EVERYTHING BEGINS before it begins, but also and always after: the ritualized encounter with one’s self, by the act of returning to repeat one’s self, to meet one’s self or one’s double in the tomorrow of today, which has just occurred or will be. Take a breath. (Everything in the world begins like this.) Open up. Squeeze the trigger, by which I mean your index; the finger but also the gesture of indexicality, the rush that comes from accretion, or its appearance — the link between availability and possibility, possibility and the primacy of dreams — the pointing toward an unconsummated yet consumable possession, which arrives upon waking, or walking, around Berlin.
What gaze prevents or presents an atrophy of being?
Like all performances, Berlin’s staging of history is a means not to remember so much as an attempt at exorcism, transmuting the past into something so public it can’t actually be seen; a city operating under the well-known artifice that everything today needs to be seen to be believed and yet nothing one sees can be taken for the real. Let me, too, be for others what I can never be for myself.
At some point, if I’m remembering this correctly, I stopped writing letters to Walter Benjamin and started living in the neighborhood of his youth, reading A Berlin Childhood as I walked around his beloved Krumme Straße, and the Tiergarten, and Savignyplatz, which is where I return every night, at least in memory, under the shade of the rail and some swift machine. Sometime after or before my body slips between the pressed sheets of an air-conditioned hotel room on Charlottenburg’s tree-lined, artificial Kurfürstendamm where buses and their long, drawn drone pass beyond my eyes and somewhere below them: the high, wide windows I keep ajar, so I can slip between dreams and sleep, sleep and dreams, too. Unless it’s to let another’s dreams in.
A little over a year has passed since I traveled in the footsteps of the long-dead German Jewish philosopher, redrafting his narrative of exile by placing myself there, traversing the same cities and villages and mountain roads, and bridging gaps between 1940 and today to shed light on the undocumented microhistories of migration and the dead end of diaspora: the largest human displacement since World War II. If I wanted to better understand the ethical question of refugee representations, and the broader social and political agency of the personal text produced in transit, it would become necessary, too, to force a passage from exile to heimat, the home that was — after Benjamin’s seven-year displacement ended in death — unreturnable. It was necessary, a year after revisiting an exile, to return to Berlin; a return that was an arrival; an arrival that brought with it the resurgence of today’s migratory drift, alongside the attempts to assimilate an emerging émigré population within a national polity.
Today’s issues of integration and hospitality are each informed by the specter of Cold War colonialism but also and especially Cold War capitalism, its manufacturing of bodies and labor. And it isn’t just the collective refusal to talk about a reunification-without-integration that haunts today’s refugee culture in Berlin. It is useful to deconstruct diaspora within a generational framework and, specifically, to look at the border closure’s immediate effect on immigration to Berlin, an influx of “guest workers” that was spurred, as so much refugee-generation is today, by the need for cheap labor: young people mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe who were recruited by the West to fill the literal gaps left by the 60,000 border-crossers who could no longer reach their workplaces when the West was sealed off on August 13, 1961. Coincidentally, it was not just the West German economy that relied on cheap labor; up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was common practice for East German companies to staff prisoners, utilizing forced labor for the manufacturing of goods to be purchased in the West: a state economic plan that could not otherwise be fulfilled.
I want to remember a coinciding system of labor exploitation enacted across the Atlantic. The United States’s Bracero program (1917–1921 and 1942–1964), which, during the 1950s, annually imported an average of 333,000 persons from Mexico and Guam, was intended to fill labor shortages with low-wage and vulnerable temporary workers, many of whom were deemed “illegal” when the program ended in 1964. Those workers who returned to Mexico and Guam, and who, upon returning, were legally guaranteed to receive savings accounts from accumulated mandatory wage deductions, were never paid. These former and formal operations of indentured servitude parallel the precarious and temporary labor contracts so common in the Gulf states today, where labor brokers (dalal) exploit foreign workers’ lack of resources and knowledge about the nature of employment while sponsorship systems (kafala) bind migrants to single employers who retain workers’ passports, precluding them from leaving the country and suspending their pay at will.
Here we are forced to imagine, or reconsider, the definition of the “guest” in today’s world as in the past: what does it mean to be a guest whose primary role is to work? What does it mean to “invite” someone to be in service of another? The Gastarbeiter is exactly the specter that haunts today’s regime of national points-based systems  from which to measure internally excluded migrants, all those who risk everything to arrive into a freedom that is provisional and limited.
I remember the bus ride from Tegel to Charlottenburg the morning I arrived in Berlin even if I don’t remember the route; I remember — head hanging out the window to lean into the August sun, the sound of morning — passing streets I’d never seen before, streets I’d never imagined, and thinking that I had returned; that I was closer to home than I’d ever been before; closer to a home I had never been to and that no longer exists; a home that stopped existing the moment I was born: somewhere between the East and the West, Poland and Cuba. And it seemed as if Berlin in 2018 was the furthest into the past I could ever go as the second generation of Cold War exiles, if the compass one were using was calibrated to the geopolitical coordinates of the last century, when the Russian my mom was being taught in przedszkola publiczne and which my dad would have been taught at Universidad de Oriente, if he had stayed, overlaps with my nonexistent German (bitte; danke; können Sie mir helfen?), with my broken Polish, with my Spanish spoken with a Brooklyn accent, with my English that is too often undecided, even as it leaves my mouth.
