From the dimly lit underground, a flutter of white against a cloudless blue sky. All around, the city is as idyllic as a postcard – gleaming with sunshine, its beaches and parks crowded, music on its streets. ‘It is not always like this, you know,’ people tell me over and over, about this summer that seems to exist outside of time.
Walking up the steps from the U-Bahn station, I see the tent anchored to a strip of pavement. Like an oversized bird bound to the earth, its walls buffeted by the wind. ‘No human is illegal,’ I read, the words leaping and twisting on the fabric. ‘We are here to stay.’
This patch of earth is where Steindamm begins.
Steindamm, meaning ‘stone dam’, is a long thoroughfare in the area called St Georg, which runs close to the main train station in Hamburg. In the blazing summer of 2018, I found myself often wandering its length.
I was in the city writing about Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.
Three years before, in the summer of 2015, close to 1.3 million refugees had arrived in Europe, fleeing war and the complex aftermaths of conflicts. Nearly 890,000 of them were admitted by Germany. In the early days of that summer, they were met by large crowds and solidarity rallies, declaring ‘Refugees Welcome’. The heart of activity in Hamburg was the train station, where the new arrivals were guided by volunteers to places to sleep and eat. By the time I arrived in 2018, the flush of this Willkommenskultur had faded, and a rising anti-refugee sentiment was polarising the country. Rallies and demonstrations were organised by both sides.
My own days and evenings were spent with people who inhabited this terrain of tumultuous arrival. Some of them were young men I had known when they were living in Kabul, like the one I will call Masoud. A film-maker, he had grown up in neighbouring Iran, as part of the large community of Afghan refugees in the country. Masoud had first come to Kabul, a city he had never known but considered home, after 2001. When we had met, he was part of a collective of friends and media professionals who held day jobs and made films in their free time. They recorded the city as a way of exploring it – shooting on its streets, working with whatever resources they could rustle up together. I had last spoken to Masoud in 2013, and shortly after that, he had left Afghanistan. Days after I arrived in Hamburg, I found him living in a suburb with his wife and two young children. One of the millions behind the faceless refugee ‘crisis’. Several of his friends were also scattered across different parts of Europe, he told me, including some in Hamburg.‘We are all here, but we are different,’ he said. ‘We are nearby, but our lives are changed.’
Like Masoud, most of the Afghans I met had a tenuous relationship with their present setting, one that was mediated by the long, bureaucratic and emotionally taxing process of becoming refugees. They also had a fraught relationship with what they had left behind – parents, family, their own identities as film-makers and artists.
So when we spoke, our conversations were often not of the future but of the past, not so much of where they were but of what they had been. Our days ebbed and flowed with Skype calls and photos flicked through on phones, lists of marriages and deaths and the names of newborns. We traced the journeys of mutual friends across the world, avoiding talk of their routes, dwelling only on destinations. Between us flowed impressions of films and music, anecdotes of screenings and festivals, gossip and reminiscences: ‘Do you remember my cousin, he now drives a bus in Sweden.’ ‘Imagine, that guy in charge of a bus!’ Between us stretched the memory of a shared Kabul – dusty, chaotic, winking in the long twilight of Hamburg’s evenings.
Sometimes, after these conversations, I would walk with my companions by the harbour on the Elbe River, watching the ships glide by. Other times I went there on my own. Hamburg is an active port and its waterways bring in commerce from around the world. Watching the flow of this channel was like watching a river of people and goods entering the city: a flow that was welcome, visible, legitimate, celebrated.
In between my expeditions around Hamburg, or as a convenient spot for a rendezvous, I would end up in Steindamm – walking around its shops, or waiting in the midst of its crowds. On this ‘stone dam’ that used to be an elevated paved street, I found a different river: of people who are not entirely wanted, a ‘wave’ that the city would rather keep out, would rather not see, despite being in plain sight.
Both places were busy.
In my notes, Steindamm appears on the margins of the pages; not the focus of my curiosity, but often the location of my observations. Many roads seemed to lead me there.
Around 900 metres long, the street seems to change character every few steps. On its eastern stretch are a series of office buildings, constructed in place of a residential and shopping quarter destroyed during the Second World War, when large parts of Hamburg were targeted by air raids. Towards the west – the part that connects to the train station – is where I spent most of my time. This is the section derisively called the Dirty Mile, and Döner-Allee. On this part of the street, there are restaurants and supermarkets offering so-called ‘ethnic’ food – Turkish, Afghan, Syrian, Indian, among others. In some places, grocery stores display fresh fruits and vegetables on the pavement. Around them are barber shops and sex shops and hijab shops, casinos and pharmacies, hotels and discount department stores, travel agencies offering cheap international fares.
‘Everything that scares us, we put here,’ a local journalist told me. ‘Sex, mosques, migrants.’
Like in my notes, Steindamm exists at the margins of the city, though it is located near its centre.
Afghans are prominent in the mix of languages and communities visible on the street. Hamburg is home to the largest Afghan diaspora in Europe, a community formed in part over decades of conflict, with each cycle of war forcing more people to seek refuge. In 2015, there were close to 35,000 Afghan people in the city.
One of the nicknames for the unkempt part of Steindamm, I learned, was Klein Kabul. Little Kabul.
Walking down Steindamm it is possible to find relics of the past still embedded in the terrain. Often, these are quite different from its present. Like the Hansa-Theater, an iconic venue for vaudeville in Germany, which dates from the 1890s. The building was destroyed in 1943, likely bombed by Allied forces, and later rebuilt on the same spot by the owners. Nearby is the Savoy, a plush single-screen cinema built in the 1950s, which shows movies in their original English versions. Across the road are residential buildings that have survived the war, nestled among gaming parlours, shisha shops, money changers and adult entertainment stores. The structures are beautiful, and sometimes I stop and gaze at their graceful facades, and the afternoon light on their walls, appearing and vanishing from behind the flow of people on the street.
