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Footprints: Hansi, herkunft and hate poetry

Updated October 18, 2015


GERMAN author of Pakistani origin Hasnain Kazim has struggled because of his migrant background.
—Photo by writer
GERMAN author of Pakistani origin Hasnain Kazim has struggled because of his migrant background. —Photo by writer

WEARING a green military jacket, denims and a pair of Ray-Bans, German author and Der Spiegel correspondent Hasnain Kazim is a typical journalist — until you discuss right-wing politics in Germany.

“How does one actually become German? When one is born in Germany? Or when one hails from a German family?” asks Kazim while reading excerpts from his first book Grünkohl und Curry [Kale and Curry, The Story of An Immigrant], an account of Kazim’s parents’ immigration to Germany.

Kazim tells his audience in Siegburg how many times he’s been asked by his Pakistani friends why he married a “German lady” or whether his wife changed her religion.

“The dilemma for kids with migrant background is, we have a lot of questions but no answers,” Kazim muses. “The answers we have are given by our parents. Probably we must find our own.”

Kazim was born in the West German city of Oldenburg in 1975 to a Pakistani immigrant couple whose ancestors migrated to Karachi from India. They were newly-weds then, his mother pregnant with him, but an ad in Dawn made his father set out for Germany.

“We were probably the only Pakistani family in that town,” says Kazim. “Our German neighbours were friendly and really curious to see as modern a Muslim woman as my mom.”

They used to cook bratwurst, speak German and even, on a German friend’s advice, gave Kazim a German name, Niels.

Later, friends would call him ‘Hansi’ for Hasnain was too hard to pronounce. However, he couldn’t get a German passport until his 16th birthday.

As a child, he wanted to look “all too German”. When a friend in kindergarten asked his mom why he spoke such funny German, Kazim’s mother started learning German and stopped speaking Urdu with her kids.

Now 40, Kazim wonders why his parents gave up everything to integrate into a country so reluctant to accept them. “I wouldn’t have done it just to please the Germans,” he says.

He reflects upon the question of herkunft [origin] as a political commentator who is witness to modern German history. “After reunification, we used to call East Germans Ossis. Their German and their Trabant cars were both weird for us,” he explains. Referring to the anti-refugee Pegida party and neo-Nazi politics, Kazim says that integration within former east and west Germany was itself an unresolved issue. “People in Dresden or Heidenau want to migrate to the prosperous west,” he explains. “I wish to raise my voice against nonsense like ‘Islam doesn’t belong to Germany’.”

An ex-lieutenant in the German navy and a former political candidate of the Free Democratic Party, Kazim is often told he speaks German really well. His retort: “What do you mean? I am German.” “Such things have made me a little aggressive,” he reflects. “I like to challenge fanatics anywhere in the world.”

Amidst grim journalistic experiences of meeting recruiters of the self-styled Islamic State and getting death threats from Turkey, Kazim found writing in books creative relief. He feels though that fiction written by journalists is mostly bland. Inspired by Haruki Murakami, though, he intends to write fiction too.

Kazim, along with six German journalists ‘with migrant backgrounds’, a tag Kazim detests, initiated the project Hate Poetry. At HP, journalists read, to a houseful of audience members, hate mail sent by racist readers. Journalists appear on stage flaunting stereotypes attached to foreigners and poke fun at abusive commentators.

Kazim feels that “somehow, you always remain a foreigner. When I criticise parties like Pegida, I am judged as an outsider. But I can’t please people to prove my German patriotism,” he says.

“… I have no country the whole world is my homeland…”

So reads the prologue of Kazim’s second book, Plötzlich Pakistan [Suddenly Pakistan], a recollection of his life in Islamabad as a correspondent and reportage on a “country with an atomic bomb and no electricity”.

“I wasn’t too sentimental about Pakistan until 2009. I realised the absurdity of Indo-Pak politics when, despite being German, I was denied a visa for New Delhi due to my Pakistani origin,” he explains. In 2010, Kazim won the CNN prize for journalism for his reporting on the Mumbai attacks.

From discovering Manto in Saeed Book Bank to covering the Osama bin Laden episode, Pakistan has been an awakening as well as an upsetting discovery for Kazim, who became quite sceptical about the country’s secular future when Salmaan Taseer was killed. “Having spent time there now, I feel more connected to Pakistan but it freaks me out when an old man tells me floods are God’s wrath,” he says.

Once, a schoolmate asked Kazim who he would support if Germany played football against Pakistan. Kazim gave thanks that Pakistan plays miserable football.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2015

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