What if this is literature?
Polity of Literature (44/45)

What if this is literature?

Having survived Moria refugee camp, Arash Hampay went to Athens to make soup for homeless people. Then he went to Hamburg and made more soup and an art exhibition. What if this is literature? We sent Chloe Ruthven to Germany to find out.

Common sense tells us that there is writing—the sequence of letters that adds up to words—and then there’s all of the other stuff: illustrations, delineations, the style of a font. Literature is the writing part, and not the rest. You can pull them apart. You can credit the writer for the words, the typographer for the font and layout, and the illustrator for the drawings. Looking for literature, common sense (and the word’s root: Latin, littera, or “letter”) tells us we must look for letters, the writing part—words put into a meaningful sequence. But common sense masks the fact that when we see “writing” we see much more than a sequence of letters. From the narrow intervening spaces that first pushed the individual letters apart, to the wider spaces that eventually grew between words, to the scattered mess of punctuations, to emptiness in the borders between paragraphs, to other coded marks, writing is comprised of all manner of mark-making (and the absence of markings). Writing is shaped by the tools we use to make it. As the tools changed—from incision to brush strokes to pressed metal type to pixels—writing has changed.

And now Emojis!  Is it any accident that as the work of writing gravitated from paper and ink to the bright, colourful realm of pixels on a screen, the work suddenly blossomed with an undergrowth of graphical cartoons that are half drawing and half writing? Or that our lines and paragraphs began to flow free of fixed margins, recomposing in novel shapes as the writing comes into view on this or that device or as the device is turned sideways in the hand? Today the writer does much more than choose a sequence of letters and then inscribe them in a line. The writer is a mark-maker still, but the markings she can choose, the materials of her composition, have evolved far beyond what, say, Gertrude Stein knew. The new tools we use for writing will birth a new literature.

With the proliferation of digital social media new virtuosos are emerging, extending the capacities of a dynamic medium deftly and to great effect. In social media, the future of literature is being composed by people like Arash Hampay who…

…or so the editor of this series said to the skeptical writer who took a trip across Europe to find out.


The editor asks me to go to Germany to meet a writer, a refugee from Iran. In 2018, while awaiting asylum, Arash Hampay created a soup kitchen and community for the homeless in Athens called Our House EU. Now he’s in Hamburg, Germany, feeding more soup to the homeless near the small apartment where he lives with his German wife and their newborn.

“He’s the most interesting writer I know,” the editor tells me.

I’ve never heard of Arash Hampay. “What’s he written?”

 “It’s all social media. I see him on Instagram and Twitter, but I think he uses Facebook, too.”

“But I don’t use social media,” I remind the editor.

“I don’t either, really. But I’m trying to learn.”

“Why don’t you hire him to write it?”

“He doesn’t want to write, not this way. He’s too busy.”

“Doing what?”

“Activism. But the way he uses writing and social media is so powerful. I want you to go meet him and tell me if he’s the future of literature.”

I’m an activist and filmmaker. Last year the editor published a diary I wrote when I worked in Athens with young refugees making a zine, Plaza Girls. I’m intrigued to go and meet Arash Hampay, not least because he made the infamous journey from the Middle East to Turkey to Lesvos and then to Athens, with which I’m familiar. It haunts me to this day. But The future of literature? Please. I’m not buying all this social media as the new filmmaking and literature stuff.

“Chloe? Are you there? The Skype keeps freezing up.”

“I’m here.”

“You know that I mean it in quotes, right—’future’ and ‘literature.'”

I do know. The editor’s web series is filled with essays about these terms. But I don’t really think of them in the same way that he does. “Explain.”

“Literature matters to me, new writing, and I never know where to find it. All I see is the mountains of published stuff, the prize winners; it’s all so narrow. It’s what someone taught us was ‘literature,’ and they sell it by the bushel.”

“You want the newest new writing?”

“Maybe, or not exactly. Arash’s writing moves me and it’s memorable. Just go find out how he does it. Literature should be this memorable and puzzling and powerful. Maybe we can learn from him.”

I’m not sure that I agree, but I’m interested. I say “yes, I’ll go meet Arash Hampay,” and mid-pandemic I set out to travel across Europe.

We live in dark, bewildering times. Something about the European Project has begun to crack. The ugly truth behind the values by which Europe has governed for the past 500 years is coming to light. We can’t keep deluding ourselves that we are the civilised and the enlightened in the face of environmental disaster and the elimination of the very people who might save us from the catastrophe we’re making. Europe can no longer hide the greed with which we’ve pursued expansion and self-interest at the expense of our fellow human beings and the natural world. The darkness of the European soul is laid bare. But at what point will the penny drop for Europeans? When we’ve gotten it so wrong for so long, are we even capable of listening to those who must be our guides?

