Berlin – Prague – Berlin

Leaving Berlin early in the morning, the bus is mostly empty. We stop in Dresden by the side of the main train station to pick up more passengers. I’m in a lull. Was napping earlier and feel only half awake. A large group is gathered around the driver who’s checking the passports and tickets and a smaller group around the other driver who is loading the luggage into the belly of the bus. On the way to Prague, the bus driver checks the passports. I’m not sure if the Czech Republic is included in the Shingen. Make a note to check it out later. The process is taking a long time. Two women, I assume a mother and daughter from their resemblance, get on the bus first and sit in front of me. I look out. The rest of the people waiting are men. I see a third man handing out papers to the others and I hear their muffled speech.  They seem fairly relaxed and in good spirit. The music of their speech sounds vaguely familiar. I guess it’s Turkish. They have dark hair and olive skin. I assume they must be going to Prague on a tour or for work. Both assumptions seem strange. People come to Germany for work. And Prague in winter is not a particularly desirable vacation destination even if people are budget-conscious as I am. I’m fully awake now. I listen more carefully and find myself confused. They are definitely speaking in Farsi but I find that hard to believe. What? Are they refugees? Why are they going to Prague? Has Germany made some kind of agreement with the Czech Republic to resettle some refugees there? Are they being deported? A news brief earlier indicated that Merkel had proposed measures to make it easier to deport “asylum-seekers.” But these men don’t look stressed as they naturally would be if they were being deported. And there are no German police and immigration officers in view. The men, and now I see one woman among them, are dressed in clean dark-coloured wool or leather jackets customary in “the South”. Only a few of them are wearing hats, scarves or gloves, and none of them is equipped with all three. I smile. That unpreparedness for winter – it’s a few degrees below zero outside – is very familiar to me. As they get their papers from the man that was handing them out they get on the bus one or two at a time. I hear them exchanging comments and light banter as they pass through the aisle.

Like others who got on the bus in Berlin I’ve put something on the empty seat beside me to discourage anybody who might want to sit there. I want the extra seat so I can put my legs up. It occurs to me that I should remove my bag and empty the seat but I find it hard to give up my comfort. So I look around and see that there are many empty seats elsewhere. Just as the thought passes in my head that if I empty the seat and one of the men sits there I could try to find out what their story is the bus door closes and we pull away from the curb again. I’m very curious about this group of my “countrymen” and the woman, of course. Clearly all of my earlier assumptions were wrong. I walk to my friend who’s sitting two rows in front of me – and like me taking over two seats- to see if she picked up anything more than I did. Having recently come to Germany from Iran for a short visit, she guesses they must be tourists and the woman is their guide here. Instead of returning to my seat, I walk over to where the woman and one of the men are sitting and say hello in Farsi. The woman’s eyes are closed and she doesn’t respond. The man’s face opens with a large smile. My presence and approach is quite unexpected. I tell him that I live in Canada and am in Germany for a short stay and taking an excursion to Prague for a few days, and I ask him about his group and what they were doing in Dresden. He tells me that they are a classical Iranian music band from Shiraz who’d come to Dresden to perform in a festival and they’re going to Prague, like me, for sight-seeing (سیاحت). 

It’s my turn now to open into a broad smile when I hear Shiraz, my hometown. I tell him that. We both chuckle and immediately the conversation gets warmer. He tells me about their music and the group and I tell him that my friend is also from Shiraz and I’m sure she wants to come say hello too. Then I go tell her. She chuckles and says she’d thought a couple of the guys looked familiar to her. And then she goes over to the man I was speaking to, who was the one handing out papers to the group earlier, and turns out to be the leader. I return to my seat and when my friend comes over we talk about the curious co-incidence. I think about all of my earlier assumptions about this group and realize how I’ve been conditioned to see people through the racial lens – “dark hair, olive skin” – and, following from that, assume that they are unwelcome guests in White Europe. The irony is that these musicians had performed last night in Dresden, a Pegida stronghold. Pegida is an ultra-right anti-immigrant party that is gaining more support among dis-affected working-class Germans. The so-called strong German economy has not benefitted all Germans, and although austerity is not yet a household term here, the class gap is widening and the refugees are easy target for the re-emerging white supremacy. When we get off the bus in Prague, my friend and the musician we’d spoken to earlier exchange contacts and we say goodbye. Three days later, on the way back to Berlin we stop again, this time at the border. Two German border patrols board the bus and carefully inspect passengers documents. The one who looks at my Canadian passport gives it back to me with a smile and turns around to the passenger sitting across from me. He is a young man with dark hair and olive skin. Having heard him earlier speak to the young white woman who’s with him I’m guessing they are American. 

I steal a glance at his passport as he hands it over to the border patrol and my assumption is confirmed. But, in his case, the passport does not produce the same reaction as mine did. The officer looks at the passport and its holder several times and he frowns as he hands it back to him. I detect uncertainty and from that I assume that the young man must have a Middle Eastern name. I think how interesting it is that my name does not ring an alarm and wonder if that is because hereabouts the name Gita is assumed to be northern European or Jewish, and if that cancels out my decidedly Islamic last name – Hashemi, rooting back to the Prophet’s own tribe. Even my place of birth, Iran, clearly written on my passport, doesn’t seem to warrant a second look. I attribute that to my gender, age and visible white hair. I don’t fit into the terrorist profile. I remember that when I was renewing my passport I was given the option not to indicate my birthplace but given the warning that that might cause more questions and suspicions. Of course I chose to keep the birthplace on my passport, and not because blanking it might increase the likelihood of inconvenience at border crossings. I admit I keep it because it gives me a small subversive pleasure knowing what I know, which my passport does not show, that I too crossed a few borders “illegally” and lived without status for several years as one of the many under-paid menial workers whose labour, contrary to the right-wing propaganda, is actually quite essential in the economic system and the world order that produce the conditions that force people to leave their homeland. As the two German border patrols get off the bus, I hear a sigh of relief from my friend who is sitting behind me. Traveling with an Iranian passport, she does not assume safety. I think about my own conditioning again. I float in a sea of assumptions as thin as my passport.

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