What follows is the first of what I anticipate will be a series of stories from my time in Berlin in June and early July, 2010. Generally, I anticipate pairing shorter independent stories — such as the “Prelude” below — with fragments from a longer and multi-part tale which is currently being called “Mohammad: Skirmishes.” It’s a slightly different mode of writing (creative non-fiction, I suppose, with emphasis on “non-fiction,” as it’s all true) but I hope it is of interest as an occasional feature here. All dialogue occurred in German unless otherwise indicated.
Prelude: „We Are All Secret Police“
Germans are, as a rule, unapproachable on the streets of their capital, but occasionally one has to buck societal rules and cross a boundary. One night in June, as twilight fell in one of Berlin’s thousand alleyways (Sophienstraße, near a museum to Anne Frank and the heroes of the Jewish Resistance which shares space with a techno club/bar, just around the corner from the besotted Häckischer Markt), I caught up with a trio of Berliners with whom I obviously shared a generational and economical affinity, as well as a belief in the efficacy of bicycles. I felt secure that our commonalities and my grasp of their language would facilitate an exchange. As they clustered in front of a huge wooden doorway scarred with anti-fascist graffitti, putting together their ersatz plan for a reunion, I broke in:
“Enschuldigung, geehrerte Berlinerinnen, aber darf ich Ihnen eine Frage stellen?“ Excuse me, honorable lady Berliners, but could I ask you all a question?
About once on every research trip I take, I like to simply lay out my purpose and my challenge very nakedly to a random person or set of persons, because it reminds me what I am doing, much as an actor needs reminder that he is in fact on the set. So I went on:
“I am a foreigner here, and a historian, researching daily in your Federal Archive. But I really know so very little about the history of the German Democratic Republic. So what is the one thing I should know about the GDR as I study its past? Is it its international connections (which, after all, I am studying)? Or is it the youth movement for democracy and reunification? Or is it culture? Or the bald leaders? Or is it the secret police? I hear the GDR so often associated with the secret police, but perhaps this is a point of overemphasis.”
I really meant it. There was no way to corral an understanding of this huge phenomenon, this dead state, the power of reunification or the legacies of what East Germany meant to anyone. I certainly wasn’t going to take my truths spoon-fed from university presses or my teachers or gritty books published by Australians who had lived in Berlin in the 1990s. One simply had to ask for oneself, like a child would.
Their body language spoke of amusement at my series of queries; two of them mumbled to one another over the body of a bicycle. An unusual question, indeed! Quickly, without hesitation, the woman standing between them fastened her hands to the bicycle bars, threw her head around, fixed me with a gaze, and whispered directly, with total conviction:
“Wir sind alle Geheimdienst hier.” All of us here are secret police.
Her friends scoffed, but I understood perfectly. Her whisper resounded in a huge arc outward, like shock waves in the silent film of a bomb blast. She meant not just the three of them, but everyone here in East Berlin…it was a black joke, a donning of an old identity for this foreigner seeking the Cold War, spoken with the sound a cloak being spread over an unbroken burial site, the echo of scratches upon the rusted foundations of a concrete bunker…She didn’t laugh.
All of us here are secret police.
My throat broke open in a kind of terrible joy of cognition. This painful little wordplay was her advice. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t expect any help, and if anything, get ready for sabotage. We all turned, dispersing with rueful smiles, disappearing into the night.
* * *
I. Mohammad: Skirmish One
A stone’s throw from the tanks, meters from the golden Cyrillic script of the monument to Soviet martyrs, I stand in the center of the boulevard dedicated to Berlin’s anti-communist uprising of 1953, watching the Japanese national football team complete the destruction of its opponent on an immense suspended television screen sponsored by Coca-Cola. The announcer’s mellifluous German voice washes over me, over all of the assembled throng: after ninety minutes of commentary, he concludes with a magnificent poetic flourish: “And thus they stand, proud and victorious, the Blue…Samurai.”