I fly Ryanair from London and stay at a hostel near the address Arash gave me, in Hamburg’s close-in suburbs. He lives with his German wife, Tini, in a small apartment a fifteen-minute walk from the hostel. I turn up mid-afternoon on a rainy August day. Their baby, Fredo, has recently learned to crawl. Kurdish/Iranian friends have just arrived, too, refugees who are living in another part of Germany. The group is convivial, open, and I’m quickly included in the general welcome, sharing tea in the sitting room. English is our lingua franca. It’s a nice flat.

Arash, 36, is short and stocky with a thick beard. As a way of starting the conversation I ask Tini, six years younger, how they met. She lights up. In 2015, she was working with some refugees in Hamburg, “just helping out…because at that time, you understand, Merkel had opened the borders and so many were arriving in the city, and so many of us who had never really heard of refugees started to help out. Well, around this time I saw a post on Facebook, because Facebook was where everything was being shared.” In 2015, the influx of refugees into Europe, most of them Syrian, saturated social media and dominated the headlines. Tini saw a video of Arash speaking through a megaphone outside the gates of the Moria refugee camp, on Lesvos Island, Greece, beckoning the 6,000 refugees inside to march to the nearest town and protest. “We have nothing to lose,” he spoke into the mic. In response she posted “I’m with you,” but he never replied. She was intrigued. “Men don’t just go silent when a woman posts something like that,” she smiles.  He eventually got back to her and they started messaging, then FaceTiming. “She was in love with me,” says Arash. “And you?” I ask. He smiles at her.

Arash and I get talking. His English is good with a strong accent. I’m aware of being in the presence of a man who knows his mind and has a clear pathway between thought and articulation. He’s patient and leaves space around his words. “How are you finding Europe?” I ask. Our eyes meet and Arash smiles. I guess he’s reading the irony. Such a simple question, but so loaded.

“In Iran there were some people from our neighbourhood, friends of our family. They had been to Europe and they spoke so highly of it… Europe became in my mind a paradise. You know I thought that in Europe they recognised humans as humans. What I mean by humans is that they have basic rights. For example, freedom. They are free to move around, to travel, to choose which work they want to do, they are free to eat, they are free to drink, they are free to kiss, they are free to think what they want to. They are free. This is what I learned about Europe.” “And then, Moria,” I say, more as a statement than as a question. I’d been in the Moria camp too, in 2018, after Arash passed through on his way to Athens, and I knew its deplorable conditions firsthand. “It was the biggest shock of my life,” he confirms. “A complete paradox. Everything that I had learned and imagined was the opposite of what I experienced. For the first 28 days we weren’t allowed to leave the tent. We were held in quarantine. After that we couldn’t leave the camp. After two years you could leave the camp, but you couldn’t leave the island. So always we were prisoners. In Moria, from the day I arrived I was reminded of my time of being in prison and isolation in Iran, for being a protestor.”

I’m not sure if I’m ready to hear his prison and isolation story. I lose focus for a second or two and then catch myself. Why does the suffering of others evoke a feeling of irritation and restlessness? Is it because I don’t want my bubble world popped? Or is it the shame of not being able to understand, or being implicated in some way. “Rewind,” I say. “What led you to become a protestor? I mean, we aren’t just born activists and protestors. There must have been a reason?”

“I can explain. You know, the atmosphere in which I grew up was very beautiful. A very loving family. My mother and father they loved each other very much and I never saw any bad things in this relationship. We had a very normal life, a very lovely life. We were four brothers and my mama was very close to us. We had a nice house, a middle-class life, and then you have to imagine this 12-year-old child. Everything changed completely in one night. In one night they killed my father. My father was an ordinary shop keeper. He sold electrical goods. He was not political at all. He was against the regime as most people were. He’d chat to his clients about it. One of them was a government spy…And then after a few months they killed my biggest brother. And then my older brother goes to prison. The government occupied the house, they took money from my father’s bank accounts, and then we were made homeless. This is how it can happen in Iran. That is how protestors are born. Angry young men, against the system that killed their fathers.”

