Illustration: Paul Aitchison
Illustration: Paul Aitchison

“Imagine there’s no countries”

The Making of a Refugee: Part 6 – A series on Afghans in Germany

It was now evident to me that each time I went to meet an Afghan friend, I ended up making a journey that was long and complicated (for Hamburg). There were no formal border crossings, but I was aware that I was moving from the centre to the margins, often quite literally.

To meet the singer Elias Shahna, my journey was longer and took me out of the city completely. But this time, the move represented increased prosperity and by implication, a more 'settled' life in Germany. Shahna represented a different generation of artists, those who had fled Afghanistan in the 1990s and built their lives as migrants under very different circumstances. It was of this era that a professor in Tübingen had told me, "The earlier refugees were not obviously Muslim." What she meant, perhaps, was that they had been affluent and educated, often fluent in navigating European society through previous visits.

Generations of Afghans had been arriving in Germany since the late 1970s as each successive conflict led to displacement. Afghans who had arrived in these years were described as being 'well integrated.' 40 percent of those who had fled then had received a German passport. "Remarkably, these Afghan immigrants did not have to face the high degree of anti-immigrant hatred exhibited in 2015/16," wrote the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a 2018 report. But by 2016, the number of Afghans living in Germany had increased five-fold from the figures a decade ago to over a quarter million, and the perception of the community had changed.

I had sought out Shahna as a way to go deeper into the layers of Hamburg's Afghan community, beyond the immediate cycle of arrivals. I was interested in learning how he and his contemporaries had carried the memory of music from Afghanistan into their lives in Europe. Where was their gaze when they sang – on the receding shape of a transformed home, or the closer but unfamiliar, uninterested contours of their new setting? These are questions common to most immigrants, but to ask them of an Afghan musician is to acknowledge the decades-long trail of culture and dislocation that has shaped the community of Afghans inside and outside the country.

By meeting Shahna, I also hoped to get an understanding of the relationship between the generations of refugees, perhaps different generations of artists, and to see how the new arrivals had affected those who had arrived earlier.

Elias Shahna with his uncle Mohammed Sadiq Fitrat, better known as Nashenas, a famous Afghan singer. Adapted from a photo by elyas.shahna.3 / Facebook
Elias Shahna with his uncle Mohammed Sadiq Fitrat, better known as Nashenas, a famous Afghan singer. Adapted from a photo by elyas.shahna.3 / Facebook

To meet him, I had to take a train to Buchholz, a small town that was a 20-minute ride away from Hamburg. I was already running late when I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof to find that the heat had transformed the central station. The unusually high temperatures had turned the railway schedules temperamental and the crowds restive. The relative chaos on my platform was reminiscent of Indian journeys, but missing the practiced fatalism that is ever present there.

Shahna had carved out time for me on a busy day. That afternoon he was to be interviewed by a visiting TV crew from Kabul and my tardiness was upsetting his schedule. But with the hospitality that is innate to Kabuli culture, he gave me instructions and sent his teenage daughter to meet me at the Buchholz station. As we waited for his car, I asked if she liked music. Yes, she said. Her favourite singer was her father.

The family's home was a picture of a suburban European idyll, with a small garden, rows of trees lining the road, and fields beyond. But entering the drawing room was like walking into a Kabuli apartment. There were gauzy covers on the large leather sofa, a big TV screen on the wall, a tray already filled with sweets and a thermos of tea. Shahna left the room, then returned wearing a sequinned vest, the kind worn by performers on stage. His daughter took photos of us sitting at the table and he told me to ask questions so he could use the images of the interview for his Facebook page. When she was done, he said, "Now we can start."


Born in Kabul in the 1970s, when the city was on the cusp of war, or at the end of peace – as you chose to look at it – Shahna was just old enough to have memories of the twilight years of calm. By 1978, the coup called the Saur (April) Revolution had toppled the republic established by Daoud Khan and installed a communist government. The spiralling conflict would continue – through the Soviet invasion, followed by civil war, into the rule of the Taliban.

