Making Something of It

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 morning, 22 October

7 a.m., the flat’s buzzer jolts us with two prolonged bursts. My first insane thought: oh my god, I’m hiding a Jew in my apartment! — and (of course) maybe it’s me! Bleary, I open the door. The stern Frau Hausemeister is standing at the threshold. We are here for the curtains, she says. What. It’s not a question. She repeats herself, we are cleaning the curtains today. Two large men in blue work overalls boom out a Morgen! and set up their ladders at the windows. We will bring them back at noon, she says.

After breakfast, Joseph tells me he’s going to stay in a hostel tonight. How come, I say, you don’t like officious Germans banging on the door at 7 a.m.? He smiles, he doesn’t laugh. He is planning to go to some Kaffeeklatsches he keeps up with in Berlin, where he can meet more people. He doesn’t know how late he’ll be; maybe he’ll meet a woman. We head out together. Where you off to now, I say. Joseph is going to visit the Berlin Wall, or what’s left of it. I’ve never seen it before, he says. No figurative curtain, the Wall was an ideological and deadly concrete border, turned over time into a work of anonymous protest art. Have a ball, I say. We make an arrangement to meet later that afternoon should I have any follow up questions for him.


Thursday evening, 22 October

Another rainy night. I take the U-bahn into Pernzlauer Berg, to find the home of Jalda Rebling and Anna Adam, two Berlin-based artists who are also leaders in the Jewish renewal movement here — Jalda, a cantor for the Ohel Hachidusch community, and Anna, a painter and installation artist who works on interfaith community-building, specifically with Muslim kids. They live on the street named after the Gesthemaniekirche (or church), which marks an important location for the peaceful demonstrations that lead to the Mauerfall. The church itself was a refuge and place of vigil for demonstrators trying to escape police crackdowns along nearby Schönhauser Allee. It was also home to one of the few congregations explicitly open to lesbian groups. Jalda and Anna begin the conversation, as so many do, I find, by looking out the window and describing the significance of a specific location in plain view. The conversation in their home — another enviable high-ceilinged flat full of books and music, and the warmth that comes with over thirty years of domesticity — starts with that year, 1989, and moves forward.

The idea of German reunification was scary for a lot of Jews here in the late 1980’s — it was a unified Germany, after all, that lead to the Holocaust. Jalda, one of the founders of Ohel Hachidusch, and its cantor (one of the few ordained female cantors in Germany), came to East Berlin from Amsterdam at the age of 2, with her family — her parents eagerly joined the effort to build a socialist society devoted to peace. Jalda and Anna both belong to that first generation of children of Holocaust survivors. Jalda’s mother, who survived Bergen Belsen to become a well known actress and singer, rode the same train car to the concentration camp as Anne Frank. She was the one later to tell Otto Frank that his daughter was dead.

But we were never afraid, says Jalda, speaking of herself and Anna about the inexorable political and social forces that lead to reunification. We were open about being Jews. And we trusted our neighbors. (It’s very important, she says, that you know who your neighbors are.) We were not sure about the possibility of violence that might result from reunification, and what this might mean for Jews here. But it never materialized as had been imagined in paranoid fantasies. Yet fears persist around us, says Jalda. When the Gaza war started [between Israel and Palestine], Jews in Berlin bought pepper spray to protect themselves from attackers. It became an atmosphere in which every Arab appeared dangerous.  Jalda expresses her perturbation: “Wait a minute,” I would say, “we have Muslim friends.” But those who are scared don’t want to hear it, she says. Jalda and Anna, who are now what they call Bubbes (grandmas) speak with calm subdued voices steady in their deliberate thoughtfulness. One feels their grounded strength. If you are looking for anti-Semitism, says Jalda, it is always there, it will always be there. She tells the joke about the Jewish father of a child who wants to be a violinist. The violin teacher eventually makes his judgment. “Your son plays the violin like a piano,” he says to the father, “he will never be a violinist.” Says the father to the son as they’re walking out the door, “Another anti-Semite!'” We laugh.

Anna describes one of her main interfaith efforts, the Happy Hippy Jew Bus, an actual small bus that travels around Germany, stopping at street fairs and other locations to teach people about Judaism through performance, dialog, and hands-on arts & crafts. Anna’s quiet firm voice has a liquid softness at its center that’s mesmerizing — I can easily imagine her holding people’s attention, especially children’s attention, with her voice alone. She tells the story of how Ibrahim, a Muslim mechanic she knows, helped her when the bus died, by finding a new bus through his uncle, even going so far as to secure new plates for it, with the number BJ1967. “1968,” he said [the pivotal year in German history when the left-leaning younger generation protested against the entrenchment of Nazis in German society] “was sold out; but 1967 seemed close enough.” It was a great story. But when a local Jewish journalist wrote about it, he emphasized that the Muslim mechanic was insinuating a protest against Israel: 1967 is the year of the Six-Day War. When Anna read that, she approached Ibrahim. His response: “The Six-Day War, what is that?” He read the story. “Anna,” he said, “you and I are here to live in peace. But Anna, why can’t the Germans learn to clean their own dishes?” They laughed. You talk about the devil, says Anna to me, and he will show up. The work, she continues, is to dispel the clichés about Judaism. Another story: I discovered, she says, the power of satire. I was on the metro and a young Muslim woman was surrounded by three neo-Nazi guys who were harassing her. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something. Then I saw one of them was wearing Levi jeans. And I screwed up my courage and yelled, “Awwww, that guy is wearing Jewish jeans! Look, Levi, a Jewish name! He is a traitor to Germany, wearing Jewish jeans!” The other two turned on him, she says, and started beating him. The three of us chuckle and pour some tea.

So many more Germans are supporting the refugees, says Jalda, than are against their coming. Last winter I was in Israel, and the Israeli press was reporting the nationalistic xenophobic demonstrations in Dresden, but the anti-demonstrations were much bigger. But US and Israeli media weren’t reporting those. And all the refugees who had come months earlier, she continues, were receiving so much help — the media didn’t report it until the political right set the shelters on fire. But that’s not the atmosphere here, she says. Here are people who feel we have to help. Nobody knows how to solve the situation. In a way, the third world war is already going on. Will it lead to the building of a new wall, a new curtain, she asks. All I know, she answers herself, is that now we have to help these people. The Berlin bureaucracy is crazy, she says, we don’t have words for it. I mean, writing numbers in pen on people’s arms? [This was actually happening in September, but discontinued.] I ask Jalda and Anna if the new spike in xenophobia is the expression of feelings that have always existed, or those born from the crisis for the first time. It was always open, says Jalda, but the media was not in the habit of reporting it. The biggest demos, says Anna, are in Dresden and places in the East where there have never been many strangers.

What kind of pressure do you think so many Muslims coming into Germany will place on the Jewish community, I say. They are afraid of something they don’t know, says Anna. We are survivor’s children, says Jalda, and we have taught our children. There is a survival gene; if you have it, you move in the world as it. If we Jews want to be tolerated, then we must tolerate. I work with refugee kids, says Anna, they’ll all figure out I’m Jewish; but I can’t talk about my religion — that’s the law in Germany, everything must be totally neutral. But these people I’m helping will know they are getting help from a Jew. Anna then tells the story of a Muslim girl she knows whose parents have passed on the pernicious blood libel of literally vampiric Jews. When they need help filling out government papers, Anna agrees to lend a hand and takes the opportunity to make fun of the ludicrous, vicious fiction of the blood libel. “You see,” she tells them, “I am helping you, and I am also not sucking your blood.” She makes comical biting gestures with her teeth. The struggle, she says, is to dispel ignorance with the flash of perception: humanity, equality, charity. We can only create a society together, says Anna. It has been a struggle for us to become proud German Jews, says Jalda, but that is where the beginning is for us, and we choose to stay here. We are making something of it.



Charity Benefits the Giver

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.


Wednesday, 21 October

Joseph has accepted my invitation to stay for a couple of nights. He’ll check out of the hostel around noon and come to my flat in Scheunenviertel, a fast 10 minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof. He has offered to go with me to Lageso to act as an interpreter. Also, he says, he can tell me things about the people we talk to based on the way they answer questions. He knows I’m skeptical of the conspiracy picture he’s painted, but he clearly likes the fact that I’m listening to him closely and appear to be at least half-informed about the situation. And, of course, we’re both Jewish.

But what does that mean? I find this troubling. Why have I invited him to stay and not a Muslim in more desperate straits who likely follows Islam? I know it is because I’m Jewish, a fact I’ve kept totally under wraps in my interviews with refugees at Lageso. Not that I had a reason to bring it up, but if someone had asked me, I would have said “yes, and I’m against the occupation.” And then I would have felt very nervous. The difference of religion is not the issue, but rather my inability to identify the political ideologies of Muslims after talking to them for only a short while, and in their rough English, or my rough German. Where German Berliners might not feel any trepidation bringing a strange Muslim into their house, as an American Jew in Berlin I did, and do. Maybe such initial feelings would change in the course of a larger conversation, in a different setting than the tense grounds of Lageso. I trust my intuitions; but unfamiliar and stressful situations can distort the signal one tries to pick out — too much background noise. Joseph, however, has arrived already vetted, in some sense, by Rabbi Rothschild and Germany’s greater Jewish network. And three hours of conversation in a café — a normalizing environment — have lead me to extend myself. But not flatter myself; the evidence of my limitation in this moment is disconcerting. Next time, I hope, I like to think, I will find a way to go further. So, I’ve found a flattering reflection in any case: optimism by endless deferral; that is not an ethics . . .  (The mirror doesn’t lie, we do).


“First and foremost charity benefits the giver.” —Joseph Roth (“Ghettoes of the West”)


En route to Lageso, Joseph and I talk more about the situation. What about Russia? Russia, he says, has weakened IS; they are still dangerous, but not as powerful right now. Some of my information is a year old, he continues, so I made some calls to people in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan yesterday to find out the news. This is what they are saying. The guys I talked to at Lageso, I say, don’t like to see Putin in the region; they say he is simply supporting Assad. They would like to see Obama fly planes over the region — just the sight of planes, they say, would send the regime underground. Joseph laughs. Yes, he says, that’s true, totally correct. Whoever told you that, he says, maybe has some military experience. But, he continues with a shrug, Russia is looking out for Russia, supporting Bashar is only supporting their own interests; they don’t care about anything else. And Bashar is bad, he says, but IS is worse. Bashar does not want to take over the world, IS does. (Still, I think, listening to Joseph, the difference in numbers of murdered is staggering; what Assad is doing to his own people is beyond criminal.) And, continues Joseph, IS is even more violent. They are smarter than Al-Qaeda, they are more powerful, better armed, and bigger. And yet the US is doing less than they did before, less than they did against Saddham. And this enemy is greater. It doesn’t make any sense. He changes the subject. We should have a word, he says, that I can use at Lageso to signal that we are talking to a radicalized Muslim. Do you like baseball, I say. Joseph shrugs. Why don’t you do something like touch the bill of your cap, kind of adjust it on your head. He gives it a try. Ja, like that, I say. We go over how Joseph will introduce me — an American writer wanting to tell people back in the States about the situation of refugees in Berlin. True enough.

