At the exiled Iranian parliament we convened at Café Kotti in Berlin, I look around at my new friends and ask myself: how can civilians destroy the walls the politicians have built with such a lack of imagination, courage, vision and basic human love? It’s not a theoretical question. We’re talking about our lives.
By Mati Shemoelof (translated from Hebrew by Chana Morgenstern)
During one of my special evenings in Berlin, I climbed over the wall separating Israel and Iran and opened a parliament for Iranian Mashhadi exiles with two other refugees. We sat at Café Kotti (the local Albi) where Middle Eastern immigrants hang out with the East and West Germans. The ceiling is covered in childish drawings and the speakers blare salsa and Fairuz, and then suddenly shift into rock. The room is full of smoke and red armchairs, the atmosphere is social and you can talk to whomever you want.
I introduce myself as a Jewish Iranian refugee, but not in the cynical sense that Israel exploited the refugee status of Arab Jews to cancel out the rights of exiled Palestinians. I tell them that all my life I’ve been prevented from prostrating at the graves of my great grandparents in Iran. I’m not a romantic; my grandfather fled from Iran because of Islamic fundamentalism. But the other side was not exactly seeking peace either—the Zionists continued with their wars in all the Arab states as they occupied Palestine, and today Bibi goes to peace talks to avoid peace and buy time until the Republican party is back in power. (Watch this Jon Stewart’s skit on the Daily Show about the Republican Party’s pilgrimage to receive the donations (blessings) of Don Sheldon Adelson).
And so I sit with two Mashhadi refugees, one with long hair who reminds me of myself 10 years ago, the other with short hair. The first is really frustrated in Germany, lives with friends, and hasn’t undergone the process of integration into German society yet. The second gave up on having a social life, studied German from morning till night, and went on to attend university. The first is very critical of Germany’s racist attitude towards refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers; the second is shy and working as hard as he can to help his brother in Iran. We start up a conversation, buy each other beers, and I tell them why I left the Holy Land. Their situations are much harder than mine; the authorities killed the frustrated man’s brother and they can’t go back to Iran because the government is hunting them. They are social activists like me, but I’m not wanted for my social activism in Israel yet.
A year and a half ago I was invited to attend a translation seminar in Berlin; I was exposed to the many aspects of the city – political resistance (I joined a protest of Iranians and Jews against the weapons sales to Middle East governments), the art scene (I hung out at the Biennale), and Jewish Israelis (I met the expat community). When I arrived in the city for a second time, I admit that I made it a goal not to travel the same paths I took in Israel, even though I know the local activists and have gone to lectures to hear what’s happening in terms of the local political work. I’m listening, interested, and very curious; I’ve been in the city’s refugee camp that was established in a school that houses refugees and asylum seekers, and I studied the immigration laws. But mostly I listen to the stories of people who cross my path and then shape them into prose.
There is an Ashkenazi Tel Aviv and a Mizrahi Tel Aviv here too, even though everyone’s sitting at the same café, supposedly together. Some Israelis have European passports, European memory, European identity, whiteness and European history, and then there are those who are associated with the Arab side, the side that threatens language and power, is marked by the unequal distribution of resources, the political others who carry theology in their bodies (The Arab-Jews). But those of us who have actually become aware of their histories carry it with awe wherever they go.
The occasion for gathering at Café Kotti is the return of one of our friends to Israel. I think about my two Iranian friends and about my parents and my friend’s parents who immigrated to Israel. What option should I choose: should I learn German and go through cultural erasure? Should I remain frustrated and cling to my language with all my might? The second generation of Mizrahim (Arab-Jews) in Israel went through an erasure whose effects we feel to the present day. They were given new “non-Arab” names; their traditions were denied. The wound is unbearable. But the third generation of Mizrahim rose up against that erasure and are rebuilding an Arabic memory, language and music. It’s no coincidence that Dikla, Rabid Kalhani, Dudu Tassa, Neta Alkayam and others have returned to singing in their parent’s native tongue – the Arabic language.
In the film Forget Baghad Iraqi-Swiss director, Samir, who heard stories about the Iraqi Jewish community from his father, flew to Israel to meet Iraqi-Jewish writers Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas, Samir Naquash, and others. In the film, the writers, speaking primarily in the Iraqi Arabic dialect, discuss their position as Jewish immigrants from the Arab world; Sami Michael transitioned more easily to writing in Hebrew; Shimon Ballas felt the vengeance of the Arab words in his Hebrew prose; only Samir Naqqash refused to give in – he continued writing literature in the Baghdadi Jewish dialect of his forefathers. His suffering was unbearable, and he finally immigrated to Manchester late in life. But his legacy preserved a unique and important language and many Arab intellectuals, including the Egyptian writer Nagib Mahfuz, sang his praises.
During my visit at the school that is now a center for North African refugees in Kruetzberg, I was overwhelmed by the sense of hopelessness. Two North African refugees spoke to me about the prevalence of drugs and the drug trade in the local community. Obviously, the problem does not lie solely in the immigrant community or in individual choices. The problem is the social structure. But does German society want to absorb these immigrants? In the late 1990’s Germany was considered the preferred asylum for refugees from around the world, according to a 2013 report by the UN Refugee Agency. On the other hand, there are significant barriers and prejudices that prevent the integration of immigrants into German society.
