»Time is created by events. In an eventless universe there would be no time.«
– John Berger
I am writing this, in Kaduna as I scan time and juggle memories. It is a pandemic. Bodies have disappeared, walled behind fences and gates. To each his own.
In this timeline, there is an art gallery in a plantation street in an area labeled with street signs that evoke memories of white power over Black bodies. The conversation is a radio interview, and a microphone edges towards lips. The train ride from the book I read from is different from the rides on the U-Bahns and spaces of Berlin:
This train ride is from Kaduna and it is not glossy
but a carrier of bubble of humans
men, women, children, matted bags, glistening silver buckets
wrapped bundles of brooms, prickly tubers of yams
creaking assemblage of overhead fans
backpacks, nylon leathers, passengers
heads lying on walking aisles.
But this is Berlin, not Kaduna
Train here is luxury, a space for thinking
lectures, laughter and discuss.
I scroll Twitter on the screen of my iPad, giggling at the sound of a joke or the sound of an attempt to joke, or a picture or a scene stuck in time.
A barbershop in Berlin. N is having his hair shaved and his now »mohawk-esque«-shaped hair reflects in a mirror in the picture while the barber is distracted from his task by my laughter. Above, on a television screen, a Bundesliga match is ongoing and the team in white is aligned in a perfect 4-4-2 formation.
(Enter Pa T, an older male, and his two acquaintances and first-time visitors to Berlin)
A sign outside the barbershop hangs, reading »closed.«
Barber: Wir sind geschlossen.
N: Bros, abeg help me now, I badly need this haircut. It’s a few days until Christmas and I am traveling tomorrow.
Barber: (pointing at closed sign) No! No! Closed!
Me: من أين
Barber: (with a wide grin and surprised face) Palestine. Palestine!
End of scene
In this time capsule, the barber grins, not expecting the sound of his mother tongue, of his lost city from this stranger in a strange place. We keep grinning and nodding in appreciation of language. This is Germany. Time is a defined construct. My calendar is filled with appointments, meetings, and social gatherings set in the future. But here, right now, we collectively created another meaning of time. We abandon our calendars and allow the involvement of humans and not the ticks of a time clock. What is early and what is late? Time to this African and Arab in a European city is about the value of human interactions, not schedules anymore. But will this barber have to take out these extra two hours he had allocated to our group after the official closing hours from his time tomorrow morning? How will this intrusion affect the next day’s schedule of his next German client waiting for a 7:00 am haircut? A domino effect of a cataclysmic time collapse as an African and a European break European time. Time is lost and wasted. Anarchy. Yet, even in the waste of time, genuine human interactions have to continue. Time is a silent language and there is a fine art to opening closed barbershops in a city that lives in time, in future appointments. The art of memory and language.
The culture of time I find in Germany is of one thing at a time. Scheduling meetings and drafting agendas weeks in advance. I adjusted to this culture of time, and even began getting used to it. I am awake at 2:00 am to beat scheduled deadlines set in other continents. The time is 2:59 am and my watch ticks not towards 3:00 am but back to another 2:00 am. The magic of daylight savings time. Two different hours in the same day. A time joke. Tomorrow in my meeting with S. Will I be one hour early or one hour late? Here, time is not real.
Now, I stare at garbage, clutching my jacket into my body. The exhibiting artist sitting by my side is adorned in her native pink sari and wearing white sneakers. I am staring at an artwork from her solo exhibition Garb-Age where she scavenges trash, baggage, and discarded elements (broken glasses, cigarettes, coins, paper bags) to interact with time and epistemology. In another art gallery in Berlin, we are all curated garbage, in a ritual of time. A global mess. We are the garbage, we are the artwork, and we are time going mental as we view our reflections in broken mirrors and glasses.
I met S a week before her exhibition. I listened and learned the artistry of her garbage, the artistry of her activism, through conversations about the global injustice on people, on the climate, on time – conversations about our global mess. »You know sometimes, the whole work gets really depressing,« S adds as we pause in front of her apartment. »Working with so much mess and thinking about how to make the world less messy. Sometimes I just give up. And in these moments, I step out of my studio and go out for a smoke. I guess it’s a way of punishing myself too for what we are doing to the world, by ingesting garbage – poison, into my own system.«
Amsterdam is a whirlwind. Cultural by day, bawdy at night. It is one of the days of the festival of light and the skies lit by man-made structures competing with the genius of God. I am the single black body in a boat of tourists ferrying the waters of river Amstel. I have time arranged. Train tickets bought ahead of time, as I begin to travel across Europe in a future schedule. Time is a capsule.
Another day clocked according to schedule. I am on a train leaving Amsterdam for Sloterdijk Station. Sitting opposite me on the train is a young Black woman in a crop top and denim jeans. She looks to be in her early twenties. I could feel her gaze linger on me since I stepped into the coach. I attempt to avert the strong gaze by looking back into her eyes. Our eyes meet – hers a shade of dark brown. She continues to stare intently. I could not continue and now I am looking down at my feet, sideways into the coach – anywhere but into her dreamy eyes. This would continue for the next two stops until »crop-top denim jeans« woman will finally alight. I turn my head through the windscreens and look at her walking outside on the platforms. Then like a breeze, she turns around, smiles and blows me a kiss and waves me off as the train begins to move. I freeze in the moment, unable to return her kiss. As the train shudders and moves faster, I burst out in an uncontrollable laughter. I am tempted to press the emergency halt signs, drop off and pursue this unlikely romance.
What happens when we stop time in its tracks on the coach of a train – do we end up in a loop of space or a loop of infinite lights? Two strangers in the lights of Amsterdam tripping over time.
In the past days, I was in control of time, with pre-booked train tickets and an arranged schedule as I traveled across Europe. For my time in Hamburg, I had planned on a tourist walk around the central station to the Kunsthalle Hamburg museum, and gawk in real time at Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Monet, and a street shopping experience along the Mönckebergstrasse. But the skies seem like they are always eager to rain.
In certain parts of Nigeria, rainmakers are held in high regard and people pay them to keep rains away from events such as weddings. Rains waste time and can reduce the value of and time spent at social gatherings. Sadly, I am not from this stock of rainmakers, so the downpour restricted me to the confines of the central station sipping coffee at a Döner shop. I am the only customer besidesthe Turkish owner, who goes back inside to dispose of the trash. He hesitates before leaving me alone, his face glowering and not trusting. I finish the last drop of coffee when a middle-aged white person walks in, a beard covering his face. He speaks in German to me and I smile and shake my head signaling to him that I am deaf in that language area. He comes close to the counter and leers, searching for the Turkish owner. I perceive a whiff of odor from the grocery bag in his hand. He walks around, his gait unsteady. My eyes follow him. He begins to walk away towards the exit, but then instantly picks up a bottle of wine and places it into his grocery bag and hurries away. I am left bewildered. I do not know whether to raise an alarm for shoplifting or not. I remain frozen on my seat, coffee in hand. What can I do? I am the black stranger here. The one followed or watched closely by security guards in any store in Europe, so how do I gaze back in time, and raise an alarm on a white person shoplifting. How do I tell them exactly what happened without being able to speak the proper colonial language? The Turkish shop owner re-emerges and I immediately pay him for my coffee and drag my suitcase into the rainy streets of Hamburg almost running.
A hundred years back in time, in the lifetime of my father’s grandfather, my likeness is displayed by the German colony as a Völkerschau, a human zoo. Time is a continuum. I feel complicit for the actions of my likeness a hundred years ago for not protesting. And now, in this shoplifting, I feel complicit.
I am at Konstanz, waiting in the cold winter night, alone in the station for the next train to Zurich. Over the next couple of hours, I roam until I find myself at the border crossing – here in one part I faced Kreuzlingen in Switzerland, and on the other side, I was in Konstanz in Germany. A line, a border, and in that moment, I put one leg across the line and I was lost in time, lost in two cities, in two countries, my body shared different politics, different currencies, but the same swift air, blowing on both halves of myself for 60 seconds.
3:00 am (DST)
One minute becomes one hour. How do you run down time as you wait for the next train? Do train tracks understand how to cheat time? I whirled stones into the lake, howled into the night sky, and laid on my praying mat in the railway station facing the qibla my heart towards the Kaaba in Makkah and prayed that time remains sane. I listened to Naziru Ahmad’s Hausa music as the tinny sound springing from my iPhone in ripples shuffling with Burna Boy’s lyrics pulsing with the winds and walls of the station. In the eerie silence of the night in faraway Switzerland I stopped time and traveled home on the waves of music to the cozy beats of my room in Kaduna, singing:
»Anybody, wey no want to soji/Anybody, wey no dey carry body/Nack am something, ah ah/Nack am something.«
This story is a trick of time. We are all strange bodies dancing to the melody of a journey.