And when I walk across Checkpoint Charlie, on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, where visitors can take photos with German men dressed as Allied borderguards, standing in front of a stack of sandbags and a booth labeled US ARMY CHECKPOINT, thumbs up in the air and clutching, with their other hands, the United States flag, I think of the uncles and aunts I’ve never met; all the people I never met and whom I nevertheless love, who stayed, playing out the well-rehearsed scene of history in jail or in another kind of indefinite detention.
Is this why Berlin has always fascinated me? Is this why I came? Not for Walter Benjamin’s exile, nor to return to the locale of his childhood, but to return to the childhood of my parents, S and J; to masquerade (a familiar travel trick) as my mother and father before they were my mother and father; to rub up against the question of inheritance, the itinerary of passage that I’d inherited but had never embarked upon. I am displacing the origin again; preferring to defer the investigation of the source unless I’m lunging deeper now, answering Benjamin’s call: not to excavate but to drill. Was Benjamin, in the end or at the very beginning, just another pretext? Was what I was really after not the task of redrafting Walter Benjamin’s exile but the irreparable undertaking to redraft my own? And to know it as I know my own parents, before they were my parents, to know it as I know myself — the paradise of every undiscovered life, hidden in plain view, public so that it might remain concealed, concealed so that it might be begged to exposure. Risk, vulnerability, embrace, the cradling of disparate bodies, which included my own. Coded queer and straight, brown and white, immigrant and citizen. My non-arrival of diaspora, the indelible mark of cubanía, to be recognized and to recognize what it is to be now here and not from here and also to be never here, an entanglement that ruptures the logic of individuation.
I would have liked to return to the past, I remember thinking, on the bus ride whose route I can only map in smells. Forgetting or pretending to omit that I was already there, that I could return to the sites of rupture and displacement, of 1959 and 1963, not by ever arriving, but by continuing to pivot a certain detour. To disappear as an act of excess, and an excess that is the feint of movement. Like everyone who has ever passed; like the East Berliners who proclaimed themselves to be passing, before and especially on the ninth of November 1989, when the face was stamped again and again and again and again by border police in an erratic attempt at identification, or impoverishment.
This is what Berlin was to me; Die Hauptstadt, Capital of Spies, and I was chief among them. This is what Berlin could be for me.
If I were revisiting these notes, if I were, by chance, revisiting myself from the future of the present, if I wanted this notebook to be both a record and a sigil, I’d remark:
It is Friday, August 3, 2018. In three days, the media will report that the United States government is expected to issue a proposal that would make it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens if they have ever used a range of public welfare programs. The following week, Austrian officials will reject the asylum application of an Afghan teenager because he did not “walk, act, or dress” like a gay man, forcing him to return to Afghanistan, where homosexuality remains illegal. Four weeks later, nearly 8,000 far-right German citizens in the eastern city of Chemnitz, just south of Berlin, will march to protest their nation’s immigration policy, flashing Nazi salutes, stoking hatred against foreigners that will lead to the stabbing of a migrant as he sits with his family in a café. Meanwhile, in Greece’s largest refugee camp, in the four months since April, there have been at least 21 reported cases of sexual assault; nearly half of the cases at Moria in Lesvos involved boys and girls under the age of 18; two incidents involved five-year-old children.
I’d want to know what is to be done for the things and people who cannot pass, or who, like the time outside of history, refuse to pass.
Like everything post-internet, not one wall but multiple, divided and yet indivisible, a hall (wall?) of mirrors that reflects, not the person standing before it, but only its own rich and repetitive history — a (re)enactment of performed sentimentality. If this were a photo album or a film instead of a notebook masquerading as an essay, we would both be looking at or through the narrow slit afforded to guests, forced to imagine an encounter with a gray sky; a sky so impassive or impassable it obscures the sun and thus makes time stop. What is the re-membering of history but an experience of waiting? History waits for us to enter; we wait for history to stop reproducing itself in our own memory.
In this text, I want to track the flow of migration with the understanding that a citation can be a form of solemnity; these events occurred, this violence happened, is still happening — and each time I transcribe this here, each time I repeat its dated report, I want to account for the people that have been obscured by their own cultural and media representations, by the maelstrom of a 24-hour news cycle, by a blur that has nothing to do with the movement of a body in space, but on the contrary: with the body’s indeterminate detainment. Another way of asking this is: How do we remember what we’ve lived through, how do we remember what’s passed over us?
For the “Welcoming Museums” project in Puglia, I met with refugees who have been trained in intercultural dialogue and aided in securing positions of power and instructional roles at Lecce’s Sigismondo Castromediano and Brindisi’s Ribezzo Museum. The year-long endeavor involved the co-production of multimedia storytelling — writing, art, photography, video — the sharing of self-narratives, and the deviation from membership that begins and ends in nationalism and polity, culminating in the appointment of “certificates of cultural citizenship” months before I arrived.
