Colony, that he told me about Andi Parhamovich, his girlfriend, asking me whether I thought he should marry Andy, or did I think it was it a ridiculous idea. It’s a ridiculous idea and you should do it, I said, and we clinked glasses and hugged, and I left him that night at the Colony not knowing that, a few weeks after he arrived in Baghdad, Andi would be killed when her car was ambushed by Sunni insurgents.

It was here I met Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear whistle-blower, after his release from prison. We met on a hot day in 2004 in the dining room that faces the small swimming pool at the rear end of the hotel. His back was to the pool, and as he talked I watched people jumping in and out of the pool, applying sun cream to glistening bodies, sipping cool drinks. Vanunu had nothing to say. In fact, he was forbidden to speak to journalists. So why did I meet him? I was curious to see him, and disappointed at this slight, short man with skin the color of cigarette smoke, a soft voice and eyes that darted about the room throughout our half-hour conversation.

A Frenchman circles the lobby. Black pants, sleek black coat, Ray-Ban glasses positioned on his bald head, hands in pockets. Perhaps he’s a security guard for a high-profile guest. There are plenty of them staying here.

A young guy sits the other side of the fireplace, tapping away on a sleek laptop, perfectly white sneakers on his feet and a tailored jacket. He’s a pastor, he says, here on a twelve-day mission.

Nuha bursts into the lobby in a pink wool coat and black hat. Underneath, she’s wearing a red dress and around her neck is a heavy Palestinian necklace. The colors and styles clash, but Nuha knows how to carry it off. We embrace and it’s real, not kisses evaporating into the air but a warm, long hug. It’s been a long time.

At 2 p.m. we’re already sitting in the dining room, the same place I had sat with Vanunu. We munch on bread dipped in thick olive oil, we eat lentil soup, we laugh and chatter together. Less than a mile away, at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, a combined knife and gun attack begins. One of the Israeli guards, a 19-year-old woman, is killed in the attack. Two more are wounded. The three Palestinian perpetrators are shot dead at the scene.

For an hour, Nuha and I leave our cell phones in our bags. She talks about the art gallery she and her husband own in Ramallah, and about her mother, who has been sick. I ask her how she manages to keep running on the treadmill of journalism, and she shrugs her shoulders and smiles. I tell her how I took my son yesterday to see the so-called separation barrier that Israel continues to build around the Palestinian territories, and how I made him get out of the car so he could see for himself how a wall, however high it is, cannot hide the other side.

For one hour, neither of us check our messages, or the wires for breaking news. For one hour, we are two friends sitting together across a table. We worked together for over a decade and I trust her completely. I like to think that nothing will separate us.

Half an hour later, Nuha and I say goodbye in the American Colony’s parking lot and I head for home, happy to slip out of Jerusalem before the rush hour. But the roads are heavily congested in East Jerusalem. I make a U-turn and hit even more traffic heading for the Old City. An ambulance flits by, and then three police cars, their sirens shrieking. I switch on the car radio and hear about the attack.



Ich bin ein Berliner?

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.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Getting into Germany couldn’t have been easier. I said good morning to the blank faced woman at Passport Control; she found a blank page in my passport, stamped it; I pulled my bag from the conveyor belt and walked into the heavily policed shopping mall of Flughafen Tegel International. My eyes were dry and itchy from staying up all night on the plane reading Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of the Islamic State and trying to learn a few words of Arabic with my Nemo phone app. Marhaban. Hello. Na’am. Yes. Herzliches Willkommen. No, wrong language. I’d hear the phrase soon from the folks at the Institute sponsoring my trip; how many others entering the country today would hear likewise?

Stepping outside, the airport shade felt chilly; the temperature would be dipping lower with every few days, and people living on the street would wait longer for the morning sun to warm them. October would bring rain. Sickness would follow. I stepped back through the sliding glass to don my German kitschy Jack Wolfskin fleece, with a giant paw print stitched between the shoulders. Ich bin ein Berliner? Hardly, but I was happy to be back for the month.

In the cab to Mitte, the city center, I asked the Turkish driver how long he had lived in Berlin. 30 years. Did he like Berlin? Oh, ja, sure. Where are the refugees? He gave his head a quarter turn, What? I repeated my question. What? He didn’t understand the word—die Flüchtlinge (literally, the fleers)—and it wasn’t my German, as bad as it is. He had never heard the word (maybe I should have said Asylbewerber—asylum seeker—but I hadn’t learned it yet myself).

