28 Feb An Afternoon with Fatima in Germany
We were the only American family left in our neighborhood. The others had already moved away, but my husband was among the last of the battalion to oversee the base closure, and it was taking longer than anticipated.
I was actually pleased with the situation. It gave me a chance to improve my German language skills and immerse myself in the culture. I was content to linger in the somewhat constructed world of the expatriate, a reality tinged by foreign perceptions. Faith was something I never thought of then. I had an enthusiasm for new experiences, and if questions ever came up about those on the fringes of the culture I so eagerly absorbed, I would have argued all answers should be sought in terms of politics or social reform.
Faith was something I never thought of then. I had an enthusiasm for new experiences, and if questions ever came up about those on the fringes of the culture I so eagerly absorbed, I would have argued all answers should be sought in terms of politics or social reform.
I later came to an understanding of the Turks, the Russians, the Albanians, and other degrees of eastern immigrants about, and of their position within the carefully woven veil of German liberality, but on that day I had no sense of it. Indeed, I could not have said whether Fatima was Croatian or Kentuckian, had never given it a thought. I knew her German was broken, but was still too preoccupied with my own sense of the foreign all around me to spare a thought for her alien condition. Our acquaintance centered around the Kindergarten, where we often happened to be picking up our sons at the same time. When she asked me to coffee I accepted with a “Danke shoen. Funfzehn Uhr, oder?”
Coffee was almost always at three o’clock, and in our Siedlung, full of couples in their thirties with children, always meant an understood play-date. I had lived there a long enough time to know that without having to ask, but a short enough time to still feel smug about knowing it. I fostered a sense of superiority to other Americans stationed in Germany, who could do little more than get by in shops or order a Bier in a Gasthof.
We walked almost everywhere then, and with pleasure. To pass through our neighborhood on the way to the Bakerei or Supermarkt meant the loveliest of strolls through meticulously tended gardens. Petra was out weeding hers as we set off to Fatima’s later that day. My son happily joined her children at play as I stopped to chat. She welcomed the interruption to her work, and asked where we were off to on such a fine day.
“Am Duengerheim.” I answered, acknowledging the unfortunate street name of Fatima’s dwelling.
“Ach! Schoen, schoen…” replied Petra, seamlessly changing the subject to neighborhood matters.
I was fluent enough to understand all of what was said, but none of what wasn’t said. I see that now. She called out to me as we left, “Stop by on your way back. We’ll most likely still be out,” and it held no significance for me.
We followed the directions Fatima had given me to her place, which brought us to the other side of the Siedlung, under the train station and beyond the connecting tunnel. The style of the neighborhood changed from single dwellings and row houses to apartment buildings on that side of town. I had no trouble finding her building, as the complex stood directly opposite the Sankt Thekla Kirche, the largest church in our town.
The structure dominated the cityscape and could be seen from all directions of entry into our village. I went into the church a few times in a touristy sort of way. There was an interesting painting of a vaguely middle-eastern looking woman in one of the alcoves. I assumed it was Saint Thekla. The situation of her church strikes me as significant now, but it was the sort of thing I never thought of then.
I went into the church a few times in a touristy sort of way. There was an interesting painting of a vaguely middle-eastern looking woman in one of the alcoves. I assumed it was Saint Thekla.
When we got to Fatima’s apartment I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to ask her apartment number, and so found myself pondering the names on the doorbell panel, so very different from the German family names to which I’d become accustomed. Petrovic, Burakgazi, Emmini, Polzin… I wondered how she’d expected me to know which was hers, and considered the problem of having to ring the doorbells at random and ask. I was at that stage in my fluency where one hesitates to speak by phone or intercom.
That was when a dark-haired woman I recognized as a fellow Kindergarten-mom approached us.
“Emmini?” she asked, pointing to a third floor window. She was nodding encouragement and ushering us toward the front entrance. I nodded and smiled as she amicably gestured and jabbered in a language I couldn't identify. A group of helpful pedestrians materialized around us, neighborhood faces I knew by sight but had thought of as disconnected with one another, all converged here in their various home occupations, carrying grocery bags, digging in flower pots, standing in groups and smoking cigarettes. Everyone seemed to know about us and our visit, as the helpful gesturing commenced all around. My son looked up at me doubtfully as we entered the building.