Ten years earlier, Giorgio de Finis, an art curator based in Rome, decided to provide security through art for displaced people in Italy’s capital by turning an abandoned salami factory and slaughterhouse into a contemporary art museum and educational center providing language lessons, open to the public every Saturday. Until it was shut down and restored to property conglomerate Salini Impregilo in July 2018, the Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove di Metropoliz (Metropolis Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere) also housed 200 people, including families from Peru, Morocco, Romania, and Ukraine. The court ruling did not just mean the replacement of the creative-cultural refuge with residential apartments but also the eviction of the children, women, and men living inside the museum. And yet, by fostering cross-cultural exchange between migrants and their host communities through its hybrid composition of public space and communal residency, MAAM serves as another case study for creative approaches to addressing civic issues, such as the lack of public housing, alongside the isolation of disenfranchised and marginalized persons. Such a revision of public space as a site of refuge implies an interruption — or, more specifically, a reversal — of the violence inherent in the production of these institutions, museums and metropolitan squares alike, like Berlin’s own Alexanderplatz, which was built by slave laborers, including concentration camp prisoners.
How can we rethink the value and function of institutional venues for communal engagement and the advancement of “inclusion” and “diversity”? And how might such changes within our public institutions change the public, not as a community of being-in-common but as one of mutual difference? It was the art space, after all, which became a locus of refuge in September 2014, when the Diyarbakir Arts Center in Turkey opened its doors to the Yazidi refugees who’d escaped Daesh attacks a month earlier. In these scenarios, the museum does not serve the nation through organizing its narrative with the rituals of collection and display but, on the contrary, provokes a form of non-denominational belonging.
My work on alternative refugee-integration models had taken me to Copenhagen, where the first thing I really noticed was the wave of white: several hundred young people sporting sailor caps shouting and dancing from passing buses and open-backed trucks, pop music blasting a trail behind them. Across Denmark during the month of June, newly minted high school graduates take trips around the city — studenterkørsel — waving Danish flags and dancing, showering passersby with greetings and beer to celebrate passing their final exams. What do these rites of passage circumvent or elide in a “socially progressive” nation that resolved in the waning days of 2018 to move “unwanted” migrants to a remote uninhabited island used, in the past, for holding contagious animals? One of the two boats used to ferry persons to Lindholm Island is called The Virus.
The Schwulenberatung Berlin’s citizen-refugee living project underscores a synergistic model that has become increasingly more common in the last few years, with initiatives such as Startblok, which launched in Amsterdam’s outskirts in the summer of 2016 when nine blocks of shipping containers were transformed into housing for 565 refugee residents, and Copenhagen’s Trampoline House: a public, educational, creative, and social space gathering asylum seekers, refugees, artists, scholars, journalists, and citizens. When I meet with Morten Goll, who helped found Trampoline House in 2010 and who serves, today, as its executive director, I am offered a glass of Heering, a fruit wine, typical refreshment, he says, of the Danish Royal Court. But what Morten wants, it becomes clear almost immediately, is to problematize the existing state of affairs across Denmark and, in particular, in Copenhagen. He twists the cap and I watch the cherry red liqueur pour out over ice; it spreads out and then settles, as Morten begins to speak about the value of the Trampoline House’s weekly house meeting, or what he calls “our parliament,” a topic that he will continue to return to throughout our conversation.
“It’s derived,” he says, “from the basic democracy where we want to create equality in between all participants so that we don’t have victims and experts or actors and subjects. We wanted to set up this relation where we sort of deprogram the racism we are all engulfed in. If they come in from the camps, and they are treated and viewed as victims, it becomes unavoidable to perceive them as anything more. That is why we’ve said from the beginning: we aren’t here to save anyone; we are here to solve problems together.”
To explain the transformative potential of each house meeting, Morten sketches the scene. Seven circles constellate “an amorphous blob,” and inside each circle is a smaller circle: the culture that each person carries into a shared space. “The key,” Morten explains, pointing to the arrows leaking from each larger circle, “is that everybody has to sort of leave their culture a little bit in order to enter into that space in between us where we have this polymorphic weird thing: a new culture.” The new culture Morten describes requires both abandonment and surrender, the necessity to return and to return differently.
What’s the difference between what’s visible and what’s memorable? Do I have to see things in order to remember them? Video from vidēre: to see.
At the Berlin Wall Memorial, I took videos of the videos displaying found footage of the most daring escapes of East German citizens.
Reflection/projection: Past penetrating the future. Present tense as an overlay.
“In any case you can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.”
The videos of the videos become their own art objects — tokens that present the inability to move — and yet the girls on the bicycles and the tour-goers leisurely walking around in 2018 also enter the static past to be reflected in Kodachrome color, merging in and moving outside a singular chronology.
“Dreaming has a share in history,” Benjamin writes. What is forgotten, I think, is that history, too, must have a share in dreams. And what I mean is that what remains to be written is not the history of the dream, as Benjamin argued, but the dream of history. That history can be rewritten through dreams, coincidence, trance, and fantasy, the residue of our unconscious that alters the trajectory of our waking, conscious life.
