What remained of my maps, my questions, my lists of things to do? While I had been occupied with these, time had passed rapidly. My stay in Germany was almost over and it had yielded walks and landmarks, a familiarity with the streets, an unexpected tug at the thought of departure.
A city built on water has many reflections. I had walked through different iterations of this place with different companions. I had watched the landscapes change – appear and transform – depending on who my guide was. Which of these was the actual city and which a reflection of a reflection?
Which of my companions were referred to when the talk turned to ‘the refugees’? Who were those that were welcome, like the placards said and who were those at the heart of the crisis? It was impossible to tell, without listening to their voices. And so, the day before I was to return home, I followed one last note of music, borne from Kabul, chased by the Hamburg breeze.
The first time I had met Shekib Mosadeq was at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. He was returning from Hanover and we rode the train to his studio together. It was a long ride. Shekib was dressed entirely in black and looked younger than his 36 years. With his curly hair tied in a ponytail, tattoos and silver jewellery, he struck a note between rocker and dervish.
Shekib’s studio was located in the basement of what he called an “alternative space” – a hub of independent radio stations and cultural organisations. We walked through a dark corridor; its walls swirled with graffiti. “It’s not so chic,” Shekib said as he unlocked the door leading to his quarters. “But I don’t do music for fame or money.” His vision, he had already told me on our way over, was to use music to build a world without borders, or war, or nations. “Just humanity. Like the song Imagine. That’s my dream – a better world. And it is not for sale.”
His studio was one small room with one small window. I sank into a large leather sofa and Shekib sat by a recording console connected to a large iMac. He rolled a cigarette and opened the window. Outside, a group of young men were playing football in the parking lot. He began playing me his songs on the computer. As I heard the strains of melody, I realised I had seen Shekib before.
On 8 May, I had walked into Tübingen’s main town square straight into a parade that commemorated ‘Day of Liberation’, that marks the end of the Second World War. The square was full of people holding banners and signs. On the church steps, which were at the heart of the university town, there was a man singing in Persian. I had ended up walking behind the march, the flags and the banners flying exultantly in the chill sunshine. The same area, I had later read, had seen rallies in support of the Nazi government. More than 70 years later, people had gathered against war, against xenophobia, against homophobia. ‘Refugees Welcome’, said the flags: ‘No war’, ‘No racism’, ‘Antifa Viva le movement’. All these slogans moved past the cobbled streets and the quaint facades that had seemed so untouched, so unchanging till then. And behind it all were the strains of Shekib’s voice, singing in Persian, about a refugee in a prison cell, on an island.
I told him about my memory and though he nodded politely, it was clear he didn’t recognise me from the brief moment I had taken to congratulate him. “I’m part of so many new left, anti-war events, anti-fascist movements,” he said apologetically, by way of explanation.
Shekib’s mother belongs to the western Afghan city of Herat, near the border with Iran – a city famed for its poetry and music and for its ancient libraries. His father worked in Kabul, in a government job. But for a while, neither of his parents had work and five-year-old Shekib cleaned shoes on the streets of Kabul, to make money for his family. During the Taliban years, he lived in Herat with his mother. There, he managed to get hold of a small Casio keyboard and found a circle of musicians who met secretly every Friday. While going to meet them, he sometimes asked his mother to hide his keyboard under her chador, he told me, since the Taliban would not search a woman’s clothes.
After the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001, Shekib’s family moved to Kabul. He began listening to different musicians. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Victor Jara found their way to him on tapes loaned by friends and, after 2002, on the internet. And then there was Ahmad Zahir.
Shekib started a band with his friends. They called it ‘Morcha’, or Ants. He also got a contract with a prominent (then fledgling) private TV channel called Tolo. Years later, he returned as a guest on the same channel on the show Afghan Star, modelled on American Idol. Initially, Shekib sang rock and roll in Dari. But after some years, he had turned to questions of social justice, or war and love. “In Afghanistan, we have so many problems that we need someone to sing about the situation,” he said. “I love listening to cheesy Bollywood songs sometimes and enjoy lighter music and dancing. But we should do something for our problems first.”
So, the band took on a different hue, singing of “women’s rights, children, anti-Taliban, anti-war, anti-government, anti-America.” Every power, Shekib told me, had waged war in Afghanistan. “So, which one is right or wrong?” These questions were all new to his audience in Afghanistan, he said.
