Selam Berlin: Yadé Kara. Marisa Gies, translator.

Behind the Reichstag, some people were photographing the plaques with the names of the people who died crossing the Wall. Some left candles and flowers. Amidst the tumult of people visiting the Wall, I saw her. A petite woman with a blue down jacket, long hair and tight jeans was setting up a camera. She was good-looking—too good-looking. Her black hair hung like thick wool over her ass. And what an ass! With an ass like that she could bring a whole band of grey-haired patriarchs to ruin. She blew on her hands to warm them and dropped her tripod in the process. I seized the opportunity and picked it up for her. Two big brown eyes laughed and illuminated me. My heart stood still.

She thanked me. I beamed inwardly. What a woman! It flashed through my mind, that I’d want to do nothing but set up tripods for her for the rest of my life. The visitors of the Wall crowded around us. She didn’t let herself be fazed and continued with her filming. I kept standing next to her and watched. Completely silent. She was focused. Thick skeins of hair fell into her face. She stuck them behind her ear. A stone sparkled on her ring finger. I assumed a diamond. This woman had class. She was older than me, around thirty. Standing there like that with her head raised, she had something of a princess about her, so full of grace. She reminded me of Hepburn in the movie Roman Holiday.

The holes in the Wall were big. You could shove your head through and look into the East. The East German sentries peered back through the holes like colorful M&Ms.

In a quiet moment the woman turned in my direction and saw I was still standing there in the cold wind in front of the Wall. She inspected me with her brown eyes. My heart pounded. She just stood there and watched me with those damn deep eyes—swamps, in which I drowned.

She asked me to look through the hole in the Wall. She wanted to film it. I stuck my head in and looked directly into the ice-blue eyes of an East German sentry. He grinned and I grinned back. Another sentry with a red nose stood next to him. I exchanged a few friendly words with them and offered cigarettes to warm up with. We smoked, and I talked some about glasnost, perestroika and Gorbachev. I can’t remember anymore, I was only thinking about those deep brown eyes. The soldiers listened quietly.

“Great,” called the small woman. “Keep it up. It’s the most original scene that I’ve shot today, keep it up.” I was in my element. She had me on video. She definitely wouldn’t forget me, I thought, and asked the sentries to wave to the camera through the holes. They did it with quick smiles.

The wind became icy, and she could hardly hold the camera. She packed up her equipment and left. I followed her.

I caught up with her at the bus stop.

“How can a pretty woman stand alone in the cold?” I said charmingly and smiled widely. I counted on the power of the dimple that always emerged when I smiled. She seemed distracted and looked at me soberly.

“No idea,” she said distantly.

“Hey Hasan,” I said to myself, “you won’t let yourself be rejected like this.” I ignored her response. “A car wouldn’t be bad right now?’

“Mine won’t start. It’s frozen,” she said and raised her eyebrows. Now she was acting haughty.

“The main thing is that you aren’t frozen inside.” And I tapped my chest. She said nothing and looked for the bus. It didn’t come. I lit a Gitanes and offered her one.

[…]

A taxi drove by. I flagged it down and got inside. In Istanbul in such a situation I would’ve held the door open for her and stowed her equipment in the back. But in Berlin, it was different.

It was a different kind of come-on. The less you spoke, the more interesting you were. The worse you treated her, the more attractive you were. It was a thing from the punk era. I didn’t spit on her or piss her off, I left her standing in the cold and she had to decide if she wanted to go with me or not. She hesitated a moment and smiled from the corner of her mouth. We drove to Café Einstein.

Over hot chocolate and Gitanes we talked about Berlin, films, and apartments, but not about us. That was totally out.

And I bit back the question: Where are you from? Because one thing was clear: she wasn’t from a small town. I bet on a mishmash of German and… Whatever, I knew only too well how annoying this question could be. After all, I didn’t want to seem like all the dense jerks who definitely asked her this question when they first met. I think she expected the question. But I wanted to surprise her.

