Illustration: Paul Aitchison
Illustration: Paul Aitchison

Harbour behind harbour

The Making of a Refugee: Part 2 – A series on Afghans in Germany

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.

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