Music was his livelihood by now. He was composing for TV shows, as well as doing concerts. But it was also causing him problems. “I started getting death threats,” he said. “At a concert in Herat, a mullah had huge problems with my music.” In 2011, he took the decision to leave his country. He made his way to Iran, continuing to Turkey and Greece before arriving in Germany, where he too had family. “Hamburg is like the capital of Herat”, he told me, with a smile. “Every Afghan has a relative there.”
For a year, he lived in a small town in eastern Germany. “I didn’t pick the place,” he said wryly. This was a time of enforced idleness, when he couldn’t practise his music, or give voice to his activism. Once he moved to Berlin and then to Hamburg, he began singing again, finding his niche in the organisations working with refugees, solidarity movements and anti-fascist groups. I asked how he felt about the term ‘refugee artist’ and he shrugged it off. “I think for now that is my reality and I must accept it. Though I would not like to stay a refugee forever.”
Shekib had collaborated with several German singers, including with the well-known anti-war singer Konstantin Wecker. “He heard me at a concert two years ago. He liked my voice and wanted to help me.” Shekib showed me a video of the duo performing at an open-air venue together. Hundreds of people in the audience swayed to the Italian anti-fascist resistance anthem ‘Bella Ciao’. Shekib had sung the lyrics in Dari. The audience had sung the refrain, rousingly. It was beautiful and familiar, like a concert I had already attended somewhere, like a concert that was timeless, performed many times over by many singers under many trees, in different lands. The camera moved to the darkening sky above the stage as the song ended; I glimpsed the long twilight of summer.
“I started with Persian (Dari), but now I sing in German, because it’s important for Germans to know about us. Who are we, why are we here, why has there been war for 40 years in my country?” All the things, in fact, that the government official I had met in Stuttgart had deemed not important for Germans to learn.
Shekib seemed to represent yet another way to be an Afghan singer in Germany, a role that fits the times he is in. During his shows, his collaborators translate his lyrics to German as he sings. He is drawing his new setting into his story, bringing Persian music into Germany, rather than keeping it within the Afghan community. I asked if he had collaborated with Afghan musicians in Germany and he said “I work with German people. They (Afghans) are singing a different style of music. My way is different.” But even as he turns his music towards Germany, he is unable to let go of Kabul. Unlike Masoud* or Anwar*, he is permitted to return to Afghanistan. Each time he goes, he said, he tries to push his messages. “I make some trouble and then I get out”, he laughed.
In Afghanistan, people are now more accepting of his music, he said. Like many of his generation, Shekib talks about his exasperation with corruption, his disenchantment with the political leadership, with the double standards of religious leaders. In Shekib’s songs, everyone is complicit in the problems of Afghanistan, including Afghans themselves. I remember watching a news clip about a protest in Kabul in 2011, where a young man told the camera: “We are the only generation that does not have blood on our hands.” This was the generation that Shekib sang for and belongs to. And now, he had left.
In Germany, he had donned the persona of a refugee – like the flowing poncho he performed in. So thoroughly, that he had emerged as the voice not only of Afghan refugees, but beyond. At the height of the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, he had been invited to Greece, to perform at a concert in support of refugees there. On an island, he had visited a jail where he met an Afghan man who asked him to mail a love letter he had written for his fiancée back home.
“The envelope was open and I asked the man if I could read it. I used his words to make a song that speaks of the pain of this refugee.” This was the song I had heard in Tübingen during the rally. Shekib called it ‘Namaye Muhajir’, or The Refugee’s Letter:
Salam my love, how are you? Tell me about the separation
Tell of loneliness, of empty gardens, of the red rose
Tell me about my old mother, my bedridden father
Tell me how they are, how is my sister
Do not say that you are lonely, that I am lonely, that we are not well
Do not tell me the stories of coming and going, it’s agonising
Say, come back, the war is over
Say, that the dove of peace sits on the roof
Do not tell me of dead birds, not of living idols
Do not say what life is like among wolves
Say you do not lack anything, neither pain nor grief
Say you are not hungry, that you are free of sorrow
Whether you say it or not, I know it, my love
Take care, I promise, I will not cry
The image that Shekib has used on his Facebook page and for publicity for his concerts, is a sketch made by one of his fans. He is seen in profile, eyes lifted towards the sky, his hair flowing into calligraphy. I told him he looked like a dervish or a Sufi singer, and he smiled and held his hand to his heart. On his arm was a tattoo of a bird breaking out of chains.
When we met, Shekib had lived in Germany for seven years. His parents and siblings had also arrived in 2011 and lived in Berlin. Are they happy, I had asked? “Not so happy”, he said. “But that is what it is to be a refugee. We don’t have a way to choose.”
