At the end of the small hours, the rising wind of the past, of broken faith, of an undefined duty slipping away … and those other small hours, the early morning of Europe …Aimé Césaire
Notebook on a Return to the Native Land
I say my name in English. My grandmother’s pronunciation evades my tongue. As does the name of my father. I leave this land, its languages spoken, written, silenced; this English, my step-mother tongue, to return to my grandmother’s land, to the languages that scorned her, the laws that stripped her of citizenship, which said she was a louse, a virus. I return. To begin working on a new film that I imagine as a scattering of meditations addressed to her.
An Emirates flight to Frankfurt. From Dubai I watch The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society about the power of books, of reading as a way to escape the German Occupation of the island. Books are dangerous; ideas cunning. They leak and spread and overtake. A bit like viruses and lice. But not.
I have a copy of Tom Segev’s book, 1949 The First Israelis in the seat pouch in front of me. It’s dedicated to his mother who fled National Socialism in Germany to pre-war Palestine. A different implication. I am tied to there too. His dedication, “In memory of my mother. She came to Palestine as a refugee from Nazi Germany, but just like many of the first Israelis never learned Hebrew properly and could not read this book until it came out in English”. The messiness of history.
Decembers in Frankfurt are less treacherous than in Berlin. The Main river is grim and fast flowing. Leaves departed from the ancient birches and elms swirl in mini eddies that erupt furiously and without warning. I look onto Leverkuser Strasse from inside UM’s cosy apartment in Hoechst. Her kitchen. A medicine space. She speaks about the political moment. Antisemitism and anti-migrant racism have seeped into the mainstream. Many aspects of the left’s critique of neoliberalism have converged with insurgent right populism. The film could be an important intervention.
I am not sure what the film is. What it will be. Which experiences and reflections it will bring together. I know and I do not know what I am doing here, what I am looking for.
On Saturday morning we go to the Hochster market. The fresh produce market has been operating without interruption almost since 1300. We ponder the meaning of this. Trade, commerce, domestic needs, life-saving gossip all transacted, openly or hidden, over vegetables and cheese and fresh bread despite war, despite epochal shifts, despite emperors’ decrees.
We pack the car with our market-bought tomatoes, strong goat’s cheese, warm bread and a bottle of apple fire-water, a local Calvados, and set off to Lich, near Hungen to meet BJ, my friend and cinematographer at Traumkino. The Dream Cinema. Cinema as a dream space. A film poster for Ex Libris, about the New York Public Library, is pinned on the door. I think of Ex Libris, Emily Jacir’s exhibition commemorating some thirty thousand books looted from Palestinian homes and libraries in the 1948 war for Palestine. We find BJ, but the cinema café is closed. We order double espressos at the Akropolis restaurant nearby and dive straight into a conversation on the blindspots of Euro American anti-imperialism. Our comfort zone. For all three of us, political discussion is an easy place to be, to set off from together. Politics is a springboard. A gathering space before we explore more challenging matters for which there are no foregone conclusions, which says something about our concept of politics. We begin discussing the film we want to make together but we must leave Lich to meet CL, a member of the spurensuche, “searching for traces group”, which for the past 25 years has researched, published and archived the histories of Hungen’s missing Jewish citizens. One of the organisers of a stolpersteine ceremony planned for the following year, CL will welcome us in Hungen behind the Sparkasse at the agreed time. We park in the parking lot behind the bank, next to the castle. The castle. In my grandmother’s town. My duties undefined.
Introductions. CL welcomes us with sincerity and warmth, and we follow her into the open square inside the castle walls. Professor AH and RH established the castle collective in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the 1968 student uprisings. Professor H is a professor of Catholic Theology and child of German IDP’s from “the East”. R is a social worker, an anarchist and activist who, over decades has provided refuge and home to many social outsiders and new arrivals in Germany from Turkey, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Syria. The couple were given a portion of the castle, once part of the duke of Braunfels’s estate, by the church. They were shaped by the generation of ’68, the struggles of a generation that confronted the silence of their parents, the obfuscations and refusals and omissions of a society grappling with its guilt. The H’s dreamed of creating a commune. A community of artists, intellectuals, dreamers inside the strange compact sprawl of the castle. An Island, CL calls it. An island in the middle of a little provincial town near Frankfurt. It’s a little stultifying in town and there is a whiff of potential nastiness in the air. My projection. A repressive smallness that imposes uniformity, conformity on citizens. My projection? In these small hours.
