Dear Most Beautiful Berliner of All,
You were one of my first encounters in Berlin.
I departed Beirut in late summer of 2020 in the midst of utter destruction and loss, and arrived in this haunted city.
I bought a yearly pass to the national museums as soon as I arrived. Maybe, without even realizing it, I was searching for you.
With the museum pass, I received a catalogue enumerating the sights included in my subscription with descriptions of the most significant object in each museum. You were displayed in the main fold of the catalogue as the anointed “face” of the Staatlich Museen of Berlin. The image of you on the catalogue cover is scarcely lit and projected upon a black background. Your gaze and perfectly pointed jawline looking sideways, and your absent left eye, your imperfection, out of sight. The caption announced that the most renowned exhibit object “is the most beautiful Berliner of all, Nefertiti."
As I stood in front of you, with your glass-walled prison separating you from my touch, I wondered, when did you become a Berliner, and the most beautiful of all? Are you in fact, with your thick dark eyebrows, your brown skin, and your wrinkled neck, really a Berliner? Would you have been the most beautiful of all if you had a body, desires and needs, if you had a voice to speak? And most importantly, why am I, with my two eyes intact, all your wrinkles, and exiled in Berlin like you, so drawn to you?
As Berlin’s days grew miserably shorter and darker, I turned to your sun god and immersed myself in your history, trying to understand your journey to Berlin, my journey to Berlin.
When you were first excavated on December 6, 1912 at the Amarna site in Egypt, the German archeologist Ludwig Borchardt wired back a brief note about you: “No use describing it, you have to see it.” You were a “discovery,” to be seen, observed, and gazed upon.
This gaze haunted every space you inhabited. Encased in your glass prison, alone in your rotunda at the museum, you are the ultimate “spectacle.” Even in photographs depicting you, like the one I was drawn to in the museum catalogue, you cannot see your photographer, only he can see you. He, blond and blue-eyed, is constantly gazing at you, the object.
I know how that gaze feels like, Nefertiti, how it charrs my skin, how it charrs your skin.
You were the prized excavation crowning a flourishing archeological field. You were the result of an exchange between the German Oriental Company and an Egyptian official in a British-occupied Egypt and a French-controlled antiquities department. A “legal” and valid exchange, they said, they continue to say. But then, why was Borchardt initially reluctant to display you? Did he know that the revelation of such precious ownership might cause trouble with the Egyptian Antiquities Service and therefore make trouble for Germans still excavating the Amarna sight?
Anyway, I feel silly recounting to you the story of your “discovery.” You were there, you saw it all.
Did you enjoy being referred to as “her Majesty” by your “discoverers”?
You became their newly coronated queen when they had just lost their royalty. And so, they claimed a lineage of western civilization that runs through Cleopatra, Hera, and Venus, all the way to Angela Merkel. What a beautiful matrilineal heritage to bolster the logic of the “scramble for Africa.” Antiquity studies, more excavation projects, and the establishment of departments and societies that legitimized and elevated more looting, all were done in your name for the sake of attaining the kind of glory you brought to Berlin and to this continent.
Do they give you back pain, Nefertiti, all the burdens you carry?
Speaking of burdens, though, did you ever object to Hitler’s particular love for you, a non-Aryan? This love was questioned and critiqued as he proclaimed special protection and privileges for you. You stayed hidden in Thuringia’s mine with Germany’s gold and currency reserves before American boys came and “rescued” you from Nazism, and then from communism. They always like to rescue, these American boys. I bet you secretly chuckled about all this, your laughter echoing across the wall that separated East and West Berlin. The cold war dispute over you was only resolved after that wall fell. You were then brought back to Museum Island.
This is where I met you.
I was stunned by you when I first encountered you, in case you have not yet deduced this. You give me brain fuck: How can a treasure, a muse, a bodiless head, also embody the loss that I teach in my classes? It is the loss of cities, heritage, freedoms, history, that we have to live with on a daily basis. It is this loss that is embodied in the fact that I am here with you in Berlin, while I long to live and breathe in Beirut.
