The defining image of Hamburg is its harbour – for visitors and for itself. Trade and connections with faraway lands built its wealth as far back as the 13th century, when it was part of the alliance of coastal cities called the Hanseatic League. The river also contributed to the city’s sense of independence and cosmopolitanism. The flow of ships on the Elbe is part of the tapestry of its proudly claimed title: Hamburg, Gateway to the World. These waterways are indulged – there is a birthday celebration for the harbour and fireworks illuminate the water with monotonous regularity. They are also still in use. Hamburg is an active port, with over 130 million tons of goods being transported through every year. When the city built its latest, and most expensive, landmark, a concert hall perched on the skeleton of an old trading warehouse – it took the shape of a ship’s sail.
The harbour thus provides a gritty frame to the metropolis of 1.8 million people, and it is a beauty Hamburg is proud of. The industrial landscape of cranes and containers is celebrated on postcards and keepsakes. On a sliver of beach a few miles down the river, ships pass by, loaded with containers, as children play in the water. It is a contrast to the pastoral beauty of Germany’s smaller towns – indeed, to the idyllic imagery of Europe. It is also an accurate indicator of the particularly schizophrenic nature of Hamburg. Like every city, it contains contradictions; but like every city, some of these are its own. Home to millionaires and working-class communities, Hamburg encompasses a history of privilege as well as agitation, movement as well as stasis. All of these histories seem to converge in the image of its harbour.
It took me some weeks to find that behind this iconic harbour, there is another harbour, where much of the real work of shipping takes place. The port of Harburg is called “the other side of the river”, and to mention it to Hamburg residents is to open the door to jests – some self-deprecating and others simply self-absorbed. “That’s where the Balkans begin,” a journalist told me when I mentioned my destination to him one day, a reference to the sea that edges northern Germany and to the perceived distance of the yokel-ish suburb from the polished poise of Hamburg. The south side of the Elbe is where Hamburg “ends”, and where Masoud* now lives, with his wife and two young children.
To get there, you can take a route that begins with water, through the city that looms on the Elbe. A ferry from the Hamburg harbour chugs through the vertiginous avenues in the water, skirting the edges of massive ships, piled dizzily with containers. It is a landscape of rust and spray and bridges that whoosh by with unnerving proximity as the tide rises. Sometimes they are so close that the boat cannot pass under them. But the first time I visited Harburg to see Masoud, I took the usual train route, following his painstaking directions from the Hauptbahnhof (the main train station). He met me at the Harburg stop. I walked right by him and he had to call my name for me to see him again, unchanged and yet transformed.
We walked from the station to his apartment, taking a shortcut through a mall, out onto a busy plaza – with butcher shops, nail spas, toy stores and a cinema – up more steps and then into quieter side lanes – dotted with bakeries, doner shops and beauty salons – to a row of neat, four storey apartment houses: Masoud’s street. In the stairwell of his house we edged past several small bicycles, decorated with tiny, coloured flags. A neighbour smiled as she held the door for us, ushering her toddler out into the sunshine. Masoud lived on the top floor, in an apartment with grey walls, the windows covered with white curtains that filtered the light like a picture in monochrome. The arc in the ceiling, created by the curve of the roof, had been decorated with snapshots: a few of Kabul, a few of different European towns. Above the pictures was a phrase scrawled in white chalk: “Bismillah ar Rehman ar Raheem. Alhamdullilah e Rabbil Alameen”, the Quranic phrases that translate to: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, The Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Universe.” The apartment had only a few pieces of furniture that Masoud and his wife moved around over the course of the afternoon I spent there, adapting the space to various activities.
Surrounded by his wife and two young children, Masoud told me about his journey to Germany, two years before the ‘influx’ of 2015. Many refugees I met over my time in Hamburg were either guarded about their journeys or asked me not to write about them. Masoud’s arrival had been relatively easy, but he also preferred to keep the details private.