We already know that integration without modulation can only reproduce instead of respond. Through informing the public about the conditions faced by asylum seekers and refugees in Denmark, the Trampoline House also advocates for structural change on the policy level by working closely with the municipalities that are responsible for the problematic conditions of asylum seekers and refugees. Perhaps nowhere is this emphasis on activism more evident within Trampoline House’s holistic curriculum than in its attached Center for Art on Migration Politics. CAMP, a self-governing exhibition venue founded in 2015 and closed in 2020, housed work by more established artists alongside those produced by refugees and migrants, becoming a site of inquiry and critique that explored questions of displacement, asylum, and passages.
“We try to map key factors in migration politics,” CAMP’s creative director, Frederikke Hansen, explains, referencing We shout and shout, but no one listens: Art from conflict zones, a 2017 exhibition comprising installation, photography, painting, readymade, collage, and performance works that culminated with a discussion. “And we have been talking in exhibitions with events about camps, how they function, what they keep in, what they keep out, what it is like to be in a camp.”
Frederikke’s choice of words forces us to think more closely about the economy of images, particularly those that circulate narratives of migration and detention. What images are received, and how they are received, inform the ways in which persons are treated in the asylum system; whether they are admitted, or whether they are ignored and obscured. It is this negotiation of the gap between perception and observation that ultimately provoked Trampoline House to expand from workshop to civic center.
“From the beginning when we started out as a think tank, we decided that we wanted to engage with asylum seekers in order to figure out what their lives were like because they were constantly being used as scapegoats by politicians,” Morten says. “Everybody was talking about refugees, but no one was talking to them. And actually, it was impossible to meet them, because they were stored away in camps. In remote areas that you couldn’t even access.”
Alternate titles to this essay include: Views like that (from that window over here).
The DDR Museum sells Che Guevara saucers.
(I know a bit hard to believe but believe it.)
Remember? The anecdote about the hiring of border guards who had just become fathers (to prevent escape).
My Berlin Wall videos are like a camera trick (what would it mean to produce a series of desynchronizing instances in the landscape of a text?) — a blackout meant to modify reality; making the past and present indecipherable means a world without memorialization, unless it means the memory of a new world, penetrating the unseen or the all-seeing, which sometimes is the same thing.
Remember? The culture of art and the culture of death came together in the 20th century — a century of continuous disfigurations.
(It was like cinema, only sped up instead of in slow motion.)
My face pierced by other faces, a metal rod, the silhouette of branches, a tree. A double exposure created by the train coming up from my right, overtaking me. The landscape fleeing and taking my face with it.
(The two technologies seem to overlap and melt like ghost images, forgetting for a moment that all images are already ghosts.)
Berlin Present & The Gift of the Past, which is nowhere if not playing across my T-shirt as I film this. Enter a third sequence, which is ours: out of sync and unresolvable.
(I stood and watched East German commercials from the 1970s.)
For every escape, she explained, turning to me as if she had to look at me so that I could really believe it, so that I could look at her looking at me as she was saying it, there were a dozen deaths, two dozen arrests. One hundred and thirty-six Berliners died trying to cross over; 92 were shot by DDR border guards, who were rewarded with medals and bonuses for the use of firearms to prevent an escape, an anecdote I find when transcribing these notes, when I think to look up from the text.
Remember what the Berlin Wall was called on the other side? An Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier.
What we see on video, she says, is only what made it out. Made it out of where? I think. What’s between the East and the West? And how to measure the divide, the middle of the earth shared or sectioned off, a liminal stretch of “no man’s land” comprising inner walls, protection barriers, minefields, observation towers, alarmed fences, barbed wires, and dog patrols? After the border was closed, best friends and family would gather at Bernauer Straße, above the ghost station of Nordbahnhof, to wave to one another.
On YouTube, you can find (if you were so inclined to search), a video of David Hasselhoff performing “Looking for Freedom” in front of the Brandenburg Gate, on New Year’s Eve in 1989. Hasselhoff, hovering in the cage of a hoisting crane above the Berlin Wall, croons, his fist raised to the sky (halfway between East and West, cloud and ground):
One morning in June
some 20 years ago
I was born a rich man’s son
I had everything
that money could buy
but freedom I had none
The blinking lights sewn onto his black leather jacket continue to light up sporadically, tantalizing the viewer, or the half a million Berliners standing, stretching, arms raised above their heads, below him.
K, who isn’t always K, tells me about their continuous shifts in name and birthplace — ethnicity, race — but also their gender. K has been a resident at Schwulenberatung for six months, not all of them as K, who has been twice deported (from different countries) and who, at the time of our conversation, is awaiting a temporary German work permit.
