One in the crowd

By Jessica Davey-Quantick

I’m standing in the Topography of Terror in Berlin. In front of me is a wall of photographs, some black and white, some startling color. History isn’t supposed to be in color; it more often seems a blurry smear of black and white, a uniform, a grin-and-grip. I’m fixed on one photo, a picture of a crowd, a solid mass of Hitler-saluting humanity that’s so iconic of 1930s Germany it looks like a carefully crafted still from a carefully crafted Spielberg blockbuster.

But it’s not. This wide shot of people, all enthusiastically saluting their way into a Nazi frenzy, is real. And so is the one guy in the middle, helpfully circled just in case you managed to miss him, who isn’t saluting.

Photograph on display at the Topography of Terror; only in the crowd does not salute during a Nazi demonstration. (Jessica Davey-Quantick/FASPE)

Photograph from 1936 on display at the Topography of Terror. (Jessica Davey-Quantick/FASPE)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t stop looking at this photograph.

That photo isn’t from 1943. It’s not even from 1939. It was taken earlier, when there was time to go back, when what was happening wasn’t a moment of life and death, but a moment of an almost-nothing decision that could put your foot atop a slippery slope—or allow you to sidestep it.

I’m pretty sure that top-of-the-slide moment for me was a free lipstick. Or my first free meal. Or perhaps the iPad that turned up at my home office, albeit loaded with a press packet, but from a press conference I didn’t go to. I’m using it to check Facebook on the FASPE trip.

I spent five years in Doha, Qatar, cranking out two commercial magazines and drinking cup after cup of karak with PR person after PR person in a world that’s not even trying to hide the fact it’s based on slavery. As the conversation at FASPE swirls around press obedience, compliance and complicity, I’m not looking baffled as to why German journalists didn’t high tail it out of Dodge in 1939. I know why. And that scares me.

It’s easy to imagine these times as newsreels of perpetual horror. We’d like to imagine Nazi Germany as one never-ending propaganda montage, preferably with a Ken Burn’s zoom and an ominous soundtrack. I know that’s how people may want to picture Doha, and there are hundreds of stories to tell that do fit that narrative.

After five years I stopped seeing those narratives so clearly. I had to, in order to avoid going crazy; it takes enormous energy to see. And most of my memories of Doha don’t smack of injustice: instead they taste like Red Bull and vodka and smell like hot sand and the throb of dubstep in my back molars. My memories of Doha are in 17 languages and often involve funny stories about the many methods I discovered to smuggle bacon into the country. I didn’t have First World problems in Qatar: I had Victorian First World problems that involved maids and drivers. Benefiting from an unjust system can be a muzzle. After I tell one of the ugly stories people sometimes ask me how I could put up with it, why I didn’t leave, why I didn’t say something. How could I live a lifestyle that I hadn’t earned, but that had been handed to me because of my skin and my accent and my passport? How can I sit at my desk and attempt to write about oppression or injustice when my coffee is brought to me each morning by a tea boy?

As a journalist I’m supposed to shout stories of oppression. But that can feel ugly in Doha, as though I’m co-opting someone’s pain. And using my own experiences of injustice makes it seem as though I’m doing after-the-fact justification. My stories are small in comparison, moments of inconvenience and discomfort no more serious than a hangnail. My sponsor wouldn’t allow me to leave his employment and stay in the country; but I could come in and out on series of tourist visas because I have a Canadian passport. My passport was held, but only for a few months. I was treated differently because of my gender and my race and my nationality, but typically that meant I was treated with more deference than I would be at home. My story is not in the same category as that of a Filipina maid who has been trapped for years in a country not her own.

I was prepared to see reflections in how the German press operated in the rhetoric of obedience that was required if I didn’t want to be deported from Qatar. But I thought I’d be saved by my contributions to “between the lines.” That time I wrote about animal abuse at the pet souq would make up for all the times I photo-shopped a woman’s shorts to cover her knees. That time I interviewed taxi drivers about the reality of their lives would surely vindicate every time I wrote “bubbly” instead of champagne and “malt beverage” instead of beer or the time I once edited all reference to Miss Piggy out of an article on “The Muppet Movie” because she’s all pink, porky and clearly haram.

But it doesn’t. This isn’t ethical Jenga. I can’t balance the scale with one or two acts. Framed in the language of a slow slide to obedience those are false flickers of rationalizations, pebbles in a very deep pond that didn’t create a ripple because I lightly brushed the surface instead of crossing my arms and bursting out of a photograph.

Standing in the Topography of Terror, I am ashamed.

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