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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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On the beach in Alexandria, Egypt (Credit: Farah Khalaf)

On the beach in Alexandria, Egypt (Credit: Farah Khalaf)

Watching the sun’s last rays glisten on the waves of the Mediterranean as its burning flame anticipates being quenched by the Sea’s cool water, I listen to Yasmine Hamdan’s raspy Lebanese dialect as she sings of Sehnsucht and heartache (watch video here) . Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, these are things I have long since experienced.

As the tip of a bottle teases my lips and the icy drink fools around with my tongue and taste buds, I catch myself subconsciously trying to translate the song’s words and expressions into a language he would understand. Maybe I’ll have him listen to it one day. But its artistic and musical value wouldn’t be enough: he would want to understand the driving force behind the creation of this beauty.

The translation was a simple matter of finding the correct vocabulary, but that wasn’t what I was listening for. The soul of the song dimmed with the setting of the sun. The more I tried to find ways to convey it in his tongue, the more the song’s flame and passion became frail and shadow-like, until eventually the melody seemed only a ghost of what it was before I tried to capture it.

The song was lost and I brushed it off. Suddenly, I missed how he makes me feel like the goddess of that glistening golden sun embracing the Mediterranean. I remember this lurking uneasiness I had in the back of my head. A fear of loss. Loss of oneself, loss of language and identity in the process of merging cultures. But I’m starting to see now the malleability of one’s identity and how it’s constantly simply getting richer with the fusion of others’; it is all-consuming, like a sponge, or like the sea.

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 Regina with one of her best friends and adopted sister-in-law, Yasiname (Credit: Regina Knapp)

Regina with one of her best friends and adopted sister-in-law, Yasiname (Credit: Regina Knapp)

When I asked Regina if I could interview her, she seemed taken aback.

“Interview me?” she asked.

“Yes,” I affirmed, and we sat down for a quick chat. Although this was not nearly enough time to cover the expanse of her life and career, it was nonetheless enlightening. I know Regina Knapp as my Culture Change and Exchange Professor. Our class aims to understand how to write a good academic research paper. We were also able to learn about different aspects and forms of each other’s cultures as Regina encouraged us to speak of our cultures in relation to the topics we were studying. I remember initially being fascinated by her and her accent as she talked about her life in Papua New Guinea. Her accent is a product of the vast array of experiences she has had in her life: It is partly German through her upbringing and partly British, possibly from her travels to and from Papua New Guinea, with the occasional Australian slip. In class, she is very straightforward in her approach to anthropology: “It’s the study of humans, basically,” she says. It combines various aspects of human existence like development, language, and culture to try to understand humankind in their societies.

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BCB student Clara Holder in discussion with other participants (Credit: Tamar Maare)

BCB student Clara Holder in discussion with other participants
(credit: Tamar Maare)

Over the past couple of months, students of Bard College Berlin have been instrumental in setting up an ongoing program for the mutual cultural exchange and language development process between refugees, students, teachers and anyone from the neighborhood or Berlin community at large who might want to drop by. This program, Campus Conversations, is currently run by Bono Siebelink (BA2 HAST), Clara Holder (BA1 HAST) and Kerstin Weil (BA1 EPST) on the Bard College Berlin campus and is overseen by our Admissions and Recruitment Officer and Civic Engagement Coordinator, Xenia Muth. The current focus of the program is on German language learning, but it has the potential for much more than just that. As their page on the BCB website outlines, “we plan on diversifying the types of lessons offered as more people become involved.”  

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Photo: Irina Stelea

Every expat has felt this: living in a country, the language of which you don’t know, can be extremely challenging. The feeling that one gets is of concomitantly being absent and present, living discreetly (and frequenting international events and places).

Of course, as students of ECLA (and probably every second one of us, if not more, was or is in this situation), we feel sheltered in the secluded Pankow, where the campus is situated. Here, the coordinates are known by heart, the employees of the supermarkets recognize our faces, and sometimes a touristy smile can replace a German phrase.

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