K is K today. I wonder if, on Monday, if we meet again, at the Löwenbrücke, the suspension bridge overseen and upheld by a pair of cobalt lions on each side, facing east, facing west, where we are meeting now, K will still be K, or whether K will be F, or even D, which was their birthname, the name they burned years ago. In a place that is no longer home or never was, for they knew that whoever they were or would be would be on the move. Ecstatic flight, which means non-arrival: to leave the ground and to remain hovering. K’s history of maneuvers reminds me, too, to move beyond the self-evident acknowledgment that we may not be the same person in different geographical contexts. Fugitivity means to shift our ideas about location, but also setting: to insist upon the shifting location of all identity. As we sit here, on a long stretch of grass half-held in shade, I think about K’s strategies as constituting a refusal to be recognized and reified within the normative values of citizenship, not by resisting but by reworking the conditions of recognition.
When K says goodbye, when K leaves, walking toward another statue or a plot of flowers outside the frame — the former television tower, which has become my Berlin compass — I lay down, spreading my body against the grass in lieu of a blanket, which I forget to pack, which I didn’t have to begin with. I close my eyes and think about legibility, about the point at which we become no longer subjects or objects, the point at which we become no longer legible except as humans.
A question of representation →
A question of ecological belonging and hauntological trace →
A question of rupture that is not final but formative, when “aftermath” is not finite but reoccurring →
A question of reversing the logic of Western universalism: not to make everything available (that is to say: visible, sortable, graspable, consumable) but to convert the well-rehearsed historical past into the realm of the unspeakable; to silence the dominant and dominating narrative of history, as well as modernism’s reification of cultural difference through primitivism →
What happens when we recalibrate the terms of visibility in relation to an affective experience that serves quiet contemplation in place of visual (de)termination and binary thinking? →
What other histories emerge? What futures? →
By the time David Hasselhoff performed “Looking for Freedom” for Germany’s Silvester Show, he had been looking for a job in the United States. Knight Rider, a show about an undercover detective who gets shot on duty, has his face reconstructed, and returns as the same person under a different name, had completed its run three years earlier; Baywatch, which would be canceled after a single season, had not yet aired. Nevertheless, Looking for Freedom, Hasselhoff’s 1989 album of the same name, would hit triple platinum across Europe; in between its release and the record’s vast circulation across the Atlantic, Poland would hold its first free elections. Are these coincidences or coordinates?
As I graph this map (a family tree), I want to remember David Hasselhoff, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland; captain of the volleyball team and president of the choir; David Hasselhoff, who financed Baywatch’s revival for the first-run syndication market two years after its sudden abandonment; musician, actor, executive director, talent judge, who has sung on stage in English, German, and Spanish; David Hasselhoff, who holds a Guinness World Record for being the most watched man on TV. That one could have dual lives in the same world; that freedom could be staged and sold for Western audiences and Eastern audiences alike; that the meaning of a border depends upon the direction one faces, the sense of purpose or belonging that one is faced with, or fed.
“The way we are living and working is the Western way and we know it — but we only know this way of life,” says Marcel de Groot, who has managed the Schwulenberatung Berlin for the last 17 years. “And this way of life is often unrecognizable to the people we serve, the people we shelter. And if it’s not working — and it’s not working — we need to find new ways of solving problems.”
For the Schwulenberatung, which offers housing for up to 122 refugees, that has meant the genesis of a new project: the government-funded Betreutes Wohnen (Assisted Living) project, which began in June 2018, promoting domestic interaction by offering four apartments for 30 people and mandating mutual living spaces: at least two refugees reside with German citizens within each unit. Prior to its launch, no such programs existed solely for LGBTI persons. It isn’t the first time the center has had to reorient its practice; Schwulenberatung’s staff, which include 120 employees and several other volunteers, had no experience living with refugees prior to 2015, when, during the year’s final quarter, nearly 100 instances of violence against queer migrants were reported to the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany. Berlin, too, had no experience accommodating queer refugees until one month later, when Schwulenberatung transformed from the largest LGBTI organization in the city to the largest LGBTI refugee center in the world: an all-in-one shelter with rehabilitation, therapy, housing, employment, and social services.
“Difficulties is all we have,” Marcel tells me when I ask about the specific challenges of helping the persons who walk through the center’s doors. The reality of chronic debilitation and the omnipresence of violence remains unchanged for LGBTI refugees who apply for and ultimately receive asylum in Berlin. Landlords don’t want to rent to them; employers don’t want to hire them; daily surveillance and security is required at all times at the shelter’s entrance, a complicated fact obscured by the hostility and harm that pervades daily life outside the shelter’s doors. Within the bureaucratic and social whirlpool that migrants must wade through, the “choice” is merely to remain in spare living quarters devoid of privacy while outside, among the public, to risk enduring potential abuse, poverty, and, often, sexual exploitation.
Today, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized in 71 countries, eight of which punish offenders with death. Fifteen jurisdictions criminalize the gender identity and expression of transgender persons. The arrival to Europe, “even to a cosmopolitan city like Berlin,” Marcel points out, does not represent the end of violence — both physical and psychological — for so many queer migrants. But out of all the issues he cites, the one that seems most germane to the question of representation and the potential for a mobile commons and a migrant sovereignty is the lack of an inclusive comprehension of what it means to be queer in a global context. So many of the refugees I interact with here, who arrive from countries where homosexuality is banned, are thrown into a crisis of self upon being thrust into a world where to be queer does not fit their limited scope of homosexuality; unable to identify with other manifestations of queerness, many refugees call into question their own identity. This difficulty many of the shelter’s residents have understanding themselves and their sexuality parallels the world’s broader understanding of migration as it is articulated in the media, across scholarship, and within literature and the visual arts; at stake in each instance is a discernment of the many divergent qualities that “make up” a migrant, provoking the call for greater intersectionality within and outside our institutions.
