by Nariman Youssef
Vogelfrei.. vogel-frei.. bird-free.. free as a bird. Taking the literal meaning alone, it sounds like an uncomplicatedly good thing. But from the 16th to the 19th century, in whatever passed for German law at the time, it was used to describe the state of someone legally ostracised from the community: an outlaw, they were no longer protected by law, if murdered their murder would go unpunished, and their bodies left outside for birds of prey.
I can’t remember how H and I started using the word “vogelfrei” to describe our periods of unemployment. But I know it must’ve been close to 10 years ago. When we were both egging each other on to resign from first post-university jobs, which we eventually did: he to move away to pastures new –where he worked harder but at least earned more—and I to spend 8 months walking aimlessly around downtown Cairo, missing him and thinking about WHAT I WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE.
Despite living in different countries more or less ever since, both of us are now used to the uncanniness of going through parallel phases without planning or meaning to. We have both moved in and out of jobs, changing cities and sometimes countries, disappearing on each other for months at a time but sharing everything that mattered. Every now and then we would exchange emails with the subject line: Vogelfrei –celebrating another resignation or wallowing in the bliss of the in-between before the inevitable beginning of a new job.
We persisted in using the word in its liberating sense –free to fly, no attachments, responsibilities dropped –even after discovering its negative connotations. The romanticised image of the outlaw –we are both under-cover romantics—must’ve added to the appeal: we were after freedom from the drudgery of 9-to-5 corporate paradise, and if that means we’re doomed, forever banished to the hellfire of renewable uncertainty, then so be it!
We kept scheming escapes, and our schemes led us along very similar but separate paths, that are now uncannily again beginning to converge. What we’ve lost in the intervening years is the illusion of finding answers flashing in fluorescent lights: I stopped asking WHAT I WANT TO DO, and he stopped waiting for life to be transformed by a chance encounter on a train… What we’ve gained is the freedom of being able to define what we want as we go, by elimination mostly, in a series of subtle imperceptible moves and occasional leaps of something that comes close to faith but isn’t quite.
My dear friend.. whose birthday is today.. will be embarking on one of those leaps in a few weeks from now..
(I can clearly hear you say.. ليه الفضايح دي، ماكنتي تبعتيلي إيميل وخلاص)
.. and to mark the occasion, I present the following offerings —
..words from a very ugly punk song by a band called Vogelfrei that are nonetheless quite befitting:
Zur Arbeit nie unpünktlich, die Pausen eingehalten, und zu Vorgesetzten, immer höflich sein… Lieber aus der Reihe tanzen als im Gleichschritt zu marschiern.. lieber immer gegen den Wind als nur zu funktionieren.
Never late for work, break time well-observed, and towards superiors, always polite. Better to dance out of line than to march in step.. better than just to function is to go against the wind in flight.
..a kind of Biergarten song that could work as a soundtrack for the very late stages of a birthday party. The song is called Vogelfrei and is based on the medieval meaning of the word. It goes on a bit in celebration of the diversity of plundering options available to a medieval outlaw, ending on the following lines:
Hin und wieder kanns geschehen dass man einen erwischt.
Der baumelt am Galgen, bis sein Leben erlischt.
Doch wollen wir uns nicht grämen, denn der Lohn ist frei zu sein.
Wir gedenken seiner bei einer guten Flasche Wein!
Wir sind frei wie die Vögel.
Wir sind Vogelfrei.
Wir ziehen mit ihnen im Winde.
Wohin ist einerlei!
Every now and then it happens that one of us gets caught,
and he swings from the gallows until his life expires.
But we will not grieve, because being free is fine.
We honour his memory with a good bottle of wine.
We are free like the birds.
We are vogelfrei.
We’re high up with the winds.
Doesn’t matter where we fly!
Finally.. of course.. going back to the source .. a li’l something from Nietzsche’s “Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”:
Vernunft! Verdriessliches Geschäfte!
Das bringt uns allzubald ans Ziel!
Im Fliegen lernt’ ich, was mir äffte, –
Schon fühl’ ich Mut und Blut und Säfte
Zu neuem Leben, neuem Spiel…
Einsam zu denken nenn’ ich weise,
Doch einsam singen—wäre dumm!
So hört ein Lied zu eurem Preise
Und setzt euch still um mich im Kreise,
Ihr schlimmen Vögelchen, herum!
Reason is oh so businesslike.
It brings us too soon to our aim.
In flight I learned what held me down.
Now I have courage, juice, and blood
for a new life, for a new game.
To think in solitude is wise;
To sing in solitude would just be silly.
So I shall be singing your prince’s praise,
while you gather in a circle around me,
and listen, wicked birdies, to my lays.
Happy Birthday. And may you never hold an office job again!