Approaching the Lageso compound of buildings, we pass the big white convention-size tents set up behind fences and adjacent to the first building that faces the street. The tents are full of people stepping in and out of the cold. Some on the sidewalk converse with others inside the fence. A young boy, 4 or 5, plays with a toy car on the sidewalk, spinning it upside down on its roof like a top. His family is squatting nearby eating apples. Their stroller is full of food, packaged and also fresh produce that’s easy to eat raw with one’s hands. Five kids. Walking onto the grounds, we pass the food tent — soup and brötchen. There are only a few hundred people today milling about the digital console of amber numbers. Joseph and I walk around observing people. I decide to approach three men and two women wearing hijabs standing around an empty baby carriage.

They are two families. Husam, 23, and his father, Razin, 50, are Palestinians from Libya. Husam has been in Germany for a year, having only recently arrived from Dresden (where anti-immigration xenophobia is spiking with the right organization, Pegida). His father has just joined him. What did you do in Libya, I ask Razin, the father. I was a geography teacher he says to Joseph, who is interpreting. I’m a teacher, too, I say, literature. He gives me a broad smile and we shake hands for a second time. They have been running from radicalized forces that would compel them to join. What was the situation like when you left, I ask Razin. Bombs were going off everywhere, he says. Cars are outfitted with guns. There’s no school, no university now for two years. Girls are afraid to go out because of kidnapping. All the young men are armed and fighting. Who are they? All different groups with IS. Who are they fighting? The regime, the oil families. Why did you want to come to Germany? Germany is the best, says Razin, for acceptance and protection. The Arabic world doesn’t want us [Palestinians], for 76 years now.

I turn to Fudail, 35, from Aleppo. What did you do in Aleppo? Fudail ran a fish and chicken restaurant destroyed by a bomb. Well, he says, there’s still a counter standing there, but no one to cook or serve! He laughs. The absurdity of the mental picture is infectious, and I laugh, too, and shake my head. Is your family still there? My mother and sister, and the workers from the restaurant. In the course of talking, the two women in concert have stepped back and moved to the side. Occasionally one of the young daughters comes over to us and takes Fudail’s index finger in her hand. He ignores her questions but doesn’t pull away. Good luck, I say, shukran lak (thank you). We all shake hands with smiles. Joseph and I walk away and he weighs in. Those are just normal people, he says. The Palestinians from Libya are exaggerating their situation a little, he continues, there are lots of places to go in Libya where there isn’t war. They are practicing their story for the Germans, to get their status. Joseph shrugs. It’s okay, he says, that’s what people are doing so that they can stay. It’s easier for the Syrians than the Libyans.

We approach what look like a couple standing with a third guy, slightly younger. Moonif, 29, and his sister, Rina, 27, have lived in Germany since they were kids; they’ve been here a total of 50 years between them. They’re at Lageso helping their cousin, Elias, 25, get registered. Make sure, says Moonif in perfect German, that you tell people we are not refugees, we are German. Moonif works in a steak house in Schöneberg; he and his sister both live in Neukölln. They are warm, friendly people, spending their free time at Lageso helping new arrivals fill out forms and navigate the system. How many people have you helped so far? 20-35, with the papers, says Rina. I turn to Elias, their cousin from Aleppo. What was the situation when you left? If I stayed, he says, I would have to join the Free Army or IS. What if you joined neither, I say. I’d be killed, he says. The Free [Syrian] Army bombed my house, I can’t go back. If it were safe, says Moonif, 80% would go back. We say thank you, shake hands, and turn in another direction.

Two guys approach us. They see we are something like reporters, and they want to talk. Abdul, 35, wears a white down jacket that cinches at the waist — otherwise stylish, it shows the soiling of his journey. He speaks with lively eyes; his hips move expressively as he talks; he could be a slim, seductive Spaniard or Italian. He’s here with his wife and two daughters, 9 and 14. I am from Iraq, he says to Joseph, from the city of Mosul; I saw the fall of Mosul. Why are you talking to me with a Syrian accent, says Joseph (according to his account afterward). Abdul shifts into his hometown speech — I adopt the accent, he says, to blend in with the others. Before IS entered Mosul, Abdul was working in the government’s Ministry of Health. They knew IS was on its way when they were told to stay home and not leave their house for over a week. Abdul was working at a hospital when the civic order was announced; he was stuck there for days. At the time, says Abdul, there were 60,000 soldiers in Mosul, but none of them from the city itself. When 200 IS fighters entered, the soldiers simply dropped their weapons and left their posts. Only the local police stayed to fight, and they were no match. Why’d they stay? They are from Mosul, he says, the others are just there for the pay. They never fought IS at all. Many people were being killed, but the military watches without reaction and simply moves out. (Abdul still has family there; I promise not to use his real name.) IS took my 2014 Hyundai, he says, I hardly got the chance to drive it. And now life there is totally ruled by Sharia: no shaving; no jeans; women totally covered, no bare skin at all; you have to go to the mosque when called or you’ll be killed. Any change in your life, he says, and you must get permission, otherwise you’ll be taken to Islamic court, and they’ll cut off your head. If you try to leave, and they find you, he says, they’ll kill you. How did you get out? Abdul describes how he and his family and three other families — a total of 13 people — hid inside an empty oil tank for seven hours. And his movements then? From Iraq to Syria to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Croatia to Austria to Hungary to Berlin. How have you been treated so far? The police in Germany are very respectful, he says, thoughtful, considerate. Our dream, he says, was to come to Germany, but now I see it is not a dreamland. The routine is killing. I hope, I say, that’s only a figure of speech here. He smiles genuinely. Yes, he says, I hope so.

I turn to the other man, Yaman, 45, an oil engineer from Homs. A tall man, he looks aged beyond his years and sways slowly as he talks, but from the shoulders not the hips. His voice is mellow, its softness a rich contrast to the harshness of his situation. He’s arrived in Berlin three weeks ago with his wife and his daughter, 10, and his son, 17. I am an individual person, he says, I’m not with the regime or with IS or with the Free Military, I am just myself. The Free Military has come to control Homs by force. They say, “we are here to protect you.” (The FSA is made up of many defectors from Assad’s regime who refused to kill civilians). “But,” says Yaman, “you will draw Bashar to us,” we say. “The Koran tells us,” they say, “that jihad licenses us to fight the regime.” “But we’ll get killed,” we say. “Or,” they say, “you will be killed other ways.” When the fighting starts, says Yaman, we hid under our kitchen table. For ten days we were surrounded by fighting. Funny thing, though, he says, all fighting stops in the middle of the day, for two hours, so both sides can eat. Then it starts again. We saw many bodies in the street. The Free Military would throw the bodies of soldiers into garbage cans and write on them: For Bashar Al-Assad, from the Free Military. I will stay here if I can, he says, but the process is so slow. How are you being treated by security here, I say. Some are okay, he says, quite nice. Others kick us while we are sleeping. Joseph says afterward, I don’t think he’s Syrian. No one says, as introduction, “I am an individual,” no one — everyone has some affiliation. And he has no accent, Joseph continues, he speaks in a way that comes from nowhere, he has learned to talk like that. Joseph shrugs, maybe he’s Egyptian and has lived in Syria for a long time.

We walk to the front courtyard area, where the console displays its lit amber numbers, and hover by the opening of a large tent set up for people to take shelter. Three guys who look to be in their 30s sit on stools by the tent opening. One smokes a cigarette down to its filter and talks quietly to another in hip designer glasses. Joseph makes introductions; is it okay to talk to them? The smoker gives me a dead hard stare for an eternal five seconds. His eyes are steel blades. No, he says, we are not interested in talking to anyone from the West. The West cares only for its own interests. We will not talk to them. Joseph says, okay; he adjusts his cap, well, thank you very much. We go. Those guys, he says, are totally radicalized, maybe not as much as the guys in the camp who tried to stab me, but definitely those are not just normal people. Will they get sent back, do you think, I say. Probably not, he says. The way the law works in Germany, he says, they can stay: they will say they are against Bashar, which is true, but they will not say that they support IS, even though they do. And as far as the law here goes, being against Bashar is enough.

On our way out, we are stopped by a guy who looks to be in his 20s, in a red track suit and athletic shoes. He is highly agitated and starts talking to Joseph in a voice that grows more insistent and louder with every sentence. I got here three months ago, he says to Joseph (it’s clear that our presence has been discussed around the grounds) and because I’m from Iraq they won’t accept me. I want to go back, how can I go back? I’m almost ready to kill myself. It’s safer back there. Even if I’m killed there, it will be better. EU is just accepting Syrians. It’s terrible here. So go back, says Joseph, it’s easy. Just go to Frankfurt, to the embassy, and say that you want to go back. They have to take you. But I need a paper from the German government, he says. Go to the embassy, says Joseph, they’ll help you get the paper. We walk off the grounds. Upset guy, says Joseph, but he’s exaggerating his situation.

Sitting over a plastic plate of noodles at the Asian Wok booth outside the Hauptbahnhof debriefing with Joseph over the visit to Lageso. Two girls walk by cloaked in Palestinian flags. I look around for a demo forming, but nothing’s happening. Maybe they’re on their way to one? A red balloon rolls by on the sidewalk, looking for its string; a grown man stomps, and it pops. The little red lit Ampelmann with his arms straight out signaling to stop turns into a bright green profile in stride. The real man imitates him, walking across the tram lines to the other side.

DC Snow in shuttle

When a Tree Falls

By Joanna Chen

I land in Dulles Airport after a blizzard. A thick layer of snow covers the Lincoln Memorial; the Reflecting Pool glistens with ice. The driver of the shuttle bus notices me taking photos through the window with my iPhone and offers to stop for a minute so I can get a good shot. I start explaining that I’m not interested in the tourist sites; my best photos are the blurry ones in which trees, people, buildings, seem to move, when their outlines are smudged across the frame, when there is something suggestive, something left to the imagination, but the driver has already pulled up to the curb so I snap a couple of photos obediently and say thank you. He seems happy, nods and pulls out again into a road that is strangely empty. It’s President’s Day and the recent storm has kept people indoors. Everything is clean and bright.

I last visited DC during the cherry blossom season. The streets were swarming with people back then; we walked down Capitol Hill to the tidal basin at 7 a.m and blossoms the color of silken ballet slippers greeted us. But now the roads are deserted and the shuttle bus makes its way up to the National Mall, sleet thrashing at the windscreen of the van.

I get out at Union Station. This is almost the last leg of a journey that began 13 hours earlier in Oxford, UK, as I descended the creaking wooden stairs leading from the bedroom after parting from my daughter. She lay in bed, the fragrance of sleep hanging in the air. I leaned over her, kissed her forehead, smoothed a tendril of hair away from her brow and murmured in a low voice: See you in six weeks. That was it. As my cousin drove me early morning to Heathrow, the sun rose pinkly and I looked out at the bare trees that lined the country roads and tried to imagine we were headed north towards Yorkshire, to my brother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery that lies on the edge of the main burial grounds of Leeds. There had been no time to go there on this trip to England. It’s more important to be with the living than the dead, I had reasoned. There were cousins to catch up with, there was my Auntie Sheila’s 90th birthday to share. But I missed Yorkshire, I missed the rough diamond quality it has about it, the lack of varnish, the absence of fine tuning. What you see is what you get.