Germany has known its Flüchtlinge of course, fugitives fleeing Nazism in the 1930’s, so many that in 1933 the League of Nations created its High Commission for Refugees, now the UNHCR, located in Berlin near old Checkpoint Charlie. But before that, try 1685, when the Edict of Fontainbleau outlawed Protestantism in France and hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled, that time to Germany. I thought of Franz Tunda, the Austrian lieutenant in Joseph Roth’s novel, Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End), who escaped from the Russian P.O.W. camp at the end of WWI and fled back to Europe. Could the ironical itinerant Roth, himself always on the move between hotels, ever have guessed that the title of his 1927 novel might refract the experience of so many 21st century non-Europeans, today’s Flüchtlinge? Flight without end. A political plight becoming a state of mind.

I pressed my cabbie, the Syrians, I said, though I could have added, and the Afghanis, and the Eritreans . . . Ah, ja, die Syrer; he shook his head and said, I don’t know. But they’re here, in Berlin, right? Ja, they’re here, but I don’t know where. We crossed a small bridge over the Spree into Moabit, the immigrant thick kiez originally settled by fleeing Huguenots, and the location of the State Office of Health and Welfare (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or Lageso), the office where the refugees in Berlin wait to register with the state. (Gesundheit, indeed; I thought of the coming cold.) I think they’re near, I said. Ja, they are near, he said, his head moving left to right scanning an intersection as we slid through, it’s a big problem.


The taxi driver dropped me on a quiet street off Chauseestrasse in the Scheunenviertel kiez (literally ‘barn quarter’), Berlin’s old Jewish Quarter that maintains the winding lanes of a village even as it’s exploded as a hip area for shopping, dining, and looking at contemporary art in the converted barn courtyards of its yesteryear (the hay barns were kept to the old city outskirts due to fires). The building in which the Institute had situated me is small and mod, like a cheap imitation Mondrian you could live in. When I knocked on the Hausmeister’s door at 8:30 a.m., I was greeted by a dour unsmiling woman who dragged on her cigarette and returned to the landline. Missing the warmth of the Frau at Passport Control, I took a seat and waited, silently rehearsing some fumbling German in my head.

Ten minutes later I had signed papers, received keys, and was standing in a small bright clean flat of blond wood and metal and halogen, an Ikea-nized space. The windows opened onto a vacant courtyard created by a matching pair of large dark modern stone buildings framed by even darker materials around corporate-sized windows. I could look directly into them and count the louvers of the executive shades in each room as well as the metal railing banisters that zigzag up and down the windowed staircases. Both buildings were completely vacant of people and thwarted my fleeting interest in spying on working German suits. Sterile emptiness. Over the flat box rooftop, I could make out the peaked red tile roofs of the Naturkundemuseum (natural history museum) the next street over, and beyond that the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). A sky-scape everywhere punctuated by huge cranes—the construction of reclaimed space in Berlin will continue for another 20 years or more . . . Herzliches Willkommen. Here now, I was eager to enter it again.

KB - Percival Lowell 1

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Just before moving to Korea, I took a road trip across America, from southern California to North Carolina. An early overnight stop came in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city overlooked by the Lowell Observatory, a scientific institution (and now tourist attraction) founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the American astronomer whose research led to the discovery of Pluto. The observatory grounds feature an exhibit about the man himself, and having a look at it I noticed the photo above, in which Lowell sits among a group of 19th-century Koreans, and below it a first edition of his book Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea.

It came out in 1885, just a couple of years after Lowell first went to Korea as a foreign secretary to the diplomatic Korean Special Mission. Having got the inspiration to travel to Asia from a lecture on Japan he attended in 1882, he remained there for quite some time, going on to write other such non-astronomical volumes as The Soul of the Far East in 1888, Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan in 1891, and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods in 1894. You can follow the links to download all of them for free from the Internet Archive. Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm, the first of them, also counts as the first full-length English-language personal narrative of Korea.

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It also still counts as one of the richer full-length English-language personal narratives of Korea yet published, and quite possibly as the most thorough: Lowell divides this 400-page book into chapters on everything from the country’s geography to its climate to its government to its architecture to its principles to the many hats (literally) worn by its people. All fascinating stuff, and all suitable material for a man of such wide-ranging curiosity, but some modern readers may come up against difficulties right away with the structure and style. Lowell wrote like the scientist he was, not in the English-as-a-third-language way some scientists do — I find much to admire in his prose, the occasional Victorian excess aside — in the way of someone who regards detail and precision, especially pertaining to the natural world, as ends in themselves.

Any first-hand account of Korea, and especially one written in the temperature control-challenged 19th-century, has to say something about the weather. But Lowell almost begins his book with it, having said little about the Korean people but, apparently working his way up to the social after laying as thoroughly as possible a foundation of the natural. He dives deep into the effects of the deflection of the mean annual isothermal line. Elsewhere in the book, he adds his personal experience of the weather, such as his struggles with the cold weather and with the heating systems of the day, a seemingly uncontrollable early version of the now widely used underfloor ondol (온돌) heating, too slow to heat and too hot thereafter, operated by overzealous if somewhat inattentive servants. “I was the victim of the too complete fulfillment of my own previous desires,” he writes, “for I myself had unwisely urged them to feed bountifully the flame. Then I yielded to misery. I reflected upon the exceeding vanity of human wishes.”

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Lowell tells of other old-time Korean discomforts with amusing vividness, such as the only means of long-distance travel available in a country without the wheel (“the thing remains uninvented,” he wrote): “Of the essential properties that commend any method of conveyance, speed and bodily comfort, neither, to our notions, is a conspicuous feature of the Korean palanquin.” In this and other respects, he here and there argues, Korean civilization of the 1880s hardly benefits from comparison to that of China or Japan. The same sort of observations come up in subsequent Korean travelogues by other writers in English: of the harshness of life there, the crudity (or indeed nonexistence) of the infrastructure, the colorless aesthetic of common society, the rigid hierarchies, the women shut out utterly from public life, the deep-seated superstition and indolence. “The servants were as incompetent,” he declares at one point, “as the appliances were wanting.”

But Lowell finds about as much to appreciate as he finds to gripe about, and so Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm also sets a precedent for the sympathetic Korean travelogues to follow, in which the author’s countless irritations with the place give way — or at least lose the upper hand — to a kind of admiration: sometimes grudging and often amused at points of seeming inferiority, but admiration nonetheless. And on the whole, his attitude provides an example even today’s Western observers of Asia would do well to follow: “There is among us a prevailing impression that the far East — China, Korea, and Japan — is delightfully but hopelessly odd, and that the interest attaching to these lands lies solely in this irrational oddity,” and, simply accepting this perception, “partly from want of opportunity, partly from neglect, we open the eyes, shut the brain, and think we see.” (It also helps that, unlike many writers on Korea even now, he displays an understanding of the language.)

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Lowell keeps his brain open, and as a result sees Korea with such clear eyes (in his prose as well as his photographs, a selection of which appear here) that his account holds up today in its revelation of both how much and how little has changed here in the past 130 years, a period at the beginning of which “Korea stepped as a debutante into the society of the world.” First, to the differences. Not only has Korea found out about the wheel, they’ve put up a high speed train that can deliver a modern-day Lowell from Busan, his port of entry to Japan, to Seoul in under three hours, rather than the days and days over sea and land the trip required in the 19th century. And when he got there, he certainly couldn’t make the observation, as Lowell did, that “there is not a single religious building in the whole of Seoul” — not only but most obviously because of all the Christian churches and their blazing red neon crosses that have sprung up since his day.

Only a rare Korea resident reading the book in the 21st century — or even in the second half of the 20th — could stifle their laughter as Lowell offhandedly explains that “nothing in Korea is ever done in a hurry.” Few discussions of Korean society today can avoid coming around to the so-called bballi bballi (빨리 빨리) way of doing things, which elevates hurry to the highest virtue. That sudden shift in the speed of life here, which happened alongside the sudden shift in economic growth, gets the blame for all sorts of things laid at its feet, not least the shattering of the imagined peace and quiet implied by the nickname Lowell popularized with the second part of the book’s title.

