Usually, the music is Turkish. Arabesque, as it is called, featuring Middle Eastern- sounding instrumental motifs, but still, Turkish. Blasting out of cars idling at the stoplight on Karl-Marx-Straße, I often find myself trying to make out the details of the songs. “Was that an Om Khaltoum sample, or an actual orchestra?” I never get it right.
One of the signature motifs of my neighborhood, the music’s cultural ambiguity is a testimony to the predominantly Turkish immigrant community living in this part of Neukölln. Turkish that is, but Middle Eastern-identified.
One can get excellent hummus, kenafe, and kibbe in the local markets. Not exactly Turkish cuisine, but more likely to be consumed by Turks living in closer proximity to Syria, for example.
This music, however, conjured up something different. Something I could actually identify. The sounds of synthesized doumbeks, and women ululating were a dead giveaway. Walking my dogs in a predominantly Kurdish area, on the other side of Karl Marx, I decided I’d try and get closer to the music’s source. The growing stream of Arab girls passing me by, their heads uncovered, did little to dampen my curiosity.
A block from Karl-Marx-Platz, everything started to come into view. The appropriately-named square, bordering the similarly named thoroughfare, was hosting an Eid al-Fitr gathering, marking the breaking of the Ramadan fast. A stage was set up at the far end, and a band was playing. Tents, serving Arab food, lined the north and south sides of the square. Palestinian flags, and young families, eating pita and falafel, were everywhere.
The music was deafeningly loud. Positioning myself in the middle, next to a metal statue meant to symbolize the workers’ struggle (replete with the word the Arabic word for friend, ‘Habibi,’ daubed on it) I turned on my digital recorder, and began taking pictures of the scene. The setting was perfect. Karl Marx’ branding was everywhere – on municipal signs, on a convenience store. And the persons present were his distant relatives – not Jews, but close enough. His first cousins, so to speak.
I wondered what Marx would have made of the Palestinians, had he lived long enough to know them. I wondered what he would have thought of a gathering like this, in a square bearing his namesake, in the once heavily Jewish Berlin. I drank in the sounds and the smells, like I was at home. Though this is my home, today, I imagined myself somewhere else, in Tel Aviv, listening to Om Khaltoum on the radio, as a child. Had Israel followed me here? The distance was negligible.
The next artist on the evening’s program did little to dampen my suspicions. “Falesteen,” “Al-Quds.” My Arabic is dreadful, but these references were clear. The more the singer reiterated them, the more the crowd gathered focused on him. It was as though these declarations of place were a way of signifying where we all were, in Berlin. As mournful as the song sounded, though, I had a hard time inscribing any sense of exile to it, though. Yes, you could hear the displacement. However, it was also a statement of presence. Amidst such a joy-filled crowd, why would any of us what to be anywhere else? At least for that moment.
Considering the amount of blood spilled in Berlin, particularly the blood of my ancestors, of Germany’s Jewish population, this statement of belonging rang loud and clear to me. In historical context, it was as much about putting the past behind us, as it was about imagining a superior, more just present, back home, in Al-Quds, in Falesteen. Of all places, to be breaking the Ramadan fast, in Karl Marx Platz, seemed particularly apropos, at this moment.
Surveying the crowd, I detected very few non-Palestinians. A couple of dreadlocked, German-speaking hippies, and me. I wondered whether any of the Israeli expats who live in the area would stop by. Leading my dogs home on Karl-Marx-Straße, we walked over several brass memorials, commemorating the deaths of neighborhood Jews, who had been abducted from their nearby homes, by the Nazis, and sent to their deaths, in concentration camps. “Ermordet in Saschsenhausen,” (“Murdered in Saschsenhausen,”) Ermordet in Auschwitz” (“Murdered in Auschwitz.”)
Having lived in the neighborhood for nearly three years, such plaques are so familiar now, I find myself walking over them with increasing frequency, without taking much notice. Except in those instances where context makes them unavoidable. Like four blocks north, where two of them reside, if I have the number correct, at the entrance to a Burger King, on Karl Marx. No pun intended, but I still find that difficult to digest.
Staring down at one such set of plaques (from the looks of it, dedicated to an entire family that perished) to the fading strains of the song about Al-Quds, I wondered what these people would have thought of this music, if they’d somehow managed to survive. Living less than a block away, like me, they would have found the Eid gathering unavoidable. I wish they could have at least heard it.
Would they be moved by the music, like me? Would they identify with the Palestinians, as exiles, like themselves? I’m not certain about the answer to the latter question. So many of these people saw themselves as Germans, as well as Jews. Their political sensibilities would have likely complicated the exile bit. I have little doubt, however, that they would wonder whether they were Holocaust victims too. Albeit living ones, who wether they know it or not, are survivors of the same conflict.
“What did you expect?” my father queried me, when I told him how shellshocked I found many of the Germans I met, in Berlin. “World War Two didn’t end there until 1989.” I remembered my father’s words, and wondered whether that’s one of the reasons this city is so attractive to Palestinians, and to Israelis. Sure, there’s a lot of space to fill here, and it’s cheap, in comparison to other European cities. Still, you go to what you know, no matter where you find it. It’s called community.
- Joel Schalit