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Stratified Belonging, Layered Subjectivities

Zong Yao Edison Yap


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1Two years ago, in 2017, I was back in Berlin in the frigid winter to escape from the unbearably high prices of Geneva. In need of a prepaid phone card, I went to a nearby post office in the district of Kreuzberg to purchase an ALDI SIM card, only to be rejected because I needed a valid German visa. Frustrated, I paced along the street adjacent to the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn Station (German for underground train station) and spotted a mobile phone store. Hoping that the shop assistant would be less stringent with the requirements, I entered and enquired: “How much does a SIM card cost? I only need 4G data access for three weeks.” “Fifty euros”, the shop assistant answered.

2Flabbergasted, yet refusing to search for another mobile store, I scanned the room and spotted a small Syrian flag hanging on the wall. Almost instinctively I greeted the shop assistant in what little Arabic I could conjure, and told him that I had learned elementary Modern Standard Arabic in Haifa – a formerly Syrian territory now occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. The shop assistant grinned and looked visibly surprised. A short conversation ensued, but was soon disrupted by a friend of his who entered the shop. The shop assistant introduced his Lebanese friend to me and told him that I could speak some Arabic. His friend looked at me quizzically – a reaction I often get when strangers learn that I spent time learning Farsi and Arabic. Later, I asked the shop assistant if he could sell me the SIM card at a lower price and managed to get it for 30 euros. When I tried to pay him with my credit card, he insisted on cash. I frowned and asked if there was an ATM in the vicinity.

3“Don’t worry! My Palestinian friend will take you to the ATM,” he exclaimed. The shop assistant stuck his head out of the store and called for his friend. Seconds later, his Palestinian friend walked in. We greeted each other and he then escorted me to the ATM. Along the way, he bombarded me with questions about my time in Haifa and asked for my opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was careful to not mistakenly refer to Haifa as an Israeli territory, but shared with him the interesting fact that my Arabic language tutor was a Jewish man who wore a skullcap. To that, he raised an eyebrow, let out a laugh, and said sarcastically: “That is why your Arabic is so bad.”

4As we approached the storefront, the Palestinian man introduced himself as a drug dealer and asked if I wanted some marijuana. I kindly rejected the offer but told him, as a matter of courtesy, that if I ever needed anything, he would be the first I would approach. Shortly after, I purchased the SIM card and said my goodbyes to the three men.

5The encounter left me intrigued. Was the Syrian man a refugee who was hired by an Arab immigrant who came decades ago? Have the migrants developed a support infrastructure to help one another cope with the anxieties of being in a predominantly white, European, and non-Muslim city and country? What factors led the Palestinian man to become a dealer – was it a lucrative business, or did he simply have no choice? If such a network existed, how did it interact with the predominantly Turkish community who resided in Kreuzberg? Did these Middle Eastern identities coexist harmoniously – and if not, why?


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