In the small hours, I learn that Hungen has long been a voting stronghold for both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. In the municipal elections of October 2018, however, the AFD, the new parliamentary right wing party, won 15% of the town’s votes. A huge increase in its support base. At the same time, and not to be overlooked, is the 15% gain that the Green party has also won. Its is an unambiguously anti-racist platform.
Professor E, a giant of an intellect and of a man, CL, Professor AH and RH and around forty other families live in the castle community. Centuries ago, the Hungen schloss was a minor castle adjacent to the seat of the duke at Braunfels where the widows and maidens and virgins and spinsters were sequestered. Women apart. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was the residence to hundreds of Turkish “guest workers”. Now this bohemian utopia with grounds and a park has starlights shimmering at night from many windows. I wonder how the townspeople feel about those living in the castle.
In 2018 German asylum laws followed the “Dublin 3” policy. This means that the first country of arrival in the European Union (which means the first country in which you are fingerprinted) is the country to which you are deported if you have lived in Germany for under 18 months (it used to be 6 months) and, for some reason, have been raided by the police within the 18 month window of arrival. After 18 months, your continued presence and residence in one address which must be known to the authorities, and can be raided at any time, allows you to remain. Only then, the “Dublin 3” policy falls away.
CL works with two “refugee” families to whom she teaches German in preparation for their exams. She says she is close to them. One is a 26 year old man from Eritrea who is married now and has a three month old baby. He was in prison in Eritrea. He was in prison in Sudan. He was in prison in Libya. He was raided in Germany and imprisoned. Under the Dublin 3 policy he was deported to Italy, Salvini’s Italy. The first EU country in which he arrived and “registered”. He escaped and returned to Germany. Now he is trying to stay in Germany to avoid deportation to Italy again in the hope of applying for asylum. His status is the least secure of the three people that make his small family. The rising wind of the past, broken faith.
Normality 8, 1999: On the night of February 13, 1999, the Algerian asylum seeker Farid Guendoul dies in Guben while fleeing from a mob of right-wing youths, having critically injured himself while kicking in a glass door. Eleven suspects face trial. A memorial stone and plaque erected in commemoration of his death is repeatedly and severely vandalised – also by some of the suspects. The graves in the Jewish cemetery in Guben are also repeatedly desecrated by right-wing sympathizers.(Because I Live Here, museum catalogue excerpt on Hito Steyerl’s video installation, “Normality”, 2018/2019)
The second family is from Syria. A, I don’t recall his surname, is a medical doctor. He arrived first. His wife spent more than a year trying to reach Germany through Turkey and Lebanon. She was unsuccessful. In that year of her attempts to reach her husband in Germany, and during her ill-fated attempts, their baby became ill and died. She finally reached Hungen alone to be with her husband. They have a baby girl.
CL says she used to have a Syrian friend who has now returned to Damascus. She would feel comfortable introducing her to me because her friend came to “understand German Jewish History” and that “Israel is not the enemy” as she had been taught in Syria.
Good Arabs. Good Jews. Good Germans. No one mentions Good Blacks. They do not exist. The Frankfurt Sufferhead beer brewed by Emeka Ogboh for her art installation links German purity laws for beer (“Reinheitsgebot”) with the existence of Black Germans.
Good Arabs. Good Jews. Good Germans. No Blacks. Not just a discourse of the media and political establishment. Public spaces have been marked to commemorate and trace Jewish presence before the Third Reich. Barely any traces exist in Frankfurt acknowledging Black German presence before or after the Reich.