And yet, a general understanding of sexuality needs also to be called into question when the conception of a generalizable queer identity is imported by the West. It is not just the limits of Western conceptions of selfhood that are reinscribed in migration discourse, but the limits of Western conceptions of queer selfhood and, moreover, the limits of the pursuit of recognition when it follows the logic of likeness, the logic of sameness — a common strategy of mainstream lesbian and gay activism at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. The “mounting insecurity about ‘gay identity,’” Scott Long, the founding director of the LGBT Rights Program for Human Rights Watch, has written, so often results in the mounting desire “to ground it in something secure,” an assimilation of another’s experience under “the appeal to a ‘gay’ universality.” Is not Marcel de Groot’s assessment of the queer refugees he shelters susceptible, too, to the fraught Western framework of the “cosmopolitan city” of Berlin from which he offers hospitality? I want to continue to think about the queer refugee camp as a site of productive discord, a site of crossroads, where such issues are related and returned to as questions; where we can limn connections between sites of refuge and resistance and sites of control and surveillance.
To understand how authorities monitor and control the influx of migration at the border through specific and sexualized orientations, we must also acknowledge the legal precedents that queer migrants are required to negotiate as they move. Explore, for instance, how “family” as a structural governmental formation organizes the conditions for gay asylum, while producing a racialized and gendered labor migration. Remember that, since at least the 1980s (punctuated by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), the US has been able to extend and institute heteronormative community structures by requiring immigrants to attach themselves to the family unit and, moreover, to the welfare provisions it allows. This conditional hospitality fosters the recruitment of low-wage workers while relocating the responsibility to provide them with economic and social resources within the state’s reorganization under neoliberalism. As an entitled citizen-subject becomes increasingly securitized, low-cost immigrant laborers — akin to guest workers — are either forced into patriarchal and heterosexual mandates or forced to survive at the limits of society, as unprotected and ineligible, as undesirables whose queerness can neither enter the national record nor preserve the liberal narrative of universality that provides the nation’s origin story, its foundational myth.
In 1990, I was four. Then I was five. We spent the summers in Miami, at the home of my abuela, who exists there today, in my memory, holding a broom that she’d often use to chase away cucarachas. At a certain point (unless I’m remembering this wrong), the cool light of the TV turned on; I was sitting on my abuela’s rocking chair, unless she was the one sitting there and I aboard her lap, rocking, too, against cloth, against flesh. Maybe it was CNN, or ABC, or CBS. Does it matter which? What matters — even then, as a child — was the montage that appeared soon after I had turned to look, a coinciding of appearance that makes me wonder whether a look can serve as a form of reanimation.
I wanted to look; to keep looking. CNN (or ABC, or CBS) had produced one of those seminal “annual reviews,” except it was summer (wasn’t it?) and why would the news program be recapping the year in the middle of August? Anyway, the footage: A series of discrete moments, various geographies threaded together by the commentary of an unseen narrator. I stopped (while continuing to look, to watch) on a single scene: crowds of people grabbing bricks from a wall, throwing them down or raising them, instead, above their heads; waving the bricks across the sky. The camera pans out and a wave of people rush in, except there are so many bodies that hardly anybody moves, or if they move, they move as one body, a multitude that cannot move except to raise a rectangular slab of clay and ash, to wave it or toss it into the distance. Jump cut to several tanks being mobilized, or demobilized. I couldn’t tell; would never be able to tell which; and anyway, I wasn’t thinking about mobility then, at least not in those words, at least not in words.
If 1989 saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the diffusion of democracy across Europe, two years later the Strait of Gibraltar became another border, a perilous, suffocating, one-way route for people — some separated only by nine miles — who could no longer travel freely to fortress Europe. The Schengen Agreement, which proposed open borders and mutual policies in the parlance of internationalism, elides other questions of mobility: open borders for whom? The discourse of transnational fluidity forgets that what a border means, and how it operates, depends on a perspective that is also shifting. And yet it is exactly this erratic aspect — the border as various and variable — that might inform the project of its circumvention by those persons the state and its homeland infrastructure refuses, or fails, to recognize.
Human displacement does not just contribute to Western economic and political practices, but also to the production of such proto-nationalist narratives, through which the state controls its own role as a representative agent by controlling how its citizens are written. Control by the state begins with its reworking the text of its citizens, identifying bodies and marking them, reinscribing them into an inside-outside dialectic. Just as the naturalization process has been shown to produce a discourse of otherness at the same moment that it grants the right to belong, the asylum system has been understood as a generator of new-old essentializing constructions of sexuality that function within nationalist logics.
