From Thing to Event: Consuming in the Meantime

During my research, I could observe that people need “spectacles” in their everyday life, no matter how unspectacular these events seem at first glance. The phenomenologist Maurice Merlau-Ponty has pointed out that humans bodily sense the material world by mean of a “perceptual spectacle” within which the qualities of things unfold.1 I will take up this notion, which opens up a broader field on how refugees – who are devoid of stable domestic orders and things – cope with the condition of home-lessness. This desire for events becomes even more urgent when uncertainty or desolation becomes unbearable, which I will address in case of the qualities of consumption for Arif Ibrahim and his companions (I will address the issues of cooking, hospitality, and commensality in From Thing to Event: Dining in the Meantime).

In Friedland, Arif became friends with two other Pakistanis, both Sunni. He enjoyed spending time with them and talking in Urdu, the Pakistani national language (they all spoke different local languages). They also had in common a strong dislike of religious fundamentalism and their deep appreciation of Pakistani cuisine.

Due to their culinary preferences, the three seldom visited the camp’s canteen. They spent most of their money2 on food and rail tickets. Regularly, the train tickets cost more than the groceries they bought in one of Göttingen’s Turkish supermarkets. Dodging the fare was not a good option since the group was terrified of getting into serious trouble with the police and thus facing violent threats, and damaging the reputation of Pakistanis in Germany in general.

Even though there is similar food available in a supermarket in Friedland, Arif explained that the food in the Turkish food store in Göttingen was better and cheaper (even though the latter is not necessarily the case, see above) and tasted more like at home. Here, one could find all the spices and ingredients required for Pakistani cuisine. Whether the friends could afford these ingredients was, of course, another matter.

Arif, who was the one that usually went to Göttingen, mainly bought some onions, carrots, potatoes, yellow lentils, the cheapest wheat flour, curry spice-mix, and oil – in short, the very basic ingredients of the meals. Even pooling their grocery money, the three friends only sometimes (at the beginning of the month) had enough cash for a half chicken. The maximum Arif spent on groceries in my presence was about seven euros. I offered to bring food with when I came to Friedland, which they agreed to, and I added some extras they preferred but could not afford, like halva, Turkish delight, cola, and better-quality curry or masala spice-mixes – and of course chicken.

However, there was also another aspect of doing groceries for Arif. Although I regularly brought the foodstuffs required to Friedland, he still went to the city. Dropping his purchases for an hour at an Indian Restaurant where a guy he knew worked, he went to the city center. When I asked what he was doing there, he answered that he enjoys strolling in the city and looking at all the nice goods on display.

Even though Arif cannot, and will probably not be able to afford the products in the showcases, window shopping and strolling provide him with a welcome joyful event of enjoying a “normal” urban life. It is just a short moment – a ritual – in which freedom and aspiration have their blissful space before Arif is again absorbed into camp life.

Friedemann Yi-Neumann

[1] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice .2012 [1945]. The Phenomenology of Perception. London & New York, Routledge, p. 5.

[2] The received €135 per month according to Article 3 § of The German Asylum Seekers Benefits Act (Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz)

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