Der “Heilige Krieg” der Eugeniker, 2002 by Armin Trus. “Vom Leid erloesen”:Zur Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen “Euthenasie”-Verbrechen, 2013 and Die “Reinigung des Volkskorpers”: Eugenik und “Euthenasie” im Nationalsozialismus, 2019. AT. Teacher. Historian. Member of the spurensuche group. Are there other ways to integrate spaces and sites of racism into the framing of his annual excursions to Auschwitz with students from the Hungen high school? AT asks. Fewer and fewer students are signing up to join his educational tours to the camp in Poland. AT sees a line that runs from eugenics to the liberal democratic state. As did Adorno in his essay, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past”. At the Hungen spurensuche meeting on 10 December 2018, members discuss the stolpersteine ceremony, which will include laying stolpersteine, stumbling stones for my grandmother’s family, outside their house at 16 Giessener Strasse.
I roll the sound of
the ess ess
around my tongue
like a smooth hard pebble.
A stone. Atone.
Hungen is honoured to welcome me. Not to welcome me back. There is no inking into language the ache of a belated invitation to return. The return of the afterborns, which is to say not a return. I receive the official invitation letter for the stolpersteine ceremony from Hungen’s mayor, in a postmarked enveloped, stamped, “Hungen schäferstadt” and “Deutsche post” in my letterbox at home in Cape Town.
The postmarked letter arrives two generations too late. Seventy years too late. Did my grandparents live with a sense of being always too late? Along with a sense of being just in time? Leaving “just in time”. I wonder if that disjointed sense of time is passed along from one generation to the next, along with the unspeakable things, like the encrypted secrets of Reality of which Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok write in The Shell and the Kernel. Are the unspeakable things passed along, with the unthinkable ones, until they arise in the body’s dis-ease, or in the generational figure who metabolises the secrets, or in the parent’s anxiety to not celebrate anything beyond shared tears and l’chaim to avoid attention, to avoid visibility which is always dangerous.
The invisibility that comes with living in the cracks is a tactic to live beyond. Survivre.
The stolpersteine ceremony will take place after Pesach in April 2019. Hungen will be honoured to welcome me. For now, the spurensuche group discuss the media and press statement. Who will write it? Who will develop the family biographies? Who will check the correct dates of birth and death on the stolpersteine? CL asks me if I can confirm my family’s death dates. I can confirm that my grandparents never received letters from either Buchenwald, Terezenstadt or Auschwitz to inform them of the dates of their families’ imprisonment in the camps, or of their murder.
At the Hungen town archives, Herr EE, the former town archivist and founder of the spurensuche archives, Hungen’s visual archive, and driver behind creating the new archive building, shows me the municipal register. In my backpack, I carry a copy of Heinrich Heine’s poetry translated into Hebrew.
Heine in Hebrew is a gift from EE all the way from Tel Aviv. To be a Jew after Auschwitz you must either be an Israeli. Or love Israel. Or be dead. Punkt.
In the municipal register, I read that on the 16th of May, 1944, my grandmother’s mother, father and grandmother were deported to Auschwitz and sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival. On the 17th of May, 1944, my father was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. No letter arrived from Auschwitz. I have not told my father.
BJ and I drive from Hungen to Berlin discussing Iranian politics. Noisy thoughts derail my attempts to commit to memory morsels of my conversations with EE, CL, the radical RH, with the wise and earnest epicurean, Professor E who will not be present at the stolpersteine ceremony after a fall down the steps of the castle cellar to retrieve a bottle of wine will take him into a coma in Giessen hospital’s intensive care. He will not recover.
We return our film gear to an indie gear hiring outfit in Berlin and then head to the apartment in Neukölln to meet SD, cook, eat, drink wine, dump footage, review footage, talk film: cinema verité, le Joli Moi de Mai and the opening sequence with church bells which reminds BJ of the church bells ringing out daily beside Hungen’s castle, awaking us to other gods. Chronique d’un Ete, direct cinema, Sans Soleil, Letter from Siberia, Dimanche à Peking, Un Regard Neuf à l’Olympia ’52. BJ’s exegeses draw from his Masters research on Chris Marker and Patricio Guzman. Rancière’s On the Shores of Politics should guide me, he opines, to address why neither complicity, nor compassion, nor anger are sufficient foundations for a politics in my film. Recalling my interview with CL who described how the USA was a heroic country for her for saving them from National Socialism, followed by her acute sense of being betrayed by the USA with the Vietnam War, BJ suggests viewing Marker’s eleven episode film collaboration, Loin de Vietnam. He stops and rewinds at a scene in the episode by Alain Resnais on “bad conscience”.