By “new-old” I mean the antiquated aspect of “immutable” sexuality that persons must revive and, later, reaffirm, in order to gain asylum on the basis of being persecuted for their sexual orientation. The logic so often used to exclude queer persons was now, as sociologist Lionel Cantú Jr. pointed out at the turn of the millennium, being used to establish their eligibility. Such are the terms of limitations and limitations of terminology for persons applying for asylum, which has been available in the United States since 1980 to those fleeing persecution on account of five criteria: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, a category that, by 1994, included lesbians and gay men.
What is missing among this roll call is the material relations of race, gender, class, sexuality, economic status, and geopolitics. What is missing is closer attention to the ways in which asylum testimony risks reinscribing the same structures of inequality from which applicants seek refuge.
Into what system are migrants welcomed? What are the prescriptions of the request? The double-bind offered by asylum is to produce a testimony that will grant you legal residence while also fueling racist, homophobic, and colonialist relations that will be detrimental to your newly “protected” life. Yet it is not only life that is sanctioned by such a universalizing norm of rights, but death, the metrics of identification and recognition, of being out, against which non-legibility — non-visibility — is equivalent to mankind’s passing into disposability.
Asylum thus can be read as an invitation: for the nation to be absolved of its past through a reproduction of the script of liberal progressiveness, a reenacting of the rescue (i.e., the violence committed against) the “developing world.”
Later, I will leave Charlottenburg; I will arrive in the United States before returning to Germany; the city will have changed while remaining, on the surface, like all museum cities, untouched or untouchable; I will speak with Helen Müller, who has worked with the Kreuzberger Initiative gegen Antisemitismus (KIGA) since 2017. Helen will stress that KIGA, which was founded in 2004, is not a program that aims at fostering integration, if only because integration, as Helen will point out, is a concept often used in discourse in Germany to package nationalist desires. The organization’s slogan, “Politische Bildung für die Migrationsgesellschaft” (Civic Education for the Migrant Society), underscores the ways in which society is shaped and enriched by migrancy. “We understand it in a way that migration is natural, and the main question now as in the past is how living together in a diverse society can work. Our approach,” Helen will tell me (and I write these notes to be reminded of this imminent occasion), “is not to talk about integration but about living together in a diverse society.”
What seems evident is the necessity of cultivating ambiguity and tolerance: the mindset to accept the fact that different perspectives should coexist and that tension can be productive, discomfort a salve. To recognize this celebration of difference as society’s true strength: to remake a culture of consensus as a culture of hospitality.
KIGA’s ongoing “Discover Diversity — between the Present and the Past” workshops, which involve training young refugees to become peer-to-peer instructors in various secondary schools in Berlin and Brandenburg, encourage engagement and critical self-reflection. The project, when it began in January 2016, was a response to common self-silencing and a move toward accountability on the institutional and individual levels. After a one-year phase of interviewing local teachers on their perceived needs and challenges in civic education with young refugees, “Discover Diversity” turned toward applying this knowledge in the development of workshops for schools while conceptualizing and conducting its “train-the-trainer” program. “Our goal is participation not only on a ‘listening to’ level,” Helen says, “but on a level that gives participants agency and influence in decision-making processes.”
In its reorientation of civic education in German society, and Berlin in particular, KIGA also provides a framework, not for escaping the past and the specter of the guest worker but, on the contrary, for learning from the myth of reunification, and rigorously questioning our current worldviews and logic, the customs of assimilation and ownership and conditional hospitality; our own failure, perhaps, to follow theory with practice, within and outside of the academy. And yet these aspirations, to build a more democratic union within Germany and to educate migrants in such civic practices, raises a further question about what “democracy” means in the context of the contemporary pandemic and in light of the security procedures of democratic nations. Across Germany and elsewhere in Europe and Asia, as borders closed, indispensable migrant workers became disposable, marked as “illegal” in the nation or state of their employment as well as in their own home, which became, at the stroke of midnight for some, unreturnable.
Might an education of “practicing democracy” be only the initial learning outcome on a syllabus that aims to question the terms (and limits) of democratic participation? — political rights, which do not equate with social and economic rights, and state membership, which does not, in fact, provide equal protection by the state.
The camp and the city are today indistinguishable, the former melting into the latter, and vice versa; the urban camp is not just a feature of today’s cities — Paris, Berlin, Belgrade, Budapest, Athens, Rome … — but is, in many cases, initiated and managed by these cities.  We know that 60 percent of all refugees and 80 percent of all internally displaced persons live, today, in urban areas rather than organized camps. The growth of cities, and of migrant populations within them, will inevitably provoke the breakdown of categories and classifications, of persons and of spaces.
Imagining the city as an environment — an occasion — for mobility has never been more pertinent, now when the occupation of urban space as a tactical strategy (see the examples of Rabaa al Adawiya Square in 2013, Tahrir Square in 2011, Mustapha Mahmoud Square in 2005) has been used to actualize an alternative political future, now when pandemic and shelter-at-home restrictions have altered and interrogated the psychic geography of a public commons. Within that break, which is also a meeting, there is something that cannot be assimilated. In producing necessary contradictions, necessary adjustments, this excess, which is a remainder, breaks the illusion of integration.