I nodded and smiled as she amicably gestured and jabbered in a language I couldn't identify. A group of helpful pedestrians materialized around us, neighborhood faces I knew by sight but had thought of as disconnected with one another, all converged here in their various home occupations, carrying grocery bags, digging in flower pots, standing in groups and smoking cigarettes. Everyone seemed to know about us and our visit.
Our guide brought us to a third floor landing, indicated a door on which to knock, and abruptly left us there. I was still in doubt as to whether we were in the right place, and so felt relieved when Fatima opened the door and welcomed us in. Her sons greeted my shy little Thomas, and led him away to their room, their cheerful chatter emanating from within.
The apartment was small, but meticulously clean. It was not so orderly as the homes of my German friends, but one got the impression it was due to the challenges of living with children in a confined space, not from a lack of housekeeping. I found myself in a different sort of home than I’d expected, and Fatima must have noticed the furtive curiosity in my glance, as she immediately insisted on showing me around.
She then conducted a comical sort of home tour in which walking from room to was unnecessary, as one could behold the entirety of the dwelling from the front hall. She indicated the children’s room, with the boy’s bunk beds on one side, the baby’s crib on the other, the tiny master bedroom in which the double bed occupied most of the space, the kitchenette with it’s small dining table, and the living room. In each case I would somewhat lean in the direction she indicated and express my approval.
“Yes, but…” she shrugged, with an expression of making due with what one’s got.
We had to speak to each another in our second languages, my German being not perfect, and hers much less so. She indicated I should take a seat in the living room, and as I did I began to fret how we would fill the space of the typical two-hour coffee visit with conversation. Then something caught my eye that directed my worry in another direction.
I was sitting directly opposite a photograph of a man in uniform brandishing an AK-47. It was quite large, framed, and bordered garishly in red and black with bits of green and yellow. It was not an action shot; it was a posed portrait, which only made it the more bizarre to my thinking. I tried to hide my astonishment as Fatima brought in the coffee cups from the kitchen.
“Mein Brueder,” she explained. “Tot. Im Albanien.”
So she was Albanian. Her brother had died there in the conflict. I couldn’t make out much of how it had happened with her language skills.
I was sitting directly opposite a photograph of a man in uniform brandishing an AK-47. It was quite large, framed, and bordered garishly in red and black with bits of green and yellow. It was not an action shot; it was a posed portrait, which only made it the more bizarre to my thinking.
“He was good”, she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “And young.”
I made up my mind to try to soften my glance when it landed that way, as it was clear she beheld nothing alarming in the presentation, no more than a portrait of a beloved brother who happened to be a soldier, in her eyes.
I suddenly recalled the day I’d taken Petra along with me to a Book Fair on the American post. As we’d driven down Colonel’s Row, she’d been shocked to see all the American and German flags at the front of each house, lining the whole of the street. “What is this?” she’d demanded to know, explaining about not displaying the flag in Germany. That was before the 2004 World Cup had made it acceptable as a benign sort of fan-accessory. I wondered if our tame display of patriotism had so alarmed her, what she would make of this.
Fatima and I had the most civilized coffee then, guarded by the watchful eye of her dead brother and his looming machine gun. She brought everything in on a tray, with pretty cups and saucers, and all the proper accessories, much the same as my German acquaintance would do, but then instead of the usual cake accompaniment, she laid out a sort of flat-bread, layered with sheep’s cheese and oil. She pantomimed with her hands to show me how much kneading and folding of the dough was necessary to accomplish the recipe. It was very good, and as we ate we were able to discuss the culinary specialties of our own nations, comparing them with each other’s and with the German variations. We were still chatting comfortably when her husband came in.
Fatima and I had the most civilized coffee then, guarded by the watchful eye of her dead brother and his looming machine gun. She brought everything in on a tray, with pretty cups and saucers.
