A few weeks ago, I visited Hamburg’s vast harbors and storage houses. There, I saw the faded signs of an old network of traders from Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir who came to Hamburg in the 1880s and 1890s bearing carpets and artifacts. I loved that part of Hamburg, and I wished I had had more time to talk to some members of this old Muslim community.
There are parts of Berlin which also evoke past entanglements. The Ahmadi mosque in Wilmersdorf – the oldest in Germany – is an example. I wrote about wandering onto it a while ago. Since then, I have learned a lot more about the post-War Turkish immigration to Berlin, the Muslim (Turkish, Desi, Arab, Iranian) communities in Kreuzberg, in Neukölln, in Wedding, in Charlottenburg. I met families of Sikhs and Punjabis from Ludhiana who have been in Berlin since the early 1970s. I met East Pakistanis. I met PPP jaiyallas still in hiding from Zia ul Haq. Berlin, as it has to many before me, only begrudgingly unveils its seductive charms – and one of its charms has been its matter-of-fact diversity.
And just as matter-of-factly, it shows its racism. When I was vacating my last apartment – in the quite white, old (as in the demographic), rich kiez of KuDamm, I spent an epic 28 hours scrubbing the apartment clean for the landlord’s inspection. The tenure in the place was about 16 months and there was very little wear and tear. Yet, during the inspection, the landlords acted in a ridiculously rude manner – at one point saying that only “animal-like Turks” could live like this.
In my new place in Schöneberg – a neighborhood I absolutely love – my 80 plus year old neighbor looked me up and down.
“Are you Turk – your name is Achmet”
“Actually, that is with a D, not a T but, I am from Pakistan”
“Ah! I used to know an Indian. Yes, you are much too dark to be a Turk.”
I was quite happy that we had settled the matter and a few weeks later, I bumped into her again. She began to tell me about the building, the neighborhood and while describing the 1950s and 60s life, she quickly inserted a comment about how those were the days before the “African and Turk” families couldn’t be seen on the street. Afraid that my German comprehension was not up to par, I repeated after her and she elaborated that the Africans started moving into the apartment buildings around us in the late 80s and early 90s. Haven’t I seen them?
These encounters are, however, not the same. While the old landlord was definitely a racist, my new neighbor simply belongs to a world view which is restrictive around class and color lines. I can’t begrudge this casual prejudice to the old and the infirm. And sometimes, I feel that Berlin as a whole has a similar outlook – a casual prejudice against the ausländer (outsider) be they white or green.