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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Woman in a burqa

Badstrasse, Berlin, 10 September 2010. Summer's over, but the sun's back for a day or two and it has brought the streets to life. Olive-skinned teenage boys with their tightly sheared black hair listen to tinny music on their mobile phones, the Turkish grocer sings his apricot-selling song. A plastic bag dances drunkenly over the cars to the nee-ner nee-ner melody of polizei sirens.

From the delirium you emerge, woman with a burqa, like silence. A tenebrous wound in the streetscape, you cut through the bustle until you stand directly across from me. You wait for the light to flash green. I am also waiting. Perhaps through the screen that shields your face, you notice me: I'm the one with the disheveled hair, the peach-colored linen shirt, the shorts, two beers hanging from my hand, leaning against my thigh in the way of the infidels. I suppose to you I look like everyone else in this crowd.

Not you. You are a void in the frenzy. Your nothingness is so pure that you seem to float just a few inches above everything else: shards of green glass clinging to the Beck's label; a to-go cup, rolling back and forth in the gutter; a dropped currywurst, its ketchup staining the sidewalk like blood. You are invisible, yet everyone is staring at you, even as they pretend to be looking at the signs advertising specials in the Woolworth window.

You are the unknown, yet we think we know you so well. Everyone seems to be fretting about you these days. Here in Germany, a book came out this summer accusing people like you of destroying the country. Ever since, the politicians and pundits have been tripping over one another for the chance to make their own statement about you, and the failure of integration, or the collapse of multiculturalism. In France, they made you as illegal as a Mexican making his way across the Arizona desert on foot, his head swirling with dreams of working the slaughterhouse knife table in Greeley for 12 bucks an hour. But all I see is a woman in a burqa, nothing less and so much more.


When the big aluminum tube carrying my family landed in Berlin on a quiet, hot evening this past June, I had only vague notions of what I would encounter here. I had never been to Germany; never lived anywhere but the rural or semi-urban Western U.S. My pre-flight research of the place had been scant. I certainly didn't know that I'd live in a neighborhood with so many immigrants, particularly from countries that are predominantly Muslim. Nor could I have guessed that I would be surrounded by a debate about those immigrants that shares many similarities with the immigration debates back home.

After World War II, Western Germany experienced the Wirtschaftswunder, or the economic "miracle" that resulted from a huge infusion of cash to rebuild the country's demolished infrastructure. Human capital was in short supply (it had been "spent" in the War), so it was imported, mostly from southern countries. So-called guest workers flocked in from Greece, Italy and Turkey. They were expected to leave after a few years - an orderly system of chewing them up and spitting them out before they could get settled here. It didn't work. People stayed and more came to join them, especially from Turkey. Though the energy/economic crisis of the 1970s sparked an anti-immigrant urge, it didn't stop the inward human flow.

Today Germany, like the U.S. (and France, Belgium, the Netherlands, et. al.), is a land of immigrants. 

My family and I ended up in the Wedding district of Berlin. They say that in our particular neighborhood, about 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born. Kids born in Germany to non-German parents are considered foreigners, at least until they turn 18. That means that well over half the people we see each day on the street are, like me, Ausländer. Our street is lined with shops whose windows sport German, Turkish and Arabic lettering, along with a smattering of commercial English (FaxService, Internet, Prepaid, Automaten Casino 23 Stunden Open). I shop in grocery stores where varieties of tahini and olives are as abundant and cheap as chips and soda pop in an American convenience store. Conversations here are as likely to be in Turkish, Arabic or a kaleidoscope of African languages - along with some Russian or Polish thrown in - as they are to be in German. 

There's a temptation to attribute the Wedding phenomenon directly to German's guest-worker programs of the 50s and beyond, because that gives us an illusion that we (society, governments) have some sort of say in how these things turn out. I don't think so. Bigger forces are at work here - Wedding is globalization made manifest. Borders dissolve in the face of consumer desire. It doesn't shock us to find mangoes in Minnesota in the dead of winter, or to see a Starbucks on a street corner in Cairo. Stinger missiles make their way to Afghanistan; Mercedes tear through the dust of the Sahara, and a frozen burger from Wal-Mart might have come from a dozen different countries. We have long accepted that goods and cash will flow across borders, regardless of trade policies or tariffs. We should not be surprised when people do the same.