Of the grab bag of facile cultural shorthands available to denote Japanese male achievement, the German television man has at least avoided reference to kamikaze, or Yasukuni Shrine, or the mystical and semi-military methods of preparation which the team may have gone through. Yet, having spent the day in the Bundesarchiv reading Nazi bureaucratic commentary on the Japanese advances of 1941-42, finding transcripts of Japanese youth joint broadcasts with Hitler Youth on the Fuehrer’s birthday of the same year, and leafing through German newspaper commentaries of wartime culture in Japan, I shake my head. I had spent an hour roaming around the Tiergarten, looking for lost monuments to Goethe and trying to get the Second World War and East Asia out of my head, listening to bird calls, thinking of Beethoven and rhythmic patterns, and here were a bunch of Germans fairly enchanted with the samurai spirit.
I hefted down my camera from the screen, imagining for once a glorious YouTube video which would cement the ties between peoples; something about hearing Germans cheer in support of Japan, and the photos of the whites and Asians together draped in Japanese flages and “bushido” headscarves, had me optimistic nevertheless. Like the footage and photos I had on the same camera from London of Iranian Green movement protests, I was going to use technology to further the integration of Asia-Europe. I wished to push the globalization bus and accelerate it, off a cliff if necessary, but by God, speed and encounter would be achieved.
I turned toward the Brandenburg gate, stopping to admire a lonely statue in the street divider, a sculpture facing East Berlin, a 1960s personification of “freedom.” What a sad emblem of its time! No cell phone, skinny, alone, both empty arms reached to the sky, it reminded me more of the horrors of an expressionist painting than a sign of welcome. Then again, perhaps I had overly modern ideas about seduction of socialist societies thanks to my experience of South Korea. Standing in front of the statue as the night gathered around, I saw how it was roundly ignored by the soccer drunks, just as it had been ignored the week before by the lesbians kissing underneath it in the grandiose wash of techno beats at the gay festival the week prior. Now that Berlin was united, for some reason the statue stayed. No one even bothered to vandalize it.
The street was sealed off from the surrounding Tiergarten, so I funneled toward the Brandenburg Gate, the landmark glowing with golden light, its tableau of Roman wrestlers and soldiers waiting my arrival. Just past the final cluster of Coca-Cola Fräuleinen, I noticed a motley group of kids walking in the same direction. They were young Germans, boys of various backgrounds, joking around. Average age 14, not a single white face among them. Apart from a basketball one kid was dribbling intermittently, they looked like they were lacking any kind of organizing principle. I adjusted my path to join their pack; I suppose as a professor whose addiction to classroom jibes and conflicts was being challenged, I wanted my own little army.
One of the boys was sauntering along at the back of the pack, his lanky torso totally lost in the black folds of his T-shirt. He huffed something in Arabic to a boy ahead and slowed to the back of the pack. There he appeared to be lost in thought, oblivious to the symbolic power of the approaching gate, his gaze down on the Steinkoepfchen, or little small stones of the sidewalk, his ears perhaps attuning to the sounds of the surrounding Tiergarten, when I summoned him up into my world of need.
Without any introduction or pleasantries, I broke in: “Hey buddy, can you recommend some German rap to me? Like, do you know anyone who raps in Arabic and German? I’m tired of the stuff I’ve been hearing.”
“Well stop looking,” he said confidently, puffing up a bit, and tapping his suddenly-solid chest: “Ich bin Rapper.” I’m a rapper.
I had no way of knowing that I had begun an encounter with this resourceful young Palestinian-Iraqi-German young man that would result in a subway rap battle, a theft, a long chase around the city, frictions with a whole host of Berliners, a series of threats unfulfilled, insoluble political auseinandersaetzungen, the revealing of wounds from multiple distant yet easily recalled wars, and a rare kind of friendship which was ended in a police station the middle of a deserted quarter of Berlin.
“You’re a rapper, huh? Do these guys know your songs?” I asked, indicating to the kids who were suddenly surrounding us. A handful of the younger ones started rhyming in chorus as they skipped along. Ghetto this, ghetto that, I grab your sister…
That was my introduction to Mohammad.
He smiled at me as we crossed over and into the aura of the Brandenburg Gate.
The horses atop the quadrangle glowed Eastward. Silently, the statues cradled their swords, glad to be fixed in space and time.