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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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Baynetna (Credit: Eva Johnaon)

When I was asked to write a piece on Baynetna, the only existing Arabic library in Berlin, I was immediately interested. I have always found deep reserves of empathy and solace within the texts of others. I believe literature is one of the most radical mediums of communication that humans possess, as it allows conditions of existence to be relayed viscerally through language, therefore facilitating greater understanding of experiences that lay beyond the individual. All literature is, in this sense, an act of translation. Often, when I read a work of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, it is hard to pinpoint the specific site that triggers my fascination. It is as if the non-normative use of language transforms everyday reaction to stimuli into something more spiritual, emotional, and accessible. As a child, my favorite books were stories of adventure and survival. These narratives often occurred in contexts spatially and temporally disparate from my own, and yet somehow managed to be relevant to my own experience. From this vantage point — but, as an American, knowing relatively little about Berlin and its sociopolitical structure — I spoke with Muhanad Qaiconie, the founder of Baynetna, about his ongoing project.

Muhanad explained that Baynetna is, above all, a place for exchange — of languages, culture, ideas, resources, and support. The idea for the library came to him when he was in a camp in a village outside of Munich, waiting for his residency papers, with nothing to do but scroll through Facebook and wait. He found an article by a German journalist that translated to Arabic. Having enjoyed the article, he friended the journalist on Facebook, and they started to talk.

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