Do you know that just a few meters from where you are imprisoned, stands the gate of Ishtar in all its blue splendor?
When I first encountered the gate, I wept. I was so grateful for the seats the museum had installed for visitors who wish to observe the gates meticulously. I used the seats to anchor legs that were no longer capable of carrying me. The same legs that had carried me away from my Ishtar. There are no seats where you are displayed, no intention to savor you slowly and meticulously. You need to be kept scarce, rare, and most importantly, desirable in your unattainability.
I am glad you cannot see the gate of Ishtar. You might have wept at the sight of Babylonian daisies next to a German curator’s note.
You are the loss I am struggling to accept, most beautiful Berliner of all.
You were not asked to be moved, not given the choice to leave the land you were born and lived in. Yet, unlike most who wait in visa lines or others who take treacherous boat rides across the Mediterranean to their exile, you were “discovered,” crated, and very carefully and preciously transported to one of the most expensive zip codes in Berlin. Privileged? And what kind of privilege is not having a choice?
In any case, there are a lot of disputes around your stay in Berlin, in case you haven’t heard. Benin bronzes are to be returned, but not the most beautiful Berliner of all. Various Egyptian regimes have asked for your return, politely so. The German state has refused repeatedly, not because the latter takes any decisions to shun dictators and authoritarian regimes in whose prisons your descendants rot. They do not care about all that. But then again, maybe you were that kind of queen too.
Imagine if you were able to “return,” you of stone and clay!
Forgive me, I can be hurtful sometimes. But you have not looked those who might never return in their eyes. Or maybe you have. Maybe some come and visit you. Do they worship at your temple? Or do they come and mock you, the queen imprisoned by glass?
I will come and visit you.
I will read you a poem, a tribute that the poet Diana Ferrus wrote to Sarah Baartman. Sarah, a KhoeKhoe woman from the colonized southwestern region of the African continent, was taken to Europe a few years before you were, and exhibited as a freak show. She, unlike you, was not made of stone and clay. She bled when they poked, harassed, and violated her, in her lifetime as well as in her death. That is why Ferrus promises her:
“I have come to take you home, home!”
“I have come to wrench you away,
Away from the poking eyes of the man-made monster
Who lives in the dark with his clutches of imperialism
Who dissects your body bit by bit”
But you have no body. You have a face, one that graces beauty parlors and plastic surgery clinics around the globe. Perhaps that is why you, an Egyptian Queen, can “become” a Berliner. You are not a “body,” no desires, no needs, no fantasies. Just a face.
Diana asks Sara,
“Remember the veld,
The lush green grass beneath the big oak trees?”
Do you remember your land, Nefertiti? The lush green grass on the rivers of the Nile?
Maybe it does not matter if you remember your land or not. For I have not come to take you home. I have come to try and find traces, colors, fragments of my home in you.
Do they give you back pain, Nefertiti, all the burdens we, I, have made you carry?
Speak! Why don’t you speak to me?!
What lies behind your perfectly pursed lips? Does your clay bust contain a tongue? Do you have any vocal cords behind that chiseled neck?
Have they silenced you, Nefertiti? Have I silenced you, most beautiful Berliner of all?
Do you remember the last time I visited you? I blushed when I laid my eyes on you, although we were not alone. Maybe I blushed because we were not alone, because I am ashamed others might see what I see in you.
That last visit, I waited for us to be alone, and I stood right in front of you, face to face with you. And there I was, enclosed in a glass prison. With two intact eyes, yet unable to see where I was heading. With a full body, yet unable to express all of my desires. With a complete set of vocal cords and a tongue, yet continuously silent. With two healthy legs, yet incapable of walking back home. With functioning lungs, yet constantly gasping for breath in this vast city.
They give me back pain, Nefertiti, all the burdens they, you, have made me carry.
Sana Tannoury-Karam is a writer and a historian of the modern Middle East. She is writing a book on the cultural and intellectual history of the left in Lebanon during the Mandate period. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including the Journal of World History, Rusted Radishes, Jadaliyya, Megaphone, and Trafo-Blog for Transregional Research. She lives between Beirut and Berlin and is currently a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.