Say My Name, Say My Name
Strangers in a Strange Land: on Migration and Loss of Identity
I’m taking a German language course. A2.1. The other day, we were supposed to write a story. I wanted to write a story about this dog I met once, but… I haven’t been there in a while and didn’t have the words. I wrote a story about a dragon instead.
Fairy tales are so much easier than real life.
Once upon a time, I found a dog. I already had a dog. Her name was Fen, which is another word for swamp. My brothers named her. Don’t let your brothers name the things you love. Fen the swamp dog was a bona fide mutt, so mixed the only thing you could be sure of was that she was a dog. But she was intelligent and had a strong personality, and we were more partners in crime than owner and housepet. She was cool.
One day, I found a dog. He looked like he was about a year, year and a half old — he hadn’t grown into his paws yet. A German Shepherd — Husky mix, beautiful brown eyes, a shaggy coat.
And a limp.
Some people think getting a puppy is a great idea. They’re dying for a puppy. But they don’t seem to realize the puppy will grow into a dog, may be rambunctious, need lots of walks, need toilet training. And when that happens, they don’t want it anymore. And some people take those overgrown puppies, drive them to other parts of town and push them out of moving cars, to land where they may, survive on their own.
This dog had no tags, but he was housetrained. And had a limp, probably from landing where he may. Poor guy. He was so sweet, and so hungry, and so scared, and I thought it would be good to take him in. I checked with Fen.
She was cool.
My German class is every morning, Monday through Friday, from 9 to noon. We spend every day learning der, die, das, akkusativ, dativ, pronomen… chewing our way through the brittle sounds, trying not to choke on the splinters of sentence structure, learning to swallow, carefully, the German language and make it our own. Progress is… varied.
Every day, I take the train to school like a city kid, the U9 all the way to the other side of town and back. Sometimes, when I want to stretch my legs, I get off a station early, at Ubahnhof Westhafen.
If you are exiting the train at Westhafen, and want to go up to the Putlizbrücke that connects Moabit to Wedding, or transfer to the Ringbahn that circles town, you follow a little green “S” and an arrow that tells you where to go. You pass big blocks of text on the wall, meaning… what? Who knows? Patterns of letters and images, primary colors, black block lettering that is neither beautiful nor un-beautiful, but factual and clear.
I don’t know what it means. It’s just typography, which is ok if you’re into that kind of thing.
I’m into that kind of thing.
When you step off the platform itself and into the gangway that leads to the elevator and a short connecting tunnel, there is finally only a single phrase, as though you have been followed by a school of letters swimming alongside and finally they shimmer and shift and gel into focus:
Ici en France…
You walk up the stairs and the phrases follow you, and you realize you are being told a story on the subway walls. French on one side, German on the other, the story proceeds from bottom to top, or top to bottom, depending on the language and the direction you’re going in.
It is the story of Heinrich Heine, Germany’s celebrated lryic poet, whose words were used by Schumann and Schubert in popular romantic Lieder in the 19th century, composing “art songs,” clear and melancholic recurring melodies that weave their way through piano and voice, in and out of variations on a theme. Heine was Jewish, and although he was successful and well known in Germany, by 1831 anti-semitism and nationalism was on the rise, so he fled to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life.
My German class is an international group; I’m the only American. The only other native English speaker is a guy named Joe from Ireland, who calls himself “Yo” when he’s practicing German. He speaks with an accent thick enough that I don’t always understand my own language, when it’s coming from him.
We have so many curious sounding names in our classroom — Bialaing from China, Manal from Sudan, Isa from Pakistan, Tiago from Brazil, Juan Pablo from Chile…
My dog Fen and the foundling got along fine, except every time I called my dog, to give her a treat or a pat — Here Fen! Fen, come here! — the foundling would watch Fen run for a treat, look at me with his big brown eyes, and cock his head, waiting for me to say his name.
But I didn’t know his name.
I mean, in the world of dog names, it could have been anything.
I tried a few: Max, Spot, Ruff, Boy, George, Boy George… nothing. And every time he looked at me, waiting to hear his name, my heart broke a little.
I said he was a good boy, that he was loved, that he would never be abandoned again. But I couldn’t say the one thing he was longing to hear. I would never know what it once was.
Eventually, I gave him a new name: Harry.
I know. Harry the dog.
* * * * * * * *
Heinrich Heine is just about the worst name you can move to France with. The French don’t aspirate the H, so hamburger becomes ‘amburger, Harry Potter becomes ‘Airy Potter. And like most languages, they have their own way of pronouncing “ch” — ssh, instead of the German “ch”. And for the French, the “n” is always something soft and delicate, like a quail egg. You barely taste it.
For Heinrich Heine, almost 50% of his name are sounds the French barely articulate, almost 50% is transformed, lost. And over time, it felt like over 50% of himself was transformed and lost.
Every country is like this, it’s not just France. And every country has a way of transforming immigrant names to sound more native. In America, my name is Susanne Kalick. In France, they said Susanne Kalish. Here in Germany, where it originated, it’s pronounced Susanne Kahlich. When I first arrived, I was spoken of as Frau Susanne Kahlich, and it sounded like they were making fun of me. It’s not fashion, I would think. You don’t have to mock it.
Here in France immediately on my arrival in Paris my German name “Heinrich” was translated into “Henri”, and I had to adapt myself to it and had even so to style myself here in this country, for the word Heinrich is not pleasing to the Frenchman and the French do make everything in the world pleasant for themselves. Even the name “Henri Heine” they were unable to pronounce, and most of them called me Monsieur Enri Enn : Many contracted this to Enrienne and some called me Monsieur Un Rien.
Heine’s text repeats, scattered and falling along the station walls like a leitmotif in one of his own lieder. Little phrases float in and out and around the larger text, the text that lays out the rights of every human, regardless of religion or race or gender, from the Declaration of Human Rights:
- Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person;
- Everyone has the right to a nationality;
- Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
- Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth can be fully realized
The letters themselves are arranged on the walls in shapes — dense squares, diamonds, columns. They may be punctuated by figures : birds that take flight up the station walls. Eyes that see everything. A human figure, tiny and fragile in the center of a huge, square block of text, protected by all those rights.
I mean, that’s what they’re there for, you know? To protect ourselves from ourselves, to remind ourselves that we are us, we are human, and we are essentially the same. We see, we hear, we breathe. We write songs and poetry, we make art, we move house or city or even country. We make love and we make war, and when we make war we must make room for the human fallout of that war.
The images serve as punctuation because all the punctuation has been removed…and placed in the middle, on the pillars that support the underground roof, sunk into the platform. This is actually the first thing I noticed the first time I was at Westhafen, and it’s what made me pay attention. The pillars are tiled in yellow, and covered in full stops and commas and colons and semicolons. It was the semicolons that got me, because I love a well-placed semicolon.
But I also like the idea that all the logic, all the rules and regulations and order that normally goes inside those paragraphs on the walls, that punctuate those sentences and gives them structure and meaning, have been removed and dumped in a jumble in the middle of the platform, crawling over the pillars like subway creatures do. Without the words, without the sentences, the punctuation — the rules — have no function. And without the punctuation — the rules — the words are unclear. They need each other, rely on each other, to communicate ideas and ideals, poetry, procolomations, lieder, lyrics, love.
The work here at Westhafen is the work of Inscrire, a non profit organization founded by the artist Françoise Schein, as an artistic response to the fall of the Berlin wall. Her first installation, actually, is at Metro Concorde in Paris. Similar to Westhafen, the subway tunnel is covered in tiles printed with letters, no spaces, no punctuation. If you glance at them, they are meaningless; but if you stare at them for a minute or two, the letters start to shape into words, the words into sentences, the sentences into the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen from the French Revolution.
Somehow I never put it together that this is the same artist, even though I’m at Westhafen all the time, and Concorde was one of my favorite stations in Paris because of the installation. And beautifully, just as Heinrich Heine departed from Germany to Paris, and I moved from Paris to Berlin, these two significant stations keep that path connected and alive.
It’s the kind of art I really love, when there are layers and layers of truly thoughtful symbolism. The colors are the colors favored by the Bauhaus, the architectural and artistic movement banned under Entartete Kunst. The fonts used are the same fonts the Nazis declared illegal — let’s just think about that: An authoritarian regime so determined to wipe out any sign of diversity, so afraid of anything even the slightest bit different, they actually had a department just to get rid of the way the alphabet is presented in printed text.
Germans are thorough!
But it’s mostly the kind of art that I love because it’s out in the world, in an everyday place, that is a presence that is maybe not oohed and aahed over like piece in a museum, but that is interactive, and subtle and moving, incorporated into daily life like Kapoor’s Bean in Chicago, or Gunther Demnig’s Stolpersteine marching across Europe.
For the Westhafen station, Schein worked with the German philosopher Barbara Reiter. Interspersed between the deviant, shape-shifting text, handwritten on the walls are quotes of people murdered by fascism. The human handwriting and the block print fonts manage to complement each other, adding another melody to an already melodious Lied singing along the station walls.
* * * * *
One morning, when it was time to take the two dogs out for a walk, I called them to the door. Come on Harry. Come on Fen. Who wants to go for a walk? Harry bounced over on his big puppy feet, his limp better but still moving a little lopsided. And Fen… she hobbled from the bedroom, like she was a thousand years old. Suddenly, she had a limp. On the same as foot Harry.
I checked her paw, found nothing wrong. She got back on her feet and limped over to the door, ready to go out. Except this time, she was limping on a different foot.
She was faking it!
And I realized my dog was jealous, trying to get my attention off of Harry and back onto her, even though she was getting the same amount of love, the same attention, the same food and the same companionship as before. But somehow she concluded that by taking care of Harry, there would be less for her. So she faked an injury, pretended to be wounded and weak, in a campaign for her status as top dog in the house.
I mean, after me, of course.
I think what is so moving about Schein and Reiter’s work at Westhafen U Bahn station, is that it’s so close to the depot where Jews were shipped off, where you can go upstairs and stand on the Putlitzbrücke and literally see the past, the remnants of Platform 69, the point of departure for so much humanity, shipped off and exterminated.
The Nazi regime thought it was making room for more Germans, more Übermensch, more of its ideal citizens, but in the end, it’s the Germans who had to make room — for the Russians, the Americans, the British, the occupying forces in Berlin and the rest of the country. Some of whom fathered children, some of whom even stayed to raise them, and in a single generation undoing everything Hitler and his party were trying to achieve.
It would have been so much easier if they had just moved over a little in the first place, like those guys on crowded subway trains who sit with their legs spread so wide apart they effectively take up three seats. But if they weren’t so insistent on their territory, a pretty girl would sit down next to them sometime, maybe an interesting guy, maybe their next boss, their next hero, their next best friend.
Our teacher, Frau Ellenberger, whose English is excellent and whose German pronunciation is precise and clear, isn’t fluent in every mother tongue of every student. She sometimes has a hard time pronouncing some of the names, like the Spanish Ignacio or Hassar from Syria, who regularly corrects her, softly, with Hassad… too similar for our teacher to Hassan, who comes from Damascus and whose English and German are both great, but who’s name caused so much confusion with Hassar’s that one day she said to Frau Ellenberger, You can call me Zuzu, and Hassan said, you can call me Hassoon, and our teacher said, horrified, No! It’s taken me all this time to get your names, I don’t want to let them go!
And she clutched her notebook full of names to her, guarding them from deviations and diminutives and disappearing, keeping everyone’s names just as they are, so they won’t get lost as we swallow the German, learn the pronomen, dativ, akkusativ, the der, die, das…
Fen was a smart, wonderful companion who I lived side by side with for many years. I still miss her, the jealous little thing. But she was, after all, only a dog. Thanks to some friends, Harry found a better home, with a wealthy couple in Puerto Rico ready to take him in, all the way from America. As soon as he healed from his limp, as soon as he learned his new name.
Der Wahl. After the German elections here, I complain to Tiago that I have now lived in three countries where the nationalists have been voted into a frightening measure of power. Tiago tells me the same thing happens in his country, except in Brazil, there is no vote, only force.
Die Bäume. Isa, who is a bodybuilder, told me that he competed in the Iron Man games in Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon, and said the trees there are so full and green in summer even when it’s hot, there is shade.
Das Verlangen. Hassan and his soul brother Omar, who traveled here together, tell me that Damascus was so beautiful, they dream of a time machine so they can go back, only for 10 minutes, to walk the streets of their city again.
Der Kunst. Yaser, an artist, shows me his work one day — childlike, naive, expressionist works of his homeland, his journey, his memories. I’ve seen his CV too — in Syria, he was a lecturer, won awards, has works in the British Museum. Here in Berlin, where no one can pronounce his name — and what is an artist without his name? — he is Monsieur Un Rien.
Like Gunther Demnig’s Stolpersteine project, Inscrire stretches around the world, although creating more of a web than a path. Schien, Reiter and the organization works with local populations in each community to conceive and create work that highlights the principles of human rights, sparks discussion, and encourages reflection.
You can visit the Westhafen U Bahnhof every day of the week, from 12.06am to 11:56 pm. And you can learn more about Françoise Schein and Barbara Reiter’s group Inscrire and their other public works projects to visit, support, or participate in at Inscrire.com.
Listen to this story on Soundcloud:
Special thanks to singer / songwriter Olivier Bernard as the voice of Heinrich Heine, and for his original song “Placed You”.
Original piano composition used in this episode is Vocabulary of Loneliness, composed by Ivan Chiarelli, with piano by Moran Magal.
Both tracks used with permission of the artists.