The Youth is a Ghost, Haunting my Falafel Research:

 South Sudanese independence…”We are all Egyptians”…Gentrifizierung NO, or a  Brave New Squatter-free Berlin…and some damn-good chickpeas, a peanut sauce.

As a professional falafel controller, I read the store-front window advertising a rare style and was compelled to investigate. I was excited to find something new…and perhaps owners that weren’t flipping out over politics. My job hasn’t been easy lately.

Thin and crispy brown on the outside, a moist, green flavor explosion on the inside, a light salad, a peanut sauce drizzled over, a warm fresh pita. The plate a landscape of tasty; a pool of olive oil topped, lemony sour hummus, hills of foul, a North African bean salad, the coffee similar to a minty Arabic coffee, but served in a larger cup.

This was last week. My observations were positive.

 Further research would be necessary, but my initial conclusion was the Sudanese make a mean falafel. At least this guy did. Falafel headquarters would be pleased with my report.

If it were only that simple.

Stumbling back outside and around the corner in my post-chickpea euphoric state, I turned the corner and found a police troop in riot gear at the next street, eyeing nervously the youth gathered sparsely around them.

Shit…this must be Liebig,” I thought.

Liebig 14 was the street and number of a squatter house the police had evicted the day before. Around since 1990, the house previously had a deal with the building’s owner, but according to the squatters, now that the area was a hip, cool kid neighborhood, or Scenenkiez as it’s called around here, the said greedy bastard capitalist owner wanted to kick them out and rent it for much more to some young professional latte-drinking douchbag from out of town.

The owners defense was pretty much, “yea, and? Why should I sit around taking 1990 level rent from a bunch of bums, because of some hippy-dippy deal from twenty years ago, when everyone around him was making huge sums renting at the going market rate in Berlin’s booming economy?”

The city sided with the owner. Shocker, I know.

And lo, the cops rolled, and Berlin’s dailies ran headlines all week how the estranged anarchists were putting up a fight. I had actually heard the helicopters and police sirens out my window all week…large explosions (fireworks) had been more common as of late (hard to tell with explosions being so normal in Berlin)… the smack and thudding in the distance every so often audible even through our new, double-glass windows.

Be Owner...Be Investment Group...Be Gentrificator...Be Berlin!

Gentrifizierung was the topic haunting Berlin, the news said. The old run-down, cheap-rent and artsy Kiez were being flooded by droves of hip kids pouring in from elsewhere in Germany and around the world. Kreuzberg, Neukoeln and Friedrichshain, three of the city’s previously poorer areas, where artist, immigrants and low-income folks had congregated for decades, were by now almost overrun by dweebish yuppies, coffee-to-go, hamburger shops design and architecture firms.

It was the same debate one found in every other big city: any cheap and thus conducive to artists and cool neighborhood eventually gets discovered and becomes a yuppie cesspool. The village, St. Denis, The Height, The Bronx, whathaveyou. All ruined by trend migrants. Fashion refugees. Bourgeois shoppers swarming across the land, bursting cool places asunder.

What the city didn’t get, or didn’t care because they were getting paid, was that the punks argument was true: Once the yuppies came and ruined the neighborhood, then the place would be too expensive and cease to be cool, and then the tourists would stay away and Berlin would just be any other clean and safe city where everything was renovated and new. But who the hell cares about culture and art, when you can make a buck, right? Duh.

I was getting pretty involved thinking about the issue. What does it have to do with falafel?
The odd quiet, the near tangible tension between the punks and the police, my fear had distracted me. I had already forgotten the specifics of the previous falafel. I would have to conduct the observations again from the start. The entire test was now a waste.

I will admit the failure of documentation really upset me. So much so, in fact, I put off any further research for several days and I had nearly forgotten about the place. Strangely, it was my association of Liebig 14 and the Sudanese restaurant, which finally led to my return.

Upon seeing a smashed storefront window, in fact, my memory triggered. My instinct was confirmed when I saw the graffiti, “L14” scribbled and sprayed freshly on the walls around the damage. Liebig 14, the squatter getting the boot from the police. Sudanese falafel.

I followed the trail of destruction, evenly spaced like breadcrumbs block after block all the way back to Friedrichshain, past the squatter house and back to the restaurant. Looking at each of the smashed windows, I noted that many windows were untouched next to other windows that were spider-webbed. The riotous youth hadn’t touched any of the old shops: butchers, bakers, stamp and paper stores. And none of the Turkish, Vietnamese or other “Auslander” establishments was damaged.

My scientific curiosity grew with each cracked pain I saw. By the time I arrived, ordered and my man had laid down the plate, my thirst for knowledge had me almost delirious.

It might have been a perfect field experiment, were in not for in that moment  the mistake I made, yet again leaving my scientific documentation interrupted…impossible, really.

The problem was the place was silent…no music, no radio…nothing, and sitting there in the small place, just me and the man behind the counter, so I made the mistake of starting conversation with the guy. I asked him something about the vote in South Sudan and whammo. Never stopped talking. Served me the falafel, drown in politics, his life story, his conspiracy about water.

And exactly that is the problem with conducting falafel research right now. Everywhere you go they’re jabbering about this or that…but what they don’t let a guy do is analyze his falafel in peace.

One of my intended research sites of course turned out to be owned by an Egyptian. This was a couple weeks ago. Think you could get served a falafel this week there inside a half an hour? Not without learning all the intimate details of what everyone in the luckily small restaurant  thought was going on, but surely knew as much as the rest of us. The Mubarak deal was clearly orchestrated very carefully by Washington among others, except for the slight, Obama-gaffe communication breakdown for a day before he stepped down, probably due to time differences and the now ex-dictator’s apparent inability to clearly understand just what was happening outside on his streets in the minds of his people. Besides that.