I’m back on board again. Arash wants to smoke and so we step outside. “I was 16 when they first arrested me at a protest. I was so scared because I thought they would kill me because I’d heard so much. The biggest fear was that my mama would be completely finished and that my small brother would suffer. I thought that without me my mama and baby brother would die. The first time they jailed me for two months. We got beaten and put in isolation, and then suddenly after two months, without court proceedings, they released me. And this pattern continued. Every few months I would be arrested, put in isolation, would get beaten and then they would release me. And as soon as I was released I’d go straight back to a demonstration, the same day, the hour I got out. The anger kept me going, with all its danger and risks. I just wanted to remove the system. The last time I was imprisoned for three years and I was held in isolation for six months. They even pulled out my teeth.” He strokes his back teeth with a forefinger. “One by one. These are all fake.” I’m taken back to the dentist scene in “Marathon Man,” and my stomach tightens in horror.

A couple of years back I had listened to many first-hand accounts of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. I’d been a teacher who had come up against the authorities in my own country, England, and feeling broken and lost I set off to Lesvos to see for myself this unfolding crisis, and to offer what I could as a teacher of English. I’ve listened to women and children explain what it’s like when their home is bombed, and you have no choice but to flee. As a teacher of “troubled children” in the UK, I heard stories of the domestic abuse and police brutality that children suffer in our country when born on the wrong side of the tracks. I’m a good listener and I understand empathy, however there is something about Arash’s words and the manner in which he holds himself that is reaching a place that is a bit rusty. His directness perhaps. His ability to understand me and where I come from, and to draw on that. He speaks from a place of a shared understanding of our common trajectories and wants as human beings and he appeals to my knowledge of the same.

While Arash speaks well it’s also clear that he doesn’t think of himself as a writer. He calls himself a photographer, and when I see the photos he’s showing in a travelling exhibition called “Why Borders?” it’s clear that this is his metier. His talent for photography might be more central to his impact on social media than his words; all those posts that caught the editor’s attention and made him think Arash was a writer.

Arash organized the “Why Borders?” exhibition by asking other refugees to share their work, assembling it as a portable exhibition, and then moving the show from city to city in Germany. Each new venue is also the site for events where the artists meet the public, which means refugees meeting non-refugees. I see that he’s included a young poet, Parwana Amiri, whose writing in English is very good, and I make a mental note to tell the editor that I’ve found a “real writer.” Arash says Parwana is still in Greece, waiting for her papers. She’s in the Ritsona Camp, after almost a year in Moria Camp, before it burned down.

“So back to Moria,” I prompt, moving Arash away from the gruesome memory of his time in Iranian prison. “What was it like to finally arrive?”

Arash is rolling another cigarette. “Moria is worse than anything I experienced in prison and isolation in Iran,” he says without hesitating. “Moria did something worse. In all my time in Iranian prison I did not break. I was a human fighting injustice. But here in Europe, they did something else…” Arash breaks off to tap something into his phone. He passes it to me. “You know this word?” he asks. It is Google Translate. Written on the cracked screen is the word Humiliation.

“You know this?” I nod and feel a chill spread through me. “I give you an example,” he continues. “Every day at camp 6,000 people have to line up three times a day for what everyone agrees is very bad food. 6,000 people in line, three times. Can you imagine? So for three hours three times a day you are lining up for this small amount of food. This did not happen to me in prison. In prison I was in isolation and they brought me food. They did not force me to line up with 6,000 people. This is extra humiliation. In Moria they could have made a better plan but they don’t want to. They want to humiliate us. So we understand that we are worthless. To line up for 9 hours a day for 100 grams of food with 6,000 people; you are being made to feel how poor you are, how nothing you are, you have to beg for the food, and you’re supposed to be grateful. This is begging. They didn’t offer us food. They made a system that in addition was designed to break us. This is what the European system does. They break us. And they show us with a smile, their humanitarian photographs, that they gave us food, and they break us.” The outlines of Arash’s activism began to come clear to me. “You know,” he explains, “I also share food, here in Hamburg, as an immigrant, with homeless people, but I don’t do it their way. I go to people one by one and I offer them food, and I ask them if they want to eat and they say yes and I bring the soup and we eat together. We have a conversation. I don’t make a queue for them. I don’t make this line for these European homeless people telling them that after they have lined up for all to see I will give them something.” Arash meets my eye as if to ask if I am understanding what he is saying. I nod. There is a poetry to the way he speaks made stronger by his accent and unusual use of English. It’s as if he is reclaiming my language to educate me in his voice. 