On the steps of a church in south-western Germany in 2018, I had met a woman in her fifties who had driven from her home nearby to attend an anti-war concert. ‘My father was in a war, my grandfather was in a war,’ she had said. ‘I don’t think it’s a good legacy.’
Borders are familiar to her generation. The Berlin Wall came down just over thirty years ago. The war ended less than eight decades ago. On Steindamm too, the memory of rubble on the street is never too far from the surface.
It is a memory that seems to cling to Masoud, cleaving to the curve of his back as he walks ahead of me in the buzzing crowd, making his way through the shops and the restaurants, through the crush of bodies around him, collecting and dispersing like eddies in a stream.
A little off Steindamm is Hansaplatz, a wide square with a now dry fountain at its centre. The monument was built in the late nineteenth century by a consortium of traders and businessmen, when the suburb of St Georg was home to the affluent.
In the 1980s, Hansaplatz was one of the centres for drugs and prostitution activities in Hamburg. Women friends told me that if they went shopping on Steindamm, they would avoid meeting around the square. Now, they said, they are less inclined to keep their heads down. It is less dingy than it used to be. But it is still one of the edgiest parts of the city, and carries a reputation as a criminal hotspot, despite the evident patches of gentrification around it.
Walking from Steindamm to Hansaplatz, I passed drug users and sex workers, homeless people and more police than I had seen in other parts of the city. I passed the figure of Hansa – an embodiment of the city’s prosperity – at the top of the fountain. The trash cans were overflowing and the stench of urine and beer hung in the air. On the walls, posters advertised concerts by Turkish and Afghan singers. On the other side of the plaza were chic cafes, with families enjoying lunch in the pleasant afternoon.
In 2015, Masoud told me, when the refugees had arrived in Hamburg, they had been housed in facilities where they were not permitted to cook. Many of them came to Steindamm to spend their food allowance, to find a diet that seemed at least somewhat familiar. He would see them, he said, when he went shopping for groceries with his family. Skimming through newspapers from the time, I read a report where a restaurant owner from the area recalled it being a good time for business.
I also shopped for food each time I came to Steindamm. At an Indian grocery store on the corner of Hansaplatz, I picked out daal and packets of spices, listening to the devotional songs playing on the speakers. A matriarch in a shalwar kameez bagged my purchases at the cash counter. Outside, a scuffle began and I grew uneasy at the sound of voices cursing, rising in aggression, not knowing what they were saying. She didn’t bat an eyelid.
Emerging from the underground stairway near the pharmacy at the beginning of Steindamm, I see the flutter of white, then the tent, then the name on its entrance. Lampedusa Platz, I read; the name becoming a bridge to an island in a faraway sea.
This white tent had been erected in May 2013 as a marker and resource centre for the 300 or so refugees fleeing the Libyan conflict who had arrived in Hamburg that year. Mostly migrant workers, they had initially landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies closer to Africa than to mainland Europe. Their arrival in Hamburg that winter had sparked gestures of solidarity by different sections of the city; schools, churches and cultural institutions had opened their doors and offered shelter. Traces of their arrival still marked the city’s topography five years later. Across the grungy districts of St Pauli and Schanzenviertel, I had seen walls sprayed with the words ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’.
Erecting the white tent in the middle of the city was how the refugees reminded people of their existence, I had read. It was a way of staking claim to the city, of not vanishing from public memory. That morning, I saw commuters and tourists walking around it, barely glancing at the structure. I approached the tent and saw a few people sitting inside, stacks of paper and posters with slogans on the wall. To me, it seemed like an island in the middle of the city, unseen in plain sight.
In Steindamm, I often used a word to describe myself that was understood by Persian, Turkish and Arabic speakers. I am a musafir, I said, a traveller. The term often opened doors to hospitality and invitations, because a musafir has a claim upon the generosity of
the host. You are our guest, I was told, you are welcome.
It was a word that led to stories – a path into conversations with workers at the Afghan grocery store, or while having tea and baklava in a cafe. It prompted questions about where I was from, where I would go.
And directions to places that I should see, now that I was in their land.
Come back any time, many of my interlocutors said as I took my leave.
This is your home.
As an Indian woman, the invisibility of Europe’s borders often leave me fretful, because borders rarely work to my advantage. I would rather be able to see them coming, be prepared. When I travel, I leave for the airport early, carry masses of paperwork, rehearse answers to many questions. I carried around my passport all the time in Hamburg, though I was never asked to show it.
As an Indian writer, my desire to write about the world frequently collides with the reality of my location. These obstacles often appear to be practical, even impartial, like visa requirements and currency exchange rates. Behind these are more insidious ideas of power and expertise; maps that run from an imagined centre to its perceived margins. Which may be why, in a local newspaper office, and by other writers and journalists I meet, I am asked with different intonations what exactly I am doing there, writing about Germany.
Which is another way of saying that when we talk of writing on travel, we are often describing borders.
And when we read narratives of travel, we are usually moving in just one direction.
In one of the discount shopping centres at Steindamm, I watched a Somali family buying a set of suitcases, their little girl running through the store in excitement. The sight reminded me of the cheap, soft-shelled baggage my parents bought from a roadside stall on Tottenham Court Road in the years my father was a doctoral student in London. These were capacious enough to be stuffed with odd-shaped gifts for the family, and returned stuffed with home-made treats. On one journey my father carried a jar of mango pickle in his hand baggage. Soon, its pungent smell filled the entire aircraft. He laughed about it, but I, at age ten, already knew it was no joke to be accused of your food smelling weird.
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