He went into the bedroom to change out of his work clothes, but upon his return sat down and amicably joined us at coffee, something a German husband would never have done. Fatima introduced him as Flori, and as he eagerly took up the conversation, I found his German was better then hers. He could even find a word or two of English when we needed it.
He had been a Professor of Mathematics at the University in Tirana. He and his family had been forced to flee when he was targeted as some sort of an instigator, although I wasn’t quite clear on why he was targeted or whether he actually was an instigator. In Germany he added to their living by working as a part-time underling for a house painter. They were apparently glad for him to have a job of any sort, even one so far beneath his abilities. Most of their acquaintance were unable to find work at all, and it rendered a state of futility upon the male population there.
Their apartment and those of all the buildings in their complex were paid for by the German government. They tried to explain to me their position of having to be grateful for something they would rather not have been given, and insisted on the desire to work for themselves. At the same time they described their being on a waiting list for a government house, and petulantly expressed their impatience at the wait time.
“But you know the Germans, how they are.” said Fatima.
I thought of the time I’d remarked on a neighborhood I’d noticed in a nearby village, full of new houses and Petra’s husband sniffing, “Yes. Those are for the Russians. Nice, aren’t they.”
Flori then turned the conversation back to me. “Your husband?” he asked, nodding. “He was in Kosovo?”
He had been, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to discuss it with them, of all people. We’d naturally been sympathetic to the plight of the women and children in the camps, but after my husband had spent some months in the region he’d told me “I’m pretty sure we picked the wrong side on this one.”
We’d naturally been sympathetic to the plight of the women and children in the camps, but after my husband had spent some months in the region he’d told me “I’m pretty sure we picked the wrong side on this one.”
“We are so grateful to the Americans for their help,” gushed Flori. “So very, very grateful.”
“Oh, no,” I reassured him. “It was the right thing to do.”
I hoped it was true. It seemed like it ought to have been. Then he brought up 9/11. He and Fatima wanted me to understand how very shocked they’d been, watching the news that day. They wanted to make it clear their sympathies were with the victims. Flori then touched on the motivations of the bombers, saying “Yes, there are problems. There are difficulties and disagreements, but to address it this way…” I was glad the doorbell rang then, interrupting our conversation.
It was the woman who’d led us up to the apartment. She turned out to be Fatima’s sister-in-law, and for some odd reason was named Mary. Flori didn’t understand my surprise when I remarked on her name.
“Yes”, he nodded. “Maryam, Maria, Mary… it is a good name.”
“Yes, but Mary.” I said. “It’s just, such a Christian name.”
“No, no. We have Mary, too. Your Bible, our Koran. Yes, Mary.”
I struggled to make the connection of how that could be, but he didn’t seem interested in discussing it further, as the sister-in-law had brought a video tape they’d apparently planned for us to watch. Flori translated for her, “This is a tape of her wedding day for you to see.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Is she a newlywed?”
“No,” answered Flori. “This was four years ago.”
I couldn’t quite understand the point of watching it then, but they all seemed so eager I put on a show of anticipation as well. As the tape rewound they described to me about their country, how beautiful it had been before conflict had torn it. They wanted me to understand Islam was not practiced as strictly in their region. Fatima described to me about facing east to pray multiple times a day and scoffed, “No, we don’t do this.”
“Bekim does.” translated Flori, for Mary. I assumed she meant her husband.
“So?” asked Flori, playfully. “Is this what you expect from a Muslim home?”
I could see they wanted me to play along, so I made a little joke about having expected burkhas which pleased them very much.
“No, no!” laughed Flori. “You walk down the street in Tirana, you think you are in the disco.”
They started the video then, which began with a wedding caravan of cars, and a poor caravan it was, all the economy-sized cars having the appearance of being patched up like faded old jeans. They were crammed with wedding revelers though, smiling and waving at the camera when it fell on them. As the caravan started moving there was a general sort of “Hoorah!”, or the equivalent of it in their language, and a honking of horns. They wound their way slowly through city streets in the most shocking state of ruin, their celebratory joy scarcely piercing the gloom all around. There seemed to be a habit of waving at passersby which they persisted in even though there was no one to wave back. The city really had the most decrepit, abandoned look about it, so that I couldn’t help admiring their cheer in the face of it.