A demonstration in Afghanistan, 1967-68. Photo: Dr Bill Podlich / PBase
A demonstration in Afghanistan, 1967-68. Photo: Dr Bill Podlich / PBase

In this city on the verge of change, Shahna grew up around music. He adored his famous musician uncle Nashenas. One of the most prominent singers of his generation, Nashenas was noted for the particular quality of his voice – somewhat nasal, somewhat husky, like honey on sand.

The name Nashenas means 'Unknown', and is an alias adopted by Mohammed Sadiq Fitrat to disguise his interest in music from his conservative family. Fitrat holds a doctorate in Pashto literature and had worked in the government. Eventually, as his fame grew, the incognito turned into his identity. Like the music of Ahmad Zahir, the songs of Nashenas conjures up a version of Kabul with melancholy and depth, imbued with a deep range of emotions.

Shahna, Nashenas' sister's son, had inherited the same quality of voice. He had also acquired an early love for music. When I was five years old," Shahna told me, "I remember staying up till 4 am listening to him (Nashenas), even as all the kids would fall asleep." He dreamed of learning music, but his father insisted he complete his formal education first. As soon as he could, he began his musical career under his uncle's tutelage. Shahna didn't have a harmonium, he remembered, so Nashenas gave him one of his own. "That was dream come true for me," he said. The instrument had been made in India.

Shahna's musical education began with the staple of classical ragas that form the continuum of musical education across the Subcontinent (this continuity was one reason why I had often heard Indian film songs based on classical ragas at Afghan weddings or gatherings). In 1990, as the civil war raged in Afghanistan, Shahna left Kabul for Hamburg. I asked why he had come to this particular city and he gave me the reason many other Afghans had – "I had family already living here." He was 18 and didn't speak a word of German. He joined school and began to learn the language. But he also hankered after his dream of music. His first winter, his aunt gave him some money to buy a coat. But he used the money to buy a harmonium instead. That began the balancing act that has continued through his life, combining the migrant's need to create security, with his own need to practise music. For his livelihood, he studied accounting and economics. For the 'ghesa e rooh' (food for the soul) that Afghans call music, he put on his sequinned outfit and sang.

In 1995, Shahna achieved success with a song on a local TV channel for Afghans in Hamburg. "I became famous after that because I sounded like my uncle," he said. He began singing in different concerts with other Afghan musicians, gaining recognition among the diaspora in Germany, even as the Taliban, which took control of Kabul in 1996, banned music in Afghanistan. At that time, the Afghan community in Europe was smaller and less visible in every way.

"There were only ten thousand of us then," Shahna told me about that time. "Not as many as there are now." It was also difficult to have regular contact with home, before the internet and cheap phone calls. The bonds of community were necessarily more fluid then and included other Southasian communities from the city – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. This fellowship was based on a common vocabulary of culture and courtesy, an understanding of the rituals of friendship and preferred forms of leisure. Shahna built his relationships with music. "I love Saigal and Lata," he said, mentioning two iconic Indian playback singers. Many musical gatherings had Indians in the audience, so Shahna had a special line-up of Indian songs that he has translated into Persian. The repertoire he recounted for me included the anthems of Southasian migrants of a particular era the world over.

Shahna's story of arriving in Germany represented a path different from the routes available now to musicians like Hosain. It was a different kind of loneliness, a different sense of community, nourished by isolation and nostalgia. Shahna was an Afghan singer in Hamburg during a time when listening to Afghan music in Hamburg meant something different; when it stood in for an entire lifetime, an entire country, forfeited.

He didn't return to Kabul till 2003, two years after the defeat of the Taliban government by US-led coalition forces, when he worked in reconstruction efforts. "Once one of my songs played in a taxi and the driver told me, 'This guy is really good, he sounds like Nashenas'," he smiled. He began performing in Kabul, then further afield in Central Asia. In 2008, he returned to Hamburg and now works at an accounting firm. The job, he said, provides for his family. But for his soul's nourishment, he sings.