In Berlin, they still call it Eastern times. Western times. Where time takes on or is corrupted by space. Where spatial disruption edges forever outward, wrecking not only place but the history of the people it contains.
The eternal return of all things, which, as Benjamin knew, was childhood wisdom, culled from a course on the revolving deck of the Carousel.
I walk through the Tiergarten; even if this happened in the past, I would write it into the present. I try to put him there. I picture the child, arms clasping a horse he’s secretly named. I focus my face and blink three times.
CLICK CLICK CLICK
the sense of touch before
the tongue to taste
Translation is always — isn’t it? — an embrace, not a grasping but an act of holding; to go without saying means to go by way of feeling, and this feeling it out necessitates a finding — and losing — one’s self in meaningful contradictions. What remains, endures. Or: We endure what remains. It is because the past is never past but always present in our lives that we are accountable to cut it open, see what leaks out. We are made accountable; we are made to account for the difference.
In-tend: So much lives between syllables: To move, direct, or develop one’s course in a particular direction; to stretch, to direct one’s self; to pay attention; to act as an attendant (that is to serve); to listen, to await; to manage or apply one’s self to the care of, to watch over, to cultivate, to foster — and more still if one were to add a different syllable. I am talking about being succulent. Having a soft and generous texture, highly susceptible to impressions or emotion. Tender. A kind of presentation, an offer, a gift.
the nearness of a neck
fragrance of the flesh
bestowed upon me
(I am standing in line at the C/O Berlin.)
The failure of integration is not that migrants cannot socially and culturally translate themselves into their host communities but that host communities are unwilling to surrender to their own act of translation — an adjustment and accommodation that is necessarily in flux, always on the move, fixing only to the demand of assiduously challenging one’s self.
(Two angels hear see watch over everything. But not all thoughts have wings. And so they can’t get inside the people they preside over. They can only learn by looking.)
Benjamin, in recalling his dear friend Brecht, remembered that the actor can show the event only by showing himself. What could be more important, I often think, than disclosing your subject-position as researcher while disclosing your research? The performative researcher, or artist-as-recorder, articulates a kind of consciousness altogether different than historical consciousness, and it is this divergence that bears the labor of personal accounting.
There are people — I’ve seen a woman just now — whose task it is to brush the dust and dirt from the Stolpersteine. When she stood up and walked away, toward another, it was my turn to look upon the small brass block, to attend to the engraving, to imagine the person behind the name, and the date of birth, and the date of deportation. Wondering all the while about the date of death, or what happens when the body disappears from the record of the law, the law of record. How do we begin to remember what is missing?
Everywhere: Berlin’s urban furnishing … modernity’s theme park through the 20th century … Nazi Germany, Cold War Germany, Post-Reunification Germany, Theater of Spies … another kind of carousel.
I can stand here like this. I can stand here as if still in motion, or still in the middle, right on the edge of it, up against it which is nothing but air now — how do we measure surfaces? how to know what separates the surface from what lies below it, what rises through it, nothing but air now, nothing but nothing but nothing but air — and think about the conversion. Of losing myself or of becoming you or of merging the two of us and what passes and how. In mathematics, too, a border is a place where signs change values.
As I read these lines, I am reminded of the story of migrant laborers who, while constructing social housing complexes in Algeria and Morocco in the 1950s, would salvage, before leaving, the materials trashed at the building site to construct their own homes, replicas of state originals produced through reappropriation and renewal. I am reminded, too, of an anecdote shared with me by a fellow researcher in Korea, who passed along an anecdote told to her in turn, about a Korean immigrant factory worker in the United States who, instead of giving his supervisor, line boss, or coworkers his birth or given name, provided them with the Korean word for “boss”: 사장님 (sa-jang-nim). He never translated it for them. Whenever they called to him, whenever he was hailed, he would hear: “Hey, boss.”
In the film, I write, when characters go to memory they go to documentary. As if memories — all memories — can only be retrieved by presenting them as objective facts.
(The Nazi flag drapes precariously in the background on set; Berliners keep playing out the scene of their own crash.)
I wait for my photo at the photo booth. Out comes someone else’s face. On the street each person carries their own border around with them and demands a toll whenever another wants to enter.
This could be the beginning of a story.
This essay is part of a larger project titled The Great Forgetters: A Memoir of Exile, whose story encompasses the different legacies of war, displacement, and asylum.
Chris Campanioni’s latest book is A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020). Recent work has appeared in BOMB, Catapult, Nat. Brut, and Fence, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
 The United Kingdom’s points-based system consisting of a five-tier visa system, premised on Australia’s existing model, and the recently introduced RAISE Act (February 13, 2017) in the United States of America, all of which categorize migrants based on their “value,” “talent,” and “skill” for work.
 See: Berlin Tempelhof’s camp, which launched in October 2015 in the adapted hangars of the Nazi-built former Tempelhof Airport located in the city’s center; or the Centre Humanitaire Paris-Nord, which opened a year later. Sites of violence and industrial capital have ghosted the present as municipal spaces of mobility and detainment.