I never could make out the name of the town they were in, no matter how many times they pronounced it for me. They explained the caravan was making its way to the bride’s house, where there would be a viewing of her dowry. I smiled expectantly at Mary, who cast her gaze down to the floor.
“You must understand,” explained Flori. “Nobody had anything at this time. Nobody.”
It became clear what they were preparing me for when the video got to the dowry part. The wedding guests filed into the house of the bride’s family, making their way into a room in which Mary sat, not yet dressed in her wedding clothes. The normal furniture had been cleared and tables with cloths had been brought in to display all her worldly possessions, which consisted of some clothing and personal articles, and a few pairs of shoes, from what I could make out.
There was a palpable dip in morale at this point amongst the guests, who filed through the display seemingly at a loss for how to react. Mary hung her head in shame as a guest picked up a hairbrush and optimistically inspected it. Fatima tried to explain to me with her halting words and big gestures how very vast the array of goods would have been in happier times, how differently the guests and bride would have behaved. They seemed to feel apologetic toward even me watching the video four years later, although I’d certainly brought no expectations of any sort into it.
Things perked up when they took the bride away in their cars to a house of relatives, to dress her for the wedding. There was a flurry of female excitement, a general bustling and fussing common to women in such circumstances everywhere. She emerged from the process in veiled finery, although the veil was so long one could hardly make out much about her dress. She seemed to drift like a hovering spirit as she walked, and was led out to the car waiting to drive her to the ceremony.
The ceremony itself was not filmed, only the reception after. Everyone gathered into groups around tables and behaved like wedding guests the world over, like children at play, only there was no alcohol to turn it ugly toward the end. All variety of interesting food was spread on the tables on great platters, and everyone seemed to eat leisurely bits here and there rather than one large meal. They had a number of unfamiliar traditions they explained to me. One game I couldn’t make out involved the groomsmen and cigarettes, and had some sort of mildly bawdy implication to do with the wedding night.
Through it all Mary sat unveiled, in the most elaborate dress sewn with pearls and jewels. They had done her hair and made her up so that she appeared quite another person from the plain woman sitting next to me in the apartment. Both the wedding guests and the camera seemed enchanted with her, as all gazes turned her way again and again. One got the sense they’d sacrificed all they had, and gladly, for her to be elevated to such status of beauty, that the point of it all somehow converged in her and everyone knew it, and so were drawn to her because of it. She did not partake of any of the games or festivities, only observed with regal detachment, her expression very grave. I pondered what it could mean and looked at her next to me on the couch. Tears sprung to her eyes, as she said something for Fatima to translate.
Through it all Mary sat unveiled, in the most elaborate dress sewn with pearls and jewels. They had done her hair and made her up so that she appeared quite another person from the plain woman sitting next to me in the apartment.
“She says… she loves her husband, very much.” said Fatima, as if that explained everything. It was touching, how although all the attention had been focused on her, she only thought of her spouse, and how she carried that devotion in it’s original form even then, as if time had not gone by.
There was more to the video as a group of men had begun to life the bride up and carry her about the reception hall, when the children suddenly tumbled into the room, begging to play outside. The adults scolded the interruption, but the boys were persistent; so I used it as an opportunity to observe the time and imply it was nearly time for us to go. This came as a great surprise to our hosts, who’d evidently expected us to stay for dinner. I never could have imagined such a possibility as it was never done that way in German homes, so had to politely insist against their protests. I probably could have rearranged our plans, but the truth was it was all becoming too much, the politics, the machine gun, the wedding. It was tiring, and I just wanted to get back home and not have to think so much.
I probably could have rearranged our plans, but the truth was it was all becoming too much, the politics, the machine gun, the wedding. It was tiring, and I just wanted to get back home and not have to think so much.
