Interpretations-2011

Being and foreignness



For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition.” — The Economist, December 17th 2009


1.

The Weihnachtsmarkt in this town was a small affair. It began at the western end of Hauptstrasse, with a stall selling dry fruits and nuts, and continued up the street, extending partly into the neighbouring Marktstrasse or Blumenstrasse, and ended at the eastern perimeter less than a kilometer from the start. The stalls, small log cabins with pine sprigs and yellowish light bulbs strung across their roof angles, displayed the usual wares: chocolates and gummy bears, gluh wine, crepes, potato pancakes, bratwurst & schnitzel, christmas-tree knickknacks, and ceramic crockery. At the intersection of Marktstrasse and Höllgasse there was a small carousel, manually operated, with eight horse-shaped mounts each painted a different colour. Not far from it stood a märchenzelt, a fairy-tale tent, white and round with a conical top, glowing like a dimly lit bulb. This tent was where I was headed, with Wife and some friends, on a cold and overcast November evening not long ago.

The evening’s plan was simple but unusual: from 7 to 8 P.M. children visiting the tent would be read Indian stories in German by a few Indian ladies. Wife, one of the storytellers, had made me a target of her daily practice sessions the previous week. The story she had chosen (“Sukeshini and the lake demon”) was about an Indian girl who tricks a demon and brings water to a drought-stricken village; she had translated it into German with the help of a friend. Others had chosen similar stories, Indian folk tales translated into German.

Inside the märchenzelt six or seven boys and girls sat facing a middle-aged woman reading a German fairy tale. At 7 P.M. the Indian ladies, dressed in colourful sarees or salwar kameez, started the session with a Namaste. “This is how you greet people in India,” one of them explained. The children mimicked the gesture and giggled. Then the stories were read out loud, one after another, each storyteller pausing in places to ask a question or to explain the context. Some of this context was presented as illustrations: colour printouts of scenes from the story — taken from the original storybook — or of an Indian situation or custom, like a festival or a feast served on banana leaves. The kids looked at the copied illustration before passing it on, and occasionally a curious parent leaned over their tiny shoulders for a quick glance. In the middle of the hour, after a couple of stories, the ladies sang a nursery rhyme in Hindi. The boys and girls were asked to repeat, line after line:

Haathi Raja bahut bade
Sund utha kar kahan chale
Mere ghar mein aaon na
Halwa puri khaon na
Aaon baitho kursi par
Kursi boli chatar-pattar!

The parents joined the children in this recitation. It was a charming reversal, with the Germans attempting what the Indians had been doing so far: speak in a foreign tongue.



At the hour’s end the children sang the rhyme once more, said Namaste, and left. Outside a slight drizzle had begun; we picked up some gluh-wine and crepes and stood chatting under the awning of an electronic store, next to its brightly lit windows. The store appeared closed, but soon a man approached us, with the obvious intention of entering it. Middle-aged, huge and bald and white like a WWF wrestler, he stopped in front of me and asked, with a half-smile: “Darf ich?” May I?

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The politics of foreignness



[Part 3 of the Interpretations series.]


This is not a good time to be foreign.” — The Economist, November 19th 2011


Earlier this month, xenophobia again grabbed the headlines in Germany. Investigations following the arrest of a woman, one of three members of the “National Socialist Underground” group, revealed that they had killed nine people between 2000 and 2006, and injured many more with a bomb in 2004; eight of the nine killed and most of those injured were of Turkish origin. Until this recent discovery, none of these hate crimes against foreigners were linked to the neo-Nazi group. (Suspicions were directed instead at the Turkish mafia.) The news caused the Germans embarrassment, shame, and regret, in that order. Media uproar followed, and the issue reached the parliament. Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a “Disgrace”. Politicians renewed their call for a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). On the 22nd, two weeks after the sensational discovery, the parliament issued a joint statement that began: ”We are deeply ashamed…”

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An Indian in Germany



[Part 2 of the Interpretations series, which began here.]


In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”

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Interpretations



The other day, while waiting at the doctor’s reception, I witnessed a dialogue between a black man and a white woman that left me thoughtful and gloomy.

* * *

On this day there is a long queue, unusual for this place, and the German woman behind the reception desk is not in a friendly mood. She is a young woman, wearing a white shirt over white pants, her blond hair pulled back in a short pony-tail. She is efficient in the way Germans usually are: doing the job with precision and speed, assuming a polite but firm manner. But she also seems disturbed, not at ease: she moves her hands rapidly, avoiding eye-contact with the patient in front, which lends her a distracted, impatient air. She deals with a couple of patients in this manner, and then it is the turn of the black man two places ahead of me.

From behind, and from the occasional glimpses of his profile, he resembles the actor Morgan Freeman: an elderly man, tall and heavy-set, curly greying hair, a pockmarked face with deep lines on his forehead. I imagine him speak in a clear, intense voice, but what comes out is hushed and hesitant: German is foreign to him, and he is struggling.

“Ihre Telefonnummer, bitte?” the woman asks, looking into her computer screen.

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