Berlin Sketchbook I

in homistan

the first in a new series, gentle readers. i apologize for the protracted silences here. i am now settled in new york city. new job, new city, etc. i didn’t write about berlin much, but here we go.

On a nondescript stra├če – lined with oaks – his restaurant abuts a motorcycle and waterski rental. I once saw him standing outside talking to the proprietor of that establishment. One spiked, frost-tipped, head leaning towards the balding pate.

For a year, I must have biked in front of his restaurant 6 times a week on average. I never stopped, just steered a bit closer to the curb from the plaster elephants he would move onto the pavement in spring.

Maybe once I nodded at him but I doubt he saw it, or nodded back.

His name is Afzal. He is from Lahore.

Nahin ji, he laughed when he told me. I always say I am from Lahore but I am from Gujarat. Lahore is just where we land, or take the bus to.

He came to Berlin in 1991 in the immediate aftermath of the Reunification. He had an uncle who had arrive a year earlier and another cousin in ’88.

The judge was so funny – poor man. When my case came up for him to give me worker visa, he looked at the paper: GUYARAT!? AAY SARAY GUYARATOON KITHAY AAYE NAY! (how is everyone from Gujarat here!) There were many of us. All illegal – we made entry in Madrid or in Hamburg. Then we came to Berlin. They were stamping papers, no question asked. Loads of work. But no construction work! I could do construction – had done thakeydari all my life. I tried hard to get into it – but they wanted German or they wanted Polish or they wanted chitti kamri (white skin).

He lives in Steglitz – a grim looking part of Berlin where income equity rings in at the lower percentages. His uncle has gained a fair amount of stability and owns two (or maybe three) shops in Steglitz. They go to mosque, they go to the Arkaden. His children finished high school and are doing various things.

How do you like Germany? He stares at me. I see him weighing me. He shrugs and proffers no response. I take that I have failed his assessment. I volunteer.

I find it very hard to do this “integration” everyone talks about. I teach in a Berlin university but… He cuts me off – you teach? Yes. Well, listen, I keep to myself, you know. Most desis here they just out to get you. No one really wants to talk. We got this business. We got our families. We pay attention to that. I don’t try to get involved.

Many moons later, I went back to him for another giant order of Samosas for my class. He was in a better mood; he remembered my previous questions. I have something to tell you. We meet, now and then, some of us from the early ’90s. You want to come have chai pani with us?

Yes. I would love to.

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