Something had to be done there obviously with all those media savvy youth making a stink on Facebook and twitter and YouTube and whatever. Embarrassing, all the praise The West has given Hosni in the last couple years. Kind of looks bad. Makes me feel like the whole joint is staring at me…an American…as if any of them knew I was American or cared about me other than that I was a professional falafel appraiser, but it concerned me. Made my Nervous Leg act up. In any case it’s all completely distracting from my work. Luckily half of the talk I couldn’t understand. Remind me not to learn Arabic, lest I understand more.

Egyptian falafel research is, right now, impossible. Don’t even mention the Libyans. The Libyans are inconsolable. The Tuniesians, one moment their laughing and dancing around, the next they scream and shout, and the next time the place is quite with depression, everyone sulking over their tea.

And you can forget about the Syrians. Their aguish about the battle going on at home is tangible. You can barely sit on the edge of your chair, swallow your sandwich in gulps, limit you tea to one glass before you pay and leave looking at the floor. At least I’m not French, then again it is really not that different being French or American any more, really, and despite ignoring the room around my and looking down at my plate, I felt their eyes staring, pleading with
me  to look at the club-wielding police. As if I was in some way responsible. As if the weapons used against the protestors were sold to the regimes by my government. Ok, and if they were, so what?

Or maybe it was just me imagining them thinking that. Maybe they could care less about me. In any case, I am left unable to concentrate; the proper conditions for chickpea appreciation are disturbed.

And it’s hardly easier anywhere else. To the point my work was nearly at a standstill.  Everywhere the atmosphere was crazy.  Everywhere I went they were talking about what was going on in the Arab world. Who’s next? The oppressiveness was the same…what was different now? Was it Wikileaks, or the food prices, or youth unemployment? Would the mostly secular and young professional movement be hijacked by radicals?  Would they ever be able to root out all the old regimes?

What they didn’t care about is who next in line standing patiently for some goddamn falafel by now.

I have work to do, people!  

At least with Ben Ali and Mubarak, the falafel was on time.

So I saw the sign for Sudanese falafel, and I thought; “What could possibly be going on in the Sudan to interrupt my assessment of the fried cakes?”

What indeed. Perhaps I should read the news more often.

Sudan is apparently, in general, a pretty complicated place, and right now…well, let’s just say Mao would call it interesting. I know this now, and other facts about Sudan like that it’s the seventh largest country in the world, etc. because Yassir began telling this to me as soon as he’d laid the plate in front of me, before I had even tasted the hummus.

“What do you think about the vote in the south?” I had asked him. I don’t know where I came up with the question, it just sort of popped into my head, but I was just trying some small talk as he stood in the silence there looking at me while the falafel gloriously gurgled in the fryer behind him. He had raised his eyebrows, but then hadn’t said anything. I thought maybe his German wasn’t so good, or that he’d forgot, and by the time he walked up with my plate I hoped he wouldn’t answer.

“The vote is good…some 99.999 percent voted for independence,” he said. I looked back up at him trying to nod in acknowledgement, but at the same giving him that  “that’s nice, but I’m busy now” smile. He apparently didn’t understand my need for concentration.

“I come from the North,” he continued, “and as far as I’m concerned they can have what they want. They should have their own country.”  Though I was disappointed he continued to talk, at least what he said was interesting. I thought how nice his sentiment was, he as a Northerner being open to their independence. If his opinion was at all typical of other Northern Sudanese, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much further conflict in the area due to the South declaring independence.

“To hell with them,” he said. Perhaps I had thought too soon. “They think it’s easy to run a country, now they will get their chance. It’s good. Now they have the border with fucking Uganda…Uganda are always causing trouble.” It was nice Yassir was open to South Sudan’s independence…but his reasons were disturbing.

Uganda and Sudan had fought small wars. The two countries had tangled often since each gained its independence. Let South Sudan deal with them.

“And if they think they can touch the Nile running through their country…they can’t touch a drop,” he said.

“Why is that?” I asked.

For a guy who was trying to focus on his work, I asked a lot of questions, I reprimanded myself, but the Nile was the longest river in the world. Not a small amount of water flowed down the Nile. Then again I knew from Colorado that water rights could be a contentious issue, to say the least.

“The Egyptians own every drop of the Nile. The English wrote the deal up hundreds of years ago and no one dares change a thing even though England supposedly is long gone. I want to see how happy they are to have their own country when they sit down to talk water with Egypt. ”

I wanted to ask him what the word for Schadenfreude was in Sudanese, but I stopped myself hoping he would leave me to my scientific observations.

It was then he explained his conspiracy of the British to control Sudanese water ever since the France got hold of the Sudan. In the “Cutting of the Cake” that was Africa, the British finally got their hands on Egypt, they already had Palestine and Kenya, but the French held the Sudan and Uganda which the Island Monkeys knew to their horror possessed the source of the Nile, the one and only thing in Egypt that makes all life possible. If the Nile stopped flowing, no Life.

Jesus, man, I’m just trying to categorize your falafel, I wanted to tell him, but I knew he’s probably start talking about that. I finished the sandwich as quick as I could, paid and left. I am taking a break from falafel now, conducting instead field research on Pho, another emphasis of mine, to give the political situation time to settle down. At least the politics around Vietnamese soup should be simple, right? We haven’t bombed those people in years.

(NOTE: I wrote this a while back … but somehow overlooked publishing it. The pictures, too, are from Febuary…and I published them at the time. Click here to see that.)

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About Andrew Flohr-Spence

Something about the sound and the word. Was a singer/bassist for five years, a German major for five, an English teacher in Germany for another five, then a journalism major in Denver for 5 more, and now I'm back in Berlin (for a while, I intend).
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