The day before I was to leave for home, I went to Bremen to see Shekib perform his songs for a refugee support organisation. The following day he was going to perform at a waterfront festival called the Breminale, but by then I would be gone.
The venue was a small hall, with a stage at one end of the room. Inside, it was humid and dark and we could not open the windows as the concert would disturb the neighbours. But people smiled at each other and moved up and down seats to accommodate late arrivals. In the toilet, the walls were covered with stickers urging opposition to a variety of things – patriarchy, racism, fascism. It was an organisation that worked with refugees in Bremen and most of the audience were either young refugees or older Germans. I remembered what Shekib had told me in his Hamburg studio: “In Afghanistan, the audience is mostly young. In Germany, my concerts are full of older people.” People from a generation that remembered war and displacement, either directly, or through their parents.
On the night of 8 May in Tübingen, I had met a woman in her 50s who had driven up from a nearby town to attend an anti-war concert in a beautiful old church. “My father was in a war, my grandfather was in a war”, she had said. “I don’t think it’s a good legacy.” A few steps away, in a building that functioned as a commune, I had spent a long evening with a medical student in her 20s, who had decorated her room with flash cards to teach herself Arabic, so she could volunteer with the refugees arriving in her town. I thought of both these women as Shekib came on stage and sang of a refugee in a prison cell on an island.
I left the concert midway, to make the train journey back to Hamburg. I walked back along the riverfront, where the Breminale was being held, running into a large crowd walking to the festival by the river. There were beer cans strewn under the trees and staccato beats in the air and boats crossing the water. It seemed like the summer would never end.
At the station, the trains were still chaotic and I waited out two cancellations before one arrived. The carriages slowed down as we approached Hamburg and I saw the Koehlbrand Bridge, leading into the harbour, jammed with traffic. It was the night of the lunar eclipse, the longest such celestial event of the century – and I wanted to join the crowds I knew would be venturing to the harbour to watch the moon turn red as it lined up perfectly with the sun and the earth. The crimson hue would be our planet’s shadow on the faraway place, colouring it with our presence.
The train slid past temporary structures – sheets of tin, pools of water: the lunar landscape of industrial wastelands on the edges of large cities. And then we were crossing the city of containers that I had seen with Roya* and Saleem*. Homes fashioned from containers that arrived from across the world, for those who arrived from across the world. The containers dotted the river and the land – creating a landscape of both movement and enforced stillness.
I saw families standing outside, gazing towards the sky. They too were watching for the eclipse. The last time I had seen a lunar eclipse had been in Kabul and I had been woken from my sleep by the sound of people praying loudly in a nearby locality as they had gazed at the moon. Tonight my train edged past the figures; their heads raised heavenwards. They seemed to be on an island, separated from the city, despite the land that stretched behind them.
At the Hauptbahnhof, a thin young man approached me, talking rapidly in a fractured English. He said he was a refugee from Iran and had faced many problems. He showed me some train tickets and I thought he needed help finding his way somewhere. I offered him directions, or to take him to a place he could find help. He cut me short. It was money he wanted. The words felt like a betrayal, like this was a conversation that had violated some unwritten agreement. “Sorry”, I said, as I walked away, the limits of my generosity all too apparent, closer than I had expected.
The German concept of ‘Heimat’ translates, loosely, to ‘homeland’, but that is just one shade of meaning of the word. Perhaps it can be understood as the place where you belong, where you are safe and whole. Which is what the Afghans refer to as ‘khak’. To be of Kabul and its khak(dust) meant that your ancestors were buried there. It was the dust that raised you, where you would likely return to be buried. Dislocation, war, development and movement had blurred both these ideas, making them complicated, but never erased. Perhaps both these words were the same.
In the weeks of Europe’s tumultuous summer, I had walked through two cities bound together by war and the seeking of refuge from war, by departures and by arrivals. The khak that linked Kabul to Hamburg, that linked the dust of human feet across the world, now also clung to me, like a fine mist.
On the afternoon of my last day in Hamburg, I had walked till I was soaked in sweat, trying to find the coffee shop where Masoud* and Anwar* were waiting for me.
We are by the Hauptbahnhof, Masoud had texted me. We are waiting for you. On my phone, a location had appeared, marked by a map. I had walked that path, making a tour of the perimeter of the Kunsthalle, a complex of museums crammed with beautiful art and images, the high culture of Europe and its history. The lines on the map had taken me into the parking area where a young woman was sprawled by her bicycle, taking shelter from the heat. She had looked up expectantly on my approach and her disappointment mirrored mine. My friends were nowhere nearby. Finally, Masoud came on the phone. “Come back to the police post by the train station”, he told me, directing me to another favoured rendezvous spot of refugees. “I will meet you there.”
