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Tuvshinzaya during the 2012 Commencement ceremony, held at Rathaus Pankow. (Credit: Personal Archives)

On the BCB campus, it’s not uncommon to find students who switch seamlessly between their three mother tongues. Someone might hesitate before answering the question “Where are you from?” or “Where will you be next year?”

Last month, I sat down in front of my computer to chat with Tuvshinzaya Gantulga, a BCB alumnus who is also always on the move. Born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Tuvshinzaya was studying economics at the American University in Bulgaria when he decided to come to BCB (then ECLA*) to attend its Academy Year program. Before the year was up, he had decided to stay in Berlin and complete his BA studies at ECLA as part of its first graduating class in 2012. Upon his return to Mongolia, he worked in a grassroots NGO, founded the Mongolian Rowing Association, and headed the American Chamber of Commerce in Mongolia. My webcam caught him in Manhattan, New York, where he had just graduated with a Master of Public Administration degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Over the course of a few hours we talked about Berlin, rowing, and education: what does a liberal arts education offer to students who are exceptionally mobile, and what can being mobile offer students who are exceptionally curious?

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Naomi Klein’s most recent publication, now available in the BCB library. (Credit: www.noisnotenough.org)

The eve of the 2016 election in November, while still on exchange in Paris and away from Berlin, I decide not to go to the viewing party that was set up by Sciences Po. Rather, I will stay in my roomy eleven square meter studio and wait for Hillary Clinton’s inevitable win with my Swedish friend. She, who normally studies in Glasgow, didn’t stay up late for the Brexit vote earlier that year in June, assuming like many of us that the sun would rise and the country would have voted to remain. As the November night unfolds and the results roll in, we get ahead of ourselves and figure it’s safe to take a little nap around 1am (Paris Time). The nap lasts longer than planned and we awake around four-thirty. Bleary-eyed, I walk over to the kitchen area of the apartment, a feat accomplished in two small, sleepy steps, and offer to make coffee.

Then, from my left, comes her voice: “Nathan, why are all of these states red?”

I respond: “What?”

Shock.

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Skopje Pride Weekend graphic. (Credit: Igor Delov and Bisera Krckovska)

The first time I attended a Macedonian Pride related event was in June 2016 when I saw African-American intersex-born, genderqueer performer, artist, and generally wonderful human being Vaginal Davis. She projected some of her experimental films and gave one of the most entertaining Q&As I’ve witnessed. Anders Stefanovski — one of my best and queerest friends — and I were then taking part in a celebration of  Pride Month in Skopje under VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity)’s right-wing, toxically heteronormative reign. The participating crowd was mostly queer and not too big. With Anders still finishing his exam sessions in the Netherlands and the Social Democrats coming to power just a few weeks before this year’s Skopje Pride Weekend, the event felt much different this time around. 

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Alex Beatty as shave ice boy. (Credit: Mrs Beatty)

Alex Beatty as shave ice boy. (Credit: Mrs Beatty)

For two summers straight I sold shave ice to sunscreen-slathered Northerners who arrived in droves to the beaches of Florida with the seagulls that circled like vultures overhead. It was good business for me and the seagulls. When the sky was clear and the temperature broke one hundred degrees, the tourists sweating white bullets would line up for forty feet, their children in erratic orbit like the swarms of mosquitos that hung in the air around the dumpster across the walkway. Occasionally the odd adult would sidle up to my counter and order a ball of sugared ice with dignity and discretion.

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“Sainte Sebastienne” 1992. (Credit: Louise Bourgeois)

I came to Berlin as a person with a complicated love relationship with cities. New York City often grips my heart so close it hurts. The relationship between the city and the survivor of sexual violence–or the survivor of any kind of violence or trauma–is a very particular one. Many stories and cultural narratives refer to the trope of “female intuition,” proposing that women have advanced capabilities to perceive underlying dynamics, know when and how to give love and care, and can even predict the future. Though I do believe that we occupy spiritually evolved forms, I don’t think this “higher plane” is biological. The ability to pick up on and mentally calibrate the unspoken truths that shape our lives lies in our conditioning and lived experiences with terror, with betrayal, with being hurt and punished and subdued. We are required to be alert and sensitive to our environments because we know that our physical and spiritual agency is at stake–our identities, our bodies. This is second and firsthand–learning from the experiences of other women; learning from living, through scar and callous. On the most basic level, hearing our parents tell us to be careful of strangers when we are young and traveling alone on the subway or tram for the first time. Seeing the violence done to our forms dragged as entertainment or exposé across pages of books and television screens. There is nothing natural or innate about it. Feeling the eyes the voices the eyes. The acquisition of psychic capabilities is a laborious process that involves more weight than is typically attached to “exceptional” qualities. It is a thorny gift: one that reminds me both of my own resilience and my experience of trauma.