“I’ll give you another example they did in the camp. A mother with a three-month-old baby went to ask for some milk for the baby. And they said to her we don’t have milk for Afghan family, only for Syrian families. Babies don’t have nationalities or papers. They are just babies. So here they are doing an extra game to make a fight between the immigrants. You just have to feel that as a mother, when you go and ask for milk for your baby because the baby is hungry, and they don’t give it to you. They say no, this is not for you, this is for another nationality. For these reasons inside Moria camp I got very depressed and lost all hope to live. Europe broke this for me. Europe had been a symbol of freedom and justice and experiencing the reality broke me. After several months and not seeing a way out I took a razor blade and hacked my wrists to finish my life. I was then taken in an ambulance first to the hospital and then to psychiatric doctors in the camp. Soon after that they put me on anti-psychotic medicines that made me sleep and lose my ability to think and feel. Now I can see that this is another form of death. After 7 months I found some ability to think. I remembered through the fog that I had my part to play and here was another injustice, and I must do my part and not just lie around on these medicines. It was then that I chose not to be a poor human. I decided to fight for my humanity. One day, I said to myself, I don’t want to eat these medicines. I was on four very strong anti-psychotics a day and I just took the whole lot and threw them in the garbage. I could also see that this was part of the European system here. That when they see you are protesting against the governments they will just finish you. They will not kill you like they do in Iran, but they will take you and give you medicine so that you accept it and become just like them. So I came off them just like that and for a few days I was completely fucked up and then I found myself and I started to fight again. I started to make dialogue with all the immigrants and I woke them up as to what was happening to us. I told them that it must finish and we mustn’t accept it. I told them that they didn’t deserve this life and that we must fight for it. I told them they were strong. They believed that they were nothing, worthless. That they had no value because they were immigrants.”

“So this is around the time Tini saw you on Facebook with your megaphone outside the razor wire fence of Moria?” I ask.

“Yes. I started to fight again. But this time it was a different fight. This time it was for solidarity. I started to feel solidarity with others because I was not the only one who tried to kill himself. Every day this is happening in Moria. I felt solidarity with all the people who tried to kill themselves, with all the people who were struggling with the injustices, with all the people who were experiencing shock and hopelessness, so I was not alone, we were one society, and we were strong. At first we believed we were nothing in Europe because this is not our country, we believed we don’t have a right to ask for our rights. I explained to them that we have enough power and strength because we are the people. I had meetings inside the camp and every day I was telling the migrants to wake up. They were frightened and said they were scared of losing everything and I replied, ‘What is this everything? What do you have? One tent? What do you have, what do you have to lose?’ The Europeans were making us think that if we were political we would lose everything, but I said, ‘What is it you have? One tent, and a line of 6,000 people for 100 grams of fucking food. That is it. That’s all you have. You’ll just lose this. But you won’t lose this if we stand altogether and have solidarity. If we come together, if we believe ourselves, if we believe the power of the people, how we can be more powerful if we come together in solidarity to fight for our rights. I know I have some rights and you know you have some rights.’ And I told them, ‘We are 6,000 people here. There are 6,000 of us, so we don’t have to commit violence. We don’t have to be aggressive. We can just be very peaceful. All 6,000 of us, we can just go inside the city and we just sit in the square. Just for three days. All of us, we go outside the camp, sit down in the street and say ‘We won’t go back to Moria. We want to go to Athens.’” It’s getting late and we agree to meet the next morning. I want to see the work he’s doing in Hamburg. Fredo is having his tea, and Tini is cooking pasta for the guests. I walk back in the rain.

That evening, back in my hostel I reflect on Arash’s use of the word solidarity. Can Europeans even understand what is meant by solidarity? Solidarity surely involves stripping ourselves of all the power obstacles, both current and historical, and meeting the other person as a fellow human being who needs our support in their struggle. Europeans, I fear, do not and cannot understand the meaning of solidarity.  

My mind jumps to power structures, and I think of my boss, the editor. I realize I have completely failed in my assignment to ascertain whether Arash was “the future of literature.” The word never came up, not even close. Clearly language is Arash’s strength, language and being able to communicate truths that most of us would rather not see. I’d even go so far as saying that he has a quality called “leadership,” which I don’t think he’s even aware of, an inborn ability to inspire others, in the tradition of Gandhi or Malcolm X.

I reread some of the editor’s emails to me. In one he describes Arash’s “writing” in this way: “he composes a language-based representation of the world by his skill deploying both words and pictures, video, over social media platforms. It’s like finding the first sloganeers and pamphleteers after Gutenberg, the geniuses who knew how to adapt language so that it thrived and gained power with the new technologies.” The editor believes that “literature” is a political space, a shared ground of writing and reading, and that its qualities and value don’t lie in any appeal to our tastes but in its ability to thrive as a polity, a space of agency for all. “The future of literature” that the editor asked me to find isn’t next year’s literary prize-winners: it’s this year’s noisy, chaotic, heterogeneous discourse: the place where everyone speaks and everyone listens. That’s what the editor thinks, I note, as I try and organize my own thoughts.

What about my relationship to all of this, as the artist and activist asked to write this piece? I barely read literature these days. I can’t find the answers I am looking for to the current global chaos in literature. I find myself increasingly turning to the writings of radicals and revolutionaries. Those individuals who have employed language to question existing power structures, and whose words reach people, the people, way beyond the elitist literary and academic circles I grew up with. I’m interested in the writings of those who come from the bottom, ‘the oppressed,’ because only from them can we as the perpetrators learn. This is what Arash offers me. He uses language as a beautifully sharpened sword to cut through all the extraneous words that so often populate and pollute mainstream literature—and that’s just in my language, English. His mother tongue is Farsi, and now he must also learn German. The words he chooses come from the life he is living. If Arash is a great writer, as my editor wants me to ascertain, it’s because he composes by living—he finds his words by moving through the world with eyes wide open. This is the key. His use of language and his actions are bound at their core. He doesn’t act without words. He doesn’t speak without action. He is the living example of combining Theory and Praxis. I resolve to bring up the question of “composing” in social media in our next day’s conversation, whether as literature or as a revolutionary manifesto.

The following morning Arash wants to show me the work he’s doing in Hamburg. We take the underground to Altona station where he tells me many of the city’s homeless routinely gather, and without a hitch we start where we left off the evening before: Arash’s call to the refugees in Moria to simply leave the camp and move into the town. “And how did everyone respond to you speaking that way?” I ask.

“I could see them change. Not all of them, but many grew in strength. They had crossed ten borders, on foot, paid thousands of dollars to flee their countries. They didn’t do all of this to live in a tent and line up all day. Here is not Afghanistan or Iran. You will not get killed here because they don’t allow that here. We are always afraid of this because we grew up with being killed for protests, but I told the others that here in Europe they will not because the people in Europe they fought for a hundred years to have the right to protest. So the first day 400 people came, with their bags, children, and a banner and we sat in the square in Mitiline [the town nearest to Moria Camp]. It was then that I posted on Facebook for the first time. More and more people were reposting this, in Farsi and in English. The word started to spread outside of the fence of Moria. It reached Iran, Afghanistan, Spain, Germany, and all over Europe. Messages of support started coming in, and I grew in strength. It was then that I realised the power of social media to reach the people.”

“Do you have a strategy, a way that you compose using the different platforms?” Mentally I give myself a big high-five, the competent reporter at last.

Arash is quiet, looking perplexed. “Which social media do I like?” he rephrases back to me.

“Yes…How do you choose?”

“It was all Facebook to begin with. I just use whatever everyone’s using, whatever has accounts for free and supports multiple languages.”

“Like an orchestra,” I try, guessing what the editor might say. “You compose by drawing on the capacities and ranges of each section of the orchestra, some percussive Twitter marshalling the big emotional coloratura of Instagram all pointing toward a conclusive manifesto posted on Facebook.” It ends as a statement, though I meant it as a question. “Like that?” I add.

Arash is just smiling, obviously confused by my words as well as my imagery. “I don’t know,” he says. “I do a lot of Instagram now, three or four different accounts. And Facebook is still the big numbers, but that’s almost all on my one original account. Twitter is weird. I don’t get it, but I use it.” He looks at me sympathetically, clearly hoping he answered whatever motivated my bizarre question. “You must be very expert at social media,” he adds, sounding like it’s a pity.

“No, actually. I don’t use any social media.” We both smile, and I make a mental note to send the editor as many links as I can find to the writing of Parwana Amiri.

“So, what happened when the group got to Mitiline? How did the European officials respond?”