For the racist right in Germany, and perhaps in Europe more widely, Jews, Arabs, Blacks, foreigners, migrants, refugees are all part of the same “problem”. In mainstream German discourse, however, these figures are hierarchically distributed, and held apart by a kind of narrative apartheid. Even the term “racism” seems to be reserved for discussions on antisemitism.
In Berlin, I walk the route from Neukölln to IH’s psychoanalytic practice, a ten minutes brisk stroll to the right down Karl Marx Allee. We meet at a café nearby for soup and bread. An Israeli psychoanalyst and activist, IH is involved with Juedische Stimme (Jewish Voices), a Jewish group that advocates for Palestinian equality and human rights. The group’s members are made up almost entirely of Israelis in self-imposed exile and of descendants of Shoah survivors. The German bank that houses Jewish Voices’ bank account has closed their account, blocking the group from financial transactions. The group transgresses their moral values and principles. Jewish Voices, the bank claims, is anti-Semitic for criticising Israeli repression of Palestinians and for holding Palestinian human rights dear.
The federal government has brought in a professor who is an expert on antisemitism to adjudicate the matter. The professor is not Jewish. The professor is a German expert on Jew-hating. The professor professes that these deviant Israeli Jews and ungrateful offspring of concentration camp survivors are Bad Jews. Bad Jews make Germany and its close friend, Israel, look bad, very bad which is bad. Bad Jews in the language that scorns them, in the language that scorned my grandmother.
When I return to S and B’s, we go downtown to buy an external hard drive to transfer the film files. Then, in the cold half-light, we walk to the stone memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on the Landswehr canal. We place red roses on Rosa’s name. Red roses for red Rosa.
My grandmother’s house on Giessener Strasse carries an air of abandonment, abjection. Devoid of love or homeliness. The castle, and the commune of people who have made their lives there, is a space for a utopian experiment outside of the smallness of a provincial, semi-rural town. As a topos, the castle perhaps has always been a marginal space. A cloister for widows and virgins when the dukes rule from Braunfels castle. When Turkish workers were housed there in the 60s and 70s, a vast labour force whose work contributed to the rebuilding of a partitioned, post War West Germany. When the church sold the castle to AH and RH for a token, they not only set about creating a communal site where artists, writers and musicians could live, dream, create and visit. They also dreamed of a space where the most vulnerable and marginalised in German society might find refuge. A sanctuary to find ground, breathe, recover, reach some kind of internal equilibrium in order to more purposefully find their way in a society governed by the biopolitics of “normality”.
CL and the spurensuche group desire the verified and correct co-ordinates of life, birth, flight and death as these bear on the life of the families up to the 1930s and who will be commemorated at the stolpersteine ceremony. These co-ordinates map my grandmother’s family for Hungen. It is not my family though sometimes the spurensuche’s version of my family and my own converge. It is a family whose lives were truncated and are immured in a frame of life that ends by the 1940s for the spurensuche group. For me, it is a family whose life, ruptured and broken, continues across the abyss of the 1940s. My existence is testimony.
I am introduced as Emmi’s granddaughter, the one who emigrated to South Africa. I persistently interrupt to say,
“My grandmother fled, she didn’t emigrate. She was a refugee. She was denaturalised”.
I think that applies to her siblings, not to her. I still haven’t investigated enough to support the claim. Yet it irritates me that my dead family, killed at Auschwitz are the victims, but their children who fled and then tried and failed to save their parents and grandparents are spoken of as immigrants who chose to move to other countries. The feeling is stronger than irritation. It’s outrage.