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A mural painted by the artist eL Seed in a part of Cairo inhabited by garbage collectors (Manshiyat Naser) quotes a third-century Coptic bishop: “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.” (Credit: David Degner for The New York Times)

You read the words of Mahmoud Darwish,

his nostalgia, revolution and melancholia swirl the desert dust over times and places

to reach your eye.

Yes, I swear. This is how the tear settled on my dry cheek.

And Nizar Qabbani whose eroticism, love and poetic (but also political) fight for social justice make you tingle and long for something.

You don’t know what it is you seek or long for

something that the poem will never make tangible.

You let the words and language sink in

You notice how smoothly your eyes glide across the Arabic calligraphy on the yellowed pages

How much easier internalizing their words and worlds is getting

You sense the physical and metaphysical barriers dissolving

Barriers of your many selves.

The displaced and the disowned,

or like Edward Said, those “out of place.”

The one that claims she’s home,

but will always have a soft spot for a man who speaks in her tongue.

Tongues intertwine as the barrier gradually shifts

What put it there? How and when did it come into being? Who let it? Who is to blame?

The blame game makes it easier.

You think, dream, make love and write in another’s tongue

Some would say a colonizer’s tongue.

Yours is shackled by a barbed wire,

the same one endlessly running through Palestine, Syria and Iraq.

Is it a barbed wire, or streaks of crimson blood interlaced with dirt left behind from the last missile?

Or perhaps it’s the red wine you spilt trying to reach for the glass

after a touching poem, or a great orgasm.

But you let it.

You were happy about it at some point of time. To be fluent in many other languages

as yours rots and decays like the slums and streets of Cairo.

Cairo.

A permanent layer of dust, grey ashen dust, seems to have settled on everything

from decayed buildings to jagged streets,

to a man’s once white galabeya,

and most probably to the Coptic woman’s black attire.

You just can’t see it, because black hides it all. Even her son’s blood.

You observe as your chauffeur drives you in the air-conditioned car.

You’re disgusted.

You’re disgusted not at the sudden hyper-awareness of your privilege, but at your privilege itself.

Your privilege and pacifism.

You go back to your book.

You’ll write about this, you think.

You should do something

…one day.

But will you?

You arrive at the pub downtown.

Your friends already ordered the red wine.

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The participants of the 2nd LESC in Freiburg (Credits: Alexandra Sachariew, University College Freiburg)

Hello all you BCBers,

In case someone has been wondering about my absence from BCB in the past semester, let me reassure you of my return in Fall 2017: I am currently not in Berlin but studying abroad at AUC in Amsterdam. The first question one might ask is probably: Why would I study abroad in Amsterdam? Isn’t it just like Berlin, only smaller and with canals and actual bike lanes? I asked myself the same things. But if that’s all you know about Amsterdam, you should just come here and fall in love with this beautiful city yourself. Very few people are able to escape its magic spell.

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(Credit: Anna Zakelj)

Before the storm of tests and papers that is finals week at BCB, in the lull of spring break, a friend and I made our way to Prague. The trip was an adventure. We didn’t plan much, didn’t have much money to spend, and I forgot my passport at home, adding an air of excitement to the journey that was accentuated by my whiteness and US citizenship. The trip was filled with encounters with odd and wonderful people. In transit, in a subway station in Prague, loaded down with backpacks and sleeping bags, we were approached by an old man. He exited the train going the other direction and walked up to where we stood waiting for ours to come. “You traveling?” He asked in a loud, goofy voice. “Where are you from?”

“Slovakia and the US,” we responded respectively.“The US! We’re neighbors. I’m Canadian. I’ve been living here a long time, though. I came over when I was young, just a little older than you two. I used to travel a lot. One summer some friends and I took a long bike trip through a few different countries and one guy died.” My friend Veronika and I looked at each other, confused. Was this the punchline to some strange joke? Should we be laughing? “We drank beers for lunch before cycling,” he continues. “We weren’t thinking about the consequences, forgot about the alcohol. He swerved and got hit by a car. He was young. 30 something. But that’s another story. What’s past is past.” Before we could really respond, our train came and he left, flashing a peace sign with a toothy smile and an emphatic “Bring back the hippies!” The whole interaction lasted less than five minutes. Let’s use this as a learning experience. As we part ways and go adventuring during the summerbreak, let us always bring our passports, be willing to talk to interesting strangers, and remember to never drink and cycle!

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