Notes From Berlin (Part II)

This is the second essay of two, inspired by my trip to Berlin. The first is online here. This essay is longer than the first, so you can download it as a PDF here and read it later.

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I’d been trying to write this second essay for quite a while but kept getting delayed, primarily because I’ve been so busy planning the rest of my life, but also because it has seemed so daunting. The trip to Berlin was so intellectually and emotionally resonant, almost overwhelming, and I couldn’t seem to find a way in. I tried a chronological approach, a thematic approach, but nothing worked. Significantly, it was President Obama’s speech about the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case that helped me connect the dots, that helped me find an intuitive way in, to embrace the contradictions and complexity that resist more formal structures.

In his press briefing President Obama said:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is that Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that – that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”

The speech was powerful for many reasons, not least of which is the President of the United States speaking about his personal experience of racism, which was almost unimaginable in and of itself until 2008. But I was most taken by the significance of this idea:

I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that – that doesn’t go away.

Looking at an issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away was maybe the overriding theme of by entire trip to Berlin, only fully evident in retrospect.

We were sitting at our group’s welcome lunch, across from me was my colleague Meiyin Wang from The Public Theater and Michael Waller, a theater professor and director from Newfoundland. North Americans and English speakers, we gravitated towards one another and were lightheartedly bantering about gentrification, rising rents and lavish German arts funding when I turned to another colleague who was mostly silent.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Sinan Al-Azzawi”, he said.
“And where are you from?”
“Baghdad, Iraq.”

All of a sudden gentrification and rising rents felt like shallow concerns; I hardly knew where to start. What do you say to someone whose country has been devastated by your country in a war you personally opposed but felt powerless to stop? How do you begin any conversation at all?

After our lunch and a lengthy, informal networking session, we took the tour bus back to the Hotel Alsterhof for some rest before the evening’s performance. I ended up sitting next to Nihad Kreševlajkovic from Sarajevo who had just transitioned from the International Theater Festival MESS to become manager of the Sarajevo War Theater.

We kept talking through the entire break as he told me about his work in the theater, his experiences during the war; about the perversity of everyday life in the aftermath of genocide when all sides return to “normalcy”. What is it like when everyone tries to pretend that nothing happened but all of daily life is inevitably seen through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away?

He told me of a film he worked on about a Jewish woman who survived Auschwitz, settling in Sarajevo after World War II, marrying a Muslim man and living a quiet, happy life until the war. Nihad related to me her sentiment that, in a way, the war in Sarajevo was worse for her because her neighbors became enemies overnight – it was personal. One day you were chatting idly with a neighbor in line at the bakery, the next day he was coming at you with a knife or gun, eyes gleaming with hatred and homicidal rage. In comparison Auschwitz was institutionalized, systematic, de-personalized – it felt like being inexorably caught up in a killing machine, the hatred and genocidal impulse displaced from the individual to a larger structure.

And this was just my first full day.

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