Neighbors / Beirut Street is four U-bahn stops from Alexanderplatz
The Germans tend to see them all as Muslims, while these Arab immigrants often shield their true identities.
"Why not call it the Cafe Beirut?" I asked over the smoke clouds drifting from Jamal's nargilah. Jamal, the cafe's owner, answered at length.
The journey began two days before on the banks of the Bad Sarrow lake, an hour's walking distance from Berlin. Several efficiently managed, convenient guest houses, paved with small, yellow stones, have been renovated along the banks of the lake, where the former leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, regularly vacationed.
Two weeks ago, the Minerva Center for Youth Studies and the Shimon Dubnov Center in Leipzig held a seminar in one of these guest houses, the Esplanade Hotel, to examine the Arab perception of the Holocaust, and the Israeli perception of the Nakba (the "catastrophe" - the Palestinians' term for what happened to them after 1948). With extreme caution, I might add that there was no intention of comparing these two events - the goal of the seminar was only to examine the way that each side constructs its perception of the "other." The comfortable, even pleasant, location was chosen by seminar organizers, including Omar Kamel, a young, Egyptian intellectual whose doctoral thesis examined "The Holocaust in the Eyes of Arabs."
Kamel asked me to join him early in the seminar, and finally to walk with him to "Beirut Street" in Central Berlin. Kamel knows the residents of Beirut Street well. When he was still new in Berlin, he assisted many residents of the street, who had come to the city to escape tragedies in their native lands. "There were times when every Arab would declare himself to be Lebanese, because this identity assured that he would, at least, be granted sheltered residence, if not political asylum. Later, every Arab who came to Berlin announced that he was from Iraq, because Iraq became the abandoned land of choice."
All the residents are refugees, and most do not know what the Nakba is, because each of them suffered a personal catastrophe, albeit of a smaller extent than the Palestinian event. They discarded passports when they arrived, in fear that German authorities would deny their eligibility for asylum if their true lands of origin were discovered. Kamel would write petitions to the government, in German, on their behalf. He introduced them to German culture, educating them as to how to conduct themselves with their hosts.
Gradually, they gathered in miserable apartment houses, begging to be renovated, in Hermannplatz, four U-bahn underground stops from Alexanderplatz. Jamal, a Lebanese Muslim from Beirut, who is now a German refugee, came here, too. He did not flee from war, he stresses, but from "people that can't be trusted, con artists and thieves - people whose word is meaningless."
He worked in the Persian Gulf for several years, earned some money, and emigrated to Germany. He decided to open a cafe on Sonnenallee, a long street shaded by venerable linden trees. He called it "Cafe Umm Kulthum," a name arousing curiosity. "This is where I make a living - not where I preserve my national identity," he explains, and a Pan-Arab name is an advantage when it comes to earning money. "`Cafe Beirut' would automatically associate me with the particular country, nationality, and culture that I escaped. `Umm Kulthum,' on the other hand, is a name that every Arab knows. Every German knows who the great singer was, and I don't have to explain. Moreover, a name like `Cafe Beirut' would give customers the impression that we only serve Lebanese clientele, and might distance every non-Lebanese Arab from the cafe."
Jamal's business prospered, and he later opened a restaurant, also called, Umm Kulthum. His wife opened a sewing, ironing, and mending business, which also bears the name of Egypt's national singer.
Jamal is a large man, with a smile suggesting a generous heart. "Now, I am content. The children are sorted out. Some of them study, and some work in the business with me. It's just too bad about the grandchildren." There are 13 grandchildren, who, according to him, "are already Germans. Their Arabic is broken, and they know nothing of their heritage. They have only now begun to learn a bit of Arabic in school, but they speak like Germans - not like Arabs. In a few more years, no one will know that they are Arabs."
It is possible that the hundreds of Arabs, and their families, who leisurely strolled through Sonnenallee on that same Sunday, when Berlin was blessed with lovely weather, did not see Jamal's grandchildren as Arabs. But these children will continue to concern Germans, even if their German is flawless. As part of the 3.5 million Muslims, who now reside in Germany, they are considered a cultural, security and economic threat. Most of them are Turks, who arrived in Germany as temporary, foreign workers, who have also begun to issue warnings. "In the eyes of Germans, everyone is Muslim," a German friend says. "They do not differentiate between a Muslim Arab, a Bedouin, a Turk or a Lebanese Arab."
Jamal knows that. He notes that when he arrived in Germany, he was warned to avoid living in neighborhoods where skinheads are active. Even now, he infrequently leaves the boundaries of Sonnenallee, neither to see a movie, attend a concert or to go to a restaurant in the "good parts" of Berlin. "Why invite trouble if I am happy here?" he ponders. Now he feels threatened - by the Germans.
Little Beirut offers him and his children everything he needs, he assures us; he is not a refugee and has not been deported - he just wants to be an accepted immigrant. A few stores from Umm Kulthum, next to a shwarma stand, a store that sells Middle Eastern trinkets, and stalls opened by new arrivals peddling cheap toys, stands the "Palestinian Felafel Center." We pass several felafel eateries along the way, but Kamel prefers this one. "It has the most authentic taste," and the most authentic window-dressing: A blackened frying pan, round bowls of hummus, white, oblong plates to hold the felafel, abundant parsley, thin pita, olives, pickles, and unsurpassed acrobatics.
This store belongs to the second generation. The owner no longer works here. Salaried, Palestinian employees serve the Arab clientele. Only the prices are in German, and they are determined by the number of plates that the customer receives. Each plate costs three euros, or, "three euro," in the language of the staff. They also hope to save enough "euro" in the next few years to employ the next generation of immigrants.
Jamal does not mind that we brought our plates of hummus and felafel from "the Palestinian" into his cafe, in an effort to benefit from both worlds: Palestinian hummus with a Lebanese narghile, and, of course, coffee to finish the meal. Coffee? Jamal poured our coffee from a copper pot into the same diminutive, white cups featured in all Arab restaurants. But here lies the real tragedy: Jamal's coffee is German coffee, made with milk - a real crime.
With this coffee, and mainly because of this coffee, we recalled riveting conversations in Bad Sarrow about the right of return and the Nakba, the Holocaust and the universal, German sin. Conversations in which Palestinian author and critic Ahmed Harav read a moving description of his memories of the Nakba, and a professor of political science from Bir Zeit University asked that no one disturb his wistful memories of childhood in Caesaria. "I feel comfortable with those memories. Those are my provinces. I have no need for a right of return or another state," he said.
He has pleasant memories of the period before his family was expelled, and now he wants to continue living his life, as does Kamal, on Beirut Street. At most, Umm Kulthum, and maybe, in a few years, Cafe Goethe.