UJ translates for me. For my name in English. My tongue from South Africa. From a land which has no stolerpsteine. My step-mother tongue that is a language of conquest and enslavement, of dispossession and erasure. An imperious tongue in a land which, should there ever be stolpersteine, would be paved with brass plaques from sea to desert, from rivers to mountains and everything in between. Paved with names. Paved with no names. Before my next return, winds of these pasts scatter words across my screen. DP sends me her writing on this port city, Cape Town, reflections on memory and slavery, and her sketch of “The water-carrier of Sarajevo”.
All the civility and kindness, all the politeness and non-curiosity about my grandmother’s life in apartheid South Africa, of all places, after she had fled Germany, after she had failed to secure passage out of Germany for her parents, incenses me. I am ungrateful. There is nothing “normal” about the predicaments of refugees. Hito Steyerl’s video works from her series on “Normality” at the exhibition, “Because I Live Here” creeps into my thoughts. My conceptual apprehension shuts down. I am exhausted by the intensity of thought and feeling that each moment demands. I wonder if the stolpersteine are a measurement, standardisation, and uniformity of commemoration that emerges from the same biopolitical paradigm of registration, enumeration which sent my grandmother’s family and millions of others to the concentration camps in the first place. I should not think these thoughts, I think.
When I return to stay in the apartment in the castle in Hungen the following April for the stolpersteine ceremony, I will hide my passport under the mattress -something I’ve never done before in my life, forget that I hid it and return to Frankfurt without my passport. Days later, when I will discover that I’d forgotten my passport under the mattress in Hungen, UM and MK will drive me back to Hungen to find it and we will listen to a news announcement on the radio that a live bomb from WWII was uncovered during a construction development in downtown Frankfurt and residents within a five kilometre radius of the bomb have been evacuated.
Soon after the stolpersteine ceremony, the governor of Kassel in Hessen, Walter Leubke, will be murdered in Kassel by a right wing activist for advocating a progressive policy towards migrants and refugees in Germany. The extreme right network, Combat 18 has been implicated.
The National Socialist Underground (NSU) complex following two decades of right extremist racist killings across Germany killed Halit Yozgat in 2006, also in Kassel. Hessen Province, my grandmother’s birthland, shatters the myth that right wing violence is a problem of the areas of former East Germany. Eyal Weitzman’s Forensic Architecture group has been involved in developing the evidential forums for the tribunal investigating the operations of the NSU complex networks across Germany. They will not leave any of us alone. Blacks, Arabs, Jews, Roma, Sinti. Others. Others others.
To leave.(Aimé Césaire)
As there are hyena-men and panther-men,
So shall I be a Jew man
A Kaffir man
A Hindu-from-Calcutta man
A man-from-Harlem-who-hasn’t-got-the-vote –
German intelligence services are said to be filled with right wing operatives who tip off the networks to evade detection. In the last years, there has been a 60% increase in the number of extreme right arms caches uncovered. It is said the right seeks a civil war. Christine Lambrecht, the minister of justice has called for government action and the monitoring of right wing online chatrooms in which the 2019 murder in Kassel of the governor in Hessen Province was also proposed. As I write this, I receive news of multiple murders in two shisha bars in Hanau, in Hessen province, by an extreme right militant.
Living in the small apartment in the Hungen Castle compresses my emotional landscape. BJ says that many German people feel hatred towards being German. He speculates that the Red Army Faction’s many sympathisers and supporters perhaps identified more with the group’s hatred of all things German than with their anti-capitalist ideology. I doze on the couch in the soupy winter light. I am travelling in an empty train carriage through an endless forest repeating the name, Hito Steyerl, Hito Steyerl, Hito Steyerl, rolling it on my tongue.
That night, I dream that I’ve arranged to meet genocide and memory scholar, Michael Rothberg at a post conference dinner hosted by the Centre for Humanities Research at a huge warehouse in Germany. My mother and father accompany me. I feel constrained by their presence. They want to interact with conference attendees as if we were at a barmitzvah or wedding. I am embarrassed. This betrays the extent of my efforts to appear professional and composed. To appear as if I belong. But I arrive too late and miss Michael Rothberg who is leaving. He is sitting inside a huge bus draped with flashing coloured lights across its roof and around its windows. I run after the bus yelling at his window, “I’ll call you! Let’s speak”. Rothberg nods and makes phoning gestures.