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The first part of the book’s title, though romanized in a now-outdated fashion, served to remind us that, when Lowell went to Korea, he went during the tail end of the Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), which lasted five centuries from 1392 to 1897 and now provides the setting for the vast majority of historical films, television dramas, and novels that come out. (They pay rather less attention to the Japanese colonial period whose gears started turning thereafter.) But those modern Joseon stories tend to involve women, whereas Lowell’s Joseon experience, apart from his attendance at parties with hired geisha-like professionals and a desperate attempt to photograph a a woman who ran away, scandalized, before he could even set up his camera, leads in to declare that “in Korea woman practically does not exist.”

“Materially, physically, she is a fact,” he explains, “but mentally, morally, socially, she is a cipher.” That was not, of course true, and the segregation is over. The public spaces of Seoul, to an outsider free to roam them during the day, now feels as much like a world of women as it felt like a world of men to Lowell. The men of Korea are shut away in their offices, a sign that gender equality is still far off. In a sense, women have led the way in the cosmopolitanization of the capital as well as other cities, patronizing each new wave of cafés, restaurants, and other gathering places while the men, according to the stereotype, remain in more traditional spaces, grilling meat and draining bottle after green bottle of soju.

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Not that the women of Korea, now free to eat what and where they please, readily turn down an evening at the barbecue themselves. Lowell names as “one of the most salient of the national characteristics” an “insatiable appetite,” in thrall to which “the average Korean does not eat that he may live, but live that he may eat,” with the result that “to the average Korean, it is always meal-time.” The culture of eating remains strong still, as does the culture of smoking, a practice that Lowell found “as common in Korea as in Japan; that is, everybody smokes — all the time,” and those who don’t often have to make elaborate excuses not to partake while everyone else around them does. But Korea, more so than Japan, looks lately to have begun turning its back on cigarettes, and in that the women have also taken the lead, and by a wide margin.

The similarities, though, stick out even more than the differences. “The greater part of the steamers that ply there are not what they might be,” Lowell writes of the waters off Korea’s west coast, adding that accidents “happen at intervals.”. Disasters at sea and elsewhere, most recently in April 2014, and any other elements of Korean life people find objectionable, are often blamed on the lingering ill influence of Confucianism. Lowell describes Confucianism as something that has been “artificially, because arbitrarily, prolonged, and has long since outlived its usefulness,” especially in the form of filial piety, which he describes as “the one great moral principle of the far East. All others exist, as it were, in abeyance. Truth is unknown, honesty largely out of practice, and chastity a luxury wherever it is a fact.”

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Yet despite these complaints, Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm doesn’t read like a work written out of frustration. He hates uncomfortable palanquins and what he sees as the shiftless, constantly hungry “coolies” hired to carry them, but usually Lowell withholds judgment, and sees better. His was an undivided Korea of 12 million people, with few roads and no tall buildings; and withholding judgment yields even more insights in the high-tech, hypertrophied 25-million-strong capital of South Korea of today.

“It is a curious case of partially arrested development,” writes Lowell, assessing the state of the Korea he found, marveled at, and ultimately warmed to. “The evolution of the fundamental principles was checked, while the superficial details of civilization went on growing.” Whether those fundamental principles have changed in the past 130 years it falls to modern Koreanists to determine, but boy, did the civilization ever keep on growing. Has that subsequent development been all to the good? Has it been anywhere? Does Korea remain, if not a land of morning calm then, as Lowell put it, “a thrice happy land, indeed, where a man does not make love to his friend’s umbrella”? If you want to know what that means, well, you’ll have to read the book. Rest assured that he explains it all there, to the best of his ability — and in detail.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.


Watching Big Brother: A Q&A with Chinese Political Cartoonist Badiucao

By Sophie Beach

The invaluable China Digital Times website, which has a regular “Drawing the News” feature and publishes related illustrated e-books is releasing a new collection today — Watching Big Brother: Political Cartoons by Badiucao. Along with a rich sampling of works by the artist, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in Australia, the ebook includes an interview with Badiucao (a pen name) conducted by Sophie Beach, executive editor of CDT. The Los Angeles Review of Books has been given exclusive rights to run an excerpt from that interview for “The China Blog.”

SOPHIE BEACH: You have been the subject of Twitter smear campaigns in recent months. Who do you think is behind these attacks, and what was your response? Has it changed your attitude toward your drawing? Has it changed your approach to being active on the Internet?