The Fall of the Wall wasn’t a big surprise for her. It was predictable. “History punishes those who come too late,” she said flippantly. “That’s not by me—it’s Mikhail.” And she stressed Mikhail as if she’d peed with Gorbachev in the same sandbox. While she talked, I studied her eyes. They were so open, so clear, and they moved in every direction and looked around the café. She refused only to look into my eyes. I liked those lively eyes, and I think she knew that I liked her—that’s why she continued to talk about political events, and in doing so her deep voice sounded so calm and composed, that I leaned back and just enjoyed her presence.

[…]

That evening in Schöneberg, we each went our own way. Without names. Without numbers. Acquaintances from the Wall.

[…Months later…]

The night turned to dawn and everyone slowly headed home. I escorted Cora to her Volvo. No one spoke on the way. It was a mild morning. The streetlights went out, and from Luisen-Park, the first sparrows and pigeons announced themselves. Berlin slept.

I pulled out a Gitanes and held the packet up, at the height of her full breasts. She took one and I lit up. We smoked. I watched Cora. She looked around nervously, took a light drag, dropped her gaze. I swept the hair out of her face gently and she leaned lightly onto me. I threw the cigarette away and held her tight. She shut her eyes dreamily and I pulled her to me and touched her lips. She let herself fall into my arms. Her cigarette rolled to the pavement. I kissed her softly on the throat, on the chin, on the mouth. Cora cooed softly. What a moment. We collided. She sucked on my lips, a whole eternity. A gentle morning in Schöneberg. I rejoiced. All the trumpets and drums in me started to play. I lifted Cora strongly and set her in a shopping cart that was standing next to us on the edge of the street. She sat in it and looked at me, surprised. I pushed the cart in front of me. Just because. It rattled over the asphalt and cobblestones. A fresh morning wind blew against us and woke me up. Cora’s infectious laughter set me on fire. I ran and ran and ran and pushed Cora in front of me. We screamed and howled through the still sleeping streets of Berlin. I stopped at the steps of the Victory Column. I was breathing quickly. […]

Cora smiled. I took a deep breath and resumed my run. I pushed Cora over the Street of the 17th of June in the direction of the Wall. Red, orange, yellow haze floated across the sky in front of us and transformed the whole Tiergarten into an awakening jungle. Everywhere, parrots, cockatoos, birds of paradise chirped, cheeped, cooed, squawked into the morning.

I stopped near the Brandenburg Gate, breathed out deeply and lit a Gitanes. In front of us—construction, battered graffiti on remnants of the Wall. There was a poem on a block of concrete. We smoked.

THE KISSES OF LOVERS DIDN’T SCARE ME TONIGHT THEIR OVERT DESIRE INSTANTLY UNCONDITIONAL AND ETERNAL TO FUSE INTO EACH OTHER FOUND ITS EQUIVALENT IN THE TENDERNESS OF THE BALMY AIR THAT TOUCHED ME THROUGH MY THIN SHIRT; IN THE GENTLE TUGGING OF MY HAIR: THIS NIGHT WOULD GIVE ME A NEW NAME.

Yeah, Cora would give me a new name. I stubbed out the cigarette and pushed Cora through the Brandenburg Gate over Unter den Linden, squares, bridges, up to Alexanderplatz. I stopped there. I seized Cora, and suddenly she stood in front of me in her little black dress on this giant plaza of concrete, steel, and the World Clock. No one there, only us. An unnatural silence. We went to the Forum Hotel and Cora got a room. She walked to the elevator. I followed her inconspicuously. In the dark hallway she looked around more. She opened the door, peered around her once again, then went in. I shut the door behind us. My hands shook.

The room consisted of a bed, chair, and panorama. It looked out over Berlin. Now Cora stood there and I couldn’t speak. She pulled off her shoes and lit a cigarette, not looking at me. I sat down on a chair and stretched out my legs. She pulled back the drapes and opened the window. Towers, roofs, and cranes extended in front of us. From here, Berlin looked like one city. You didn’t see that it was separated by the Wall. Every boundary disappeared in the canyons of houses. The noise of cars and the cold wind came in. For a moment, Berlin was present in the room. Cora shut the window. It was quiet. How often I’d envisioned encountering her like this.

