Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Reference text Arendt
|No Visit to Germany
Scenes of a Diasporic Vacationer’s Refusal
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai, 2011
Some people have strange hobbies. My Arab-Canadian cousin, for example, collects tourist handbooks for Berlin. He was inspired to do so by his first and only visit to our beautiful capital city, undertaken ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to grace the Arab-East-German branch of the family—notably me—with his presence. As a diasporic attorney with a discerning sense of history, he came well prepared; besides a profound animosity toward the achievements of German Leitkultur,  his baggage included a travel guide. Prompted by the instruction contained therein to avoid discussing historically fraught subjects with Germans whenever possible, as this might provoke emotional responses, a considerate Jewish colleague felt obliged to tell my cousin the German word for this kind of literature, wishing him luck with his Reise-Fjuhrer. 
My guest needed all the luck he could get, as he soon began displaying symptoms of a rapidly dwindling willingness to engage with the outside world. The neighborhood that had been my home since the Wall came down—a few blocks in a northern district of West Berlin inhabited mainly by folks of color and therefore branded a “social hotspot”—was excluded from my cousin’s withdrawal due to its hardheaded communal spirit. Beyond these safe boundaries, however, my cousin who, like any well-mannered human being, was not used to being permanently stared at, felt distressed by the pervasive gawking of white Germans. Of course this did not prevent him from getting the unspoken message: people like us “visibly” and thus “officially” lacked the right to be here. So I spared him long-winded explanations on the historical causalities of this blond, blue-eyed, racist continuum and familiarized him instead with the basic rules of eyeballing blitzkrieg: 1. Be aggressive! 2. Stare directly at your opponents until they lower their eyes! 3. Whatever happens, keep staring!
While my cousin valiantly practiced his newly acquired tactics for upholding territorial claims on the local public transportation network, I devoted myself to fulfilling his extravagant wish to explore the geography of the old East Berlin in a verifiable manner, on the basis of experience. Even conveying basic facts about the former German Democratic Republic proved impossible. Explaining the fundamentals of a socialist social order was more difficult than I had anticipated, and its remnants resembled eclectic messages offering no further insight. The last contiguous piece of the once-mighty Berlin Wall was stranded like an anachronistic shipwreck, abandoned in the landscape. Visiting Potsdamer Platz—once more a central urban hub in the reunited Berlin—one could at best marvel at the manifestations of architectural megalomania, but could not grasp the concrete finality of a border that once enclosed this immense area, just a few hundred yards from where I lived at the time. Places that had been the stage for unnoticed everyday routines of people of color in the former East had deteriorated beyond recognition and were now located in neighborhoods where folks like us were well advised to remain safely inside the car while sightseeing.
The impossibility of touring a place which, in the course of one brief decade, had more or less dematerialized gave me cause for serious philosophico-existential anxiety. My cousin, trying his best to alter my disposition, reminded me that I surely was not the only hyphenated German sitting on a pile of unauthenticated memories, but this only confirmed my sense of having become frighteningly unreal. I felt like an inhabitant of a noisy ghost town where anything not tightly anchored in a historically secured harbor was regularly cast into the depths of gigantic pits in order to be pulverized, covered in concrete, and buried with nihilistic thoroughness under tons of dirt. No wonder, in the face of such zeal for construction, that Jewish-German author Heinz Knobloch felt the need to declare, “Beware of public parks!”
Although my cousin’s comment on this serial pattern of bustling, epoch-making clearances was not as witty (based as it was on an association with the German need for Lebensraum) he did want to sound out its discursive dimension, to which end he turned first to his trusted Reise-Fjuhrer. The history of the city it described, a place that had defied centuries of adversity to become the epicenter of a modern nation, was presented in a marvelously transparent way, freed from the obnoxious intrusions of grumblers and spoilsports. German-Jewish history remained bound up with the Enlightenment and National Socialism; the history of Sinti and Roma, Black Germans, and migrants did not appear at all in this narrative; and in light of our accommodatingly broad search criteria, these were only the most glaringly obvious omissions. For all his understanding of the market-oriented premises of tourist guidebooks, this prompted my cousin to ask the logical question: who was actually awaiting a visit from whom here?
Since then, my cousin has amassed a sizeable collection of Berlin guidebooks, causing his desire to actually visit to converge toward zero. But thanks to his anthropological fascination with this medium of national self-portrayal and its efforts to present an unblemished face to the outside world, he was inspired to formulate a model theory, according to which the historiography found in German travel guides is based on the ideological principles of Star Trek. Particularly instructive—as he recently explained with the precise logic of a Vulcan—is their creative use of the Prime Directive, an intergalactic form of participant observation that stipulates strict non-involvement in the internal development of alien civilizations. Any attempt to apply this ethnographic method to the earthlings of Germany, however, would call for mastery of the constant reformulation and retrospective harmonization of a leveling historical consensus, a process inevitably involving various delays in articulation. Take for example the normalizing obsession of the Berlin Republic, whose “Germans-are-a-people-like-any-other” mantra could only attain the status of brutally schmaltzy commonsense once Germany’s past had been thoroughly cleansed of controversy. Therefore, my cousin informed me, he is curious to see how the current racist debate on people with a so-called immigrant background and on their so-called integration will enter this fantasy universe of travel-guide-style distortions of history. Given Germany’s wealth of experience with tackling and taming the past, one could certainly expect an efficient solution to this thorny problem. My cousin wondered if there was a German word for the violent potential intrinsic in this particular mode of dis-membering. Here at last was a question I could answer, and since then, he has been practicing this tongue twister: Schlussstrich. 
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai is a historian and cultural theorist living in Berlin.
Edited by Jo Schmeiser & Vlatka Frketić
Translated from the German by Lisa Rosenblatt & Alexander G. Weheliye, copyedited by Nicholas Grindell, proofreading by Harold Otto
This text was published on September 15, 2011, in the German weekly newspaper der Freitag.
1) Leitkultur—leading culture—is a fallacious political term to conceptualize a white German mainstream and its claims of cultural superiority. For the discursive context see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L...
2) The German word for travel guide is “Reiseführer”. The term “Fjuhrer” looks like Yiddish and emphasizes the “Führer” part of the word.
3) “Bottom line” or “final stroke”—achieving closure or putting an end to something by drawing a line under it—is used in German to describe the desire within society to end the discussion on Nazism and the genocides perpetrated under its rule by eradicating all undesirable traces from the architectural edifice of national and individual memory in order to “move on.” In this essay, the term is used in a broader sense.