The German Way or “Much Ado about Nothing”
By Chaza Charafeddine
Searching a narrow alley off Auguststraße for a place to park my red Suzuki, I heard a thud. I looked around and was surprised to see a large black jeep blocking my view of the main road. Duly, the driver stepped out and unhurriedly proceeded to examine the damage on his luxury vehicle. Calmly he looked, saying little and seemingly caring less. I was already late to pick up Walid. We had agreed to visit an exhibition on that same street, after which I would give him a lift to the airport. I stepped out of my car and apologized to the man. It was my fault. I had backed into his “Defender”. My side mirror simply folded in, unmarked yet leaving a four centimeters long scratch on the side of his jeep; hardly a scratch but a scratch nevertheless. Late and in a hurry, I offered to pay the man the amount he deemed necessary to paint over the scratch. Annoyed, he replied that it was not for him to assess the cost of the damage but for the insurance company. Keeping his sight on the scratch he said that he must call the police to document the accident and complete the required protocol. Is that really necessary I asked…
- Certainly, the police must record the details of the accident!
- What is there to record? The matter is clear. I backed-up into your car, I am at fault, I recognize my responsibility and furthermore, I am willing to pay you for the damage.
- No, no, I have had bad experiences in similar situations and I prefer to call the police.
- Are we not adult enough to solve this problem on our own?
Without answering, he dialed a number on his mobile phone.
- Moreover, I am sure we both have more important things to do.
No answer. He turned his back, spoke with the police and then informed me that they will arrive within fifteen minutes. Walid called asking where I was. I told him to meet me at the site of the accident, a street parallel to Auguststraße. Another mishap! Orientation is not my forte. Not realizing that I was in fact at one end of Auguststraße, I sent him off in the wrong direction. Two policemen arrived. Upon seeing the scratch, one smiled while the second diligently began to note down all the details of that thin whitish line. He did it with such zeal and seriousness that I doubted the man’s mental capacities.
I asked the first one how I should proceed. He answered that traffic laws require that I pay a fine for “causing an accident”, in addition to the costs of requesting the presence of the police. He added that probably no “point” for “misdemeanor” will be attached to my driving file… a comment at which the second police officer irascibly retorted: She will receive at least one point. That is certain! (Eight points and I would have to sit for a session to re-learn traffic laws. Well on my way, I had already collected three this year for exceeding speed limits). Meanwhile, I remembered Walid and the wrong directions I had given him. I called again and asked that he waits for me at the entrance of the gallery. I promised that I would soon be with him.
I noted all the information required by the two policemen and then swiftly met up with Walid. I told him the whole story. He could hardly believe that all I had caused was an insignificant scratch. I insisted pointing to my intact side mirror. Reluctantly, he finally gave in. At the airport he asked me whether I still insisted on receiving German nationality.
A few days later, I received a letter from the police informing me that a “point” was added to my file. Moreover, I had to pay a fine of eighty Euros for causing an accident on Auguststraße. Two weeks later a letter from the insurance company stated that they had to reimburse the owner of the Defender nine hundred Euros for costs of repair. Accordingly, my annual premium will be raised twenty percent for the following two years, or alternatively, I should immediately pay the company that same amount.
… All of a sudden, Berlin’s efficiency makes it seem like(?) a modern city.
On the second-floor lives Nico Dragan, a German of Yugoslavian origin. Nico is robust and amiable with jokes aplenty I rarely grasp, delivered in passing on the staircase. Although I knew not what it is he does, he was clearly skilled in the ways and manners of this country. Quite unlike him, he once knocked at my door at ten at night telling me he saw someone bump into my car, parked in front of the apartment building, and that I’d better go down immediately and see to it. I did. I greeted the septuagenarian culprit driver and then tried hard to find a trace of the accident on my car. I asked the elderly man what happened. Pointing to the place of the impact, he explained that the side of his car rubbed against the front of mine while trying to enter the garage of the building next door. I held and shook the front bumper. I found it well in place. Apologetically, I told the man that I could see nothing…, but he insisted that shining a light on the spot would make the traces visible. As if by magic, the supposedly damaged area was suddenly lit. I turned around to see Nico, silent and attentive, a flashlight in his hand. To his side stood Mettin, the Turkish coffee-shop owner, with a cigarette stuck to his lips reeking of “green tobacco”. Hands in pockets he eyed the old man as if trying to intimidate him. I turned back to see the “damaged area”: A white line, barely visible, like the trace of a light rub left by my rubber shoes. This time Walid would certainly not believe me. I looked for my husband. He was speaking with Nico in a low voice! Nico asked if he should call the police. You must be joking I said. Not at all!