BADIUCAO: In recent years, I have been subjected to large-scale Internet attacks twice. I believe these attacks are linked to the Chinese government’s control of the Internet, for two reasons: First, both attacks happened after I had drawn cartoons in support of human rights activists who had been imprisoned, and the drawings had been picked up by Amnesty International and the international media. Second, all the slanderous attacks against me use show the political positions of the Chinese government—the language used by the attackers is full of clichés and their user profiles seem to be automated fake accounts. This shows that these attacks are not from individuals, but are organized systematically. The goal of this kind of attack is not just to threaten me, but possibly to pollute search results for “badiucao,” and to block the visibility of my cartoons online.

The first time I faced an online attack, I was terrified. I had previously received sporadic threats, but never this type of coordinated attack. Some “fifty centers” [a nickname for people paid by the authorities to post comments on line] wrote several essays to specifically “expose the ugly soul of hypocrisy under my skin.” From this essay I could see that they had very carefully examined my words and collected specific personal information about me. When it reached this degree, I slowed down my drawing.

But then, I felt I couldn’t control my creative impulse. I also understood that the only way to overcome the fear of such attacks was to make them public and to continue to draw. It is like when facing the threat of terrorists: once you compromise, the other side will only intensify. The second time I was attacked, I could face it calmly. I even saved all the words and articles attacking me, to keep as a witness. In the future I hope to use them as creative materials.

Since we last spoke, fellow cartoonist Rebel Pepper has been living in exile in Japan after being attacked in the official media in China. Do you think there is any space currently for political cartoonists living in China, or is it just too dangerous?

I believe that the Chinese space for political cartoonists in the mainland has already closed.

In the era when Weibo [a Chinese counterpart to Twitter] first launched, online satirical cartoonists were very active. We could see Kuang Biao, Dashixiong, and dozens of other cartoonists commenting on current events.  But now, I almost never see domestic cartoonists’ work.

But I don’t think we can be too hard on cartoonists for not fulfilling their full duties because the threats they face are real. Like the incident with Rebel Pepper; if you have no way to get away, you may have no choice but to shut up.


Read more about this image at China Digital Times.

Over the past year or so, you have drawn several portraits of human rights defenders that have been very well-received online. They are a departure from your previous, more narrative drawings. Is this a direction you plan to take your work in the future, away from the political “cartoons” and into more traditional drawing and painting styles?

This year, I drew several portraits of rights activists who had been detained.

I had three reasons for doing this: First, this year, the suppression of human rights activists was more severe than in years past. In the first half of the year the pressure was concentrated on NGOs and journalist groups. The second half of the year saw the crackdown on rights lawyers. It seems that after the authorities cleaned up competition inside the Party, they had a hand free to interfere with social dissent. Moreover, authorities used CCTV confessions as propaganda. Second, for those who have been on Twitter a long time, they understand Chinese rights activists and when these familiar people encounter problems, it can inspire a strong sense of solidarity. Third, from analyzing the two attacks on me, I have learned that authorities are very concerned about international media attention on the suppression of human rights activism. This encouraged me to continue creating portraits of China’s prisoners of conscience. Cartoons and portraits can create a unified visual symbol, which can help spread the message and attract sustained attention, in order to create pressure from public opinion. Maybe this pressure can improve the situation for those who are imprisoned, as well as comfort the family members of the persecuted.

But, this will not cause me to give up paying attention to and finding inspiration from current events. Showing solidarity for human rights activists and commenting on current events are not in conflict with each other; they both offer excellent opportunities to profile China. However, if you only have activists’ portraits without their background stories or a depiction of China’s overall environment, my work will become dull and weak, and even risks becoming a simple and emotional propaganda tool.

As for my own development, I will not stop creating cartoons. Cartoons and the Internet are already a part of my life. Drawing cartoons has helped form me and my identity.

Of course, I am now trying to use more artistic means to express myself: print-making, oil painting, sculptures, installations. Different media signify different forms of expression, and different platforms (for example streets, galleries, museums) mean different audiences. I hope to become as diverse an artist as Banksy or Ai Weiwei.

释永信 拷贝

Read more about this image at China Digital Times.