After the thrill of reunion, a haze.
I spent the last few days of Ramzan in a fog, away from the rituals that marked my days of fasting, away from my family that was observing the fasts. The brilliant sunsets at 10 pm disoriented me; I was not used to seeing the sky lit up so late. This was the furthest north I had ever been, and from this location the cycles of dusk and dawn were no longer familiar indicators for eating and abstaining but a confusing juxtaposition of daylight on night-time chores. And then there was the ‘normal’ summer, unfolding all around me. The parks were full; there were weekly concerts, extended picnics, a thousand barbeques everywhere.
There were moments when these worlds coincided. Walking down a busy street one afternoon, I heard a quiet but cheery “Ramzan Mubarak” between a young man and an elderly lady in a headscarf. They exchanged greetings in Dari as they made their way to see a room for him to rent. I felt miles away from their patient abstinence. Like I had travelled a great distance from things I knew well.
A few days before Eid, I visited Roya*. She had been one of a group of young women I had met regularly in Kabul, and I had known her since she was a teen. She had worked in a beauty salon with some of her cousins. On each visit, she would pepper me with questions about an ageing Bollywood star she was devoted to. In 2013, Roya had married her cousin Saleem* and moved to Germany. I had met Saleem briefly earlier and knew he worked for a security firm in Hamburg. Saleem’s parents had fled to Germany in the 1990s – he had been 3 years old then – and he had grown up there. One Sunday, the couple took me out for a joyride with their son – who was about the same age as Masoud’s son – in their Mercedes van. Saleem was proud of his car, and allayed my fear of the high speeds he drove at by telling me that German cars are the safest in the world. Their afternoon had been earmarked for me, to show their guest from India the sights of their city. The view from Saleem’s car was a different perspective of Hamburg. He told me about apartments with expensive views, areas where the real estate values had increased dramatically. He pointed out the largest electronics store in the world to me, and then took his car to the edge of the Elbe, a place I hadn’t seen till then. We drove past a series of containers turned into accommodation, with families living inside. “Those are the new arrivals,” he told Roya, and gazing at her fellow countrymen who had taken such a different path into the country, she said: “Poor things.”
We drove to the Alster Lake, which lies in the heart of Hamburg and is surrounded by luxury hotels and shops. We stopped at a stall by its shore that sold Roya’s favourite ice cream, shaped like spaghetti. As we strolled with the large containers in our hands, she told me that she had started working again, this time at her sister-in-law’s beauty salon. She enjoyed it, she said, because many of her clients were Indians or Pakistanis. She talked to them in her fluent Urdu, picked up from Bollywood films. Saleem kept a sharp eye on his son, especially when he wandered too close to two elderly couples enjoying dinner by the waterfront, the men dressed in black suits and bowties, the women in formal evening dresses. We walked down the lakeside, enjoying the sunshine, Saleem pointing out the tony hotels to me. A group of young men walked past and nodded almost imperceptibly at him. “Just one boy?” they bantered in Dari.
We had had lunch with Saleem’s parents, whom I had met earlier. His father had been a singer in Kabul during the 1980s, and on my request, we watched YouTube videos of his performances as a young man. “When we lived in Kabul, we had nothing, but we did everything,” he said, his words an echo of Masoud’s. “Here, we have everything, but we lack what artists need. There is no inspiration, no sukoon (peace),” he said. His wife and Saleem protested, their words a flood of impassioned arguments. “Baba, what are you saying, you are working so much, look at all that you have done,” they said. But he shook his head implacably, looked at me and repeated, several times. “There is no sukoon.”
These meetings, touched with reminiscence and the pleasure of seeing old friends, seemed like a gift. As if to make up for this abundance, soon after that Sunday my days entered a frustrating holding pattern. Doors that had seemed ajar proved to be harder to open. Messages and emails went unanswered; appointments were unconfirmed or changed repeatedly. All my energy was evaporating in the heat that swirled around Hamburg persistently. And then there was my restlessness at my solitary Eid, at watching the festival that marks the end of Ramzan pass by, unnoticed by most people around me. On the day of the celebration, I attended a party hosted by the Embassy of Hope, an initiative of a prestigious Hamburg theatre that had been established as a response to the arrival of refugees in 2015. The party was held in a large courtyard, and with the sunshine and the abundant spread of food, the atmosphere was festive. But to my fretful heart, it seemed like another summer party in Hamburg. It was not Eid.
