1974 was an extraordinary year in Berlin, even by Berlin standards: it was the year the punk movement started to flower in West Berlin, the year the East German team upset the West Germans in the World Cup (though the West Germans went on to win the whole thing), the year the first Soviet film was screened at the Berlinale film festival, the year Red Army Faction terrorists Ulrike Meinhof and Horst Mahler were sentenced to jail for attempted murder while freeing Andreas Baader.
In 1974, Brian Eno, John Cale and Philip Glass came to Berlin to play at the Meta Musik-Festival. A polar bear named Sonja was born in the Berlin Zoo. East Germany celebrated its 25th anniversary as a nation, and Chancellor Erich Honecker reaffirmed the order to “shoot to kill” those attempting to escape to the West. The Wall had been standing for 13 years. In the meantime, 30-year-old Christoph Knaack, a Berliner from the western district of Friedenau, began to drive a taxi.
Fast forward to 2015. The stage looks radically different, of course: The Wall has been gone for over 25 years. Berlin has rebuilt itself, and continues to rebuild itself, especially along the borders that once divided it. Techno has replaced punk. Germany’s just won its fourth World Cup. 19 Russian films were screened at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival. Sonja has died, and Germany’s next top polar bear doesn’t have a name yet. The Red Army Faction is no more. But Christoph Knaack still lives in Friedenau, and he’s still driving a taxi.
After forty-one years on the road, he has no plans to quit: “I’ll drive as long as I’m healthy,” he says. “I like it.” Besides that, he doesn’t have enough money to retire. Working six nights a week, ten hours a shift, he makes about 3,000 Euros a month – but half of that money goes to cover his costs as an owner-driver.
Christoph will be 71 years old this year, but the color in his cheeks and the brightness in his blue eyes makes him look at least a decade younger. In winter, he wears a ski hat, in summer a beret. His voice is a baritone that sounds like it’s coming straight from his diaphragm, as though he’s trained for the stage.
Though he’s not a vegetarian, he eats very little meat, especially when he’s on duty. His favorite place to stop? El-Reda, a Lebanese-Persian place in Moabit he found thanks to a tip from some passengers from Lebanon.* He’s been eating falafel here since the 1990s.
It doesn’t matter what time of day you show up at El-Reda: the place is a madhouse. Don’t panic (as I did) if you’re hungry, and you notice a line out the door — the staff are as unflappable as they are friendly, the cashier handles the crowd with Starbuckian efficiency, and you also get one of those flashing remote control vibrators that lights up as soon as your food is ready, so it’s highly unlikely that they’ll lose track of your order.
If you’ve ever worked in a professional kitchen, you’ll appreciate the way they do things at El-Reda. Despite being in the weeds, the cook smiled when I handed him the receipt with my order, and he was still smiling, not ten minutes later, when he handed me lamb kebab #6 (9.50 Euros), juicy and grilled to pink, a pile of basmati rice and a packet of Meggle Alpenbutter (my favorite brand of German butter) to go with it, and a ‘salad’, which was actually a pile of fresh parsley, mint and basil, a wedge of raw onion, a few radishes and some green chili peppers, which I chased with a glass of house-made ayran with mint. (If you prefer, you can also get ayran without the mint here.)
As much as I liked the food at El-Reda — my lamb was cooked perfectly, and everything that came with it was fresh, and well-prepared, the flavors solid, and amenable to the chili sauce and sumac they put on every table — I liked the atmosphere even more.
Though Christoph calls it a fast-food restaurant, El-Reda felt more like a world than a restaurant to me: This is the kind of place where women in burkas sit next door to expats delivering soliloquies on existentialism, where kids play peek-a-boo with bussers who never stand still, where neighbors greet each other in Arabic or German or Farsi and drink tea together at the tables outside, where taxi drivers park, and rush inside, but not before their faces relax as they catch a whiff of the meat on the spit spinning lazily in the window.
Huttenstraße 69, 10553 Berlin
Note #1: Non-sandwich dishes here range from 4.50-12 Euros, and many come with the herb, radish, chili pepper and onion salad I mentioned above.
Note #2: I went to El-Reda two days before it closed for remodeling. They’re scheduled to be closed until the middle of July. In the meantime, Christoph recommends you try Tônis, the Vietnamese restaurant next door, at Huttenstrasse 68, where a lot of his Iranian cab-driving colleagues also like to eat, where “they always serve a daily special for five or 5.50 Euros, and they never use MSG.”
* Lebanese migration to Berlin had been sporadic until the year 1975, when the civil war started in Lebanon. As of 2012, official estimates put the number of Lebanese immigrants in Berlin at just above 7,000 people. Iranian immigration to Germany began in earnest after the 1979 revolution, but most Iranian emigrants settled in Hamburg–in 2012, the Iranian population in Berlin was almost 4,200.