It was the first time I was meeting Nargis*, his wife. Nargis and Masoud are cousins and had both grown up in Iran before moving to Afghanistan. After their wedding, Nargis had left, reluctantly, for Denmark, to live with her father, who had settled in a small town in the countryside several years earlier. The relationship between father and daughter was complicated and the house was crowded with emotions and pent-up resentment. Besides, she told me, it was not easy to be a Muslim girl in Denmark. So, she came to Berlin, where Masoud had applied for asylum.
“How does it work,” I asked, about this moment of irrevocable change, when Masoud had shed his own skin and taken on the features of a refugee. “Do you give them your passport and then say, ‘Now I am in your hands’?”
“Something like that, but not as dramatic,” he replied, smiling at my Bollywood imagination. “They took us to a camp and said we must wait. And that is really all you do. There is a lot of waiting.” The couple had lived in Berlin for some time and had then been moved to Hamburg, where the people were kind and they were happy, they both said.
But in the process, Masoud had forfeited the right to see his family. As he had claimed political asylum, he could not return to Afghanistan. He hadn’t met his parents since 2013.
I had once asked Masoud which place he thought of when he thought of home. Things had been difficult in Iran, he had told me. As a young Afghan boy, he had faced discrimination and ridicule and had difficulty going to school. In 2002, when he was around 13 years old, his parents had hurriedly returned to Afghanistan. At the time, Masoud was registered under his uncle’s name in school and had not been allowed to join them. He spent anxious months with his grandmother before he could finally make his way to Kabul. “In Kabul, I learned everything. How to have a family, how to work, to watch films, to make films.” So, I knew that when Masoud spoke of home, it was of Kabul, the city to which he cannot (for now) imagine a return.
There was another thing he had learned on the journey between Iran and Kabul, and now to Germany. That the idea of Afghans being artists was an unusual one, even in Iran, but especially in the West. It was not what was expected of a refugee, and particularly not of an Afghan refugee, he had found. Or, to put it another way, Afghanistan was not a place that prompted thoughts of culture or beauty or creativity, for most people that Masoud encountered in his daily life. This was not an unfamiliar thought to come across. Years ago, an older filmmaker friend had described to me an altercation with a petty official in Peshawar. The official had mocked my friend, who had fled Kabul during the Taliban government and was living in a refugee camp, for describing himself as a filmmaker. Among all the slights he had suffered, this was the one that stuck. “They think we are not human,” my friend had told me, his voice still warm with emotion at the memory. “They think we cannot make anything beautiful.” To create things, to make films, to feel beauty and pain like all artists do – all these things had acquired great significance to my friend, to Masoud and others like them. Being an artist was a large part of what made Masoud himself.
Though he was observing the long summertime fasts of Ramadan, Masoud had cooked lunch. I ate with Nargis, who was not fasting as she was nursing their six-month old daughter, and their son, who bounced on the balls of his feet from the excitement of having a visitor in the house.
Masoud spent most of his day with his son. Nargis was busy taking care of their infant daughter. Earlier in the year they had made the rounds, hoping to find their son a spot in their neighbourhood nursery school, but had been told all the places were full. The young family seemed strangely isolated to me, removed from the whirl of coffee groups and play dates I had seen around other new parents in Germany.
It was a different experience from being a parent in Afghanistan, or most parts of Southasia, where children are often surrounded by extended family. It seemed as if Masoud and Nargis were so used to having babies as part of a large community that they didn’t quite know how to negotiate the role in Harburg, except entirely on their own.
When I had met Masoud in Kabul, he had been part of a different community – a large, electric collective of young men and one woman. They all held day jobs, and would carve out time to make films together, taking turns to act, direct, assist each other. The enterprise was fuelled largely by will power, and despite all the constraints of budgets, equipment and security, they had made several short fictions and documentaries, simply because they loved making films. Like Masoud, many of these young filmmakers were now refugees in different countries across Europe.
“The last four years have been full of heavy changes for everyone,” he told me. “During the early days of the collective, we could go anywhere, shoot anything. People were kind to each other then, they remembered how bad things had been and they helped each other,” he said. The group had managed to make films in Kabul, where they had nothing, because “we had each other. Here, we have everything, but we are not making films.” “Why is that?” I asked. “We are all here, but we are different,” he said. “We are nearby, but our lives are changed.”