One of the organisers invited me to watch the evening’s theatre performance, of a play that was a collection of testimonies of refugees. It was entirely in German, and was beautifully choreographed. The cast was a mix of professional actors and refugees playing themselves. In one scene, the large screen behind the stage showed drone footage of the ruins of Aleppo, as a musician from the Syrian city sat on stage and strummed the rubab. Later, a young man from Afghanistan sang a song from a Bollywood film. “Tere naam, maine kiya hai, jeewan apna saara sanam,” he hummed, “in your name, I have pledged my entire life, my love.” It was the same popular tune I had heard on every street when I had visited Kabul for the first time. It reminded me now of Kabul that spring. It reminded me of my own home.
The tangential contact with knots of young men and a few families made me feel even lonelier. I realised I missed home. And the knowledge that I could go home whenever I wanted was like a knot in my stomach in this gathering. The day after Eid, I rode a bus to Berlin. I was going to meet Sada, a poet from Afghanistan, whose name meant a voice, or a call.
I met Sada Sultani for the first time at her home in a housing colony in East Berlin. She lived in an area called Ernst Thalmann Park, a locality that had been constructed in the 1980s by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government. The housing colony was a prestige project designed to show that East Germany was capable of making high-quality living quarters for its citizens. This explained its location, close to the border with West Germany. The “inhabited park” was inaugurated in 1986, and had 1332 apartments for 4000 people. Each resident got their own tree in the greenery that spread around the blocks. The park was named in honour of a Weimar-era head of the Communist Party, who was executed in Buchenwald by the Nazi regime. He was commemorated in a sculpture that I saw as I walked to Sada’s apartment. The path led through greenery and a fountain around which children played, and a complex of shops and offices. As I turned a corner, I was transported back to Kabul. Specifically, to the locality called Macrorayan, which was constructed with Soviet assistance. This too had also been designed as a trophy project, creating model housing for the modern Kabuli family. In the middle of its concrete buildings, there are small parks, vegetable patches, shopping centres. My memory of that Kabul suburb was echoed in the concrete facades and orderly pavements of this Berlin enclave. The buildings around me, however, were unmarked by bullet holes.
I had walked into the apartment and taken off my shoes, prepared to meet Sada’s family. But there was just the two of us. “My family is in Afghanistan,” she said, replying to my question. “You live here tanha (alone)?” I had blurted out, exposing how unexpected I found the idea of an Afghan woman, on her own. Sada had turned 29 a few weeks before we met. Her hair was cut short, and she wore blue jeans and a cream top, with crimson lipstick that she reapplied through the afternoon. Her most striking feature was her eyes that she had accentuated carefully, and that glowed with expression as she talked.
Sada showed me around the apartment she had moved into in 2017. She was one of the most fortunate people she knew, she said, and had been allotted a house relatively quickly. I walked through the hall into the kitchen. Both the rooms were full of summer sunlight, the windows overlooking the park. Despite the short notice of our meeting, she had cooked me lunch. We sat at a tiny table facing outside, and ate the vegetable stew and fragrant rice she had prepared.
Sada had been introduced to me by a German reporter, who had described her as a former journalist from Kabul. And Sada had, in fact, worked as a TV and radio journalist for some years. But to me, she said she was a poet. Our talk that afternoon, and in all our meetings since then, led from that fountainhead: the life she had built around words, of the experiences that she had expressed in her verses.
Talking to her was both draining and exhilarating. She spoke fluent Urdu, in a style that derived vocabulary and syntax heavily from Bollywood films. This meant that her emotional register was perennially pitched to high. While giving me directions to her house, for instance, she had concluded by saying “Main besabri se tumhara intezar karoongi” – an unusually florid way of saying, “I look forward to seeing you.” Over the next few weeks, over meetings and over the phone, Sada told me about her life in Afghanistan and Germany. I had walked into Sada’s apartment thinking I already knew the outlines of the story I would write around her: a woman refugee who is trying to rebuild her career as a journalist in Germany. Instead, I found a sprawl of complicated emotions and anecdotes, all tied together with Sada’s expressive recital, and her determined refusal to conform to any type.
Soon after she was born, Sada’s family had fled the civil war in Afghanistan for Pakistan, then Iran. After 2001, they had returned to their home in Mazar-e-Sharif, where Sada attended school. “There was only one book in the house,” she told me, “that was the Quran.” She may never have explored the world of letters had it not been for a sympathetic teacher, who encouraged her to draw and to write. It was a path she explored despite formidable obstacles. When she was 12 years old, she said, she was married to her stepbrother. “It was because of my three little brothers,” she explained. “My stepfather told my mother that I must marry his son, or he would not accept her sons.” But she managed to persuade her mother to let her continue studying even after her wedding, and joined a university in Mazar-e-Sharif. She began working in 2010, while she was still a student, despite violent opposition from one of her brothers. “Mujhe ghulami ki zindagi bardasht nahi,” she explained to me. “I cannot tolerate a life of subservience.” A friend told her about a position in a radio station funded by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and she took to the work enthusiastically, receiving awards for her programming.
In her memory, Sada recalls her teenaged, college-going self as touchingly naive. “I was very religious, very unversed in the ways of the world. I truly didn’t know anything,” she told me emphatically. With the help of friends from better-read families, she began borrowing books from the university library. Soon, she encountered the feminist Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who remains an important influence in her life.
“She wrote about female longings and desires,” said Sada. “When I read her, I realised here was a woman speaking with no artifice, no niqab. I wanted to be like her.” When she saw people on the campus reading Farrokhzad’s work, Sada saw a path she could follow. “I promised myself, one day they will hold my work in their hands,” she said. Farrokhzad had died young, Sada told me. “She had killed herself or been killed, I don’t know. (She died in a road accident in 1967, at the age of 32. But she is alive in hearts and literature. I knew I would get there if I had no censors on me.” Sada’s poetry draws from this heritage, and dwells on her proud owning of feminine desires. “I write about women’s feelings. Its normal,” she said, pronouncing the word the German way. “But in Afghanistan, it makes you besharam (shameless)” Her first book, titled The Lover’s Earring, came out in 2010. She got away with it, she said, because her family did not read. In 2012, she followed it up with a second volume, called Rabtahai Doodi, (‘Smoky Relationships’).
Sada dreamed of a career as a doctor. In 2013, she enrolled as a medical student in Mazar-e-Sharif. She had completed several semesters before she was forced to drop out for financial reasons, she told me. Along the way, Sada had got a divorce from her stepbrother. By 2015, when she moved to Kabul to work for a TV station, she had acquired a reputation for her literary work as well as her beauty. “I am fair and plump, and Afghans love that,” she told me with a loud laugh. “I was famous.”
As we sipped tea on her couch, she told me about various incidents of being belittled, or treated as a disreputable person, because of her writing and her personal life. What she learned from this, she said, was to value her own self, her voice and her stories.
In late 2015, she managed to secure a move to Germany. She did not tell me how, saying she disliked talking about this period. “I went through a very dark time then,” she said. “Main bohot depression mein thee, I suffered from acute depression.” Once in the refugee camp in Berlin, she plunged into the rituals of her new life, embracing her new setting. She began German lessons, and started training to work as a nurse; this would enable her to work in a hospital, have a career, just like she had dreamed of, in Afghanistan. She began translating herself – as a refugee, as a free woman – with impressive fluency. Perhaps as part of this process, she told me she now aimed to write poetry too in German. “I want to be able to tell people here about the situation of women in Afghanistan,” she explained. “Some people, like journalists, are aware of this, but most are not. It is important to tell them the truth.” She is also translating her own verses into German, hoping to get them published.
The next time I met Sada was in Alexanderplatz, the iconic square that was the symbolic centre of the city during the GDR era, and was used for parades and official events. Before that, it had been the heart of Berlin’s famous nightlife during the Weimar republic, with cabarets and nightclubs that preceded the grimness of the late 1930s.
In more recent years, this flat plain has transformed into a busy shopping hub, with several giant department stores scattered across its perimeter. We walked past the Fountain of Friendship between Peoples, affixed with ascending copper sculptures. I took pictures of the rotating World Clock, showing the time in 148 cities, and of the TV Tower or Fernsehturm, framed by a cloudless blue sky. The square was full of shoppers and people who had come to enjoy the sunshine, the buskers and the street performances.
In the autumn of 1989, Alexanderplatz was the location for a massive anti-government demonstration. Over half a million people – actors, artists, dissidents and poets – had marched, demanding reforms and greater freedom. Soon after this, the wall had come down. In the winter of 2013, the spot had also been squatted by refugees from northern Africa, who had arrived via the Italian island of Lampedusa. These refugees had embarked on a hunger strike, demanding their right to claim asylum in Germany. Their visibility had been their most powerful weapon. They had transformed some of the city’s most iconic spots into refugee squats. By refusing to become invisible in refugee camps, by simply being out in the city, out in the open for all to see.
I followed Sada to a coffee shop that had a view of the Alexa shopping mall, a massive monolith across the street that mingled with the Soviet-style buildings further away.
To look at this landscape was to be reminded of how often the terrain of the city had been inscribed and erased, its wartime rubble forming its hills, its ghosts speaking raucously across each other, over the din of remembering and the quiet erosion of memory. We sat outdoors, despite the strong wind that whipped our hair into our eyes, making us laugh and wince together. Sada ordered our drinks carefully, in German, and made sure I had exactly what I wanted.
We talked of her work and she told me about a conference she had recently attended in Sweden, where her work had got a lot of attention. The crowds and the admiration had made her happy. “In Kabul, when people spoke badly about me, it made me very troubled. Jigar khood bood,” she said, using a phrase I had heard often in Kabul to describe frustration and helpless anger. “But now hijrat, (migration), has changed me. In Europe, I am not just a woman, I am a human being.” Or perhaps, she added mischievously, hijrat had changed the Afghans at last. “Now, they treated me as an insaan, as a person.”
I asked which place in her often-displaced life she considered her home, and she took her time thinking over the question. “I cannot decide between Iran, where I spent my childhood, and Afghanistan where I spent my youth,” she said eventually. Her relationship with the latter, she said, is complicated. “I love it and I hate it. Because of the war, it is normal to be angry there. I would get very agitated because my stepfather and my husband shouted all the time. But it’s not the fault of the place, it’s not the soil and the trees and the birds that are to be blamed.” Germany is her third time lucky place, her home in every way, including in her decision to write in German, because she is determined not to remain a refugee forever. Or, as she put it in Urdu, “Hamesha mohajarat mein nahin rehna hai, I don’t want to remain in a state of refuge forever.”
That evening, we left Alexanderplatz together to meet the German reporter who had introduced me to Sada over dinner. The talk turned to refugee support groups and Afghan gatherings. Sada repeated something she had told me earlier, that she avoids being around the refugee community from her country. They made her feel anxious and disturbed, she had said. “I have gone through a very difficult time,” she said again. “I don’t want to end up going back into that state.” She would rather mingle with people from around the world, who can accept her as she is, she said. In Sweden, part of her elation about the conference came from having been part of a creative community. Perhaps those were the people she should be forging links with, she mused. “I should be with artists or writers or musicians. People I can hug and touch without them wondering if it’s some kind of a signal.”
But even in Germany, she had told me back in her apartment, being a free woman takes some doing. A European man she met a few months ago had asked her why she spent so much time dressing up, why she used so much makeup. “I said, ‘I love fashion, I am not going to stop for anything.’ I realised then that for some men, it’s the same, wherever you are.” She often has to rebuff attempts by her Afghan friends to find her a husband. She is alone, and the solitude appears like a prize, won with difficulty.
What does occupy her heart is learning to read and write in a new language. “I am reading the classics again in German, everything that I read in Dari,” she said, and that she was also reading German writers. Trawling from Virginia Woolf to Friedrich Nietzsche, from Jean Webster to Anton Chekhov. A reading list that seemed like a journey, an internal crossing over that is also an act of freedom. It signalled her determination not to speak as she is expected to, to speak in a language only of her own choosing.
On the day I first met Sada, I had made a trip to the Stasi Museum, located at the former headquarters of the notorious East German secret police. A guide had taken me through rooms crowded with memories of excesses of the state – it’s spying against its citizens. I had looked at the apparatus of surveillance arranged in glass boxes, paced the offices and conference rooms, and heard stories of various victims of the regime. The building itself had been taken over by a citizen’s group soon after the reunification of 1990. They had worked to transform it into a memorial, to ensure that such horrors would never be forgotten.
During the tour, my guide had described people escaping GDR for the West as Flüchtlinge, or refugees. The same term used to describe people like Sada and Masoud, I realised. These Flüchtlinge had received support in their new homes, he had continued, because they were fellow Germans. And also, I inferred, because of their value in the constant war of propaganda between the two halves of Germany. I thought of the white crosses by the river Spree, near the Reichstag, that were memorials to those who had died trying to cross the Berlin Wall during this time of division. And I thought of the different emotions imbued in the word now, when Flüchtlinge like Sada and Masoud are like walls that divide Germans. From each other, and from their past. Memories can be read in different ways, I realised, and each mausoleum can be inscribed with a different meaning.
I looked out of the window and saw a block of buildings behind the museum. The apartments were where members of the Stasi had lived during the 1960s, I was told. In the space outside one block, I saw a child’s bicycle. Bright yellow flowerpots were outside a window. The houses were now being used to accommodate refugee families.
I had hoped to see Sada again, but on my way to our next meeting spot, she called me. An Afghan friend was in hospital in Stuttgart, she said. The girl had attempted to kill herself. Sada was distraught. She was anxious about her friend, whom she couldn’t visit until she was released from hospital. She was also overwhelmed with her own emotions. “I know how it feels to be in that condition,” she told me. “When I heard what she had done, main bohot ghabra gayi, I felt very disturbed.”
A few minutes into the conversation she sounded calmer and more cheerful, telling me she regretted not being able to make it to our appointment. “Tumse milne ko dil karta hai,” she sang with a laugh in her voice. “My heart craves to meet you,” the words of a popular Hindi film song from the 1990s.
I told her she was crazy, using in the same tone of Hindi film dialogue. “Pagal ho tum, you are crazy” I said. “Haan woh to main hoon,” she had said, her voice serious once again, “yes, that I am.” “Jo shair ho, aur pagal na ho, woh shair kaisa, a poet who is not crazy is no poet at all.”
In the coming months, Sada would write poetry again. Over WhatsApp messages, she told me that she had a new book of verses written in Dari, composed in Germany, ready. The poems were about war, about violence, about women’s emotions, she said. She hoped to find a publisher for this new book soon. But before that, she said, she was preparing to take her nursing exams – that would allow her to further her career in Germany. She was a little bit nervous.
That evening, I waited for a tram that would take me to Berlin’s train station, on my way back to Hamburg. A Nigerian man approached me and asked where I was from. Then he asked: “Will you stay here?” “No,” I had replied, surprised. “I will go home soon.” “You have a family there,” he had said, nodding. “Your man is waiting for you. It’s good.”
As the train had pulled into the now familiar station at Hamburg, I had felt an unexpected lifting of spirits. I was happy to be back, to chase the personal landmarks and inflexions the streets were slowly yielding. The inertia that had dogged my work seemed to be lifting too. It was as if all the people who had so far been silent had collectively decided to speak, to reply to my emails and set up meetings, to lead me through different sides of the city and their lives. My calendar was already filling up when I got a message from a young musician I had been pursuing for several weeks.
“I have to meet someone who lives an hour away by train. Do you want to ride with me?”
~Cover illustration by Paul Aitchison.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed.