The Nightingale of Berlin

There was an eagerness to visit the place before my arrival to Berlin early July; even before its owner, Palestinian Nidal Bulbul, began advertising it on Facebook, as he was telling us about his intention to open a cultural cafe in the German capital, which became a space that joined many cultures from around the world.

»Bulbul Berlin«, is the name of the cafe that Nidal opened up late April in the famous neighborhood of Kreuzberg, which I visited the first time on a Thursday when it dedicates its small indoor stage to host Palestinian, Arabic, and German bands among others. That Thursday was really hot, so Nidal decided to have the musical performance outside. We met there, friends from Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, listening to the music until it was about time for the Arabic tradition in the cafes that we love, the cafes that resemble the ones in Haifa and Damascus and Beirut: we loudly sing songs that we all know by heart and which live in our memories. Sometimes the group singing develops to group dancing as well, either on the songs that we sing, or when the owner of the place allows us to put on the music that we love – which is what Nidal did on that Thursday as we danced to traditional Aleppo music by Sabah Fakhry.


A Journalist in Gaza

Nidal Bulbul was born in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood in Gaza. He never wanted to leave, despite his dream to continue his academic studies outside, but the Israeli siege on Gaza didn’t give him the chance to go to Ramallah and obtain a travel visa. He decided to study journalism and media in Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, and while studying he started working in journalism.

He worked as a photographer with various Palestinian and Arab news agencies until he started working with Reuters. This job gave him an opportunity to network in his surroundings, and so, with time, he lost the desire to leave the city. But the 20th of December 2007 was a turning point for him; he was covering the funeral of nine martyrs in Bureij camp after the Israeli military, and, during the clashes, without him knowing what really happened, the 4-wheel work car that he was riding in fell in a valley, badly injuring his right leg.

It was 10 am when the Jeep fell down in the valley, »it weighed 5 tons,« said Nidal. Because of his work with Reuters, he obtained a permit to be treated in Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. He reached to Erez crossing, »we call it the crossing of death,« and follows: »in that moment, I remembered the number of children who died on this checkpoint. 492 children who were on their way for treatment in Jerusalem.«

He reached the crossing with the Palestinian Ambulance that can only go as far as Area 55, »they [the Palestinian EMS] got down and put me on a carrier bed, and carried me up to the point that they can’t cross any further. They put me on the ground and came back. The Israeli Ambulance is supposed to come and pick me up. They came after a while. It was December, and the weather was very cold, and I wasn’t allowed to wear anything but the hospital garments, and I was still bleeding. The accident happened at 10 am. They treated me preliminary in Al-Shefaa Hospital in Gaza until I reach Hadassah. I reached Erez crossing at 2pm. The Israeli ambulance came at 12 midnight.«

Love at first sight

He lost his right leg. »The main reason behind losing my leg is the time that I spent at the check point,« said Nidal, who then spent two years of treatment in Jerusalem. He saw the Palestine that he never knew while in Gaza, and during that period he had the chance to receive training from a German TV station, and he reached Berlin in 2010 after spending some time in Bayreuth. All he expected was to get his training and then go back to Gaza through Egypt; he didn’t know that his love at first sight of the German capital would draw him towards another future besides the one he planned for – one between journalism and the cultural cafe that carries his name.

After receiving his German residency permit, he used the time to study German and getting to know the culture of the place. Whenever he moved from a city to another, Berlin was in his mind, when he comes back, it felt like home. »It doesn’t take away from my love of Gaza…as they say; the heart loves two cities, but Gaza is a place I dream of living in but not in the conditions that it is going through now. I don’t have a problem with the conditions that Gaza is going through; my problem is in the lack of freedom of movement and checkpoints,« says Nidal.

In 2011, he started working with a German news agency. »It was very strange, especially the nature of my day as a journalist from Gaza. I carry a camera that I have a personal relationship with, like my lover…whenever I go I take her with me, all the time standing by waiting for a rocket or a house to get destroyed or a press conference. Suddenly, I’m on the red carpet between Hollywood celebrities, every time I give the microphone to a celebrity to ask him a question, it occurs to me to ask him: do you know where I came from? Do you know Gaza?«


A dream built

In May 2016, Nidal received German citizenship, and, in late April, he opened his place »Bulbul Berlin«. »I named it after my family name, and so also after the Nightingale…and the only place where you hear the sound of the nightingale is in Görlitzer Park nearby,« said Nidal.

His dream was to own a cafe and a private space ever since the time he spent working in Gaza building cafeterias on the beach before the summer. After working in journalism in Berlin, and from the difference that he felt between the nature of his work between Gaza and Berlin, he decided to leave the profession, and realize this dream.

Two years ago, Nidal started looking for a space to realize the cafe project; he didn’t want the place to be in downtown. »It’s very hard to build a relationship with the people when the place is in the city; I was looking for a place that meant something to me.« He found the place in Görlitzer Street, and spent 4 months inside it building everything by hand. He walked around Berlin collecting thrown pieces of wood from the streets, built the bar, then the platform, and opened the place on April 28th 2015.

A cultural meeting place

Opening a private space is an idea not just restricted to Nidal’s dream, but is also related to the nature of Arab places that he saw in Berlin: »from my early arrival, I saw commercial shops and restaurants and Hookah bars, not more. I didn’t find cultural spaces, and places to educate the Palestinians who were born outside about their culture and their cause and their heritage, this is missing a lot here, there are numerous initiatives, but it didn’t continue.« Nidal continues: »Arabs here don’t have anything to bring them together, there is more than one art institute, but the Arab bands that arrive here don’t find a framework to meet in. Part of the idea of the place is to please my needs and my identity. I’m an Arab, and, as much as I can speak German, I was born and raised in Palestine and lived the Arabic life. Every time I pass by a street and listen to Fairouz, or meet an Arab, I feel nostalgia and yearning and a space to fill.«

Nidal Bulbul aims through his space »Bulbul Berlin« to create a space that has a room for Arabic cultural expression: hosting Arabic cultural and artistic initiatives and merging the cultures that live in Berlin – which is also embodied in the types of food that the cafe serves, a mixture of German and Arabic cuisines, welcoming all world cultures. »I don’t have a problem with your religion or the color of your skin, you are welcome here anytime.«

*This article has been published in Fus-ha, a Palestinian online cultural magazine.