Today, it is virtually impossible to find a corner of the globe that has not been saturated by globalism. It's got a certain stench that swirls up from the giant cones of döner flesh, and joyfully mingles with the aroma of mint and exhaust, coriander and the molasses-like smoke from the Shishas. Globalization has a feel, the warm ooze of the sweet and tangy Big Mac special sauce dripping through the fingers of the Arab boy with his gangstah swagger and hip-hop style. It's the burn in the throat from a brain taco wolfed down in the parking lot of a rowdy Honky-Tonk bar in Rock Springs, Wyoming, on a Sunday afternoon. It's a woman in a burqa on Badstrasse in Berlin.


It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Ausländer were to learn German, appreciate Bach and Goethe, drink bottled water and wait for the light to turn green before walking across the street, even when it's 4 a.m., and there are no cars around. Because that's what Germans do. It's okay for Ausländer to hang on to certain parts of their culture, sure -- the falafels and the olives and the Turkish pizzas. Just as long as they abandon those aspects that make us uncomfortable or scared: the dark fringes of the religion, butchering goats in the back of grocery stores, and, especially, those burqas. When everyone integrates according to the rules, we can all live side-by-side as one big, colorful family, like in those old Benetton commercials.

Of course it hasn't worked out that way (how could it?). The folks in Wedding didn't integrate fast enough, or properly. Clearly, they not only still speak with their mother tongues in everyday situations, but they also have held onto much of their cultural identity. They don't fit the German mold, and that's got people worried. In the recently released, bestselling book, "Germany Does Away With Itself," Thilo Sarrazin argues that this failure to integrate, particularly among Muslim immigrants, is eroding the very identity of the Vaterland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed that up by declaring recently that multiculturalism - the idea that various cultures could walk side-by-side in harmony - was dead. A Netherlands politician, Geert Wilders, said that Muslim immigration had so diminished the Germany of Bach, Goethe and Schiller that it had become unrecognizable. (In the U.S., the anti-immigration crowd is more apt to fret over the loss of "the American high standards of living" than it is to bemoan the loss of culture, but the idea's the same). 

Of course, these are the hardliners speaking. But even the moderates on this issue share a common conceit: That the policymakers and cops and bureaucrats have some sort of control over the situation. They believe that we can put up filters on our borders to keep out the riff-raff, and stamp "integration required" on visas, and that will solve the "immigration problem."  They see no contradiction in the fact that tons and tons of tomatoes flow freely from south to north over the U.S.-Mexico every day, but people aren't "allowed" to do the same. We don't understand that we have no control. Adam Smith's hand, it turns out, is not only invisible, but it's powerful, meaty and indiscriminate, too.

I take all of this a bit personally. I'm an Auslander, too. I'm trying to learn German, but it's a lugubrious process. When I order a coffee, I still feel as though I have a mouthful of pebbles. When the waitress responds, I strain to understand every other word. I'm not accustomed to all of this concrete, or these grey skies. I sometimes imagine that the weathered brick wall outside our apartment window is a desert-varnished, lichen-covered, sandstone cliff, and I lay at its base, in a sun-warmed, tadpole-filled pool. I dream of a hot dry wind, a two-track road leading into an endless plain of sage, thunderheads piled high in a sky so big it makes the eyes ache. Those are the components of my culture. Sometimes, I feel so out of context that I could be walking down the street in a burqa, too.

But I'm not. And even though I have no job here, can't speak the language, and have yet to develop a taste for sauerkraut juice or canned meat, the anti-immigration hardliners don't have a problem with my kind. As someone of European stock, I fit in enough so as not to offend; my culture doesn't grate up against Germany's. Woman with a burqa, however, you're a different matter altogether.


I'd say that at least one-fourth of the women I pass by on the sidewalk here in Wedding on a daily basis cover their hair - occasionally their faces, too -- according to Muslim tradition. Most wear simple but colorful headscarves made of a shiny material, usually accompanied by generic-looking trenchcoats. Others wear a more elaborate get-up, their hair bundled up in big bunches inside the scarf, tassels hanging down over their foreheads. A tiny minority wear the full-on burqa, a head-to-toe garment, usually black, with only a screen or a slit through which to see.

Curiously, these scarves and burqas have become one of the focal points of the current integration/immigration debate, popping up often in the rhetoric of Wilders, Sarrazin and others. Of Islam, Sarrazin said, "No group emphasizes their differences so strongly in public, especially through women's clothing..." and he refuses to respect a group that "constantly produces new little headscarf-girls." Wilders proposed a headscarf tax in his country (which would apply only to Muslim women, and not to orthodox Christians who wear similar head coverings). In a New York Times op-ed piece, Mona Eltahawy, a Muslim woman, argued: "(The veil) erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it." The French government apparently agreed, banning the burqa because, they say, it demeans women.