VCCA Day 1

I think about this as I settle down into my seat on the train whose final destination is New Orleans but that will stop for me at Lynchburg, Virginia. I peer out the window as the train moves off. The snow has stopped falling and pristine white illuminates the branches of the trees as we head out. I have been watching the trees closely and they are holding out their arms to me, stretching out their spindly fingers. About half an hour from Lynchburg, the train creaks to a halt. The electricity cuts and we sit in semi-darkness, illuminated only by flimsy, flickering emergency lights. An Amtrak worker with a peaked cap walks through the carriage, informing passengers that a tree has fallen onto the tracks. A baby begins crying and his frazzled mom tells him “night-night” in a sharp voice, over and over. His name is Damian and he won’t stop crying. I’m tired and cranky too. The woman next to me, her hefty body wedged into the seat, spilling over into mine, begins snoring loudly. I shift towards the window, peer out into the night but see nothing. The Amtrak worker moves slowly up the darkened carriage, head down, vacuuming the dingy floor carpeting.

I try to imagine the tree, but I do not even know which trees grow here, whether they are tall and thin, or thick and gnarled, and I wonder how long the tree has been growing until the exact, precise moment of toppling.

After an hour of sitting like this, jammed against the window, I make my way through to the dining carriage. It smells of pot noodles and stale coffee. There is no one behind the counter and I stand there, contemplating the candy bars and bags of popcorn on sale. A large woman with beehive hair dyed blonde, wearing a dark blue Amtrak apron, looks up at me from the next carriage, flashes a smile, and gets up heavily. She lumbers over to me and puts her head to one side. She has twinkly blue eyes and earrings that hang from her lobes like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Her nails are red.

“What can I do for you, my love?” she says, and my heart misses a beat. Her accent with its rough edges and gruff tone is unmistakeably from Yorkshire. I would know it anywhere, even in the middle of the night on a train headed for New Orleans. She is one of mine. “Tea?” I say stupidly as if I am asking her if tea is the right choice, fumbling in my wallet for two dollars. “Tip it out, tip it out,” she says, pointing to the wallet. Her hand hovers closes over mine in a surprising gesture of intimacy, then pushes it away and begins shifting through the coins as though she were examining shells on a beach. There are shekels from Israel, pennies, and pounds from England, and two dimes my dad gave me the night before I left Israel. For luck, he had said, tossing them across the table at me. I remove a 10 dollar note and place it into her hand. “Ta very much, love,” she says. I drop the tea bag she hands me into the paper cup. “Not like that,” she says, and drops another tea bag into the cup, then zaps it in the microwave for a few seconds. “Nice and strong, the way we like it in Yorkshire,” she winks at me again and snaps the plastic cover on the cup. I consider telling her that I’ve lived away from England for more than 30 years and I like my tea weak nowadays, but I don’t want to break the magic between us and so say nothing.

“What’s a Yorkshire lass doing on a train bound for New Orleans?” I ask her as she leans her weight against the counter top. She laughs throatily and tells me she’s been in the US for more than 30 years and doesn’t miss Yorkshire in the least. She tells me she can get anything she wants from England: vacuum-packed spotted dick, Marmite, Thornton’s fudge toffee. Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad anymore about not squeezing Yorkshire into my visit. I have it right here in the flesh.

I return to my seat. I lean back and sip the ridiculously strong tea until the train lurches forward again. By now, it’s almost 3 a.m. The tree trunk has been removed. We continue on through the darkness, and at the next stop I get off. Cora and Charles, who run a taxi service and have been waiting for me in the freezing cold for the past three hours, take me to my final destination, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Cora holds out her hand to steady me as I get out the van. They lead me gently up the stairs to my room, open the door, place my luggage by the bed. Below my window, a deer moves across the snow-drenched yard, lifts her head to the night, listening.

KB - Silent Cultural Superpower 1

How Has Korea Become a “Silent Cultural Superpower”? The BBC Sends a Historian to Investigate

By Colin Marshall 

“I’ve been to China and I’ve been to Japan,” says Rana Mitter at the beginning of his BBC Radio 3 documentary South Korea: The Silent Cultural Superpower, “but I’ve never got off at this place before.” Increasingly many Asia-savvy global travelers have uttered variations on that line in the past decade, having known, of course, of this country’s existence and even of its history, but never having regarded the actual experience of it as a priority. Why has that changed?

The BBC has clearly taken an interest in the question, having sent potter Roger Law here at the end of last year for the five-part series Art and Seoul, and now having had Mitter come and take a closer look at why so many of us know something about Korean culture today while so many of us knew almost nothing about it yesterday. When I interviewed Michael Breen, author of the respected book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, he mentioned that, when he wrote its first edition in the 1990s, only when a friend pointed it out did he realize that he hadn’t said a word in the text about the products of Korean culture, and at that time didn’t feel he needed to. Now almost every major piece of writing about South Korea begins with them.

The Silent Cultural Superpower looks for the sources of modern Korean culture in many of the stops in Seoul that, if you follow Korea’s presence in the international media, you’ll expect: the tourist-thronged shopping streets of Myeongdong; the hip cafés of the historically countercultural Hongdae district; the sidewalk across from the Japanese embassy where protesters express their views on the “comfort women” issue in no uncertain terms; Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (a “huge, sinuous, gorgeous egg of a building” as well as a “statement about what Korea is now”); and the foot of Lotte Tower, the under-construction symbol of the power of those giant corporations, a lineup also including such now globally known names as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, that have “powered this country’s economic miracle and sent it global.”

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Refreshingly, Mitter never sets foot inside a cram school or plastic surgery clinic, avoiding some of the topics all too frequently obsessed over in mainstream Korea coverage in favor of others not so commonly discussed. An examination of recent Korean film and television highlights the centrality of “the powerlessness of the Koreans,” as against the power of China or Japan or America or anywhere else, as a theme. It surfaced with special clarity in Ode to My Father (국제시장), Yoon Je-kyoon’s blockbuster from the Christmas before last. While it drew many comparisons to Forrest Gump, not without cause, the film’s story of one Korean man’s life from the division of his family at the end of the Korean War to his work abroad as a soldier in Vietnam and a coal miner in Germany to his struggles with redevelopment as a merchant in modern-day Busan tells a great deal of Korean history in domestically tear-jerking microcosm.

Ode to My Father has its inaccuracies, the product of artistic license as well as glossings-over, but in that sense it offers a valuable look at a certain kind of Korean perception of Korean history. In his review and analysis of the movie, Matt VanVolkenburg at Gusts of Popular Feeling breaks this down for the non-Koreanist, framing the film as “a national coming of age story” set in a harsh, unforgiving world in which “a weak Korea, beset by poverty and war,” a “shrimp among whales” ever caught between powerful neighbors, must struggle simply to exist. Hence, in this storytelling tradition, the tendency to portray Koreans as “blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet” (literally, in the case of Yoon’s previous tidal-wave disaster picture).

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In The Silent Cultural Superpower we also hear from Han Kang, a novelist who’s broken into the English language in a big way with The Vegetarian (채식주의자), published in translation in the United States this month, and Human Acts (소년이 온다), just recently out in Britain. In the latter book, Kang takes on the theme of the powerlessness of Koreans from another angle: not their powerlessness against the whims of other, bigger countries, but their powerlessness against the whims of their own dictators. The program discusses on Park Chung-hee, the architect of South Korea’s industrial development who held the reins of power from 1961 until his assassination by his own security chief in 1979, but says less about his successor Chun Doo-hwan, who in 1980 ordered the military’s massacre of protesters which Human Acts takes, unblinkingly, as its subject.

Even the documentary’s inevitable coverage of K-pop takes a different tack. We hear one argument that the music “isn’t really Korean,” but a simple repurposing of Western pop forms, and we hear about its strategic use to improve Korea’s often troubled relationship with Japan, as in K-pop star BoA’s recording of songs in Japanese as well as in Korean. We also hear about its strategic use to retaliate against North Korea’s recent announcements of a hydrogen bomb test by setting up giant speakers blasting K-pop over the border, which the North reportedly fears might actually influence the minds of its young soldiers. (Silent cultural superpower, indeed.)

That grumpy neighbor aside, the much-publicized “Korean Wave” of culture, driven by music and television, has indeed swept to an impressive extent across Asia. When Mitter hits Myeongdong, he starts looking for Chinese people — no tall order, since these days that area seems populated by nothing but — to ask about their own degree of enthusiasm for K-pop. When he immediately finds some, he busts out fluent Mandarin to talk to them, which might comes as a surprise until you learn that he holds a professorship of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford’s Institute for Chinese Studies. It places him well to analyze Korea’s still-shaky relationship, despite all the Myeongdong-going girls who profess their love for the Chinese-Korean boy-band EXO, with the Middle Kingdom, summed up neatly by one of his Korean interviewees: “We still have a lot of wary eyes toward China.”

But in the West, the Korean Wave hasn’t done much more than splash against the shores. “I wonder,” theorizes Mitter, “if that’s because most K-pop acts reflect a regimented culture of centralized corporations and social conformism,” which leads into a talk about PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (as if I needed to provide the link for anyone who hasn’t yet seen its 2.5 billion times-watched video) and how the success of the track’s Seoul-specific satire and the goofiness of the rapping jokester doing it astonished everyone who assumed a highly groomed boy- or girl-band held the natural right to break the coveted American market.

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This leads Mitter to look for the exact opposite of K-pop culture, deep in Seoul’s experimental music scene. He talks with Hong Chulki, a political theory graduate student by day and experimental musician by night who uses a laptop, mixers, various pieces of broken equipment, feedback noise, and the sound of air blown onto turntable needles to craft listening experiences meant to cleanse his head of K-pop, so unavoidably has it become woven into the sonic fabric of the city. This sort of thing also offers a catharsis, for Chulki and his colleagues, from a life in modern Korea dominated by social pressures, hated (though painfully competitive) jobs, and an older generation out of touch with and unwilling to cede any power to the younger one.

Comic artist Yoon Tae-ho dramatized these circumstances in his series Misaeng (미생), or “Incomplete Life,” which, adapted into a drama, became a surprise hit on Korean cable in 2014. Clearly the material works, even if it presents a side of Korea the country’s boosters would rather downplay. Those in the business of promoting Korean culture abroad understand that the now-characteristic high-gloss professionalism of so much of the country’s music, film, and television — and even, in some cases, comics and literature — appeals to the rest of the world. But they may understand it too much, ignoring the fact that the polish is only as interesting as the sorrow, humor, confusion, strangeness, and discontent with which it contrasts. Indeed, “the roughness at the edges,” Mitter concludes at the end of his short visit, “might be Korea’s best hope for giving its culture a genuinely global presence.” If so, the best of modern Korean culture, which itself has moved farther past powerlessness than ever, is yet to come.

(Dongdaemun Design Plaza photograph: Eugene Lim)

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


Joseph, the Youngest Jew of Iraq

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, 19 October

Rabbi Rothschild has sent me an email suggesting that I meet with a Jewish refugee from Iraq who wants to talk to someone about the conversations amongst Syrian men that he has overheard in the German refugee camps, away from Western ears. I follow the e-mail chain, find the address, and send a note of invitation to talk, which is answered instantly. We agree to meet at the Zoologischer Garten U-bahn stop in Charlottenburg, not too far from the hostel where he’s staying.