“Racism is not an opinion”. “Being a refugee is not a crime”. Slogans at protest demos in Germany. In these small hours.
My father will not accompany me to Hungen to the stolpersteine ceremonyin April 2019. It will overcome his heart. He will die. He fears. But my father’s older brother travels from Canada to Hungen for the stolpersteine ceremony. My father’s second job was as a cinematographer for Killarney Film Studios in Johannesburg. He went on to become a photographer experimenting with sepia and black and white prints. His brother works in colour photography. He participates in the stolpersteine ceremony as Emmi’s son, camera on hand. In hand. He photographs the event. The evasive presence of photographers.
The ceremony begins early in the morning in the square behind the municipality. Town officials, the mayor, the spurensuche members. Herr EE does not attend. He has already told me of his refusal to accept the stumbling stones as an appropriate method of memorialisation with names of the remembered treaded upon as townspeople go about their days.
On this return, MK, my collaborator in film, is beside me. Camera rolling. There are the descendants of the refugees and survivors of three Jewish families whose homes will be publicly marked on the sidewalks with new brass cobble memorial plaques. My uncle, from Canada, and I, from South Africa. A family from Israel. The other family from the USA cannot attend. The Hungen High School band plays a heart wrenching piece that rips through me.
A few days later UM tells me that the piece was from the title sequence of Schindler’s List. Secretly. I feel conned. The high school drama class performs a script they wrote after studying testimonies of Jews who survived the November 9-10 1938 pogroms. When the women in my grandmother’s family was attacked in their home. When her brother and father were in Buchenwald. The play has no resonance with the present unfolding of racist attacks in Germany. The past immured in the echo chambers of history. What do the students think of this? It doesn’t appear thinkable in that space. To me. An outsider.
We walk to the first house. The artist, Gunter Demnig waits there with his assistants and his tiny red truck. Gear at the ready. Trowels and buckets and cement and stolpersteine set neatly, in order, in a box, in the dinky red van.
In real time, he removes the cobbles and places in the new plaques. Mallet pounds them in place. Cement. Wipe. Clean. Spurensuche member reads aloud the truncated biographies of each family member. Red roses placed on freshly laid stolpersteine.
Nose drips tears.
Little red truck.
Trowel. Cement. Wipe. Read.
Walk. Drip. Repeat. Shine.
Depart. Next house.
16 Giessener Strasse.
8 brass plaques. Shine
8 names. 8 birth dates. 8 death dates.
Cracks covered by cement.
Drip drip drip.
No one has ever asked me to return. To her birth land. My oma whom I remember as a tiny sparrow in her wheelchair. What would you think, dear Oma?
After the event, we are invited to lunch hosted by the spurensuche. Later, exhausted, we drive to Inheiden Lake. Sitting on a bench on the edge of the lake, MK films my uncle and I in conversation. UM stands with the boom mic, paddling with it against the wind. Ducks swan by. The slow swish of the slopping water’s edge makes me want to sleep but the cold whips my nose numb and my brain alert. My uncle recently visited Auschwitz. He wanted to walk from the platform at the train’s last stop to the gas chambers. He believes he has walked that way from train to crematorium before. In his previous incarnation. I see him walking in my mind’s eye. Images of the troubled protagonist from Pieter Matthiessen’s In Paradise come to mind: the scholar of Tadeusz Borowski whose research-pilgrimage to Auschwitz leads him to tread the same itinerary from train platform to gas chambers. A museum of the Shoah. Film and literature shape my imaginings of my uncle’s walk in Auschwitz.
“Here there is no why.”
During this return, I learn that after my grandmother’s brother and father were taken to Buchenwald, and, after her mother, grandmother and sisters were attacked in November 1938 in their home at 16 Giessener Strasse, they fled Hungen to live at an address on Sandweg, in Frankfurt.