I had heard from Masoud and Anwar from the film festival. They had sent me photos on WhatsApp of the long-awaited reunion. All of them were smiling in the pictures. I had looked carefully at the group, eating pulao in a small town in Germany. Masoud had tried to set up a time for me to talk to Ali*, but he had been too busy with the festival. And then I had been travelling. And now, it was time for me to go home.
Inside the coffee shop the air was cool. Anwar had brought his son with him. “To give the girls a break,” he said. “I saw you on Facebook from Shekib’s concert,” he added. A friend from Kabul had sent him the link. The grapevine that had brought us together, working in reverse.
There were two other men with my friends. I knew one of them, Qasim*, through his films. Talking to him was the fourth man, who was not a lawyer, but someone who knew a lot about “the process”, explained Masoud. Qasim had arrived from Kabul a few days ago. Now, he was preparing to stay.
What about his family, I asked? “He has a child, a wife,” Anwar replied. Under the current rules, he wouldn’t be able to apply for them to join him in Germany. But his wife and his family were the ones pushing him to stay, said Anwar.
I remembered what Shekib had told me about what it means to be a refugee: ‘We don’t have a way to choose’
Masoud and I talked about Ali, who had been present in all our conversations, but who I had not managed to meet, or talk to. Masoud said Ali had been distracted at the festival as well, worrying about his paperwork. Years after he had left his home, he was struggling to arrive. A few days later, when I was back in Mumbai, I got a message from him. He was annoyed that I had repeatedly asked to speak to him without actually doing so. “Anyway, I hope your work is good and I hope you are fine,” he ended.
The heat outside had mellowed into the long evening light as we filled the coffee shop with talk of small, unimportant things. There was no space for the big stuff – it already filled the air, in the figure of Qasim’s pale presence, his hand taking notes in a spiral bound pad. Outside the large glass windows, the Hauptbahnhof filled up with the rush of evening commuters, framing our conversation. In the ebb and fall of moving bodies was embedded the memory of hundreds of refugees arriving, sleeping, departing on the trains. Like a backdrop to our chatter.
The staff began to clean up and Masoud motioned to Anwar, “We need to go, they are closing.” “It’s seven already?” Anwar asked, with a startled glance at the bright sunlight outside. We were all tracking our days from a different sky here, I thought. Qasim lingered at the table, packing away his notes. Behind him, an elderly man continued to read his newspaper. A young barista wiped down the counter patiently. How would these two men respond, I wondered, if they knew what was unfolding in front of them – if they knew they were watching another person about to turn into a refugee.
Perhaps, like thousands of others, they would be welcoming and take him to a reception centre, make sure he had food, a place to stay. Perhaps they would be resentful, hostile and would join a march that demanded an end to the wave, to close borders. Or perhaps they would do nothing at all, because we all came from somewhere, because their grandparents had not lived in Hamburg, perhaps even they had not seen the city themselves until recently.
They would calculate, perhaps, that the nation we were in is yet to celebrate 30 years of being reunified. Which is Qasim’s own age and his daughter is not yet three years old. How old would she be when Qasim saw him again? Perhaps they would ask about his family, about his wife, because they would understand that an arrival in Hamburg is a departure in Kabul. That Qasim’s presence in their midst meant a corresponding absence in a city where it was already dark, already night.
We came out of the cafe and Qasim emerged, pale even in the sunshine. He politely shook my hand and apologised for not being able to talk to me. Perhaps next time, he added, I can at least offer you a coffee or a tea. With the simple act of staying where he was, Qasim was about to transform his life; he was facing a separation from his family for an unknown, uncertain length of time. Like a man on an island, watching his boat float away. And yet what he offered me as he stood at the cusp of this great change was an apology for his lack of hospitality. “Maybe next time,” I agreed.
I said goodbye and walked away from the men and the little boy already falling asleep in his pram. They waited till I reached the escalators that would take me under the surface of the city. As I descended, I watched them standing at the door of the cafe. And then they moved, like water. Slipping into the city, joining one of its many reflections.
~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 illustrations by Paul Aitchison.
~The song ‘Namaye Muhajir’ or The Refugee’s Letter was translated from German to English by Sonja Majumder.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed.