Home away from Home

Gregor Hens


Aired on: BBC World Service, The Cultural Frontline, March 26, 2016


In a recent Europe-wide poll, half of all respondents professed that they sometimes feel like foreigners in their own country. It´s one of the recurring tropes of the immigration debate, a claim that puzzles me a great deal, in part because I spent nearly half my life in the US, and had some difficulties readjusting when I returned to my native Germany.


The assumption, of course, is that I remain the same, and stay in the same place, and that everything around me changes to an extent that makes me feel like I am somewhere else, in a place where I don´t feel at home. People tend to express this discomfort quite casually even as they book flights to exotic vacation spots, read about Captain Gulliver´s trip to the levitating island of Laputa, prepare curried okra paneer or dream about a visit to San Francisco´s doubly exotic Chinatown. The exotic encountered outside of it´s own foreign context is not, as the mathematically inclined might suspect, a self-cancelling double negative, but rather an intensification – in this particular case, I suppose, even for the visiting Chinese. I know how it must feel to them: I´ve been to an Oktoberfest in Missouri.


It was the unintended consequence of a recent museum visit that I finally understood how all of this works.


Intending to give my friends Mohammad and Hiba and their two children, recent arrivals from Aleppo, a bit of home-away-from-home feeling, I took them to the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. The collections are part of the Pergamon complex, which is itself part of Berlin´s Museumsinsel – a UNESCO world heritage site – and houses an astounding array of artifacts looted by an army of German archeologists whom the Kaiser dispatched in the early 20th century.


The most imposing exhibit is the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, a huge, lapis-lazuli-glazed brick structure adorned with hundreds of dragons and aurochs and lions and flowers.


Twice a week the museum offers tours in Arabic, guided by recently trained refugees. The program has received a lot of publicity as an example of successful integration,  probably because it is so surprisingly intuitive. Training and paying people to explain their own cultural heritage makes perfect sense in a situation where most other employment schemes and art projects involving refugees, as well-meaning as they may be, simply don´t.


Overall, the outing was a success. Mohammed listened intently to the guide´s explanations, which seemed – judging by their lengths and the gestural accompaniment – to be excessively detailed and quite exuberant. Hiba mildly complained that she had learned most of what the guide was saying in school, and her eyes wandered. Yet she seemed interested in the artifacts themselves and in the human connection – the fact that our guides had their own stories to tell.


Jumana, who is nine years old and making rapid progress in German, tuned out after a while and dragged me around the room. She thinks German is the cooler language right now. Together we discovered beautiful Sumerian jewelry, cylinder seals with cuneiform writing, a royal sarcophagus and an oversized bathtub from Assur. Bashir, who is three, eventually climbed out of his stroller to play with my camera and touch the huge Assyrian lion sculptures, and we dared him to stick his head inside their big, yawning jaws.


Then our guide Aladdin took us to the second floor and showed us the Islamic Art collection, and we found ourselves inside a beautifully paneled room shipped straight from Aleppo and reassembled here in 1912. The group´s initial stunned silence was followed by lively chatter in Arabic. I was looking around, trying to understand the ornamentations and wondering what they were all saying.


The children and I were wide-eyed, marveling, learning, figuring it out on our own, we discovered tiny figures, writing – we noticed one thing and were drawn to another, to a certain color perhaps or a twining shape, our attention, unguided, was flitting here and there. It occurred to me that I was looking at the room through the eyes of the children, for whom everything is new, and I immensely enjoyed doing so. Let the others, who have prior conceptions, listen to the Syrian guide, let the others look for explanations, historical context, critical appreciation. I didn´t know what the grown-ups were saying, and I didn´t care that much, because Jumana and Bashir and I were learning to see – to read – this room in all its splendor and it seemed impossible that there should be something else outside, another world, my own country.


I was reminded of certain philosophical thought experiments, like John Searle´s Chinese Room, or Schrödinger´s cat, that hinge on the fact of complete isolation from the outside world. Here I was, a foreigner in a beautiful, ancient hall from Syria, surrounded by Arabic-speaking Syrians, my friends from Aleppo, who were touched and bewildered at the same time. And yet, I was still in my own country. Or was I?