[…]

Days passed, Cora didn’t get in touch with me. Weeks passed, Cora hadn’t called me. A month passed, we hadn’t fucked each other (43,200 minutes). I thought she was trying to make something clear to me. I didn’t know what to do. I flinched every time the phone rang and leapt to it, in the hope that it could be Cora.

[…]

Baba’s days in East Berlin were also the days he always put on his gray suit and carried his old attaché case. “I don’t want to attract attention in the East,” he always said. But he did attract attention with his black hair and the mustache that he had back then. Baba ate breakfast in West Berlin, hugged Mama and said goodbye to us. A few streets away from our apartment, he crossed at Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. Baba didn’t need a visa because he had a Turkish passport in a black plastic jacket with a red crescent moon and star on it, that he always carried with him. He attended to his business, Rosa accompanying him. She was well-versed in the rules of the game of socialism. Then, after lunch, Baba probably explored the area between Rosa’s legs.

Baba moved in two systems, on two stages, like an actor who kept his costumes and props ready for two plays. That’s how Baba kept everything ready for performances in the East and West. Over the years he changed systems, his wardrobe, his bags, his women. It was daily routine for him and he had the security of the Wall. It stood there, and nothing could upset his life and his family in West Berlin.

 

Baba had two lives, two women, three sons in a city with two systems, two ideologies, two city halls, one language, one climate, and one wall. Ha—it couldn’t have been better. That’s how we all lived next to each other without knowing anything about the other. For decades. He’d devised it all beautifully neatly, Baba had. Only one catch—the Wall fell—it crumbled on Mama, Ediz, and me!

Why hadn’t Mama noticed anything? Mama, who set all her antennae and sensors on alert at the smallest molecule of suspicion. Nothing else escaped her. Had she suspected, but refused to believe it? Had she stifled it the whole time? I didn’t know; what I did know was that Mama would fight to the bitter end. With the exception of her diets, she was more consistent and obstinate than Baba could ever be. I resolved to tell Mama nothing about this visit. Eventually, she would find out, and I didn’t want to be there when it happened—not at all! She would let out such a scream that the Asian continent would crash into Europe and the earthquake of the millennium would shake Berlin to its foundations.

[…at a movie premiere’s after party in East Berlin…]

Wolf lit a new fat Havana for himself and looked up at the producer, who was a whole head taller than him.

“An interesting fellow, this Vladimir,” he laughed and patted the producer on the back. “Yes, now that that East is collapsing, everything that was hidden is flourishing again. Klezmer has tradition and roots, also in Berlin. And this deep passion, the dynamics of this music had class. You know, the project will be a hit! You’ll see,” explained Wolf and blew smoke rings at the ceiling. The producer sipped at his champagne glass and furrowed his brows.

“Berlin is the Paris of the East,” continued Wolf. “The Jews have always been part of Berlin, like the Brandenburg Gate and Prussia. So, I tell you, bring the new Jews together and make the new blockbuster! People’ll eat it right up!”

The producer said nothing; he seemed to consider what Wolf had said. Then he replied, “But still, there aren’t that many Jews, I mean, they haven’t done anything in Berlin the last forty years.” He was pleased with his own argument and smiled widely.

“Exactly for that reason,” Wolf countered. “What Hitler tried to wipe out, is now revived. A Jewish life in Berlin! They’re the salt in the soup, as they always were…” Wolf went back to blowing smoke rings at the ceiling, completely convinced of his idea. “They have a different consciousness. I’m telling you, this project will be a real hit!”

“Post-war Germany isn’t Jewish, it’s Turkish,” the producer stated and downed his champagne in one gulp. “Can’t you do a lot with that?”

Wolf objected, “That’s yesterday’s cake,” and waved his cigar around. Ash fell to the floor. “People don’t want to see ram-slaughtering fathers and vegetable-selling brothers anymore. The Jews set the trend now. Turks don’t integrate, no, they’re still too Anatolian in their heads. Besides, the Turkish theme’s already stale. No one gives a damn about it anymore. They remain at their döner kebab and clan level. I’m telling you, these Jews from Riga have pep, they think western.” And Wolf jammed the cigar back in his mouth. From a distance, it looked like a Duplo chocolate bar. […]

Wolf was still holding up the producer.

