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Iranians in Hamburg
by Becky Tan

Hamburg is home to the second largest group of ex-pat Iranians in Europe. Only London has more. Many upper-class Iranians fled the country in 1979 during the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. Many chose Hamburg because of a prior Hamburg connection, e.g., relatives already here, or commerce, especially the carpet trade. 

Hamburg, and Germany in general, is exceptionally welcoming to Iranian film directors. Last year festival director Albert Wiederspiel and his staff wore green scarves during the festival to commemorate the latest Iranian political upheaval. The final film in 2009 was No One Knows About Persian Cats by Bahman Ghobadi. The Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein (a financial aid for film-makers) has helped finance Iranian films made in Germany, such as recently Persepolis, Kick in Iran (which showed at the Sundance festival this year), and Cool Water which is coming out next year. This year’s Berlinale sponsored a special discussion with four Iranian directors and showed their films during the festival. Concurrent to the Filmfest a World Editors’ Forum in Hamburg gave the “Golden Feather of Freedom 2010” to Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

The 2010 Filmfest was no exception. Iranian director Ali Samadi Ahadi showed The Green Wave. He is well loved for his comedy Salami Aleikum about Iranians who confront German culture in a small town after the son falls in love with an Amazonian blond. The Green Wave is no comedy; it is based on 60 hours of material or 1500 pages of blogs, emails, twitters, etc., which people wrote to each other about the tragic situation during the Iranian election in June 2009. At that time, just saying, “Where is my ballot?” could get a potential voter tossed into jail for an uncertain fate. More than once, commentators called the demonstrations and repercussions “not a wave, but a tidal wave.” Because names and faces must remain anonymous, artists interpreted the events in cartoons. The film reminded me of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, also about life in Iran, also in cartoon form. Once again young Iranians provided green scarves for prominent guests to wear at the premiere in Cinemaxx.

After the film, approximately 100 fans adjourned to the nearby Baseler Hof Hotel conference room for a discussion with director Ahadi, actress Pegah Ferydoni (appeared in Women Without Men, very successful at the 2009 Venice film festival), producer Jan Krüger, Omid Mouripour (member of the German Green political party and representative in the German Bundestag), and Benush Najibi (human rights activist in Hamburg).  Most impressive was the number of young adult Iranians who spoke perfect German. They obviously came to Hamburg as children in the early ‘80s, with or without their parents, attended Hamburg schools and stayed, as did director Ahadi in 1985 at age 13. They are young, very good looking, upper class, intelligent and extremely patriotic in spite of being the second generation in Hamburg. I doubt that my two children who grew up Chinese-American would wave patriotic flags, much less work diligently for freedom for either of their parents’ home countries.

During the discussion it was mentioned that Iranian women demonstrate silently in Mönckebergstrasse every Saturday. Hamburg hot spots for controversy are the famous Imam Ali Mosque on the Alster, the European-Iranian Bank, and the Hamburg Iranian consulate. The participants said that journalists should report more often about Iran. Others thought that journalists are dependent on their editors who repress news. The beautiful, young, on-going female lawyer sitting next to me suggested that Germany should at least help the elite of Iran to immigrate to this country. This politically incorrect statement earned some boos, but she was right in one respect. Currently, there is a discussion about whether immigrants adjust to living in Germany, or remain troublesome outsiders. In an article from the Springer press, it was noted that in the 1980s the Iranian immigrants came from prosperous, well-educated families. It was stated that other nationalities came only to make enough money to return to their countries. In retrospect, of those who remain, one can ask: who is well adjusted and who makes headlines for acts of violence, non-adjustment, and failure to learn German, finish school and get a job? 

During this interesting discussion, I wondered how many of those present fear repercussions. How many have visited Iran recently? How many may never go back? Thus far, my favourite report on Iran is still Things I’ve Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi, who also wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran.