There’s tension in the air. It’s Friday and the test phase has come to an end; now we work with the real material. The big mattress used for practice is dismantled. The horsehair is set aside as each of the four men begins work on his own article. There is not much room for them all around the big work table and Daniel thinks about splitting them into two teams, but the group wants to stay as one. This is a good sign, not least for its message that Hossein, who speaks neither Arabic nor German, has become fully integrated; indeed, he no longer brings along his son, Nazir, as an interpreter.
For lunch we have hummus. Mohamad tells us that at home he now cooks the Swiss dish of noodles, cheese, butter and cream, which Daniel has made for the group; his wife had been wondering what else he was learning in the Matrah Project.
Zakaria and his wife prepare one of the next meals: bulgur, beef and a salad. It’s clear to us all that food and drink are just as conducive to cultural exchange as working together. The small table in the kitchen becomes the second meeting point for the group. The men talk of the situation in Syria. Although we don’t understand everything, as their German is still rudimentary, it gives us an idea of the terror and arbitrary rule that now define their country. Zakaria tells us that in Aleppo, he and some neighbours saw to it that the poorer people in their street were able to buy bread. In front of the baker’s shop there were groups of armed men forcing the baker to sell his bread at exorbitant prices. Zakaria and his neighbours managed to get civil servants to watch over the shop so the bread could be sold at a reasonable price. He says that such struggle – not only for bread but water, electricity and gas as well – is nothing short of gruelling.
But our conversations reach other topics as well, and we laugh a lot. Tareq shows us photos of his four children and says that if it weren’t for the war, by now he’d be a father of eight.
The following days are all very productive; the first mattresses begin to take shape. Against the grey of the German winter sky the material appears to radiate. Then somebody is struck by an idea: the buttons a mattress needs to keep the stuffing in place should bear the imprint ‘matrah’, for ‘matrah’ is the key word, the link between the concept, its application and each and every one of us. So it’s settled: the word will be printed on fabric and then fixed onto the buttons. But first the mattresses must be sewn together, stitch after stitch. Tareq is the fastest worker; he calls out: ‘Daniel, super?’ Daniel, with his sense of Swiss sobriety, tries to slow him down, and keep things in perspective: ‘Super is something else, but it’s good!’ We all laugh. And then we’re silent again. It’s so quiet you could hear a needle drop, as the German saying goes. During a break I interview Tareq, sitting at the kitchen table with Zakaria as our interpreter.
Tareq is 40 and comes from Damascus; he is a trained tailor. He was a successful businessman in Syria and owned two shops. He knows how to create made-to-measure clothes for both men and women. His shop offered a vast selection of materials. Customers either brought their own material or chose from his stock. They then chose a pattern from one of his folders and Tareq sewed according to their wishes. I think of Islam’s segregation of the sexes and ask Tareq how he handles the problem of taking a woman’s measurements without touching her. With the help of some thread Zakaria demonstrates how it is done while using Daniel as a stand-in. Both Tareq and Zakaria say it gently but show signs of slight irritation: What Germans think about the role of women in Syria is such a cliché! Of course there are women who prefer to go to a female dressmaker, while others ask their husbands to accompany them when going to a tailor, but there are enough emancipated women who go to a tailor alone. Just like that, the first prejudice has been dispelled, to be followed by another: Tareq is a Syrian of Palestinian origin. He tells us that after finishing school he learned his profession in a Jewish-owned shop. I am confused, yet Tareq continues talking in the most relaxed manner, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. His parents left Palestine in 1947 and moved to Syria. He grew up in a district of Damascus where people with different religions lived together: Christians, Jews, Muslims. He stayed in the Jewish firm for many years before starting his own business. In 2015 he came to Germany with his wife and children, ages 11, 9, 7 and 3. To be more precise, he set out alone. It was a long and difficult journey via Sudan and Libya. He spent ten days in the desert until he could go by boat from Libya to Italy, first on a rather ramshackle boat but then on one that was bit trustier. His wife and children joined him later, and fortunately they could travel by plane. The family now lives in the Berlin district of Friedenau. Tareq plans to start up his own business in Berlin – one day, when his German is strong enough.
Back to the project:
Except for the buttons that must be sewed on, the mattresses are finished. In the evening we gather in the kitchen; there is a collective sense of fulfilment. All are proud of what we have accomplished.
At the beginning of the project all the stitchers went home after work as soon as possible, but now the days end with a social gathering.We decide to celebrate the mattresses here, presenting them in the Schöneberger Zimmer. The flat that includes the workshop has become the home of the project. It’s here that we’ve gathered for our work and it’s here that we’ll celebrate its completion – and wonder what the future holds.