“What’s up?” Leyla asked and shook me, as if to wake me from a nightmare.

“Nothin’.”

“But you’re so pale—what’s eating you?”

“Wolf?”

She glanced quickly over at Wolf and rolled her eyes. “The Havana is thicker than his dick.” We looked quickly at his fly and snickered.

“Berlin is like a filled-in granite crater…Here, you have to dig first to get at the treasure,” explained Wolf. “Berlin—it was a metropolis, a world city, the gate to Eastern Europe. Shit, Berlin was always an international plaza, where Jews, Poles and Huguenots converged, pollinated each other…” While he talked, he made circles in the air with his hands, as if the pollination was about to take place right there.

“Berlin was always a magnet,” Wolf considered a moment, “like… like… New York, London and Paris!” he said euphorically.

Leyla turned to me, eyes wide. “Oh God,” she whispered. “He referred to Berlin in the same sentence as New York and London. If he would just stop overdoing it. It’s dripping with wannabes and ‘multiculturalism,’ what conceit!”

“Well, Lala, such conceit knows no bounds,” I said sharply.

“Ugh, Hansi, you and your sayings. If you’re already in film, go straight to advertising. The TV ads in this country put you to sleep.”

“That’s for sure!”

“You can really start to lose it, listening to him talk like that,” she fumed. “The current blend of Turks, Yugoslavs and Arabs is unwanted. Now that there aren’t any more Jews left, yeah, that’s when they want them back. The mix from the Golden Twenties…” she sneered and raised her eyebrows. I knew that once Leyla got started, she didn’t stop. “Every Berliner is a Moabite! He stirs the nostalgia-sauce of the Golden Twenties until it’s too thick. The whole thing only lasted seven, eight years, you know?” And she stared at me as if she was asking me to validate her thesis. I shrugged. Leyla knew her stuff; any history teacher would commend her. “Well, Hansi, what I mean is all the excitement about the Golden Twenties. It all started after World War I, so from 1921 to 1928, 1929? Yeah, and then what? The rest was fascism!”

[…]

The rain was subsiding. I hailed a taxi and Leyla got in. She blew me a goodbye kiss nonchalantly and headed home.

I loved Berlin after a rain and walked in the direction of Potsdamer Platz. The city lights reflected on the wet cobblestones and the streets had more space, more breadth. Everything was brighter, more vivid—the whole city gained a luster.

I lit a Gitanes, combed back my wet, bristly hair and felt sexy in my new suit. “I am a joker… a midnight talker… a Wall walker, da, da, dum,” I sang to myself and stuck my hands in my pockets, held the cigarette butt tight between my lips and sauntered down Unter den Linden.

Everything was really so easy, I thought. Because I didn’t want to commit myself, tie myself up or settle down. The nomad in me compelled me to new places, new cities, squares, and streets. I wanted to travel further west, to London, New York, San Francisco or to the east? To Tokyo, Tehran, Tashkent. Airports, train stations, hotel rooms. Not here, not there, always onward. Yeah, that’s what I wanted, hey, ho, let’s go!

I stood still on Potsdamer Platz, lit another Gitanes and looked up into the night sky. Above me, lights from cranes and construction sites, under me, the ruins from the World War. This city burrowed and swarmed in me, this shallow city that I loved and hated all at once.

I heard shots in the distance. They came from the direction of the Reichstag. And I knew: at this moment, they were ringing the Liberty Bell and raising the flag. And at midnight, two German states became one Germany again.

 

Yadé Kara: Selam Berlin
Copyright © 2004 Diogenes Verlag AG Zürich
All Rights Reserved

Excerpts translated from the German novel Selam Berlin.

About the Translator: Marisa Gies graduated in 2010 from the University of Michigan’s Residential College with a B.A. in German. She now divides her time between making a living, writing the blog Der Landstreicher, and practicing translation.

 

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