The French ban is terribly flawed. For starters, it rubs against our ideals of freedom of religion and expression. By prohibiting a piece of clothing for ideological reasons - even if they are admirable ones - the French lowered themselves to the level of the Islamic countries like Iran, which require women to wear burqas or headscarves. It's little different than a government banning torturous high heels, bras or breast augmentation surgery because they, too, demean women; there are better ways to legislate equality (how about starting by wiping out the gender pay gap). Women won't suddenly shed their burqas in France, they'll just stay inside their homes, where they will become even more imprisoned than they are behind a black cloak.

But even worse is that the French weren't really worried about women's rights so much as they were about integration. The real reason they, along with Wilders and Sarrazin, want to do away with headscarves and burqas is that on the streets of Paris and Berlin, the garments do exactly the opposite of what Eltahawy says they do: Rather than erasing identity, they are potent assertions of identity. The simple act of putting on a headscarf of whatever type before heading out the door is a big signal to the world: I am a Muslim woman.

But it's more, and less, than that, too. Even if the women in Wedding are required by custom, tradition or religion to wear the scarves to conceal their beauty and femininity, they've successfully transformed them into something else altogether. Younger women tend to tweak the style to fit their own taste or expressive urge: They wear curve-hugging coats, stiletto heels, and makeup that draws attention to their eyes, which resemble Italian plums. (It's enough to drive many a young German Lutheran boy to run home and covertly memorize verses of the Q'ran and relevant Turkish phrases). I've seen a dozen other styles, too. One particularly beautifully elegant woman covered her head and body in a sort of robe made of linen, and it flowed from her body like cottonwood leaves in a breeze.

The burqa is a different matter. It does, indeed, block the individual, physical expression of that woman's identity. Body language is obliterated, as are facial expressions and eye contact. There is no smile, no frown, no disapproving scowl when someone crosses the street against the light. That, on its own, so goes against our individualistic culture that it can be downright scary to encounter someone so cloaked on a German street. But that same trait is also what makes a woman in a burqa such a powerful symbol. She forces herself into the consciousness of everyone around so that she's impossible to ignore. What she lost of her individual identity she has made up for with a screaming declaration of her cultural identity.

That's simply not allowed under the hardliners' rule of integration. (Okay, the term "integrate" is a loaded one, and it's hard to define. I think the hardliners are actually hoping that immigrants will assimilate into the culture. That is, they want the dominant culture to subsume the non-dominant culture in a way that not only erases the differences between the two, but also changes the dominant culture as little as possible). And so, perhaps totally unwittingly, the woman in a burqa has found herself tangled up in this messy debate that promises only to intensify.

As woman in a burqa stands across from me, I notice something strange. Directly behind her, on a grungy apartment firewall, hangs a giant placard. It's identical to ones hanging up all over the city this fall. Seemingly bursting out of the billboard's red background - but partially obscured from this angle by the woman in a burqa - is a much bigger than life picture of porn star Angie Katz, reclining voluptuously in nothing but gauzy white underwear - an invitation to the city's annual sex industry trade show. 

Immigration is a force of nature. Borders are not. Throw up your steel fences, razor wire, motion detectors, cameras, border patrol and soldiers - in the end, it is meaningless. Integration is organic. The need to control it is not.

Woman in a burqa, you are everything because you are nothing. You are ripe pomegranates right off the tree; you are the thud against the wall next door. You are old men huddled over tea; you are a bruise. You are the haunting howl of prayer at sunrise; you are the blast ripping through a crowded bus. You are a giant raven strutting down the street.

You are the flock of geese flying south so far above the city's grit and grime. They follow an ancient path, older than words. They were there during the Crusades, they flew through the soot from the old factories. They mingled with the planes that dropped the bombs that demolished this city during World War II. They will be there even as the earth warms, and their seasonal journey is no longer required.

The light finally turns green and we both walk towards each other. As you walk past, I can hear you speaking to the woman beside you in an animated, almost girlish voice. This surprises me for some reason. Then, when you're right beside me, you break into a laugh. This is a language even I can understand.


Piper Foster said...

Jonathan, I remember the first German burka I encountered -- which left my composure so disheveled I dropped the bread roll I was buying. "So invisible,and yet so obvious" you write...

glad you are posting.

Beth said...

Beautiful post, Jonathan. Thank you for your reflections on immigration and integration. Even though I speak German, have lived in the country before, 'understand' the culture, I am still an immigrant and the gray skies haunt me, too.

Happy New Year in our adopted country...