Breaking the Ice

Attempting to loosen the atmosphere at the meeting, I said to her: “Got it, I bring Syrian music and you bring Rammstein.”

von Rasha Abbas

Die Autorin und Journalistin Rasha Abbas. Foto:
The syrian author and journalist Rasha Abbas. Berlin 2015. Photo: private

Globalisation has undoubtedly made human communication more difficult. In the old days, when conversations with strangers still began with talk about the weather, an event taking place somewhere in the world, or home remedies for treating burns or the flu, human communication worked much better, as topics such as these don’t really allow you to ‘get talking’ and in doing so possibly slipping on a banana skin, hurting the other person’s feelings in the process; nor do small-talk topics such as these give you enough leeway to reveal your own stupidity or lousy sense of humour.

Standards in inter-human communication have undoubtedly dropped considerably since it has become normal for people from different countries to convene, as anyone wishing to break the ice with someone from a different country believes the best way to do it is to dump hackneyed generalisations about the respective country onto the other person. This is naturally the quickest way to lose any chance of developing a good relationship with the person you’re trying to engage in conversation.

I remember one friend’s story. In the first weeks of his study period abroad, he happened to meet a fellow student in the underground, a girl from Ireland. He’s not particularly sociable so he didn’t really know what to talk to her about. He tried desperately to remember everything he knew about Ireland, which eventually led to his formulating the following gem: “I love the IRA!” I don’t know any details about how this attempt at conversation ended, but I do know that this girl was no longer one of his friends.

Catastrophes like these can of course be a lot worse, as you may also attempt to add a touch of humour. It’s not enough that you’ve bet everything on an already extremely questionable social practice – you’re also unaware of the fact the two cultures concerned have a completely different sense of humour. A while back, for example, I tried talking to a Korean student who was on the same language course as I. While we we’re talking about North and South Korea, I wanted to impress him with my humour, and said: “Luckily, we can say that Kim Jong Un is no movie buff. After all, you’re not being abducted and taken to North Korea as often as before.” The technique this Korean then used to get away from me remains unknown. Was it a Ninja trick? Either way, he was out of the room in seconds, leaving me standing there in an extremely embarrassing position, facing the perplexed look on the faces of everyone else in the room. Incidentally, I’m very happy to say that we talk about this now. And while we’re here, I’d like to say something to those people who keep repeating the “Don’t kill each other!” joke every time Arabic and Israeli people come together in one place. Please, this joke is now ancient and no longer has any impact other than poisoning the atmosphere.

I’d now like to talk about Germany – and of course there’s lots to say about Germany. Many of you are probably already aware of the strange phenomenon that arises when Arabs and Germans try to communicate with each other and break the ice. More specifically: what is probably the first topic of conversation that crosses an Arab’s mind when he or she meets a German for the first time in his or her life? What’s coming now is rather old hat, or rather it stems from a time before Germany was becoming home to many Arabs, before they could get to know it first hand.

Okay, as this paragraph threatens to be somewhat embarrassing, I’d like to prepare you a bit for it. Many Arabs who, let’s say, haven’t followed how things have developed in Germany since World War II have something of a false notion of how to compliment a German person to ensure he or she feels at home. You may already know at this point what I want to say. Exactly. It has something to do with that man, whose name we don’t want to mention. You know who it is: the man with the moustache and disturbed relationship with visual art. No, no, not Salvador Dalí.

Some of you may scarcely believe it, but it wasn’t too long ago that it was very common for a German tourist in an Arabic country to be greeted by a local with: “Oh, Germany? Good, good! Hitler so good! Nice man.” The interpretation that Hitler and the local have, let’s say, ‘common enemies’, or something similar, is a likely conclusion but it isn’t necessarily correct. All the local Arab is trying to do here is remember something famous about Germany, and in doing so associates Hitler with Germany in the same way the Pyramids of Giza are associated with Egypt, or the Chinese Wall with China.

The Arab actually believes he’s built trust with the German tourist, reassuring him that he knows what his country is famous for. You can certainly imagine the tourist’s disbelief: he can’t make out whether it’s a joke, meant in earnest or even contemporary art.

Even if this phenomenon has fortunately more or less died out in the Arab world, that doesn’t exclude many other banana skins lying in wait for us in our attempts at conversation with German people, with a painful pinch of Clash-of-Civilisation comedy mixed in. Let’s take, for example, a work meeting I was at. We were planning an evening meal that was also intended to be a brainstorming session for a new project. The German participant suggested that each of us should bring a dish and music from his or her respective country. She said to me: “For example, you could bring Syrian food and music and I’ll bring a German dish and German music.” At this point, I made a mistake I’m still paying for today. Attempting to loosen the atmosphere at the meeting, I said to her: “Got it, I bring Syrian music and you bring Rammstein.”

Let’s put it this way: she didn’t find the joke particularly funny. I even got the impression she was somewhat narked, replying as she did in a sharp, reproachful tone, “German music isn’t just Rammstein,” stamping on my words, offended. I never heard anything more from her again, nor do I know what became of the project, but I hope it’s all running well.

I’ve reproached myself a great deal for this error, mainly because one of my German friends had already taken me to one side at an event to warn me not to tell everyone I’m learning German from Rammstein songs, which often have very easy syntax such as “Du, du hasst… Du hasst mich” but at the same time are full of worldly wisdom, for example that size isn’t everything, which I learnt from the song “Pussy”.

My friend gave me a feminist telling off. She said that the band’s narrative resembled that of a rapist to his victim. That hadn’t occurred to me at all. I suspect my immense enthusiasm for learning German had left me blind to it.

Ultimately, and probably like every other country in the world, Germany will have to put up with the fact that it too falls victim to generalisations that simply prevail around the world, and that many people take these clichés at face value, for example that Germans are workaholic machines, or that German men down beer the moment they opens their eyes every morning – and like a good Bratwurst with it, too.

Rasha Abbas is a Syrian journalist and author currently living in Berlin. In her short stories, the daily grind meets Absurdistan. Abbas skilfully interweaves the ordinary experiences of settling down in Berlin – applying for asylum, going to the job centre, attending a language course, being caught between artist inflation and hipster invasion – with other genres: slapstick, zombie film, cartoon and computer game. Donning a fool’s cap, she tells the truth about “we Germans” but also about “the refugees”.

Rasha’s book of short stories Die Erfindung der deutschen Grammatik (The Invention of German Grammar) was published as an ebook by the Berlin publishing house Mikrotext on March 8  and will soon be printed in book form by Orlanda.