Germany was out of the World Cup, and on cue the weather turned grey. Hamburg was bathed by a fine drizzle, a deceptively gentle stream that acquired potency as it was flung around by the wind. This was what summers are usually like, I was told, and people seemed to relax into the routine. Bracing their bodies with practised ease against the wind, cyclists pulled out not only waterproof jackets, but also slick cycling pants, and shoes, and hats.
I walked near the harbour and was caught in a shower of rain that seemed like sand, pouring in everywhere. I cursed my lack of foresight, but I could have more accurately rued the crucial gaps in my knowledge. My tropical assumption that summer was a fixed, unchanging entity fled with the wind. And yet the shift in light gave a new beauty to the landscape. Hamburg appeared anew, like a city full of mysteries, a truth hazily understood, poised perennially on the edge of revelation.
I was following a trail of music across the landscape, one that began in Kabul. Since there were generations of Afghans living in Hamburg, there were generations of musicians too. Like Roya’s* father-in-law, whose videos we had watched on YouTube. I caught glimpses of this world: in concert advertisements on Facebook, on the walls of Indian restaurants, or pasted on the doors of Turkish and Afghan supermarkets. Together, they pointed to a parallel city, one unnoticed by the mega concerts and music events held nearly every day. Soon after I arrived, I asked a journalist who wrote on music and who had lived in Hamburg for decades, to connect me to Afghan musicians. He hadn’t heard of any. And yet they were there, stretched like a bow between Kabul and Hamburg, encompassing decades, spanning different kinds of music, different journeys.
A German documentary director narrated an incident that illustrated this link between the cities. Returning from her first trip to Kabul, the taxi she had taken from the airport was driven by an Afghan. They had started talking, and when he learned she was returning from his hometown, he told her he used to play the drums for the legendary singer Ahmad Zahir.
The son of a former prime minister, Zahir was Afghanistan’s most popular pop star, modelling himself on Elvis, mixing traditional melodies with rock-and-roll riffs. He had come to represent the face of modern Afghanistan in the 1970s, and his death in 1979 coincided with the end of peace in the country. His songs were what gave migrants from an older generation a link to home as they remembered it, to an Afghanistan that now existed only in their memories. They were played in the drawing rooms of the diaspora across the world, binding them together. Somewhere on Hamburg’s misty, rain-lashed streets Ahmad Zahir’s drummer was driving a taxi, waiting to be found, like a note of music chased by the rain.
But when I tried to find musicians to talk to, it was the younger, more recent arrivals who were more visible. In one of the many media reports about refugees that dominated the news in 2015, I found Hosain Amini. He was one half of a duo of rappers called ‘0093’ – the country code for calling Afghanistan. In Die Zeit, a weekly newspaper, they had been profiled as a part of a series on refugees called ‘New Here’. I had met Hosain’s partner first – a soft spoken young man called Meisam Amini (the two are not related). In the years since 2015, Meisam had shifted towards making films. But Hosain remained a regular on the ‘refugee circuit’ of performances and concerts. He performed often at events for Rap for Refugees, which described itself as an “integrative intercultural initiative for young people in tune with the times.” He seemed to be everywhere, but the harder I tried to reach him, the harder he proved to meet.
After several attempts, I managed to fix an appointment at his home on a Sunday afternoon. The arrangement had proceeded over various voice messages (“Because my English is not so good to write,” he had explained), but when I had rung the doorbell to his apartment, I had found only his brother home. Hosain had gone out the previous night to the disco, hadn’t returned, and was not answering his phone. I left him a message and walked back home.
A few hours later, I started getting texts from him. He apologised for having forgotten our meeting. He had been performing at a concert till late on Saturday night, and had another show that evening. Could I come? He gave me directions in a series of voice messages, followed by selfies with his friends, waiting for the show to begin. I looked at a map. The venue was the last stop on a long train ride. “I’m sorry,” I typed, “I can’t make it”. I got an emoticon in return.
Over the next few days, Hosain popped in and out of my messages, suggesting times to meet, and then changing them. I wrote him off, until one afternoon when I got this text: “I have to meet someone who lives an hour away by train. Do you want to ride with me? We can talk on the way.”
By the time I got to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, I had received various selfies of Hosain making his way to the platform, then waiting for the train. I arrived just as the doors were closing, and Hosain and I ran into the carriage. We both collapsed in our seats breathlessly, laughing at the close call, as though this was the last shuttle to our destination, as though there wasn’t another train due in just a few minutes. Through that afternoon, I realised that time with Hosain tended to behave this way – rapid, reckless, untroubled by consequences.
Lanky and with a wide smile, Hosain had cultivated a look that included Lennon glasses, a goatee; and a floppy hat. I asked about our destination and realised I had landed in the middle of a long and complicated saga. Hosain was going to a friend’s place to retrieve his “stuff,” he said. He was nervous because it had been her birthday the previous day, and he had forgotten to wish her. “I will have to write her a song,” he said. The errand was rich with drama, with the kind of emotionally complicated narratives I had not witnessed for years, even from a distance. It was irresistible and familiar, yet unlike anything I had seen with other migrants I knew and had spent time with. I wavered briefly before deciding to go along.
Though he calls himself an Afghan, Hosain has never lived in Afghanistan, having been born and raised in Iran to migrant parents. He is one of the Afghan diaspora, dispersed across the world. His family had lived in Isfahan, an ancient city in Iran, famous as a centre of culture and art. In this city, fabled for its poets, Hosain turned to the verses of rap and hip-hop. Using the name MC Trelos, he developed a degree of fame among young Afghans in Iran and Afghanistan. Until, he said, he rapped out criticism of the Iranian president. He was then 14 years old, and the resulting trouble convinced him to leave the country. He ended up spending a year in Turkey before moving to Greece. In the story he told me of his journey, there were many gaps, of months and years, which he didn’t attempt to fill or explain away. Except with freestyle rap songs about love. About the train. Or about me.
What he did elaborate on was how hard life was in Greece. He had lived on the streets in Athens, where he had met Meisam, who was working in an internet cafe. Hosain recalled how Meisam would give him slivers of free time on the computer, allowing Hosain to talk to his family back in Iran. To make money, Hosain would make music on the streets. I asked what kind of performances he had given then, and he demonstrated by popping his fingers and his lips to give himself a backbeat as he began freestyling. The lines he sang were in Persian and German, with a bit of Hindi thrown in, for my benefit.
Eventually, he said, he took help from a European friend to get on a flight to Germany. When we met, he had turned 23 and had been living in Hamburg for over two years. In this time, he had established himself in the circles that worked with refugee artists. He had appeared in a documentary about refugee musicians called ‘Can’t be Silent’, and had collaborated with German musicians on concerts and albums. His ambition, however, was “to be the number one artist in the world.” For this reason, he said, he had recently given up all the things that had occupied his attention over the past two years. Parties, girls, romance – he was done with all that. “I have to dream big,” he repeated emphatically as he leaned back on his seat in the train. And then he jumped. A fellow passenger’s long hair had brushed him on his back. He looked annoyed for the first time on our ride. “Did you see that? That freaked me out.”
As the train made its way away from Hamburg’s city centre, I learned that soon after his arrival, Hosain’s family had also made the journey to Hamburg. His mother and sister lived near him, and his brother was sharing his apartment. I also learned about Hosain’s complicated life and relationships. “Ashiqui (love) is my problem,” he confessed with a wide grin, punctuating the revelation with a Bollywood song. (Like many Afghans I met, he was fluent in the music of Hindi cinema). But now, he was determined to focus on his career, and his education. “For the first time in my life, I am getting to study,” he said soberly. “In Iran, I was just fighting all the time, I don’t know why.” But his primary passion was to make hip-hop and rap music. I asked why he liked these forms so much. “Because in the songs you can say all the things you can’t say in the world,” he said. Within these verses, he speaks freely about politics, sex, hypocritical leaders. His first album with Meisam, took on the themes of religious codes and taboos, and was in Persian. Now he sings in a medley of German and Persian, sometimes with English, on whatever themes move him.
After nearly an hour, we arrived at our stop, which Hosain recognised just in time for us to rush out. We had left the city behind completely, and walked down a series of roads that became smaller and smaller, until we were on a mud lane. This narrowed into a tiny path, besides which a small stream was flowing. Bewildered, I asked where we were. Hosain pointed to the sky, at airplanes taking off. “Look, the airport is nearby”. At his friend’s apartment, after a somewhat awkward, somewhat friendly meeting, we left – Hosain carrying a mike and a MacBook, and I hauling a keyboard in a tote bag and a microphone stand. As soon as we got out, Hosain relaxed. “Let’s take a photo here,” he said, already posing. I asked why he took so many such photos, and he replied seriously, “Because someday we will be old and won’t remember anything.”
