Probing in the dark

By Anna Magdalena Claus, June 2012

Everything turns black in front of my eyes and that is as it should be. Merve is 19 and will accompany me. She has been blind from birth. She has learnt to rely on her ears, can use her white cane in such a way that it helps instead of hinders her, and does not (any longer) have problems asking strangers for help. We meet in front of the “Nikolaus­pflege” building, a foundation for visually impaired and blind people in Stuttgart. 

My hand feels about in the air for a few seconds before it finds Merve’s small hand and squeezes it in welcome. I get to know Merve in the same way as she gets to know me because I have decided to put on my eye patches before we meet. She introduces herself in an alert voice and hands me the white cane. Our photographer, Leonie, guides me from the bus stop to the “Nikolaus­pflege” building and I feel safe. Now I am to use the white cane as an additional guide and loose all my confidence... My body tenses and I follow the others out with small, uncertain steps. As I walk, I sweep the white cane before me the width of my shoulders. Every bump almost knocks it out of my hand or makes it jab me in the side. Something is not right... it takes the sighted photographer to discover what I am doing wrong: I am holding the white cane in the wrong way. I am holding it from below. The correct way is to grasp the cane from above.

I use the bus trip to the main station to quiz Merve. I start with questions which I would not put to a sighted person. “What is the colour of your hair? How big are you?” Gradually a picture of her arises in my mind which I continue to complete through touch as well. But it will keep changing in the course of our appointment.

On Königstraße, steps, music, scraps of conversation ripple towards me. There are lots of people on this shopping street. I have the peculiar feeling that none of the passers-by are going in the same direction as us. All the sounds come towards us and pass by us. We are the only ones who must go in the other direction. At a distance I hear a band playing Balkan music. As we get closer to the music, Merve and I try to guess the makeup of the band. “I can hear an accordion,” I say and Merve says: “I can hear two.” After we have identified clarinets, drums, trumpet and guitar, I want to give the musicians a few coins. But how?

“There is a guitar case for coins,” the photographer says and points me in the right direction. I start walking in a spirited fashion and after only a few steps I am stopped. A rough hand is pushed under mine and uncertainly I let the money drop into it. Then everything happens very fast. Someone takes hold of me, pulls me and I end up right between the clarinet, accordion and trumpet. The musicians want to do something nice for us blind people. The music comes from all sides and I lose  my sense of direction completely. Where is the photographer? Where, for God’s sake, is Merve? How do I get out of here again? To cap it all, the singer begins to sing into  my ear with his smoky voice. After what feels like an eternity the photographer rescues me from the effusive band. She helps Merve out of the orchestra as well, who was also serenaded by the band quite close to me. But in contrast to me, she felt quite happy among the instruments. She loves music and wants to become a singer.

Merve sees the greatest disadvantage of her blindness in the spatial lack of orientation in cities. It is impossible for Merve to explore a new district on her own. And also, that she cannot see the people with whom she comes into contact? “That is not bad,” she says calmly. And I remember a sentence from “The Little Prince” by An­toine de Saint-Exupéry: “We only see clearly with our hearts, the essence remains hidden to the eyes.” Surprisingly, that is also what happens to me.



Strangely, my curiosity to see Merve, the musicians or passers-by is not as great as the actually unimportant desire to recognise the location where I am. I can imagine Merve very well. Nothing is missing, the picture is complete. If I want to tear the patches from my eyes it is because I have no idea where the next cafe is. But for that we have Leonie with us. She takes us to a cafe by the town hall and looks for a free table for us. We are helped from all sides to reach our table. Hands reach for me and lead me past prams, chairs and waiters – at least that is what it feels like. A “thank you” in all directions and I am seated on the bench. A while later we leave the cafe having warmed up. Our appointment is drawing to an end.

Together we walk to the main station from where Merve can take the subway home. With one weeping and one laughing eye I decide to take the eye patches off. I already have an inkling that everything is going to change. Above all, I am changed. The insecurity of my movements gives way to the normal assurance of my walk. The Merve before my inner eye is replaced by a Merve who appears to stand helplessly before me. I am confused. My seeing baffles me. I am standing before a person whom I do not seem to know. I see how small Merve is, how young her face is and the expectation in her eyes looking past me. I begin to feel pity. How is that possible? Is she not the person with whom I have joked and laughed all afternoon? She explained to me how her watch can tell you the time and assured me that there were two accordions in the band of street musicians. I don’t know what to think.

Merve’s train departs and through looking I have lost her. My seeing has turned her into a stranger.


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