Another return, a few months later: I meet JA who lives near Sandweg. A politician and Green Party member in Hessen’s government, JA deftly – and defiantly – navigates the displacements and disavowals of Black German presence and histories. We meet near the winter market in central Frankfurt. Wind our way through breakfast and conversation until mid-afternoon becomes dusk. Near Sandweg, JA says there is a small memorial sculpture by Stephen Lawson beside a church. She gives me a book by her mentor, Theodor Wonja Michael. His memoir, Deutsch sein und schwarz dazu. Erinnerungen eines Afro-Deutschen, in German, obviously, travels back with me to South Africa.
A talisman which I hold between my palms. I touch it. Page through it. I cannot read it. JA sends me Lemohang Mosese’s trailer of his still unfinished film on Theodor Wonja Michael. Grainy, black and white. Grey. Moody. Theodor Wonja Michael dies a few months after JA introduces me to his life and ideas. In October 2019. The following year, Mosese wins an award at Sundance Film Festival for his film, This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection. His film on Theodor Wonja Michael, unfinished. In these small hours, the cool breath of the wind stirs.
In the small hours, UM and I catch a dawn train from Hoechst to Dr FK’s practice. A psychoanalytic psychotherapist and paediatrician, FK came from Baghdad to Frankfurt to study in the late 1960s. FK’s analysis rooms take an entire first floor apartment. Large ruby, black and stone silk rugs cover the parquet floors; from floor to ceiling, the walls are book lined. Art covers the spaces in between. On his writing bureau, in the inner sanctum where we converse, stands a muted green stone sculpture from Zimbabwe of two parents with a child.
He insists on the importance of the distinction between migrants and refugees. He insists on creating and defending possibilities for migrants to encounter the positive aspects of Germanness. The strength this encounter gives to migrants whose ego functions may be nurtured and flourish in conditions of synthetic and syncretic identities. The idea that synthesis creates a third thing which, in integrating, for example, one’s Iraqi and German parts of one’s self concept, creates energy that contributes to vital and expansive change for the wider society, altering and renewing it, strengthening the collective psychic resources of German society as it is continuously remade.
As in all my returns, UM translates me to others and others to me. She is the third figure bridging and weaving us into a luminous mesh. FK encourages his patients to engage with the arts, with philosophy and to participate in political protest so as to draw energy from ideas and energies of the street, identifying with the political stakes of strengthening an open society, despite and because of feelings of fragmentation and ambivalence. He goes to a shelf, selects a book, returns to his armchair and opens the book to a page from which he reads a poem, “In between” by Alev Tekinay:
Every day I pack my suitcase and then unpack it again.
In the morning when I wake up, I plan to return, but by noon I get more used to Germany.
I change and yet remain the same and do not know who I am.
Every day the homesickness becomes more irresistible, but the new home holds me tight every day even more.
And every day I drive two thousand kilometers in an imaginary train back and forth, undecided between the wardrobe and suitcase, and in between is my world.
The winds of other pasts stir. His own memoir about leaving Baghdad for Frankfurt is titled, The stars, your comfort I return. On arriving in a strange land as a young medical student and communist in the late sixties, FK drew succour from the night skies. In the deep dark ceiling of the world, he would see in those small hours, the same constellations of stars at which he had gazed in Baghdad. In Frankfurt’s sky, he saw Baghdad’s.
The following year MK and I accompany my mother and father to film at the great SALT telescope in Sutherland, in the Karoo. My father was an amateur astronomer. Like FK he has been in conversation with the stars. And through them, with a past more distant.
Acknowledgements: My warm gratitude to Patricia Hayes, Kass Banning and Iona Gilburt of the Image, Sound, Movement (ISM) collaboration which is part of a research partnership on Aesthetic Education between the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape, and the Jackman Humanities Institute, University of Toronto. This textual montage taken from the notes in my film production journal was written at the ISM writing retreat in February 2020 BC (Before Covid). My special thanks to Lwando Scott, Warren Crichlow and Kass Banning for reading and commenting on the text.