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Vancouver, Washington, United States
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Monday, July 18, 2005

Follow up to Diary Of a Blind Traveler

This is the second part of the article, unedited, which appeared in the winter issue of the same magazine as mentioned in the article above. Enjoy!

After a wonderful couple of days in Berlin, Friday was approaching, and I wondered if there were any mosques nearby for me to attend the Friday prayer. As a traveler, a Muslim is exempt from attending the congregational prayer, and has the option of praying alone, but despite that I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and see what life was like for Muslims in Germany. I had questions in my mind such as, “do they have the Khotba in Arabic or in German (surely not in English!)? Are the community dynamics similar to those of our communities here in the US?”. For this reason, I decided to go out and find a mosque; but the question that kept nagging me is how! I guess I could have asked the people I was renting the apartment from, but I don’t think they’d know! It suddenly dawned on me to go back to the restaurant where I ate my first Italian meal and ask the owner who has been in Berlin for over thirty years. I figured if anyone would know, it had to be him! He was Muslim (his name was Jamaal), from Jordan, and he spoke Arabic very fluently. So on Thursday evening I walked over to the restaurant and ate a delightful meal, and found the opportunity to ask Jamaal whether he knew of a mosque nearby. To my shock, he did not. I didn’t ask any more questions, and I could tell he was able to notice the look of shock I had on my face. He then went on to tell me that the best thing to do is to take the train to Pank Strasse and ask the first Arabian or Turkish person for the location of a mosque. Since Pank Strasse is a place full of Arabs and Turks, according to Jamaal, I’d have no trouble finding one, though I sort of wondered in the back of my mind how I’d recognize someone’s ethnicity by speaking to him or her in a language that was alien to both of us! I thanked Jamaal however and went on my merry way, fully intending to find a mosque the following morning.

After a good night sleep, the sun rose, and Friday morning awoke the inhabitants of Berlin in order that they go on their daily affairs. My affair that day was to find a mosque, and after going down to the office of the association where I was renting the apartment to check my email, I went out in pursuit of the place of worship. When I left my apartment that morning, the only thing I knew, besides how to get to the train (U-Bahn) station was that I needed to go to Pank Strasse and find a Turkish or an Arabic person and ask them about where I could find a mosque. You must understand, my dear reader, that this is totally out of character for me. When I undertake a task, I plan it beforehand, trying to cover each and every angle. In a situation like this, I would not have gone out if I didn’t have an address, a train schedule, and detailed information on how to get there as well as the prayer times. I was on vacation however, and I figured I’d take a vacation from my usual self by opening the door to whatever may come my way – and so I went on my pursuit!

It was close to 10:00 AM as I made my way to the train station. I got on the train, and found myself sitting next to a lady, to whom I started talking right away. I figured I’d at least ask her where Pank Strasse was, since I had no clue where it was! Unfortunately, she was not from the Berlin area, and was merely visiting there from Hamburg. She proceeded to tell me that she was in Berlin to attend for her comatose child who got into a car accident a couple of weeks earlier. Contrary to what I have become accustomed to from Germans, this lady had no problem showing her emotions. She even grasped my hand as I gave her a sympathetic look and cried even more. We then talked about other things for a bit, and found out from her that she was a teacher of German as a second language. As we were talking, she looked to the other side and told me “this is your stop”. Not having paid attention to the announcement, I believed her and immediately got off the train. My surrounding looked familiar, but I ignored that, thinking to myself that all train stations are alike in one way or another. My amazement continued however when I climbed the stairs to the main road. I couldn’t help but notice how familiar things were – the streets, the sidewalks, the shops, everything! I even found the Starbucks where I had a cup of coffee a couple of days before. This, I concluded, was not Pank Strasse, this was downtown. As much as I hate to admit it, I was right. Upon asking for directions, a gentleman offered to accompany me back to the train station, and informed me that I needed to take the train all the way to the last stop, and then find the U8 train which will take me to Pank Strasse. The gentleman proceeded to tell me that he had lived at Pank Strasse for over twenty years, which instantly triggered a thought in my mind to ask him if he was an Arab or a Turk. I summoned enough courage and asked, and sure enough, he was from Turkey. I immediately became excited, thinking that my search has finally come to an end. I don’t need to go to Pank Strasse any more, here I have a Turk by my side! I asked him the same question I asked the restaurant owner, and strangely enough, he gave me the same answer! Oh well, I guess the adventure is not over yet.

I took the train as instructed, and as I was getting out, a lady approached me and asked me in German if I needed help (I guess there is something about a blind guy walking with a cane that invites this sort of questioning). Recognizing that I actually did need help, since I had no idea where I’d go to catch the U8 train, I gave an affirmative answer, and told her what I was looking for. She told me that she was going that way, and that she wouldn’t mind if I walked with her. As we started walking, she asked me if I spoke Arabic, and I, once again, answered affirmatively, at which time she started speaking Arabic to me. She was a graduate student from Morocco, finishing her studies in Germany. We continued to talk as she was showing me the way to the track where the U8 runs. When we got there and as we were saying our goodbyes, it suddenly occurred to me to ask her if she knew of a mosque somewhere. Once again I summoned enough courage to do so, and to my pleasant surprise, she told me that there was a mosque right by the station where we were waiting for the train. She offered to take me there, and I instantly took her up on her offer. Fortunately, the mosque was no more than 100 miters away from the train station.

As I arrived, I met the mosque’s care taker, who greeted me and showed me in. It was barely 11:15, and the prayer didn’t begin until 12:15 or so. The care taker was from Pakistan, and I must say that it was my first time speaking with a gentleman from Pakistan in a language other than English! The Imam of the mosque was from Algeria, and he made the Khotba in both Arabic and German, which helped my effort to learn German tremendously. After prayer, someone was standing outside selling plates of food for three and a half Euros a plate, and people sat down around tables that were set up in the mosque’s courtyard talking about their daily affairs. In addition to German, people were speaking to each other in Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, with a variety of dialects in each language. In a way the surrounding, with its interesting diversity, felt so familiar that I wondered for a split second why people were talking to me in German, but then I remembered that I was actually in a mosque in Germany and not in the USA.

After finishing lunch, I went out with a Turkish brother who was going back to the train station, chatting with him along the way about life, politics and the things that we talk about. I took the train back to where I was staying, feeling quite content for the way my day went.

Later on that day, I went to a nearby supermarket to do some shopping. I was sick and tired of paying over two Euros for a small glass of Pepsi. I figured that if I go to a supermarket, I would stand a very good chance of establishing a good supply of Pepsi and Mineral water for much less. The staff at the supermarket spoke no English, however, and I found their German extremely difficult to understand. As soon as I walked in, the lady behind the counter asked me a question of which I understood nothing. I assumed that she was asking me if I needed assistance, even though the word "Helfen" or a variant of which was never mentioned. Well, what do you know, I was right. I nodded in agreement, not really sure exactly what I was agreeing to, and within thirty seconds, a young girl, probably no more than 16 years old came to help. She also spoke no English, and she spoke at 90 miles an hour, so you can imagine what it was like trying to communicate with her. I understood from her that she needed a Euro coin, though I could never figure out why. Having gone through this fifteen years ago at JFK when I first landed in the US (when the guy who was helping me complete a phone call through a pay phone told me that I needed "Quodes" (quarters)), I proceeded to give her the Euro just to see what she was going to do with it. I figured that even if I never got it back, I would have paid for an experience, and that, to me, was a good enough bargain. I'm sure that by now you've figured out what she needed the coin for. She needed it to get a cart in which to put the stuff I was going to buy. We went around the store with me telling her what I wanted. It was a one way communication between us. I spoke (transmitted), but had no idea what she was saying (no reception). The ending was happy though, as I did find what I was looking for. I bought my mineral water and Coke (they didn't have Pepsi), and for two large bottles of each, I only paid two and a half Euros. Even better, I understood exactly how much I needed to pay, and thankfully, I even had correct change! I later on took the bus and went to visit with some friends, and had a wonderful dinner with them. They were Berliners, born and raised in the city. They had some interesting tails to tell about the time when Berlin was divided, but I'll save that for another time.

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