From the money he got from doing concerts, he made music videos. I had seen a few of his songs before meeting him – they were slickly produced, with choreographed backup dancers, rapid editing and glamorous settings. I had watched many similar music videos on TV channels in Kabul and had heard that they were made abroad. In Hamburg, Shahna said, there were several companies that produced them. He sent them to TV channels, not just in Kabul, but also to those in Europe and the US. It is an important part of the process of establishing yourself as a singer, he said, to have these channels play your song.

In my mind, the orientation of Shahna's music and his audience had been towards Afghans. What I had failed to understand was that this included, or perhaps primarily meant, Afghans who lived outside Afghanistan – the community across the globe that included several million refugees. He sang, in other words, for the country that existed outside the country. His audience were people like him – citizens of a free-floating nation, seeking a familiar music. Like stars scattered across the sky. Like a nation without borders.


In many conversations I heard in Germany around the refugee crisis, there was no distinction between Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. In these, the term 'refugees' evoked a homogenous mass of people. But within communities, the lines are clear.

I asked Shahna if he saw a difference in the more recent arrivals from home. "You can see they are people marked by war," he said. "And you can see on their faces that the war has become harder." When he had arrived in Hamburg in the 1990s, he had already attended school in Kabul. But the young men who arrive in Germany now have lived through harsher times, without schools or stable lives. Shahna belongs to the last generation of Afghans who knew peace. People like Masoud* and Sada remember only war.

The backlash faced by such refugees in Germany has a tangential effect on Shahna too. When his family moved to Buchholz, he knew his neighbours were worried. They had lived there for 30 years and it was the first time they would have a "foreigner" in the locality. Plus, they had heard he was a musician. So, he had reached out to them, talking to them in his excellent German, about his impeccable job and his beautiful family. "Now, they are our friends," he said. His efforts had made them so comfortable, they had paid him the compliment of saying, "We cannot think you are Afghan."

Shahna also runs a music school out of his basement. His students are established professionals, younger students and some recently arrived Afghan refugees, who want to become musicians. He gave me a short performance – a medley of Afghan and Indian songs. To play a more complicated tune, Shahna plugged in the drum machine, that gave him the beat of a tabla to sing with. It's a job usually done by a percussionist. "I am on my own here," he said.

My interview had made Shahna late for his next appointment with the TV channel from Kabul. But he offered to give me a ride back to Hamburg in his car. On the way, he pointed out the different towns for me, some with Indian restaurants where he had performed. I asked him if he had ever considered singing in German. No, he said, he still felt more connected to Afghan music. Besides, German people were not interested in his music. At his workplace, when he told people he was a musician, they said "Wow, that's nice," but didn't really care. Despite having lived in Germany for most of his adult life, Shahna felt deeply Afghan. Maybe this was because, unlike people like Hosain, Shahna could remember belonging to the place he had grown up in. He could recall the place he considered home.

Our car soon ran into weekend traffic on the highway and by the time we reached Hamburg, it was late afternoon. Shahna offered to set me down near the Hauptbahnhof. He apologised for not being able to drop me closer to my home and also for not having been able to serve me lunch – omissions which were the result of my own tardiness. It was the kind of hospitality I remembered well from Kabul. The conversation was like hearing a sweet, familiar music in a distant land.

Eventually, he set me down at Steindamm. I walked into the same restaurant I had visited with Sufia* and Nargis*. I had another ice-cream, its tinfoil wrapping crackling like it did in Kabul, like it had when I had visited with them. Like frissons of the faraway city that cast its outline into these streets.

It fortified me through my second train journey of the day. I had to ride the same route all the way to Bremen, chasing one last song through the German countryside.


* Some names and identifying details have been changed.

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