We walked back on the riverside path and Hosain sprawled on a bench, rolled a cigarette and invited me to ask questions. But by now my neat list of questions seemed redundant, too limited to make sense of the tangled skein of stories and anecdotes Hosain rolled with. I was already too involved in his stories, especially his heady assumption that he could talk his way through whatever came his way. To me, Hosain seemed to represent a different way of being a refugee, and a musician, in Hamburg. Both in his relationship to his past, and to his present, Hosain’s world, I realised, was different from the experience of the older generation of migrants from Afghanistan. He had found his voice, his community, with rapid assurance. And he had plunged into the life of a young German man, and seemed to relate to his roots and to his journey as a refugee with more fluidity. Unlike many older migrants, he seemed completely at home here. Perhaps it came from belonging since birth to a nation that existed outside nations, of the diaspora crafted from a fellowship of displacement. Or perhaps it was simply from being young. “The new generation is about peace and love, not about going backwards,” he told me, as we walked our way back to the station.
I asked if he had followed the debate raging among the political parties about the refugee problem and he said he had composed a rap song about it. It was addressed to Chancellor Merkel, and he sang it for me as we emerged onto the road. First in German, and then with a rough translation that I recall from memory: “Madam Merkel, can you hear me? I am speaking in German; can you hear me?”
He pulled out a small speaker that began spitting out beats as we walked. Hosain’s voice interspersed these every few minutes, crooning something in Dari or German, English or Urdu. “This is true, this is true, Miss Taran. This is true, this is true,” he sang, turning his fleeting attention to me like a gift.
Soon, we were lost. Hosain stopped a middle-aged man to ask for directions to the bus stop. His tone was polite, but the man eyed our baggage and the speakers still playing from Hosain’s backpack warily. Hosain serenely thanked him and continued to make his way accompanied by staccato rap beats, on the bus, and then on the train, carrying his own soundtrack for moving through the city.
He had another gig that weekend, he told me. It was a concert for refugee rights. Would I come? I would. We were still talking, when, mid-way through the train ride back to the Hauptbahnhof, mid-way through a sentence, Hosain decided to get off and visit his family. He collected his bags and the computer and the mike stand and jumped out of the train just as the doors were closing, waving farewell from the platform. It was a departure that was a contrast to the long, courteous farewells I was used to with my Kabuli friends. Before I knew it, Hosain had vanished again. But at least, I consoled myself; I would see him again soon, at his concert. Perhaps we could finish our conversation then.
A few days later, I made my way to the Arrivati Park. This was a small sliver of grass and trees across the road from a large market that stands at the location of a large slaughter house. The name Arrivati derives from the Italian for “those who have arrived.” As I walked to the venue, I trod a route marked by movements of support for refugees. I was walking a vein of the city that had held to the same slogan over the years: ‘Refugees Welcome’.
On the streets there was graffiti supporting the refugees who had arrived in Hamburg in early 2013. These were mostly migrant workers who had fled the Libyan conflict in 2011 and landed in the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa that is closer to Africa than to mainland Europe. Nearly 300 refugees had made their way to Hamburg, and the city responded by opening up schools and halls and churches and homes. The refugees had especially found support in the proudly alternative locality of St Pauli that was close to the park. The “Lampedusen” group is probably the best-known face of the “refugee crisis” in Hamburg. The visible relics of their arrival, including graffiti, mark the city’s topography; a reminder that the so-called crisis predated the summer of 2015.
But the concert where Hosain was performing that evening was for a different event. It was commemorating the protests that had marked the G20 meeting in Hamburg in 2017. Those controversial days were fresh in the memory of many residents, when Arrivati Park had been a meeting ground for protesters. Barely a few minutes walk away from this park was the Schanzenviertel, where riots had broken out. People in the rest of the city had gone about their placid routines – walking their dogs, getting groceries–as shop fronts were smashed and fires blazed. Images from the time had made news across the world, providing a shocking contrast to the usual orderliness of Germany. A city of many moods, this one, I mused, as I crossed the road that led to the park.
The small patch of green was surrounded by a cordon of police personnel. There were empty beer cans on the street. I walked into the crowd and saw banners hanging from the trees and from lampposts. “Refugees Welcome”, “Sea rescue is not a crime”, and the slogan I could now decipher in German: “Kein Mensch Ist Illegal” “No one is Illegal”. There were people sprawled on the grass, dimly visible in the long twilight. I sat facing the stage that had been built at one end, surrounded by people, by empty beer bottles and the smell of marijuana. Several performers came and went. Hosain was nowhere to be seen.
~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.