I finally got away by accepting Fatima’s offering of a dish to take back with me for our dinner. She ladled some sort of hot soup into a large covered container, and wrapped it with a dishtowel so as not to burn my hands. I bid Flori and Mary farewell, and then Fatima and the boys walked downstairs with us. We stood in the courtyard for a bit while the children continued to play.
It was summer and so still light out. We could see the facade of Sankt Thekla’s from between the apartment buildings. A shadow from the topmost cross on the upper rooftop was cast onto the courtyard pavement, where the children made an impromptu game of hopping from quadrant to quadrant as we watched. Their own shadows merged with the image of the cross whenever they approached the center of it.
“You are Christian, yes?” asked Fatima.
I supposed I was, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything pertaining to that fact. I’d been raised Catholic, but my religion had become nothing more than a memory of ceremonies attended and rituals performed. I looked back at it fondly, but without it having any real connection to my adult life.
“You are Christian, yes?” asked Fatima.
I supposed I was, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything pertaining to that fact. I’d been raised Catholic, but my religion had become nothing more than a memory of ceremonies attended and rituals performed.
“I guess it’s sort of like you not facing east to pray.” I explained.
Fatima nodded and seemed to reflect for a moment.
“I should maybe do better with this.” she finally said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, especially since I felt no such corresponding call in my own life then, so I simply looked up at the sky and observed, “It’s going to rain.”
I used the dark cloud moving in as an excuse to say our goodbyes quickly. I wanted to make it home before the rain began.
As we approached Petra’s house on the walk back, I saw she was still out as she’d said she would be. Thomas skipped on ahead to our house, as we did not live much further, and her children were not out to play. She directed a wry smile at the enormous dish I was carrying and asked, “What’s this? Your nice dinner tonight?”
I nodded that it was, as she leaned in and wrinkled her nose as if smelling something bad. “Knoblauch!” she said, fanning the air in front of her face. I never have known a German who could abide the smell of garlic.
“And…?” she asked. “Did you have a nice visit?”
“Ach! Schoen, schoen...” I nodded.
I hardly knew how to relate my conflicting feelings about it all, so I tried to keep to innocuous essentials like the flatbread and pretty cups. It seemed no matter what I said I found myself confronted with a raised eyebrow or a loaded question. As we conversed, I slowly realized I was being probed for details, and was expected to deliver them in a manner which conformed to her own dry disapprobation.
I felt the shock of realization and a flare of righteous anger. I suddenly saw the sharing of the wedding video as an intimate offering of the best they’d had to give, and felt the loss of not having something similar to share with them. I wanted to somehow defend and justify them in Petra’s eyes. At the same time I remembered the hint of underlying greed I’d picked up on, their willingness to exploit the system that had been thrust on them, and had to admit my own opinions on the subject were really not so very different from hers. An image of the brother with the machine gun passed through my mind, and I decided to keep that part to myself.
“Their apartment is so small.” I insisted. “They really have so little.”
“Oh? Is there something more they need?” she asked. Something else we should be giving them?”
I had the distinct impression there was, only I couldn’t think what. Just then the bells from Saint Thekla’s started ringing six o’clock. Something about the sound evoked a thought or a memory I struggled to grasp, but couldn’t seem to get hold of. I felt a sudden, stabbing conviction the chimes were a herald of something, but then immediately lost hold of that, too.
“Vespers,” remarked Petra. It was what one said at that hour without it ever meaning anything in particular.
I had to rush off then as the cloud had blown in and completely obscured the sun. I ran homeward and felt the first stinging drops of cold rain on my face, the gusting wind muffling the sound of the bells. I found Thomas waiting at the front door, impatiently wanting to get inside away from the rain. As we entered the warmth and comfort of our home, I was relieved to find my anger and confusion already beginning to fade.
It would be many years before I would think back and remember about the bells, the wedding, the shadow of the cross, and begin to wonder what Mary had to do with any of it.
It would be many years before I would think back and remember about the bells, the wedding, the shadow of the cross, and begin to wonder what Mary had to do with any of it.