Manen Ahmed on finding ghosts – and being one – in Berlin…
My first ghost sighting in Berlin was on September 8th, 2009, on the fifth floor inner balcony of a building at the corner of Duisburgerstrasse and Brandenburgerstrasse in Charlottenburg.
It was early afternoon, and I saw her standing in the sun. Her head turned at an un-natural angle, so that the meagre rays of the sun lit her up her neck. On seeing her, I nearly jumped from the balcony from fright.
When I was living in the hot burning sun and society of Doha Qatar, we used to love the thrill of the firangi ghost stories. In that desert, jinns were everywhere, and fairies too. There was the hotel for new immigrants that was run by a family of mean, mean jinns.
There was the puchchal paeri taxi driver you would hail in the late evening ocean mist. There were the black magic witches of Oman with their secret words and chin tattoos. Each of these stories was tied to a specific place: the hotel was on Corniche Drive, the taxi was in al-Thammama, the witches in the old bazaar. These stories were how we (a group of 9-12 year olds from Pakistan, India and Srilanka) made sense of the desert to which our parents had brought us – the place where a houl was jinn.
There I heard, for the first time, a ghost story. It took place in London. In mists and graveyards, and overhanging trees, and it starred a woman, in white, and it had the narrator frozen to the spot, contemplating this other worldly intruder inside his home. I remember being scared out of my wits.
The narrator was the elder brother of my best friend who had lived in London and this was what had happened to his best friend, in a house near where they lived. He swore, he thought, he too was a witness to the ghost, on another occasion. This was terrifying. You flee the jinn. You lash out at the churail. This ghost, this white woman, she turned you into a statue.
I did not see a white people cemetery until I moved to the Midwest of the United States. I did not see a ghost, but I did hear many more ghost stories. They seemed to not tell me anything about the city. They were about houses, rather the interior of the houses. They were inside doors, around the corner, by the bathroom. How was I to understand Dayton, Ohio from the inside of a house? I stopped caring. There were no jinns in United States (at least not pre 2001).
The ghost in Berlin turned to me and spoke. She said words I did not understand. She struggled to find another language. I did not know any that she knew. She lived nearby. Just three doors down. Her son had moved her there some three years ago. She had survived the Shoah. She was a Polish woman who had spent the last 20 years in some town in Russia. She had just had her 92nd birthday. She died some months later. Though I kept seeing her.
I learned about Charlottenburg via her. I learned of the Russian migration post War. The scores of sex kinos, gambling dens to cater to the young male industrial worker: sites where German women worked. New immigrants all. The neighborhood was changing rapidly, though the Russians had their own ghosts there.
She told me about Vladimir Nabakov’s house on Paulsbornerstrasse just down the street from us. She told me about Walter Benjamin’s street just to the north of us. She told me about Robert Walser’s shopping haunts just east of us. In the months that followed, I rarely left the neighborhood. I traced the ghostly city outlined in Nabakov’s Berlin crime novels, and Benjamin’s childhood memoirs. I tried to find the contemporary names of the streets, the corners, the businesses. Of course, it was rare that I actually saw anything. Ghosts have a tendency to not be visible.
The second ghost I saw was after I left that neighborhood, and I left my own body behind. I had acquired a new one. I lived now near David Bowie’s ghost city and the one of Christopher Isherwood: actually exactly equidistant between the two. But I never saw them, or any of their ghosts. I saw him while biking at night. It was really late. I was whizzing by. He appeared out of nowhere, causing me swerve and stop almost touching him.
His name was Johann Trollmann, and he had won a amateur boxing championship in 1933 on Fidicinstrasse. He was a Sinti, an impure German. To punish him, he was stripped of his title. He changed his name, dyed his hair blonde and tried to fight again.
They disqualified him, and later sent him to the worker’s camp. There they kept making him fight to live. He kept winning, until he made the mistake of defeating a white prison guard. They beat him to death.
He stood there by the side of the road, and told me this Berlin. His gym was right there. He told me of the camp that they had taken him, in Marzahn. I went and saw the graves and the ghost of the enclosure, still with bricks embedded in the grass. It is now a cemetery. This cemetery was full of ghosts of gypsies of Berlin.
The third ghost. This is where it gets tricky. You remember I told you I had left my body, yes? Would it surprise you, then, that I was the third ghost? I know what you are thinking. I have been telling you lies all along. These “ghosts” are not “ghost story” ghosts.
When I arrived in Berlin, I understood one word out of well any. So, I stopped listening. When you stop listening, you stop talking. I lived mute and deaf in Berlin. I made no eye-contact. I saw no one. No one saw me. No one said anything to me. I walked un-noticed. A citizen of Berlin invisible to his neighbors, his fellows.
Slowly, I began to show myself. I remember a gentleman in a car – desperate – yelling an address at me. I answered him. Relieved, he took off. He was the first person who saw me in Berlin. It was August or so, of 2010. Emboldened, I started to show myself elsewhere. I began to find those brown and black spaces where ghosts hung out. I began to move in a crowd. They notice you in a crowd. Four brown people are noted on the UBahn – scared and noted. One day, there were 8 of us and then we really got noted. They denied our corporality in public.
Being a ghost in Berlin had its advantages, sometimes.
About the Author
Manan Ahmed, who holds a ph.d. in the history of Islam in South Asia from the University of Chicago, blogs under the sobriquet sepoy. He has always had the tendency to poke authority in the eye and run like hell. While not the bravest of tactics, this has ensured his absence from Gitmo. He loves history, sometimes in a creepy way. His posts are often smug and superior in tone but you should forgive him. He is just an academic, after all.
He has appeared on Chicago Public Radio, NPR, LA Times, Chicago Sun Times, Chicago news channels, and many on-line news and media publication – often acting as an ‘expert’ on Pakistan. None of the views expressed on this blog can be ascribed to his employer, his university, his landlord, the teenage mutant ninja turtles or leo strauss. You can purchase a paper-based version of his thoughts here: Where the Wild Frontiers Are.