A gray rainy morning. Walking from the station to the Platz, I go under an overpass populated by a dozen motionless human forms mummified side-by-side in dirty down sleeping bags. Open mit nehmen cartons and foil dishes with half-eaten left-overs mix with newspapers and magazines rescued from the trash bins — even the left-over news can be consumed. A few dogs curled and tucked in between the bags share the body warmth. One must be thoroughly exhausted and desensitized to sleep through the sounds of morning traffic — cars and trucks and busses, and the noise of walking bodies just a foot away from the crowded sidewalk margin of the truly marginal, too truly literal, the parallel society of scrapers-by. A rhythmic crashing crunching from across the street fills the immediate soundscape — some kind of huge construction drill excavating behind a metal fence surrounding the block. Waiting on the corner, Joseph recognizes me–he must’ve found my face online; we shake hands and look for a café.

A construction drill outside the Zoologischer Garten Bahn stop, Charlottenburg, makes sleeping on the street difficult.

Joseph Aish, 34, from Baghdad, is the self-declared youngest Jew of Iraq (there are only about 20 Jewish families left, he says). His father is an Arab communist, his mother Jewish (she died a couple of years ago of ALS). Although his father did not believe in practicing religion, Joseph’s mother created subdued celebrations on the Jewish high holidays — silent, except for the preparation of some special foods, especially nice table settings, what she simply called mitzvah to mark certain days. While Baghdad has always been a city in which Jews could live in relative peace, with relative tolerance (otherwise impossible in Iraq), the family never felt truly safe. The combination of Judaism and communism in the family, although not publicly or widely known, was a matter of record with Iraqi secret service. In 1990, when the US military dropped a bomb on the Iraqi immigration office, the family realized that it had the opportunity of a lifetime to change its entire identity. They commissioned forged documents and moved across town.

In 2003, Joseph (called Yusef throughout his childhood) was an engineering student at the university. He decided to act on his rejection of Islamic radicalism by trying to help the US military with some advice about how to take control of Fallujah, then under the command of Islamic extremists. He walked up to an officer stationed on the street, which eventually lead to a series of meetings with some generals (Joseph says he met with them maybe ten times). The US was approaching Fallujah from highways in the east, but without much success. Joseph recommended taking control of two points on the Euphrates river, running along the western side of the city — the river was the main thruway for supply transports. In addition, he says, he recommended taking control of the smaller city of Amiriyat Fallujah, to the south — that’s where the radicals were manufacturing munitions. Joseph thinks this advice helped the US. That’s an incredible story, I say. Joseph, in a baseball cap, red and blue but otherwise blank, tips his head to the left in modest acknowledgment. Yes, he says, I don’t know if it was me, but I hope so. They did what I said and it worked.

Joseph has learned German, also Dutch, English, Turkish, Aramaic, and he knows a few other Arab dialects. His English is very fast, his stories detailed and the situations richly textured. His understanding of the tensions and complexities running through Middle East politics is nuanced; he takes apparent pleasure in parsing the ironies embedded in regional ideological conflicts. His discussion of tactics and strategies has the verve others bring to sports, but he clearly carries the knowledge with a grim concern for its disturbing implications: the fate of people who are not radicalized at the hands of clever, ambitious, and utterly vicious Islamic fundamentalists.

Growing up, Joseph never considered himself to be Jewish — Arab Muslim descent is patrilineal; but his mixed religious/political background, and his collaboration with the US, put him in danger. In 2004, he went on the international move. In Holland, curious about his Jewish heritage, he made contact with a rabbi. I’m not really Jewish, he told the rabbi, but my mother is Jewish and I’m curious about the religion. Oh, said the rabbi, then you are Jewish. No, said Joseph, you don’t understand, my mother is Jewish, my father is not; I’m not Jewish. The rabbi explained that, unlike in Islam, Jewish descent is matrilineal. Curiosity lead to practice, and Joseph now wears a six-pointed star tucked beneath his shirt and always carries a kippah (though he won’t wear it outside of Jewish places for fear of being attacked). Your mother was Jewish, I say, but you also chose Judaism as the faith you wanted to practice, how come? I just feel it, says Joseph. He likes to wear tefillin, he tells me (the small leather boxes containing parchment with torah verses on them that are strapped to arm and forehead during prayer), but he doesn’t carry any with him — it’s too dangerous. Joseph has only learned a little Hebrew so far, about as much as casual practitioners use during services; but — as is often the case with converts and those new to the practice — he gravitates to the more orthodox congregations. There are more people, he says, than in the liberal congregations in Germany. And, he adds, you feel it more. Joseph is gregarious without coming across as pushy. He likes people, and big cities; with his smartphone’s GPS and social media, he is always finding Kaffeeklatch in neighborhood bars and cafés. Women are my weakness, he says. How do you pick up women, I ask, do you tell them that you are from Iraq, what language do you use. Depends, he says, sometimes I speak English, sometimes Dutch. Then I say I’m from Holland. I don’t tell them I’m from Iraq or Jewish until later. They don’t hear your accent, I ask. No — you hear it because you’re American, but if I speak English, others don’t hear it. Joseph has been on the move for the last two years, through Turkey, Jordan, Greece, everywhere, he says. He left Iraq for good in June 2014. He is surviving along the Jewish network in Germany, moving from Frankfurt to Hanover to Köln to Berlin and back and around. He’d like to settle in Köln because, in addition to being a place with open-minded people, it will be easier to find an apartment than in Berlin. He likes Berlin, he says, but he’s had more luck with women in Köln.

So speaking of hearing your accent, I say, what are you overhearing in the camps.  There are Syrians, he says, who think that Germany is a good place to come because Germans hate Jews. The Syrians think they can be violent against Jews and the Germans won’t care. The Germans that hate Jews, I say, also hate Muslims. Those Syrians are making a big mistake. Well, he says, I told a couple of people that I thought were open minded people in the camp that I am Jewish, and then it got around the camp, and some guys tried to stab me with a broken bottle. I went to the police, he continued, and they said it is a religious conflict between refugees, we don’t get involved with that. Anti-Semitic crimes, I say, are kept track of in Germany. Joseph’s baseball cap tips left in acknowledgment. Maybe because I am not yet a resident, he says. Where’d that happen, I say. The camp in Grosskrotzenburg, near Hanover, he says; I realized then that I could not stay in the camps; so now I am staying in the hostels and paying for it myself. You are a refugee fleeing from the refugee camps, I say. Yes, he says. We both laugh a little. Where do you get your money? The German government deposits 300 euro directly into my account, and my brother sends me 200 euro a month through Western Union. Where does that money come from? From an apartment rental in Baghdad. I’m getting confused, I say, in 2003 you advised the US military by meeting, like, ten times with generals about tactics to take Fallujah; in 2004 you left Iraq for the first time; where’d you go? First, Jordan, he says, we have an apartment there. Then Dubai; there I got a visa. Then in 2005, I entered Europe and went to Holland. I declared my Judaism there, in Holland, and re-did my chemical engineering degree so I can get a good job in Europe. That took until 2010. Then I went to Norway, returned to Jordan, then returned to Norway, and then returned to Iraq because my mother was ill. But she had left the country for treatment and they wouldn’t let her back in, and she died before I could see her. Then IS was growing very strong and I decided to leave for good. In 2013, our house — we had a very big house — was destroyed by a car wired into a bomb. Who did that, I say, do you know? Yes, he says, the same radical group that was in Fallujah. Who was that? First it was the old Revolutionary Guard of Saddham, then Thoar Al-Ashreen, then the Muhammad Militia, then ISIS — all the same people, he says. He lifts his pant leg and shows me some scars. It was a big house, he says, and we were in the back courtyard, so we survived. But I don’t breathe so well, he continued, and I have problems with my eyes. Joseph is holding a damp tissue that he regularly dabs his eyes with. The dust from the explosion, he says. He pulls some drops out of his pocket. These help, he says, but I need surgery after I’m settled here, and it’s hard to get medicine when you are always traveling. How’s the process going now, I ask. I’ve been waiting a year and a half, he says, because I’m Iraqi. But a rabbi and a lawyer have been calling the government, and now they say it will be maybe two more months. How long have you been traveling? Since last year: Turkey, then Greece, then Belgium; then I was on a train to Sweden, but passport control stopped me because they have my fingerprints here in Germany, so I must stay here and get asylum status before I can travel again outside the country. Okay, I say, I think I got it now. (Joseph’s sense of narrative time is not always chronological, but makes sense to him. Is it, I wonder, a way of storytelling in the Middle East with a different feeling for time than we have in the West?)

So in addition to some Syrians thinking Germany is a good place for Islamic fascists to join forces with Nazis, I say, — which is a big mistake, by the way — that goes back at least to Egypt and the false idea during World War I that German fascists would support the return of the caliphate (everything I know about that I learned from Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy) — what else do you want to tell me? When the US left Iraq, he says, that started the current problem. The border was left open to transfer the militias between Iraq and Syria. In 2012, driving from Baghdad to Jordan, you’d see all kinds of weapons, tanks, trucks that we’d never seen before — anti-aircraft, missile launchers — Iraq never had this before IS. I remember, he continues, seeing thousands of Toyota pick-ups in Baghdad — we had never seen that kind of car there. IS was buying directly from Japan, through Jordan military — commanders were ordering them and delivering them to IS in Iraq. The cars would come in a parade across the border.

Okay, I say, where are we going with this? Okay, he says, what happens is that there is a citizen’s revolt against the Iraqi government; thousands are killed by Iraqi military. (Joseph often speaks of past events in the present tense, as if we’re watching it all play out again in front of us). The radical militias see that people are rising up against the government; a week later the militias move in. When’s this? Beginning of 2013. And? The border between Syria and Iraq effectively disappears. Okay, I say, spell it out, I’m kind of stupid. Joseph smiles; he agrees. Between the Iraq and Syria border runs the Euphrates river, he says, and to the west is the desert area of Syria. This area is defined in a prophetic prophecy of Muhammad as the place of the great End War. How do you say it, Arma-jedine. Armageddon? Yes, Armageddon. Righteous warriors will move west and take control of the coast, then they will control the coast below Italy. When they take control of the Vatican, then the war with Europe will begin with great force. The great fight between East and West will take place in the desert regions of Syria—this is why IS is taking control of that area. And that is how they are convincing people to join them. Because this is the mythology. I don’t think that’s in the Koran, I say. No, he says, but it is their prophetic mythology, and they use it to convince people: they are in control of that region, so the End War must be beginning. ‘When you see the nations of the West collaborate against the East,’ they say, ‘then you will know that we are correct in prophecy.’ So, I say, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The baseball cap tips in acknowledgment.

If I were a US general, I say, what would you advise me to do? (This is the weirdest game I’ve ever played). Joseph smiles. 420,000 IS fighters, he says, move back and forth between Iraq and Syria with total freedom. You must break the mythology, he says. Iraq would welcome back US military now. If the US built an airbase at the western border of Iraq, where the Euphrates runs between Iraq and Syria, then the people would see that IS is not in control of the region and that would break the mythology — it would be more difficult to convince people. But, I say, wouldn’t an airbase be evidence of the West collaborating against the East? Maybe, he says, but the first fact of the mythology is the IS control of the Euphrates and the desert region in east Syria. How do people view Obama, I say. He is weak, he says, everyone thinks and says he is weak. Why? Because he shows no force. So, he continues, Obama is not showing force against IS, then he must secretly be supporting it. That’s what they are saying. Obama should demonstrate military force in the region, I say, people would like that. Yes, he says.

