A Southern German Jihad

Arnon Grunberg

At the age of six, long before the war in Syria actually broke out, Jihad fled with his parents and sister to Germany. Whether his parents had actually been fleeing or whether they left of their own free will was something they never talked about. Between fleeing and leaving of one’s own free will lies a huge gray field of shadow. 

What is certain is that Jihad’s parents opened an Italian restaurant in the southern German city of Freiburg in the mid-1990s; Jihad’s father, a civil engineer, had been unable to find work in his own profession. Thanks to an inheritance from Jihad’s grandmother, however, they had put aside a little money, and the parents decided that that money should be put to good use, to buy a restaurant. After all, people always need to eat; if they have a bit of money they like to go out to eat, and in this part of Germany, money was never an issue.


A German friend of the family, Thomas—a man with a weakness for refugees in general and for Jihad’s big sister in particular—advised them not to make it a Middle Eastern restaurant. “This is a conservative region,” he said, “ravioli with a goat-sauce ragout, people already find that exotic enough.”


After a bit of protest, the father realized that Thomas was right: Italian cuisine had a brighter future in the Black Forest than Middle Eastern cooking. Because guests would be confused by an Italian restaurant run by Syrians, and because most of them couldn’t tell the difference anyway, Jihad’s parents decided to pretend to be Italian, at least in the restaurant, which they succeeded at wonderfully well. In fact, not even the cook, who they were able to hire quite quickly, was Italian; he was an Albanian who claimed he could cook Italian better than most Italians. To which he liked to add: “I’m a convert to Italian cooking, and converts are always the greatest fanatics.”


Only at home did Jihad sometimes hear his father mumble: “Back in Damascus we were upper middle class, but around here I’m an Italian.” In the restaurant though, the former civil engineer played the Italian host like he had been doing it all his life and there was nothing he loved more. The regular customers knew that the owner was a Syrian, not an Italian. The regular customers couldn’t have cared less, because the pasta was good and they always got a shot of grappa on the house. It was important to keep one’s politics and one’s food separate, unless you wanted to make your life a living hell.


Jihad’s German, both the local dialect and the official language, was soon better than that of his parents, and he developed a love of skiing that was more powerful than his parents’ homesickness for the town they came from.


Times changed, however, and although Jihad looked quite German – people mistook him for a Greek at times, and at the Frankfurt train station someone had once addressed him in Hebrew – his name became more and more of a problem and his standard joke – “I guess I don’t have to tell you how to spell that” – was no longer enough to avoid questions, discussions, and suspicion. A girl who’d been in his ski class and with whom he had fallen in love—they had gone out together three times, he’d had dinner at her house once and they’d had sex twice, including one time on a snowy mountain slope—said: “My father thinks you’re real nice, and he says you’re a good skier too, but he can’t get used to your name. He says, that boy’s name is Jihad, what can you expect from someone with a name like that?” From then on, Jihad started calling himself Marcus, but the change came too late for the object of his desire; in the meantime she had found a boyfriend with a normal, German name.


After the attacks in America, Jihad’s parents were interviewed by a local newspaper, and Jihad’s mother answered the questions put to her by a female journalist, a friendly woman with oversized spectacles: “I’m not afraid of fundamentalism, I’m afraid of assimilation. My son calls himself Marcus, but that’s not his name: his name is Jihad. Assimilation destroys everything, and someday it will destroy you Germans too.”

Jihad’s sister, meanwhile, had become a successful puppeteer and moved to Berlin, where she lived with a staunchly Catholic Pole. Jihad himself had less success; he was a fine enough skier, but without the kind of talent needed to make it to the real top. He had stopped studying economics. In the winter, he worked as a ski instructor; in the summer, he was a fitness instructor for senior citizens. To keep from causing his parents needless pain, he stopped calling himself Marcus and reassumed the name Jihad. Some of the senior citizens objected to having a fitness instructor who called himself Jihad, but once they’d had a few lessons from him, they told each other: “This Jihad is good, you can really learn from this one.”


Because Jihad realized that with a name like his you had to go the extra mile, he signed up with the volunteer fire department, where he made a couple of friends and developed a penchant for various card games. By then he was living in the town of Titisee-Neustadt, in the hills, where his father had opened a second Italian restaurant.

One night—he couldn’t fall asleep and was playing a game on his telephone—his alarm went off. There was a fire. They drove to it, Jihad and his buddies did, but only when they were actually in the fire engine did Jihad hear that it was his parents’ restaurant that was burning.


The fire had raged mostly at the back of the building, so you could clearly see the words “Flüchtlinge raus” that someone had written on the front window. Jihad and his friends put out the fire professionally and competently, taking no risks, for human lives were more important than material damage; by the time they were done, however, there was very little left of the restaurant.


By then, Jihad’s father had arrived too. He stood in front of his torched restaurant and talked to the boys from the volunteer fire department and the police in his well-practiced German-Italian accent, as though the police and the fire department were only customers who might be talked into ordering that day’s dessert special.

While they were putting away their equipment, one of Jihad’s colleagues said: “I don’t get it. You people aren’t refugees at all, you only came here for the money, right?”

At that, Jihad pounced on his colleague. It took three men to restrain him, and even then they succeeded only with difficulty.

Weeks later, the people of Titisee-Neustadt were still saying to each other: “That boy was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But what can you expect, with a name like that?”


Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

This piece is part of an ongoing partnership with Cabinet Magazine. Every month, the writing and editing team at Cabinet will produce articles surrounding our monthly Seminar Series, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You - a yearlong workshop based on reinterpreting and reimagining man's essential needs.


Arnon Grunberg is a novelist and reporter. His books includes TirzaThe Jewish Messiah, and Blue Mondays.