Berlin Childhood

Neukölln bakery. Berlin, July 2013.

Ten minutes off a flight from Tel Aviv, the television monitors were running a story on terrorism. “Big raids against Islamists,” the caption declared in German, beneath a photo of Muslims knelt in prayer. Security forces had just raided sixteen separate locations in the north, searching for wanted Salafists, from a banned organization.

I marveled at the timing of the broadcast. Being Jewish, it was as though the authorities were reassuring me that it was safe to enter their country,  while I waited to retrieve my so-called baggage. Being in Berlin was as much about giving Germans an opportunity to relieve me of it, as it is an opportunity to be in Europe, without threats, or fear of anti-Semitism. I couldn’t find a single person paying attention to the TV, though.  Everyone looked tired and impatient, eager to retrieve their luggage and get out of the terminal.

Hoping to preserve the moment for later use, I pulled out my DSLR, and took a picture of the broadcast, eliciting more attention from fellow passengers than what I was photographing. If it were a propaganda exercise, this wasn’t an ideal audience. Nor, would I wager, are most of Berlin’s other Jewish residents, either. Home to an estimated twenty thousand Israelis, most tend to be leftist, finding themselves at home not only in a different Germany than the country we’d been raised to fear, but one that has a Muslim population estimated at over four million. Programming like this had little do with our reality.

Indeed, for Israelis of my age, there is a particularly nostalgic vibe about the city. Not one for the pre-Nazi period, but, rather, for the Israel we once knew. In my taxi trip to the airport, for example, the driver turned out to be Palestinian. I don’t know why I knew that, but I had this sense. “Where are you from?” I asked him. “Palestine,” he proudly replied. “From the north, Safad,” he stated, using the Arabic pronunciation for the Galilee city of Safed, or Tzfat, as it is pronounced in Hebrew.

It wasn’t the first time I’d hailed a Palestinian-driven cab. They tend to be a high percentage of the drivers I’ve encountered, at least in my neighborhood, Neukolln, which is heavily Middle Eastern. The expectation ran deeper, though, as it is highly personal. When I was a child, the cabs my father and I took, in Tel Aviv, as well as  in Jerusalem, often had Arab drivers, not Jewish ones, like the majority I encounter in Israel, today.

My father often hired them for weekend trips in the Occupied Territories, sometimes to tour Biblical sites, other times, to visit friends from the Mandate period, who’d moved to the West Bank, I believe, during the 1948 war. These trips make up some of my best childhood memories. They make me want to hail more cabs – in Berlin, not Israel.

Wheeling my suitcase out of customs, I made a beeline for the taxi stand. Though I could have taken public transit, I was willing to splurge.  The idea of arriving from Tel Aviv, only to be greeted by a Palestinian cabbie, was too tempting to pass up. Not just because of the sense of continuity it gives me, but because of what it says to me about my adopted home.

Baklawi display. Neukölln, July 2013.
Baklawi display. Neukölln, July 2013.

“It’s remarkable,” a friend in Israel said last week, whose family originally hails from the Berlin area. “It’s history’s revenge on the Germans. There are more Muslims in the country today, than there ever were Jews. Can you imagine what the food would be like if they weren’t there? It’d be unbearable.”

Approaching the stand, I saw a group of Middle Eastern-looking drivers gathered together, smoking cigarettes, chatting. I walked up to them imagining I’d overhear them speaking Arabic. No such luck. This time, it was Turkish. I should have expected it. Though I’m especially attuned to my Arab neighbors, most of the persons living in my neighborhood are Turks, and to a lesser extent, Kurds. These are the ‘Muslims’ most refer to, who live in Germany.

My driver was talkative. In between taking calls on his mobile, which he answered in Turkish, he asked me where I’d flown in from. “Israel is a good country,” he said enthusiastically, in fluent English. “I pick Israelis up at the airport all the time.” “Where are you from?” I asked him. “Berlin,” he replied, looking at me in his mirror, smiling. “But my parents are Turkish. They came here from Anatolia over fifty years ago.”

I marveled at his words. Fifty years ago. I’d only been here three. Yet, here, he sat in his taxi, speaking fluent Turkish. Having visited the country several times, I was hard pressed to identify him as a Berliner. Yet, as he picked up a call, and launched into impeccable German, I would have had an equally difficult time imagining he was from there, if that’s all he had spoken in the cab. Moving back and forth, from German to English and Turkish, as though he owned them all, was inspiring. He was from everywhere.

I knew the back story, though. I knew that his fluent Turkish was likely as much a consequence of the difficulties Turks have had integrating here, as it is of having immigrant parents. I wondered whether, if my wife and I eventually decide to have children, they’ll turn out to be as multilingual. I was reminded of my Israeli relatives and friends, many of whom have parents and family who immigrated from Europe and North Africa. They are frequently at home in three, sometimes four languages.

By the time I arrived at our flat, I was starved. I hadn’t eaten since leaving my parent’s house at four AM, and it was midday, already. Unfortunately, I had thrown out everything in the fridge before I left on my trip. I was going to have to go out again, in order to get lunch. I was thinking big. “I’ll get a heavy German sandwich,” I said to myself, as I headed downstairs. “Putenbrust!” (Turkey breast.) German fast food doesn’t get any better.

My ambition was short-lived. Within a block, I was feeling dizzy. I’d only slept three hours, and my blood sugar had completely crashed. To my right was the Beirut Express, a newish place on Karl-Marx-Straße, that had a good chicken shawarma. I’d get a falafel. That would be quick, and do the trick. “Sauce?” the sous chef asked, using the English word, as he made my sandwich, pointing to a typically Turkish-looking container of plain yogurt.

“Nein,” I replied rather disingenuously in my non-existent German. “Im hummus, danke,” I said unconsciously, in Hebrew (With hummus.) It was a dead giveaway. “Im hummus….”  he repeated to me rather loudly, raising his right eye. “You are from Israel?” I smiled. “I’m from Tulkarem,” he said, before I had a chance to respond. I just nodded and said, “Shukran,” (thank you) and took my sandwich to my table.

If I was feeling better, I know what I would have said. I’d tell him that the Germans don’t know enough to order hummus with their falafel. They think everything Middle Eastern has to be served liked döner. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s still hard to get bagels here, whereas once they’d been plentiful. I figure the yogurt is a reasonable mistake to make. If we remind them enough, they’ll get it all right, eventually.


Photographs courtesy of the author

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