Joseph’s phone rings. He answers and an animated conversation ensues; Joseph’s responses are short and direct. He hangs up. That was a guy I met in the hostel asking me for information. About what? About other people who can help him, says Joseph. What did you say?  I try to help in the hostels with translating for people, but beyond that I cannot help. I need to keep my distance. It’s a dangerous situation for me, I cannot get involved with people. That guy, he continues, from Syria, I overheard talking to a guy from Kuwait. There are rich businessmen in Kuwait who are funding the movement of refugees to the West. Why? Rich guys, supporting radicals, he says, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. They support families from Turkey and Syria who move to Europe, to spread Islam and slowly convert Westerners. Really? Yes, he says, there are three waves. First, Muslims come over; second, they invite other Muslims who can fight; third are those who will try to convert others from the West. When IS is ready, then there will already be people here. A Trojan horse, I say. Yes, like that. The movement from East to West to convert is like Muhammad’s immigration from Mecca to Medina. Right, I say, Hejira: Muhammad was an immigrant refugee fleeing political assassination. Joseph’s cap tips in acknowledgment.

How does the money system work, I say, is it just about funding people in the West? The traffickers are all Palestinian, he says, 100%. What happens is this. You call a place in Turkey, and you pay them the money to go across. Then you go to the Palestinians and they take you across to Greece. You don’t give them any money. When you get there, you call the place in Turkey and say you’ve arrived, and they pay the Palestinians. So they’re like brokers, I say. Yes, he says, then the Palestinians send the money to Hamas and IS. So they’re laundering money through refugees, I say. Yes, he says, the EU is a bit naïve. IS will try to take Rome; when Rome falls, Islam will control the world, then Israel will be destroyed. That’s an incredible plan, I say. Joseph smiles and nods. Yes, he says, but that’s the plan. I’ve been talking to some Muslims over at Lageso, I say, they don’t seem radicalized to me. Not everyone is, he says, it’s not known by all, just the guys who will fight. How can you tell if someone is radicalized, I say. One way is to ask a question, he says, is to ask the question: do you think that IS will go to hell for killing women and children? If a guy supports IS, he will say, ‘I don’t know.’ He won’t say yes, and he will not say no. Don’t lie, I say, but don’t tell the truth. Joseph’s cap tips. Be honest, I say, do you need a place to stay?


Berlin’s “Quivering Heart”

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, 17 October

I had plans to meet Karsten Eckardt, who has been helping me with German conversation, this afternoon at Alexanderplatz, for the demonstration organized by Moabit Hilft — the volunteers at Lageso come primarily from this Kiez association, that organizes and mobilizes at the registration office in response to the crisis as it [has] built up in their district. Without the volunteers’ work ladling hot meals, pouring water, providing shelter and medical care, many of the refugees would be even more desperate and frustrated and despairing. No doubt, Moabit Hilft (Moabit Help) kept the situation at Lageso from spiking in tension and, potentially, violence. While the government should’ve been preparing for dramatically increasing numbers of refugees, it dragged. When the crisis hit Berlin square on, it was unable to meet the demand. Government failed; many had never seen it do so. Local volunteers saved the day, the week, the month, the season. But they need more support; and they want to push the government hard to increase the processing speed. That means more hiring by the government, more training. And Moabit Hilft needs more volunteers. They are exhausted.

But before I met Karsten there, at Alexanderplatz, I wanted to revisit the Winterfeldplatz Markt, in Schöneberg, where I once shopped for local produce, handmade cheeses, cured meats, and fresh bread. Today, I’d also shop for a little nostalgia. (Is there a German word for the guilt you feel indulging in nostalgia? Should be one . . . ) The Market sets up on a block-sized Platz in front of a church, and one block from the Nollendorfstrasse that Christopher Isherwood helped make famous — and my favorite street in the neighborhood, with its wide cobblestone avenue blocked off from car traffic and shaded by a canopy of trees I should know the names of, but don’t. On a Saturday, the market was quite tight with Berliners and tourists squeezing round each other through narrow aisles created by trucks and stands.

I suddenly see the same hard luck woman I always saw, with a prominent beak and slightly crushed in face, doggedly moving from person to person, asking for change. The formula is concise, she hardly waits for a reply (almost always a refusal) before moving to the next person. But she seems to have gained weight since I saw her last, two years ago; and she has a new haircut, long on the left, buzzed short on the right. She’s not begging for change now, she’s selling one of those newspapers that the downtrodden are given to sell — in Berlin it’s Der Strassenfeger (The Streetsweeper). Seeing her in clean jeans and Doc Martens and a studded belt marks something like good incremental change in one person’s fate.

Her presence collapses time for me; it could be 2012. I had forgotten she existed, and to her I was just a weekly penny score; my face just a blur, I hardly existed. Yet my recognition now links me to her. And having seen her again in this way, as a kind of full rhyme with a former self, she’ll stick to me and maybe make me more real (she’s as real as it gets). Is this connection what Lian calls “the grammar of exile”? I buy a paper from her. Nothing special happens. She’s already gone.

But all the other regulars are still here. The Greek selling olives, humus, feta. The friendly German family from a local farm with the big-boned fleshy son who spent a year living in Boston. The Turks still overcharging for dried fruit (I buy some). The fish lady with her lovely raucherlachs brötchen — I buy one; it’s disappointing. (The sandwiches in Europe are always disappointing; they simply don’t know how much stuff to put between two pieces of bread.)

I see the seamstress I once bought some hats and gloves from. After some careful deliberations at her stall, I buy a new hat for Sarah, and a pair of what they call “pulse warmers” — basically long tubes of colorful boiled wool that cover from wrist to mid-forearm. I pay her and ask her about the refugees. Oh, she’s not so worried about the refugees, she says, she’s worried about the TTIP/CETA trade pact. Ja, I say, it’s not good for workers or consumers. It’s not good for children, she says. Why not? Because TTIP will introduce new American syrups to the German market and all our children will become fat pigs. The phrase in German is dickie dickie Schwein — it has a cruel ring to it that makes it a favorite taunt on the playground.

I head to Impala Coffee to meet the poet and translator, Alexander Booth, whose translation of Lutz Seiler’s im felderlatein (in field latin) will soon introduce Anglophone readers to this German poet whose prominence here is starting to go international. The café is crowded, but we find a corner. Our conversation ranges widely over big cups of schwarzes kaffee — from his publisher, Seagull Books, which is bringing so many good new German translations to market, to the ideological binds of Muslim and Jewish relations in Berlin. This street here, where Isherwood lived, I ask him, pointing to the corner where the traffic’s blocked off — what are those huge trees? Those are plane trees, says Alex, imported by the Romans. And actually, he says, Isherwood lived on the other side, across Maassenstrasse, at number 17. Alex hands me something; it’s a present! The Seeker, the second volume of collected poems by Nelly Sachs, translated into English by Michael Hamburger and others. Sachs, a Jewish German, fled the Nazis to Sweden. Opening the contents, I read the title, Flucht und Verwandlung (Flight and Metamorphosis), a volume from 1959.

How light
earth will be
only a cloud of evening love
when released as music
the stone goes into exile

I look to the left side to find the German word for exile. Landsflucht, maybe literally “country-flown.” She lived right over there, says Alex, pointing to a building a stone’s throw away, across Maassenstrasse.

Heading back to Nollendorfplatz, he points out the terrace of the local brothel on a conventional Kleiststrasse apartment building. You always know when it’s open, he says, when they hang the flag of the European Union out the window. Seeing the circle of twelve yellow stars on a blue field of cloth: the symbol of the European Union used as a signal that the sex trade is open on a Sunday afternoon collides with the mental image of the yellow six-pointed star that the Nazis forced Jews to sew on their clothes as a mark of condemnation, a disturbing visual rhyme across time. The neighborhood concatenation of the tragic and the heinously absurd is suddenly too much, the juxtapositions too over-determined, and I bark out a bitter clipped laugh. At the U-bahn station, I stop to read the plaque on the exterior wall commemorating the gays and lesbians murdered by Nazis. Sometimes Berlin can feel like an enormous Holocaust memorial that then turns into a rave at night.

I meet Karsten at Alexanderplatz underneath the World Time Clock. Alex (as Berliners refer to it, my second Alex of the day) is a major hub in the city, a concrete world of tram lines, new shopping malls, street performers, and mobs of tourists wandering the spaces between a discordant array of architectural styles, punctuated by the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), visible from just about every spot in the city. In the twenties, the area was pure skank, a bustling and deeply sour world of urban dirt that Alfred Döblin called “the quivering heart” of Berlin. We walk to one of the perimeters, where the Moabit Hilft demo will take place. Underneath the elevated hot pink water pipes that move ground water around Mitte, a red stage truck has parked and green vested volunteers are setting up. It’s a good time to talk to people.

Jan Tenhaven, a Berlin-based filmmaker, has been taking care of refugee families for several months, as many as seven people at a time living in his flat. Some have been invited to move in to neighborhood apartments when the owners were away for extended periods. At the moment, Jan has a mother, father, and four children staying with him (ages 4-15). Just yesterday, after 35 days, they have been able to register with the government. Everyone understands, he says, that the enormous influx of people has put organizations in a bad way. I mention to him the possibility that some are getting registration numbers more quickly than others through bribery. I don’t believe there’s bribery, he says (others have expressed the same skepticism). What’s it like to live with a whole new family in your apartment for weeks on end, I say. It’s very nice, he says, we cook and eat together. But we’re all new to this situation, and I am learning about it along with them. I turn to another volunteer standing with us.

Connie Albrecht has also been hosting people from Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. At the beginning, she says, I said only women and children, because I live alone. But now I am helping young men, too. They are not much older than my own son. When I was there, at Lageso, as a volunteer, and I saw one, in the cold, who only speaks Arabic and didn’t know what to do, I said come with me. Another, from Iraq, stayed with me for five days. We’re trying to find a hostel for him. But the hostels don’t want to accept anyone paying with the government vouchers, she says, because the government is taking too long to redeem them — they don’t get paid for over six months. I made 39 calls before I found a place that would accept them. And then there are the illegal hostels, which put eight people in a room meant for four, or worse. Because they can, she says, people have no choice.

Kristina Bachmann, one of the principle coordinators of the Moabit Hilft effort, introduces me to Thorsten Buhl, 39, who served as a paramedic on the front line of Lageso for four weeks at the end of summer, when the situation there had already worsened past the point of the government’s preparations. We had one tent for medical treatment, he says, and thousands of people everyday. From a medical point of view it was really horrible. What kind of treatments were you making, I say. Oh, people had crude stitches from torture wounds, open sores on their legs and feet from walking here thousands of kilometers, a pregnant woman past due who had walked here, can you imagine, a man stabbed on the lawn and robbed of his asylum stipend, and dirty traumatized children, exhausted and scared; when you looked into their eyes, there was nothing there.

What are you doing now, I say. I started an NGO in Friedrichshain, he says, like Moabit Hilft; we act as a kind of donation chamber for smaller groups who distribute clothes and give lessons. What is your strongest feeling, I say, about the overall situation. I am optimistic, he says, because the people are providing so much help. Before I started working with Moabit Hilft, I really had a bad feeling about the future of German society. I found it selfish and materialistic.  But after these experiences, I’m hopeful. Society is not dead. My life has changed, and also my mind, my own thoughts about the future — what is really important, what is not important. For myself, there is a new perspective. The help I provide is not just good for the refugees, it is also good for me .(Here was evidence of the empathy and imagination Lian hoped to encourage, I thought.)

I don’t do it just to help others, he said, but to help myself. I asked him about young people joining the right: is it a new feeling they’re discovering or something that has always been there, latent, buried, and has now woken up in them. Well, he says, racism is everywhere. And Pegida [the new xenophobic anti-immigration movement] are Nazis. That is what they are. I see everyday people who have nothing, and they need help. To help them requires strength and humanity. Those following Pegida have neither the one nor the other. The hatred has always been there, but now it is awake and people are out in the open. I get angry messages all the time on Facebook, Thorsten says: Ja, you are a good Mensch, you should be sent to the gas chamber.

I look around. The arena has filled with a few thousand people as we’ve been talking; the demo is about to begin. Thorsten writes down his e-mail address. I make sure I can read it. ­­______@yahoo.ca. Canada? He nods. I thought a while ago, he says, that I would leave Germany and emigrate to Canada, because the society here had died. But now I am going to stay. I want to be a part of this new society, to help create it.

The demo starts up. I hardly need any German to understand the complaints flying from the megaphone: there are too many people coming in; the process is too slow; the supplies too few; the volunteers are exhausted; there is no government help . . .  I look around at the signs.

Ich bin so wütend! / I am so angry!
Politik sitzt es wieder einmal aus . . . / Politics sitting it out again . . .
Es reicht! / It is enough!
Handeln jetzt! / Act now!
Kälte Tod vermeiden / Prevent death from the cold

The last one is so specific (as well as being, in German, concise) it reaches the furthest into one’s conscience. A woman in front of me pulls a bottle of red wine from her backpack, a corkscrew, and two wine glasses. She hands the glasses to a friend standing next to her, pulls the cork, and pours. They clink. Prost, they say, and drink. I look around. Everyone is taking photos. Mohawked punks with well-behaved kids in tow, old hippies in army jackets and pony tails, young professionals, women in sporty outdoor wear who look lean and strong as mountain climbers, grad students in cultivated stubble — it’s a cross-section of the German left, and a mirror-image of the right. A short woman in army boots — she looks like Mother Courage’s understudy — walks by, hawking KAZ, Kommunistische Arbeiterzeitung (Communist Worker’s Newspaper). I buy a copy. “Nein! Gleiches Recht für alle!” (“No! Equal Rights for all!”) reads the headline; this may be about the distinction some draw between economic refugees from the Balkans and those seeking political asylum, and about the perilous social status of immigrants in German society. The photomontage on the front cover shows two giant pigeons pecking at a long line of HO-scale refugees walking towards a gathering spot behind razor wire. I look around. Someone’s smoking a joint nearby; I inhale deeply, smells good.

A Syrian man has taken the stage and is addressing the crowd in English, his speech translated every few paragraphs into German by one of the volunteers who takes the mike. He describes the situation: the difficulty getting papers; getting vouchers for hostel rooms, the overcrowding; negotiating society without knowing German; the feeling of being overwhelmed by practicalities like figuring out the metro system; the treacherous maneuvering for those in wheelchairs, like his mother, or with other physical disabilities; the sadistic security guards, the sense they give of having permission to mistreat refugees. But he will, he must, end on a positive note. We’re not complaining, he says. And it doesn’t matter where we’re coming from, or our situations, whether it’s poverty or war, they are both deadly, we’re all here looking for a new life . . . Thank you, Berlin, we feel like we’re home!  What, I say aloud to no one. Cue Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Let’s call it a demo.  People start milling around with the music. Karsten and I head out to a Kneipe.  Too few people, I say to him, only a couple thousand, no more than the number of refugees standing around every day at Lageso . . .


Shabbat Dinner

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, 16 October

ExBerliner, the expat Anglophone magazine in Berlin since 2002, is devoted this month to two themes: the refugee Willkommenkultur (Welcome Culture), and being “Jewish in Berlin.” Two good things that go together? Jewish “right of return” by those of German descent has been joined in Berlin by a growing influx of Jews from all over the world, most controversially (for Israelis) from Israel. Willkommenkultur is the welcome to refugees demonstrated by members of churches, synagogues, community centers, mobilized neighborhood volunteers, and leftist activists who are stepping in to fill the gaps left by a government bureaucracy staggering under the burden of overwhelming refugee numbers and underwhelming preparation for a crisis that was apparently on its way from the vantage of many months. This staging of welcome is starting to show fault lines in the German people’s attempt to welcome so many desperate and hurting refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, most of whom are practicing Muslims. (Though when I write “practicing Muslims’ the image I call to mind is of the taxi driver I saw in Washington DC on my way to the airport, on his knees on a prayer rug outside the Marriott-Wardman hotel). While the government tries to expedite deportation of Balkan refugees (the Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge, or economic refugees) and constrict the spout of benefits, Berlin scrambles to find empty buildings and plan emergency construction of 30,000 apartments next year. The Federal Office of Migration and Refugees had been consistently low-balling estimates until the Interior Minister dropped the bomb of accurate numbers in August: not 450,000, but twice that number is now expected; it’s likely to be even more. Much more. Hungary has closed its borders; other countries are sure to follow. The grimmest indicator may be that Munich’s decision in September to house refugees in the Dachau concentration camp somehow made sense; the outcry, writes Ben Knight, was not as loud as when Rhine-Westphalia actually put refugees in an outlying concentration camp building only seven months earlier.

22 ExBerliner (1)

Although no state agencies collect data on Jews, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimates that Germany has the third largest and fastest growing Jewish population in Western Europe, after France and the UK. There are 120,000 or more Jews in Germany today; according to estimates, half of the them live in Berlin. Before the Holocaust, the ratios were even greater (170,000 of 195,000 German Jews lived in Berlin). The number of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in Berlin hovers over 200, but parsing that number in terms of German perps or foreigners, explicit acts of anti-Zionism, and acts “against Israel’ (whatever that means), is rather like separating green beans from wax beans. Anti-Semitic crimes are recorded, writes Sara Wilde, by their political motivation. That’s a murky depth to plumb. Jews wearing kippah have been physically and verbally attacked in Neukölln (the Kiez with the thickest Muslim population); but many Jews who do live in the area say they have not experienced anti-Semitism there. Anecdotes and ambiguous stats make it difficult to draw a clear picture. Amongst Germans, feelings about Jews and the nation’s bloodied history is a deep psychic pool, deeper even than ideology, and something akin to the legacy of slavery in the US. The more time I spend here, the more I feel that anti-Semitism is a core problem in the form of a Gordian knot: the right’s hatred of Jews comes together with its hatred of Muslim immigrants, many of whom also themselves hate Jews. The left, with its self-inoculation against Islamophobia as well as against anti-Semitism and anti-facism, finds itself in a double-bind: how can it strike against Sharia and fundamentalist jihad without appearing anti-Muslim? Some are quick to point out that, hey, these guys (Islamic fascists) are not just anti-Semitic, they’re also anti-homosexual, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-tolerant, and not big proponents of women’s rights. How can the left sympathize with the cause of Palestinian self-determination without reanimating anti-Semitic goblins? Can the German left make meaningful distinctions between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? For many Jews, any criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic; yet the Israeli left has long attempted an intellectual and activist critique of Israel’s reactionary policies (e.g. in the West Bank). You could spend your life sorting it out; and to some extent, to be determined only by your conscience, you should. As always, talking to people is the first step.

Evening, I head out on the metro. The U-bahn to Charlottenburg is a stewing gumbo of disparate language sounds, and every stop introduces new ingredients — to a German base were added mixtures of Slavic, Arabic, and Asian. Some South American guys boarded with a small amp and brass instruments, and started up “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They smiled and sang and pumped the brass valves for a few coins, broke off abruptly at a stop and moved on to another car.

I was on my way to a shabbat dinner with Rabbi Walter Rothschild, Director of the Institut für Jüdische Besserwissenschaft (Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies) and his family, having been invited through an active listserv that started with an ordained feminist rabbi based in Hollywood, Florida — my aunt, Cheryl Weiner. A short walk past the infamous KaDaWe — the “shopping mall of the west” (and in DDR days greatest symbol of its decadence) — past some kosher stores, and I’m facing the apartment building on Passaustrasse. Two guys outside greeted me querulously as I approached the outside board of buzzers. Hallo, they said; it was a question. Hallo, I said, it was my answer. Hallo, they both said again, meaning what the fuck do you want here. Hallo, I said again, meaning none of your fucking business. I moved past them and rang up. (I later learned that they stand outside as guards for a small Sephardic community that convenes in the building).

I entered another spacious old high-ceilinged apartment with overstuffed, bulging, sagging bookcases, packed cd-racks, and a great milky way of everyday objects everywhere, the evidence of a vivacious and busy household. The home gave off a warm vibe boosted by good smells of roasting chicken. Rabbi Walter greeted me—we had never met—and offered me a whiskey. Shabbat hospitality indeed. We were off to a good start. We walked over to a set of old maps hanging on the wall. I began looking at them closely. One was a colored map of the Middle East, the other a city map of Jerusalem. Notice anything, he said. They were both German maps from the early 1940’s. Well, no Israel, obviously, I said, looking at a territory labeled Palestine, that would later become the State of Israel. These are tactical maps of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), he said, you can see what they were planning for their invasion of the region. He pointed out where the Nazis were imagining train routes and where they would billet the troops in Jerusalem. Scary shit, I said. Yes, indeed, he said, very scary shit. A neighbor found them in his attic, he said, and let me hang them.

Rabbi Walter Rothschild came to Berlin from the UK in 1998 to help revive the Jewish community here. It hasn’t been easy, he tells me, in large part because of the conservative congregations that turn their backs on interfaith marriages and conversions. It’s hard to launch a revival when the values are stubbornly constrictive. The rabbi talked at a quick British clip, with precision, point, humor and wit. Listening to him and surveying his home, I gathered he was a man of appetite, discernment, ironical play, and intellectual and artistic endeavor. I soon found him to be a kind of Renaissance polymath — a poet, musician, scholar, a writer of short stories and memoirist reports from the front lines of rabbinical teaching. As our conversation took various turns, he pulled down notebooks of scholarly studies, volumes published long ago and just released, a cd of original songs with his band, a quarterly he writes and edits devoted to train systems in the Middle East, a satirical cookbook of cannibal recipes, another of anti-moralisms titled Aesop’s Foibles. His grown daughters were equally charming and full of great humor and openness. They welcomed me as an old friend, and were clearly practiced at the Jewish custom of inviting strangers into the home on shabbat. We were joined by a friend, Eva, and her new boyfriend, who, though he spoke little English, communicated engagement with sharp eyes, quick smile, and expressive brows. Dinner was the kind of bubbling conversation and cross table contact of people who delight in each other’s company. As we moved into dessert — Eva’s “cockies” — homemade joke cookies in genitalia shapes — and more wine, tea, whiskey and schnapps (will Berlin ever not be Berlin?) I grabbed my moment to ask the rabbi about the refugee crisis.

Earlier in the evening the rabbi had said to me, rubbing his eyes, I know you’re here to write about the refugees, but I have almost nothing to say about the situation. Now though, with a “cockie” on my plate and a hot cup of tea, I tried a different tact. The good mood of the table and the sociable atmosphere helped. I know, I said, that the refugee crisis is being covered by mainstream media like flies on an open wound. They seem to be doing a good job, I said, I don’t have anything to add to it myself. But I do have a question for you. I waited for the invitation to proceed. So, I said, I’m wondering: What kind of pressure do you think a million Muslims entering Germany is going to put on the Jewish community here, specifically the community in Berlin?

The rabbi began by telling me about getting mugged by three Arab guys outside the Wittenberg U-bahn station, just two blocks from where we sat. Luckily, when a fist smashed his glasses against his face, the shattered lenses did not puncture his eyes. One of the three perps was detained by a security guard; the other two were later picked up by the police. Their heads, said the rabbi, were filled with hateful shit. I’m concerned with who put it there. So, he said, that’s a worry. One big problem, he continued, is that Germany is not really funding efforts for interfaith understanding. It’s difficult, he said, to educate people without adequate funding. The rabbi described efforts he had taken up with priests and imams to go into schools to talk formally with students — but the stipend is so laughably horribly small, that after taxes and paying for one’s own meals over the course of the day, one has only a few dollars left to pocket. It’s not working, he said, we can’t sustain the effort, and there are too few people who can do it to begin with. What’s going to happen to Jews in Berlin, I said. The influx of Muslims is an issue, he said, but it’s not the main issue. In 10 to 15 years, the meaningful presence of Jewish congregations will disappear because the older generation is not bringing up a younger generation. The average age of congregants is 85. There’s no interest in interfaith growth or conversion through marriage.   What about all those Israelis coming to Berlin, I said. The Jewish Israelis and the Jewish Americans coming to Berlin, he said, are not coming here to practice Judaism. And even if they have an interest, unless they are registered to pay taxes, they cannot formally join a congregation. Because all these congregations are funded by the state. That’s why they exist, he said, because they get money. And whomever gets the money controls what the community does and how it does it. And in the meantime, they don’t really know what being Jewish is. The whole thing is a Potemkin village, there’s no Judaism there; the continuity has been broken. There was continuity in England, he continued, because German Jewish refugees went to the UK, they taught there. I grew up in that German Jewish liberal tradition, he said. And that’s why I came to Germany, to complete that circle of Jewish renewal. But I look around at the rabbinical conference here and I despair. I thought, he continued, in 1998 that there could be a generational change. But people warned me. My big mistake was in not realizing that change couldn’t take place because the only role models here were the previous generation. There is no real spirituality in Berlin; no prayer; it is a Judaism without God. He then explained his own congregational experiment, to see if there were enough Jews in Berlin to begin a community that would detach from the state tit and renew a practice of Judaism determined by individual commitment to a collective spirituality. It’s been very hard, he said. There is very little creative Jewish writing in Germany right now; there is no new German Jewish theology, no new ideas. So, in terms of your question, there is no critical mass here to counter the pressure of a Muslim presence. There are 200 Jewish births a year in Germany. So, say half of them are boys. That’s two circumcisions a week. No mohel can make a living doing two a week! And the Jewish butchers and bakers are slowly disappearing, he added. The disappearance of fresh food expertly turned out seemed like the final exhausted tap on the coffin of conversation. The rabbi rubbed his eyes. I could see the circles under them. It’s been a hard day, he said, maybe we can’t stay in Germany. We poured some more Tullamore Dew.


Zhou Enlai book cover

The Secret Sexual Life of Zhou Enlai and the Limits of Historical Knowledge

By Jeremiah Jenne

Zhou Enlai remains one of the most enigmatic figures in modern Chinese history. For nearly five decades, he served the Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. He was the original technocrat, orchestrating foreign policy and stabilizing domestic politics in an era of campaigns and the chaotic whims of Mao Zedong.

He might also have been gay. At least so claims Hong Kong journalist Tsoi Wing-Mui in her new book, The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai (Zhou Enlai de mimi qinggan shijie).

The retroactive outing of somebody of Zhou’s stature is sure to court controversy, and this could well have made Ms. Tsoi’s book the most buzzed about title on the private life of a Chinese leader in years — had it not appeared around the same time that Hong Kong booksellers associated with salacious works on Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan’s behind-closed-doors activities began mysteriously disappearing.

Homosexuality was illegal in the PRC until 1997. Before then, men who had sex with other men risked the charge of “hooliganism.” And it was only in 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatry Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. While social mores are changing, especially in China’s cities, it is still far from unusual to encounter members of the older generation who believe that homosexuality is a foreign vice, an unfortunate by-product of China’s opening to the outside world.

An admittedly unscientific poll in my neighborhood park resulted in several mocking dismissals of any notion that Zhou Enlai might have been gay, plus one stern lecture regarding foreign slanders of China’s leadership.

Ms. Tsoi is not the first to raise questions about the nature of the fifty-plus-year relationship between Zhou Enlai and his wife, Deng Yingchao, for their marriage has previously been the subject of whispers and speculation. The pair famously never had any children, and Zhou’s courtship of Deng — he proposed with a postcard after having not seen her in over five years — was singularly unromantic.

Ms. Tsoi claims, however, that there is textual evidence — in the form of Zhou’s diary — to support her claim that his deepest love was for a member of his own sex, and that he was generally more attracted to men than women.

That diary, written in 1918 when Zhou Enlai was a 20-year-old student in Japan, contains numerous passages that suggest that the relationship between Zhou and some of his classmates was less than platonic.

In the very first entry, dated January 1, 1918, Zhou wrote: “For the first time in my life, I am immersed in this word ‘love,’ as to the heart of the passion […]” The last line is then blurred with a thick brush stroke across the page.

There is always interest in the sexual lives of famous historical figures, even more so when that sexual life runs counter to popular perception or official history. From Alexander the Great to Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, history’s alleged closet would seem to be a crowded space.

But retroactively outing a historical figure remains problematic, not because of the sex — Zhou Enlai may well have had erotic relations with other men — but because such studies are often methodologically flawed. Too often, contemporary understandings of romance and sexuality, gay or straight, are read into texts from another time period. But doing so can prejudice the data and lead to shaky conclusions. It is an error of perception when we use present-day standards to judge or categorize evidence of past behavior.

Richard Burger, whose own research into the subject led to the 2012 book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, knows the pitfalls well. “It is tempting to project our contemporary attitudes about homosexuality onto men in China who enjoyed sex with other men,” says Burger, whom I interviewed by email. “But it is important to understand that these men did not identify as gay. They were family men who enjoyed having sex with boys, who under the Qing were commonly referred to as ‘song boys’ (they often read poetry, danced and sang songs for their patrons).”

Many studies of homosexuality in Chinese literature or history have relied on texts, poetry, and letters, which require close reading and are open to considerable interpretation. The relative absence of gender signifiers in classical Chinese language adds to this challenge. Bret Hinsch’s 1992 Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China is a well-known example of the limitations inherent in this approach. While homosexuality was known to have been commonly practiced in China, in a variety of forms, into the modern period, evidence for specific individuals or circumstances can be frustratingly vague.

For example, an entry in Zhou’s 1918 diary includes this passage:

In these months, the moon or the morning breeze, the rain against my window, and flowers; all make me long for my family, and thinking of my brother Hui, I suffer terribly!

Ms. Tsoi argues that the object of Zhou’s passionate sentiment (“Brother Hui”) was a younger classmate named Li Fujing, who had moved to Hong Kong during Zhou’s time in Japan. But while the passage clearly shows Zhou’s emotional attachment to Li, it doesn’t say very much about the nature of their relationship.

In an American Historical Review (December 2000) essay on “The Male Bond in Chinese History and Culture,” historian Susan Mann argued that patterns of education and career advancement ensured that men spent the better part of their working and social lives interacting almost exclusively with other men.

Many male relationships were homosocial — the strongest emotional bonds felt by the individual were toward someone of the same gender — but not necessarily sexual. One imagines a continuum from non-sexual emotional attachment to sexual and romantic attachment. This continuum might also include cultural practices such as the “gifting” of concubines or, as is sometimes still the case today, sexual expression in a group setting as described by author James Palmer in his 2015 ChinaFile article “The Bro Code: Booze, Sex, and the Dark Art of Dealmaking in China:

Perhaps that’s why some bosses demand a more public performance. The ultimate are what participants describe as frequent forays into group sex, often with more male than female participants. Sharing women appears to bring men closer to each other, in a perversely familial fashion. As one northeastern saying goes, “Once two men share a woman, they’re brothers.”

These wildly disparate examples of male bonding suggest why it can be difficult to find the kind of definitive evidence necessary to out a historical figure who, by all other accounts, presented as straight.

Even the tepid nature of Zhou Enlai’s married life is in danger of being misread. Many descriptions of Zhou borrow heavily from Confucian tropes: he was devoted to his work. He was a loyal official. He was upright in his personal life. In this way, Zhou’s lack of an overt romantic or sexual life contrasts favorably with the notoriously libertine Mao. In the male world of Confucian (and later revolutionary) officialdom, excessive interest in women could be construed as a weakness.

This conflation of devotion to duty with resistance to feelings of romantic or sexual attraction to women could, in some cases, tip over into open misogyny. One of the unfortunate tropes that surround women who get too close to power in China is that these women have an over-developed desire for sex, particularly transgressive sex. The most recent example is Gu Kailai, the imprisoned wife of deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was accused of orchestrating the murder of her foreign lover in 2011.

In this way, hagiographic depictions of Zhou that borrow from the tradition of the official unsullied by preoccupations of romance and sex can be read, in another context, as Zhou Enlai living an uncomfortable life as a closeted gay man prohibited from the open expression of his true sexuality.

This critique is not to detract from the intention of Ms. Tsoi’s project. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just as researchers need to take care not to impose contemporary understandings of gay-ness back into history, it’s equally important not to assume heterosexuality as a historical norm. The onus is on Ms. Tsoi to refute a relatively large body of textual and other evidence, including what we know of how Zhou Enlai presented his own sexuality. But wishing for more evidence to support Ms. Tsoi’s claim that Zhou Enlai was gay is not the same as wanting to suppress that evidence or a desire for additional credentials to boost Zhou’s “straightness.”

Zhou Enlai may well have had sex with other men. It’s even possible that his greatest romantic and erotic attractions were toward other men. Certainly that is the case with many historical figures. If this were the case with Zhou, it would be an important insight into not only his life and career, but also the limits of the historical record.

According to Richard Burger, “If Zhou was indeed gay he must have been careful to leave no trace of it, and documenting such a thesis would be extremely difficult. Homosexuality was such a taboo under Mao (and continued to be until the 1990s), it would be unthinkable for Zhou to have left any evidence that would have incriminated him as being gay.”

Unfortunately, while Tsoi’s is a much more carefully researched work than some of the most titillating recent books about Xi and Peng, such as one that claims to reconstruct the night the latter lost her virginity, the evidence presented on Zhou’s romantic inclinations is still too flimsy to be conclusive. The emotional life of one of China’s most respected leaders, like many aspects of just how the five Hong Kong booksellers ended up in custody on the mainland, remains a mystery.























KB - Kim Young Ha Read 1

A Korean Literary Superstar Tells His Countrymen Why to Read

By Colin Marshall 

When I started reading Korean novels seriously, I started reading Kim Young-ha — going on, in fact, to produce a profile of his work right here in the LARB. The world of modern Korean letters has produced few hits in translation, much less in translation into English, where Shin Kyung-sook’s Oprah-anointed Please Look After Mom (despite Shin’s recent and confusing plagiarism scandal or maybe non-scandal) remains the Korean novel to beat in the Anglosphere. But were I a betting man, I’d put money on Kim as the next big thing in global Korean literature; unlike most of his colleagues, he already has a deliberately international outlook, not to mention three novels available in English with major publishers: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (나는 나를 파괴할 권리가 있다), Your Republic Is Calling You (빛의 제국), and Black Flower (검은 꽃), all of which draw on Korean culture as well as literature’s more placeless powers to make their impacts.

The prospect of reading Kim’s other books in the original has provided more than its share of motivation for me to get a handle on the Korean language. And I don’t just mean his novels, though I do relish the opportunity to read his currently-under-translation I Can Hear Your Voice (너의 목소리가 들려) before it comes out in English next year and Diary of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법) before it does some time in the far-flung, not-firmly-scheduled future. I mean his collections of essays, a favorite form of mine but one which barely any publishers bother bringing into English, even though they can make big splashes in their writers’ home countries. It just recently happened with Kim’s Read (읽다) which completes a trilogy of slim nonfiction books that started with See (보다), which rounded up his columns written for a film magazine, and Speak (말하다), a collection of his talks and interviews.

KB - Kim Young Ha Read 5

With the success of See and Speak, Kim seemed to have tapped into a demand for not just the fruits of his imagination but his observations on storytelling culture as well. This justified spending the time and effort to make Read not out of previous writings, but all new material: a series of six lectures, which he delivered live, one per fortnight, in the run-up to the book’s release. In them, he talks about the classics, what about the stories told in the classics have allowed them to endure, what the classics have technically and thematically in common with modern stories told today on the page as well as the screen, and why one might want to read the classics at all. The result references and analyzes everything from The Odyssey to Collateral, Don Quixote to The Big Bang Theory, Crime and Punishment to Norwegian Wood, The Stranger to The Sopranos.

For much of his twenty-year career so far, Kim hasn’t just written books for his countrymen to read, but has advocated to them the act of reading itself. Before Read, this mission manifested in his podcast Time to Read a Book (김영하의 책 읽는 시간), subject of a previous post here on the Korea Blog, and as it turns out, something of a proving ground for the ideas expanded upon in the new book. These include the features of the 24-hour story as prescribed by Aristotle’s Poetics (and as practiced by Kim himself in Your Republic is Calling You, a day in the life of its North Korean sleeper agent protagonist suddenly called back home), the use of characters themselves absorbed in fictions (not just the Man of La Mancha, but Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper), and the novel as a kind of natural landscape for the reader to wander while experiencing its joys and pains, savoring all the myriad connections to be found between all the stories written throughout the history of literature.

Asked why he himself reads novels, Kim replies by paraphrasing Sir Edmund Hillary: “Because they’re there.” But according to the numbers, most South Koreans don’t share his motivation: despite impressive literacy rates, the country tends to languish in the middle, or more often at the bottom, when ranked by the amount of reading its people do for pleasure. I’ve heard mostly simple and even dismissive explanations for this, claims that the period of rapid industrialization that stretched from the 1950s at least through the 1990s left Koreans “too busy” for a pursuit as unproductive as reading books. But could it also have to do with the novel’s relative lack of penetration, as a form, into the culture?

In Read‘s fifth lecture, Kim explores “the world of the charming monster,” a character type we in the West know from the examples he puts before his audience: Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lecter, Crime and Punishment‘s Raskolnikov, Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. These he frames as examples of the most interesting character type, which occupy one corner of the matrix (a matrix, incidentally, I’ve personally witnessed him draw on a bar napkin) with “good” and “bad” on one axis and “simple” and “complicated” on the other. This produces four quadrants: one for simply good characters, one for simply bad characters, one for complicatedly good characters, and one for the Sopranos, the Lecters, and Raskolnikovs, and the Humberts of the world — the complicatedly bad ones.

KB - Kim Young Ha Read 4

Much Korean literature has thus far tended to feature either simply or complicatedly good protagonists tormented by, and sometimes sacrificing themselves to, simply bad antagonists. This jibes with the complaints I’ve heard from Korean friends about the oversimplified way history gets taught in schools here, usually in the form of stories of essentially people — benevolent rulers, brave military men, tireless freedom fighters, peace-loving citizens — against wave after historical wave of essentially bad intruders and occupiers. Just as a history with its eyes open to moral complexity, and especially the complexity of what in other contexts gets called evil, is much more fascinating than those with their eyes closed to it, a novel willing to admit and even examine the existence of the complicatedly bad is much more compelling than those that aren’t.

Kim, on some level, must have known this from the jump; his debut novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself follows, among other characters paintable in neither black nor white, an artistically inclined professional suicide-enabler. You can rest assured that, when Diary of a Murderer finally appears in English, it will offer no flat condemnation of its title character. In this way and others, Kim has positioned himself on the vanguard of Korean literature, which, in terms of texts written in the Korean alphabet rather than in classical Chinese, only really goes back about a century. That makes it still a fresh literature, and thus one excitingly open to the formative powers of Kim and other writers of his young generation (at least by the standards of the official Korean literary apparatus, which equates prizes with legitimacy and hesitates to hand many out to anyone under fifty). In order to push the Korean novel forward, then, it makes sense that, searching for what makes any literature worth reading in the first place, he would look back.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


People Will Move

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, 15 October

Dinner plans with the English poet, Alistair Noon, and his partner Sabine, who is German. The U-bahn ride is only a few stops, but Berlin-wise a different world from my secret service block — the blue collar district of Wedding (pron. Vedding). Alistair’s directions have me walking through what he calls “a spooky park.” Without any light at all in the park, I find myself walking long stretches beneath rows of thickly foliated trees that block out any ambient illumination. My urban hackles and sixth sense are raised; it’d be a cinch to jump me here. On the other hand, only an idiot would walk through this park and you’d have to be an equal one to wait for him in such deep darkness (a woman would never make the mistake). But I’ve never had a problem in Berlin, and I go pretty much everywhere — it helps, I suppose, to have some size (what I lack in height I make up for in girth). I get through all right, every other step giving me away with clinking beer bottles in tote.

Their flat is modern, small and neat. They’ve just moved in, having re-done the floors — (in Germany, renters are expected to pay for their own renovations; people don’t move around much and they often rent the same flat for decades — thus the inevitable epic wait to secure new digs). I have beaten Alistair home, he is on a beer run. Sabine and I are soon joined by their friend, Malte Fuhrmann, a cultural historian at the Türkisch-Deutsche Universität zu Istanbul, who slowly strips off his cycling rain gear — he is well protected head to toe, a true all-weather Berliner cyclist. Alistair soon follows and within minutes we’re all drinking outstanding Franconian beer. Conversation percolates over lentils, chard, and potatoes. As I find with Lian (and maybe this is a sign of authenticity) Alistair is very much like his poems — satirical, sharply enunciated, urbane, far-reaching in global reference, and fun to listen to. He’s been living in Berlin since before the Mauerfall, and makes his bread as a translator of legal documents (he also has good working command of Russian, and has translated Pushkin and Mandelstam in addition to contemporary German poets such as Monika Rinck).

Sabine teaches German as a second language to refugees — specifically those who have already achieved some kind of official foothold in the society. She describes some of the culture clashes between the values of Western open societies and Eastern notions of propriety, decorum, and social license (e.g. to live an openly gay life; for women to talk directly and freely and to exercise self-determination; to be openly physically affectionate; to express one’s sexuality without fear of reprimand or punishment . . .) Sabine’s class includes a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions.

There are sometimes tragi-comical episodes, such as building evacuations over forgotten book bags; but also alarming acts of violence against people with different expectations and ideas about how to act in society — different ideas about what society, in fact, in the West, is.

I ask her if the idea of a million Muslims entering Germany gives her cause for concern. No, she says, what scares me are the right-wing extremists in Germany. (I would hear that again and again, the feeling of many Germans that the far right in Germany, and of Germany, is more dangerous than the foreigners entering).

Alistair breaks in. No one should be surprised by the massive movement of refugees across the border, he says, after all, capital has been moving across borders without hindrance for at least a generation or more; it only makes sense that at some point people will move as well. The system, however, is designed to check people while allowing for the free movement of capital. But who creates the capital, he asks rhetorically. Well now the same system is breaking down. And, he adds, for good reason. Malte, whose focus as a scholar is the Ottoman Empire in the 19th & 20th centuries, breaks in with an especially acute reading of the situation. Unfortunately too much beer from Bamberg, Erlangen, Nürnberg have fritzed the synapses, and all I can remember is my impression that he knew more than any of us.

The evening ended with Malte and I walking back through the spooky park, which, with our blood alcohol levels, had been transformed into a foggy midnight pastoralia. I do remember, however, one of Malte’s subspecialties: Ottoman beer production in the 19th century and the transformation of public space. All hail Franconia! (And one of the main regions of entry for refugees in Germany….)



An e-mail from Malte Fuhrmann arrives, responding to my request for his (lost) thoughts about the crisis.

On the one hand, we are all a bit puzzled how differently things are running now compared with the big asylum-seeker influx in the early 90s (destitute people from economically wrecked Soviet block countries plus mostly Bosnian war refugees). Back then the CDU [Christian Democratic Union party, the center right catch-all party in Germany] kind of welcomed the attention towards the refugees, as this distracted from their obviously economically ruinous policy towards Eastern Germany. Also many mainstream intellectuals and the media jumped on the bandwagon. Now, there is this big consensus from the CDU through the mainstream media to not allow for racism, leaving the racist segment of society (which, mind you, is still big) looking for obscure organizations like Pegida and AfD [Alternative for Germany, one of the right-wing populist parties, fairly new]. Whether this or the old strategy is a better long-term solution to keep the right-wing small, I do not know. 

Other things which are different: back then buildings with people inside were set on fire, now it is “just” empty buildings. Nowadays Syrian war refugees get asylum status, whereas Bosnians in the 90s only received “Duldung” (status of being tolerated). It made it easier to deport them at short notice and excluded them from education, the job market etc. 

Another perspective is of course having lived in Turkey for several years. My friends from Turkey laugh at the fuss Germans make over the arriving refugees, as Turkey has lived with 2 million refugees from Syria throughout the last years. However, Germany offers much more to refugees then Turkey does (welfare, emergency housing, language education etc.), where there are a few mass camps for first arrivals, but many Syrians live in a state of destitution in the streets.  German society is a structurally very conservative one: most people did not really want their lives to change with reunification, and now they also would wish things just to return to normal. However the present dilemma has “possibly shown a split between those that realize that Germany is just a smaller area of Europe/Asia/Africa and cannot ignore if other parts of those continents are at war, live under dictatorships, or in misery. However there is this obstinate lot that still thinks the question is how many refugees Germany thinks “it can handle”, not realizing no one will bother to ask that with their backs against the wall. One immigrant friend (admittedly a Turkish American professor, not refugee) claimed however that while in Germany one occasionally runs into some ignoramus, people are in general more open-minded than in Switzerland, where people seem to generally have the attitude that somehow the system will take care of everybody, and if somebody falls out of the system, it is their individual fault.’

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