Masoud’s days were full. He had to look after his son and was attending courses to learn different skills, and to learn German. The process of pouring his thoughts into a new language was wiping out everything he knew, he said, half-jokingly.
He had also attempted several jobs. One of these was as a house cleaner, under a programme that encouraged employment of refugees. The German job market is difficult for refugees to enter, and it can take months even to get a working-permit. But once Masoud began work, he realised he was being paid less than the minimum wage. He was also not paid for his travel to the far-off locations to which he was often sent. Eventually, he quit when he realised his employment was not entirely legal. “I didn’t even have a contract, so if I had been caught, I would have been the one in trouble,” he said.
“People here think that there are many jobs and facilities for refugees,” he continued. “But so many of them end up being like this one. People don’t see this side of the situation. They just see the big projects and the companies giving grants, but as it goes down the chain, ends in these kinds of companies.” Often, these are run by other migrants (who have arrived earlier, or are children of migrants) like the Afghan who had hired Masoud
The current situation reminded him of Kabul in 2011, when there was a lot of money that was meant to be for Afghans, for developing the country. “So many projects were running, there were films made about the ‘new’ Afghanistan. But none of it was benefitting the Afghans. It was going elsewhere.” Germany now is like Kabul in those days, he said. “There are so many NGOs with refugee programmes; it is like an entire industry with lots of money being made in the name of refugees. But it is not helping us.”
We had finished lunch and cleared away the plates. Nargis had made tea and as I sipped it, I was aware of Masoud’s fatigue, of how many hours still remained of the long daylight before he could eat or drink. I suggested he take a break. But there was no stopping him. His words flowed in a way I had never seen before, in all the years I had known him.
“Sometimes it feels like people here think we have to be taught everything,” he continued. “Like we don’t know how to be in public, or how to live.” “You know me,” he said, turning towards me as he spoke. “I am absent minded. Sometimes I walk through the mall doors and I forget to say ‘thank you’ if someone opens the door or keeps it ajar for me. And then they start to teach me: “You should say thank you when someone does something for you. When someone is kind to you.” And it seems they are talking about something more than a door.”
I remembered then my own gentle lessons in Kabuli etiquette over a decade ago. I remember telling my friend in an email, “In Kabul people say hello and goodbye to each other, regardless of whether they know each other or not. And when someone apologises by saying ‘forgive me’, you say, ‘may God forgive us.” When I had complimented friends on their clothes, they hadn’t smiled and awkwardly said, “Oh this old thing, I bought it at a sale” like I did. They turned the compliment back at me and replied, “Chashma shoma maqbool, your eyes are beautiful.”
I also remembered a meeting with a government official in Stuttgart, who had talked at length about the programmes they had introduced to help refugees learn how to behave in Germany. There were lessons on decorum in public spaces, lessons for men on how to behave around women. I had asked if they had any courses for Germans, to help them understand the experiences of the refugees. How to be around people who had seen war and poverty, who had shifted their lives across continents in a few short months. He had looked at me, puzzled, for a few seconds, then said, “Not for Germans.”
A politician in the university town of Tubingen had told me he had met the refugees his city was sheltering twice in three years. When he did visit them, they had just complained about not getting a good place to live. Or, to put it another way, they were not grateful. And a good way to be grateful is to be silent.
When I had heard about Masoud being in Germany, I had thought: “He is lucky”. Most people would say the same. “He is lucky.” “He is free.” And he is. But here is something he understood quickly; the lesson he got at the mall doors: that his freedom is different from the freedom of Germans. That they use the term ‘lucky’ in a different way for him. Masoud’s freedom is ringed with limits – each foray counted, each liberty marked with receipts – accounted for, demanded, filed away.
Like the workmanlike harbour behind the glittering lights of Hamburg’s postcard waterfront, it is the freedom behind the freedom.
“After a long time, I am talking about films,” Masoud said. “The last few years I went off Facebook, because the news was always bad, and my family was in Kabul. And I also felt bad, that people will ask me, ‘What are you doing? What is happening with you?’ I didn’t feel good answering their questions as I was not doing anything; I was not making any films.” When he stopped making films, he disappeared.
Now, he is faced with the familiar task of making a city he has never known into home. And the path, like before, is through films. Except, this time, there are fewer options. One route, he said, was to take courses in filmmaking, to go through the motions of learning something he had been doing for most of his adult life. “I went to a [film-making] course for refugees,” he said, “but the instructors there had less experience than me. But maybe I will still do a course because here the only thing that matters is what papers you can show.”
I thought of Sarwar*, the Afghan filmmaker and friend who had connected me to Masoud, whom I had met in Berlin. He had told me how through 2015 he had got a lot of work with top media houses and producers, as they made documentaries and films about the ‘refugee crisis’. There was even a demand for his own story as a refugee filmmaker. Over time, he realised that he would get calls only to work on productions about refugees. “Each time I asked them for work, they would say, ‘You are not qualified to work in Germany. It’s really hard to get work here as an outsider.’ But why did it become difficult only when it was something I wanted to do, and easy when they needed me?” Frustrated, he had stopped taking their calls, stopped turning up when they needed a refugee filmmaker for hire.
When I had met Masoud and Sarwar in Kabul, I had written about how one of the ironies of talking about Afghan cinema was how little it involved talking about Afghans. International projects that parachuted in and out of the country often got prominence and set the narrative framework for how the country was seen. Meanwhile, films like the ones Sarwar and Masoud made remained invisible. At the time, I had thought that being in Kabul was what made them so obscure, so hard to reach, so hard to see in the world. But now, they were living in the heart of Europe. And even now, they were invisible.
While he was living in Berlin, Masoud had shot a short film about an Afghan woman who had lived in Germany for years, and whose brother joins her in 2015. He had shot it and was going to start editing it when his laptop crashed, taking a good portion of the footage. But he hopes to resurrect it, making the story “somehow, despite the missing parts”.
I asked about other friends and learned that an actor-director called Anwar* lived in Hamburg. Ali*, another filmmaker, had recently arrived in Germany after two long years on the road. His journey had been harrowing for his young daughters and wife as well, and they had lived in a camp in Serbia for a long time. “The good thing he did was shoot every step of the way,” Masoud told me. Now, as he attempted to settle into the small town on the border of Germany and Austria, Ali was working on editing his footage into a film. “He is a real artist,” Masoud said about his absent friend. “He does not stop thinking about cinema at any time.”
Masoud told me that he was planning a trip to Denmark to visit Nargis’s family over Eid. It would be a break for all of them, and give Nargis’s mother a chance to see the baby. When they came back, he said, he would invite Anwar over and we would meet. I asked him to help me with meeting Ali as well, and he agreed enthusiastically. These planned reunions buzzed around the small house as I left, imbuing the air with a frisson of excitement. There would be reminiscences, plenty of “remember when”, laughter and chatter, we promised each other. It would be like five years ago, like Kabul when we had last been together – in the middle of a crowd, everyone talking at once, endless cups of tea. It would be like going back in time.
That day I attempted to write up my notes on a computer that had its keyboard configured the German way. The letters soon got mixed up, my fingers moving on familiar, remembered patterns that tapped out words that made no sense. They got increasingly garbled as my frustration grew. I felt disoriented, unable to understand how I was getting such a familiar task so wrong. Unable to find a way to fix it.
Losing my ability to write, I felt invisible.
“Can you still hear me,” I wanted to reach out through the screen, tap through the glass and ask the person on the other side. “Is it still me you hear?”
~Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. She reported this series as part of the Robert Bosch Stiftung India-Germany Media Ambassador fellowship. Her first book, a non-fiction account of Kabul, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in India and the UK in 2019. www.porterfolio.net/taran
~Cover illustration by Paul Aitchison.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed.
~This article was updated on 4 April 2019.