- There is absolutely no need. It is nothing.
I know, he answered softly. But a car accident is a car accident. Whether big or small, a crash is a crash and the police will record it as such.
- I know quite well what the police does. It is not worth it.
Nico answered that I should nevertheless note all the necessary information concerning the old man, his name, address, license plate number, etc., … That I should examine my car tomorrow in daylight just in case further damage was left unnoticed. And as my husband was jotting down the old man’s names and numbers Nico whispered: Are you simply going to let this fool get away with it? Just look at all this space, a large truck could have easily passed by. But not he, not with his tiny car. Moreover, you never know. What if you had to replace the whole front of your car?
Nico gave me that look which said: You know what I mean. And I reciprocated with a look that said: Absolutely.
I asked the old man if he was insured. He replied yes but prefers to solve the matter aside from the insurance company! I understand… I said.
Mettin drew close, cigarette in mouth. Gazing at the front of my car, he said in a low rough voice: Do as Dragan says. We should fight them with their own weapons. Don’t forget that the law is on your side and we all are witnesses.
- Did you see the accident? No, he said.
It was dark and none could say for certain who did see it, except for himself… And then he bellowed laughing only to then whisper that he would be willing to testify against the man were I to ask him! I thanked him for his offer and said that I will keep it in mind just in case.
Climbing the stairs to our apartments, I caught a glance of Thomas, my neighbor from the second floor. Thomas is an ex-communist and currently an activist in the anti-globalization movement, “Attack”. He came over and enquired about the whole matter. I explained briefly and pointed to the old man and his car. Climbing along the stairs Thomas said: I know this man, he is a Jehovah Witness, one of those who congregate for masses in the dilapidated church next door. Do not let this idiot get away with it!
Next morning, I drove my car to Mr. Fritz’s garage. He knows my Suzuki well, ever since I bought it, and ever since he scorns at it, trying all the while to get me to dump it. I asked him to check the front of my car. He grabbed the plastic screen and shook it vigorously. It remained stable. Fritz said:
- Ok, no harm done. This scratch is easy. I can smooth it out using sand paper in fifteen seconds.
- You mean the old man does not have to pay?
- I did not say that. Those fifteen seconds won’t cost you a thing. I could do it now if you wanted while talking. It won’t, of course, make your car any prettier! I just wanted you to know that I am willing to do it for free. As for the old man, the damage he caused is barely visible. True, but it is a car accident nevertheless and he cannot avoid responsibility just like that. Also, by not calling the police or his insurance company you, in fact, saved him from paying a fine for the accident, not to mention the increase on his insurance premium. You have already given too much.
- But you said my car was not damaged.
- Yes, but one must assume responsibility for one’s acts in life regardless of the consequences. In this particular case, no matter the damage or lack of it, how do you expect the man to learn his lesson if you were to let him go. He just might do it again tomorrow thinking others will let him go as well… No! This cannot be argued. You must make it clear to him that what he did is a felonious act and that it will be handled as such. The old man must pay for his mistake!
- And what is it you think I should do?
Jokingly he answered: Ask him for three hundred euros and we will split halfway.
- But that is too much!
- Yes. It is almost half the current price of your car!
Done with scorning my Suzuki, he added:
- Fine, ask for one hundred and fifty. If he says “no”, then ask that he calls an expert to assess the damage. That should cost him just as much…
I thanked Mr. Fritz and promised that I would return soon to fix my now three-year-old broken car window. I felt I owed him for having given me fifteen minutes of his time for free.
