Opinion

For a Model of Jewish-Arab Coexistence, Look No Further Than a Primark Fitting Room

Primark in Berlin might feel like hell on Earth – but it's where Jews and Arabs put their difference aside in pursuit of cheap stuff

Shoppers carry Primark bags.
\ Toby Melville/ REUTERS

During the interim days of Passover, I found myself standing outside the Primark branch in Alexanderplatz in Berlin, sent there by my partner against my will. My mission: to buy summer clothes for our son. I told her I wasn’t cut out for it and refused to go inside. She yelled at me over the phone from her comfortable perch in Tel Aviv: “You’re a typical man.”

“And you’re a typical woman,” I retorted. She said the kid had nothing to wear. I told her he could go around naked as far as I was concerned. She threatened diplomatic sanctions. I pleaded with her – “I’ll die in there.” “You won’t die. You’ll be fine.” Finally, she left me no choice: “I’m not negotiating with you. Go in there. Now!" I went in.

The Alexanderplatz branch of Primark is the embodiment of hell on earth. Walk through the door and a gaping hole opens up in the earth and sucks you into a deep dark pit, into a seething mass of brute capitalism and bad taste. And once it sucks you in, you can’t get out.

It’s a parallel universe. Another planet. People shed their self-respect there. They forget that they’re human and become consumers in every fiber of their being. They act like they’ve never seen clothes before. Their eyes bulge, their tongues hang out, their hands begin to shake and their palms sweat. It feels like Judgment Day. Like the scenes from Black Friday in America, when mobs burst through the doors of shops and pounce on the merchandise, trampling and pushing and yelling and writhing on the floor in sheer ecstasy at the prospect of buying cheap stuff. Any stuff. Doesn’t matter what. The point is to buy. There is no love in their hearts. Only the imperative: Buy, buy, buy! The price tags say two euros, three euros, four euros. That’s nothing!!! Nothing!!

At Primark, every day is Black Friday. The store is always packed with customers. Thousands of feet continuously race across the floor, neurotically zinging from one stand to the next. Where are they all rushing to? Is the store about to run out of clothes? Everyone is holding enormous cloth shopping bags supplied by the store. If the bags can’t hold everything, you can take a wheelbarrow. If that won’t do it, they’ll get you a semitrailer. Whatever you want. The shoppers fear the moment they’ll have to leave the dim confines of Primark and exit into the light of day, back into the real world. If they could, they’d stay here forever. Endlessly going up and down the escalators. At Primark, they desire and are desired. What does the outside world have to offer? If there is a heaven, it’s in the hell of Primark.

Clothes by the kilo

The Primark in Alexanderplatz is the most Israeli place on earth outside of Israel, or maybe even more Israeli than Israel itself. A three-story department store that encapsulates all we know or think we know about ourselves. And I’ve been to the Carmel Market on a Friday, to Eilat at the height of the tourist season, to the Gymboree at the mall, on an Israel Railroads train on Thursday afternoon, to basic training at the Nitzanim army base. You don’t find such forthright, unapologetic and aggressive Israeliness even in military operations in Gaza.

At Primark, all the Israeli despair comes out. Those malignant feelings of provincial inferiority. The desire to be there and not here, to make a lot of money, to seize an opportunity, to be like everyone else. Israelis stream to Primark in droves because of the low prices, but also because of the Divine promise: Cheap clothes for the Chosen People. Jews will not settle for less. At Primark they see the light. If the Third Temple is ever built, it will be at Primark.

The two predominant languages at Primark are Hebrew and Arabic, and there’s no problem with that. Not in the least. Just try to tell the difference there between the Israelis and the Jordanians and the Palestinians and the Egyptians and the Arabs from the Gulf. They all look the same. We are all brothers in the fitting rooms.

People get lost. “Has anyone seen Shaked?” “Sapir, where are you?” “Yevgeny, how’s it going?” “Mohammed, Mohammed, where did you go?” Inside Primark, Jews and Arabs help one another – saving spots in line for the cash register, trading clothes with sizes that will fit the kids better. Women in hijabs asking for help in the lingerie department from heavily made-up Israeli women; and everyone contributing to the Mediterranean noise. A regional idyll. Outside, two Israeli men stand and smoke. One tips some ash onto the floor and says, “Wow, this place is full of Arabs.”

Then the Israelis head off to have some hummus at Bahandunes on Oranienburger Strasse or for an intercontinental breakfast at Benedict in the Ku’damm district. The notion of Berlin as a stronghold of radical leftists and eccentric intellectuals is so passé. Berlin has been taken over by Israelis of all stripes. It’s no longer just a magnet for the elites. Wherever you go, you hear the Hebrew of people who were trying to make a better life for themselves. Can anyone really blame them?

I asked my partner what to get. Socks? Underwear? T-shirts? Everything, she said. Everything? “Bring two or three kilos of clothes.” “What? I can’t hear you. Can you repeat that?” There’s no cellular reception on the lower level of Primark. How convenient: That way, you can’t call for help; you’re abandoned to your fate. “Fill up a bag,” were her last words, before the call was completely cut off. “But what size is he? Hello? Hello?”

So I threw myself into the throng and pounced on every ugly Sponge Bob T-shirt and 100-percent polyester pair of fluorescent yellow and green socks I could get my hands on. I can’t be bothered caring about what looks nice and what doesn’t. The choices are totally arbitrary. Primark is like a soup kitchen. You don’t come here to keep up with the latest fashion trends. Here you buy clothes by the kilo and not by what Anna Wintour suggests. People with precise aesthetic preferences wouldn’t dare show their faces in this place. It’s not a store for snobs, and I mistakenly considered myself a snob. But I have a kid and he needs cheap clothes because he’s going to get them stained with ketchup, mud and blood anyway. Who cares about fashion? And here’s another open secret: The junk they sell at Primark is the same junk they sell everywhere else. Shoddy merchandise manufactured by exploited laborers in the developing world. Yet more depressing proof of the spreading mediocrity and standardization of global tastes. But for my son’s sake, I’m willing to go along with injustices of this kind.

When I finally emerged, I called home and proudly told my partner: mission accomplished. Then she asked, “What size are the clothes?” And I said, “For age 3-4.” “You idiot,” she snarled. “He’s little. He needs size 2-3. Go back in there right now and exchange everything.” I believe that’s when I passed out at the front door.