Back at the parliament of exiles, I look around at my new friends and ask myself: how can civilians destroy the walls politicians have built with such a lack of imagination, courage, vision and basic human love? It’s not a theoretical question. We’re talking about our lives, the lives of the citizens and stateless people of a Middle East that is bleeding to death, that the West is arming from morning to night. It must be returned to the hands of the people who live there. If we figure how to sit together, recognize, talk, the walls will come down, and maybe we won’t have to be exiled, to immigrate, to wander away from the spring into the freezing German snow. And if we’ve already left how can we bring the walls down between our neighbors and ourselves? Why should we be treated differently? Aren’t we human beings like the Germans and the Europeans? Did we want to leave everything we knew behind in our countries of origin? How do we build a humanistic society, in which everyone is equal? Is it even possible?
What are you running away from? That’s the question Israelis have been asking me ever since I moved to Berlin. I insisted that I wasn’t immigrating. Why should I immigrate – I have a family, love, friends, a language, a culture, two books being published in the next year. But despite all that, I’m here, thousands of miles from where I grew up, renting an apartment in Neukölln.
Autumn was beautiful; thousands of colored leaves covering the sidewalks, long sunsets; Alexander’s Tower between the two Gibraltar columns on Karl Marx street in the East overwhelmed me with its beauty. I rode my bike in that direction a few times a week and felt free. “I’m free!” I yelled and the echo returned to me “free…” and I thought of the words of our sage, Sakharof, when he said, “Everyone wants to be free, but from what God, from what?” (From the song “Avadim” [Slaves] by Sakharof, 1998).
At first they tried to tell me not to talk about Israel: “Why write about what’s happening here, write about the good things happening over there.” Right. As if I could just live in Germany and forget my 41 years in Israel. I tried to explain to them that I wasn’t immigrating, and that even if I was I would always remain divided. One part of me would be inside my memories of growing up in Israel and the other part of me would be in this new place, in a different language and culture.
I’m not an immigrant, but the high I felt following my departure was strong. I went out to parties, shows, got to know as many people as possible, I wandered the city, and at night I travelled great distances to return to home drunk. The first three months of my love affair with Berlin was a rampage. But like in every relationship, lows follow highs, and after a time Berlin and I started to negotiate the what and the how. “How much time will you give me?” I asked her. “How much time do you want?” she replied. “Two years,” I thought, or less. “Take all the time in the world, but remember there’s no commitment and I need my space,” she retorted, and took off to someone else’s bed.
I’m not an immigrant, but the snow began dripping like snot from the sky, the ice froze the sidewalks and white snow dusted the dirt and then slowly darkened. My friend Ofri Ilani wrote about 50 shades of snow and I suddenly began to notice all the different ways I could grasp the snow. Snow of sidewalks, snow of roads, snow of busses, the snow that covers bicycles, the snow of immigrants who are slowly becoming German.
I’m not an immigrant, but the hard winter brought longing, to be outdoors, surrounded by slang, by the transformation of language, by people who would understand me. So instead of flying back to Israel whenever I began longing, I surrounded myself by Israeli friends, and every week we get together for a Salon in Hebrew. But the longing was really too strong to be satisfied.
I’m not immigrant, but I’m an immigrant of the heart from a desire for social change and healing. I’m not a social or political activist any more; Ayala Hananel is now running the poetry collective Gerila Tarbut and my poetry column in Basta has passed to the poet and editor Adi Keissar. All I have left is words, and words are all that satisfies me. Over my last four months in the land of the Huns I have written thousand of words, but my fears are hard to bear, my loneliness is great, and there is nowhere to come to home to.
I’m not an immigrant, but even at home with Bennett, Lapid, Liberman and Netanyahu, I am not at home. I’m stuck in-between, and all that is left for the heart is to immigrate to the hearts of other immigrants. All of southern Europe is here (Greeks, Italians and Spaniards) and the Arab and eastern diaspora (Iranians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Turks and North Africans), and more arrive from around the world each day. It’s an inspiring experience, to be at the heart of an ocean of immigrants.
The heart says that every human being is an immigrant the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. God says we were all immigrants from the moment he exiled us from the Garden of Eden. I tell myself, turn up the volume on this song and Aviv Guedj screams: “If this is salvation, I’d rather have exile..” (From the song, “Children of Immigrants”, 2003).
I ask fewer questions
And lose myself more in the jazz of Berlin
Flowing from the many Diasporas
At night I climb through women’s windows
In the morning I labor
And on Sabbath with holy words
I talk to myself in Hebrew, with no country
I talk to others in another tongue, with no country
I miss my father’s memorial
And recall him in every word
I don’t know where I come from or where I’m going
But even strangeness has a birthday
And I’ll wake in your arms
And between your thighs
Like a child
Read this post in Hebrew on Haokets.