On the way home, I stopped by the Lebanese grocer who, every Wednesday, imports vegetables from Jordan. Following his customary greetings, Abu Hassan enquired about my car. Surprised at him knowing, he explained that Mettin passed by him today and told him the whole story! I said that Mettin is a chatterbox and that an insignificant accident such as this needs not all this fuss.
But Sittna (our dear lady) had you been at fault this German would not have let you go.
- I know, but I am not German.
- As you wish.
- Had it been me, I would have called the police, billed the insurance company and required indemnity for being forced to stop work, two or three days, time for the mechanic to fix the car… No, more, I would have sued him for “emotional stress” … I would have asked for every last penny, only to avenge myself against this arrogant people. They do not respect us, nor our traditions or our religion and if they could they would expel us without hesitation.
- But the old man was not arrogant with me, I said.
- You do not understand how they think. They are all kindness and understanding when they need you. But when it is the other way around, they turn ruthless and selfish. They see you only when they can profit.
- What’s with you, Abu Hassan? I know some such Germans, but I also know many others who are not like that, who are highly ethical.
Despairingly he looked at me and calmly said:
- You are lucky! But please make me happy by forcing that old man to pay for the accident!
At the foot of the staircase, I crossed Dragan. He asked what I had done. I told him of Mr. Fritz and his opinion and that I was still mulling things over. He said, climbing up the stairs: Think it through. The old man must realize that it is time for him to stop driving!
- Perhaps you are right, I said.
- After all, it is not your duty to inform him of what the mechanic told you. I know an expert who could decide on a six hundred euros fee for you to replace the front of your car. You give him a hundred and keep the rest. Five hundred euros can come in handy these days. Don’t you think?... Noticing the disapproving look on my face, he looked at me reproachfully, then at the floor despondently, as if sorry that it hadn’t happened to him, for he would have known exactly how to benefit.
Back home, I told my husband what Fritz had said and then asked him his opinion about letting the old man pay eighty euros, which amounts to the exact fine I had to pay the police a few days ago. Accordingly, I would retrieve some of the costs accrued following the “Defender” accident, and the old man would pay much less were I to pursue the matter legally!
I do not know how I came to such an idea. Most probably it is Nico and Mr. Fritz who opened a dormant slot in my brain; a slot that knows how to swindle, German style. How utterly fascinating, a way to gull that is not only legal but also recommended! I liked it… My husband said little except to comment that the German nationality is now well within my reach! He then proposed that I phone the old man telling him to forget all about it but that from now on he ought to be more careful pulling into the garage. (Reprimanding others is unavoidable even to non-native Germans).
My husband’s proposal left me cold. Rather, I recalled Nico, Mr. Fritz, Thomas, Mettin and Abu Hassan and let myself imagine how that elder sits in front of his T.V, tense and anxious, waiting for my call and his sentence. Let him suffer a little longer, I thought. Yes, let him. I decided to end it all the day next.
I woke up the next morning feeling tranquil and clear-headed. Not for long. The phone rang. It was the old man. He could wait no longer. I greeted him and kindly asked him, giving no explanations, to let me be, I mean to let it be! He showered me with compliments, discoursed on generosity and on how difficult it is to meet people like “me”, and thanked me deeply for my “great manners”! I hung up the phone quickly to avoid more of his compliments of which I believed none. For I am certain that his exaggerated praise was nothing but his surprise at still finding fools like me.
No matter, it was a beautiful morning. The sun shone, even if unlikely, at that time of the year. I savored my morning coffee, admiring my red Suzuki parked with the solemnity of a black “Defender” in front of Mettin’s coffee shop, the Hash dealer.
Translated from the Arabic by Walid Sadek.
Originally published in Nawafez (the cultural supplement of the daily newspaper al-Mustaqbal - Lebanon), May 14, 2006. It was republished in the short-story collection, “Haqibatun Bilkadi Tura” (A Barely Visible Suitcase), by Chaza Charafeddine, Dar Al Saqi, Beirut, 2015.
This text was selected and translated from the Arabic with the support of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan for the documenta online magazine - 2007.