“They started playing their games again. Good police, bad police. First someone was sent to talk to us from the camp. A UNHCR spokesman.  Yes, they said, now we understand. You are right. Just come back to Moria tonight and we will register all your names and we will send you to Athens within a week. But I said to everyone, we shouldn’t believe him. If they really want to send us to Athens they can register us here.  I told the UNHCR man, if it takes one week to process us we will stay here, do our registration and then we will go. I knew that we shouldn’t go back because if we went back we wouldn’t have this power. We would become separated. They can fuck with us if we are separated. They can fine us and imprison us. Now if we go back to Moria it is more dangerous than before because we have protested and they can target us. I knew too that if we were seen to have made trouble, they could deport us in their silent and secret way. But unfortunately with all my protestations, many immigrants didn’t believe me and believed the officials and so many of them left to go back into the camp. Only 35 people stayed. They asked if I would stand with them and I said please, of course, I will stand with you. We ended up staying 68 days in the street. The police beat us, and tipped off fascists who also attacked us. I found solidarity groups, volunteers, who found us food and tents and we stayed our ground. After 68 days we occupied the government office in the city centre. We repeated the same mantra to them. We will not move until you let us go to Athens. And we won. Us 35 people, we got our blue stamps and were allowed to leave Moria and go to Athens. But the other people, I have heard that many of them were deported back to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. And those that didn’t get deported spent one or two more years in Moria.”

“And this helped you find your voice and purpose again?’

“Yes. In Europe it was the first time I had been made to feel like a poor human. I had never felt that before. I don’t want to be a poor human. I don’t want to be in this character, be in this role. Be humiliated. Because humans are not poor. It brought shame for me and on me. But humans shouldn’t feel this shame. Being put on these medicines to ‘calm’ you, and to kill your human side.” But when he got to Athens another shock was in store. “When I arrived in Athens I saw a different hell. Here I saw the homeless. It was destitution, not imprisonment. And the shock on top of that was seeing women and babies homeless. And furthermore, the women were getting raped every day in the street and no one cared. When I saw all of this I changed my activist side from protesting to standing with the homeless, giving them help. In Lesvos we had our own struggle, a fight to allow us to leave the camp and go to Athens, but in Athens it was different. Everyone was homeless on the streets, a whole new horror. I can explain the difference. On Lesvos, when you arrive you’re registered and given a small allowance to live on. Everyone in the camp has this, but you are incarcerated, either inside the camp or, after a year or so, on the island. When you arrive in Athens they don’t register you when you go to the asylum service. What they do here is tell you when you can phone the offices to make an appointment, and when they give you an appointment they will be able to register you. This European system of automation and bureaucracy. But, if you are Iranian for instance you are given an hour a week when you are able to do this, to call to make an appointment. So if there are between five- and ten-thousand Iranian immigrants only 30 or 40 can actually register during this one hour. The rest are just left destitute. It is a different form of humiliation. You are in a city without friends and family. You cannot get medicine or social support. And they don’t allow you to work, either. So people didn’t have any choice. Woman were having to sell themselves for someone. Sexual things so they can feed their babies. And others who don’t chose that, when they sleep in the street they get raped.”

“So you shifted from protest to humanitarian solidarity?” I ask.

“Not humanitarian. This word is corrupted for me. Solidarity with people who were outside the system. At first I was thinking ‘What can I do?’ because I am also an immigrant in this situation, and I have no power either, no money and no papers. Then I thought, I will just do my part. Always, I am thinking ‘just do your part.’ My part at that time was helped by my selling photographs that I had taken in Moria to European volunteers, for 5 euro, 10 euro, 20 euro, whatever people would pay, and with that money I was able to buy a lot of food. Then I wrote a simple post on Facebook: “Tomorrow I will share food at 8pm, Omonia Square. If you want to come, eat, share, then please come and join. It was my first post in Athens. My idea was simple. We can meet each other there. As activists. As Immigrants. As homeless. Even just to meet and talk to one another. I said it in English and Farsi. I made it a hashtag.  Hundreds started following me on Facebook, but I also told the immigrants that every day we meet here at 8pm and the word spread. So we all gathered in Omonia over food, conversation and music; and it was much more. The food was only the material around which these people felt fully human at this time. People would tell me that no one had even said hello to them. Can you imagine how broken that makes you feel? How alone that makes you feel as a human in a city of 1 million people? Every day we wrote reports on Facebook. And then people saw it from other European countries, and they came and started donating money and sleeping bags for example. And then others came, an immigrant who had been a barber for instance and we asked them if they would like to do this or do that, and so they did, and some people were able to pay them something, and this way a community grew. Another person had been a teacher in Afghanistan so they started to give classes. After a month we were serving 200 meals a day and everyone shared. A daily community was starting. When we are together we can make the biggest change for people, we become strong humans, in solidarity, and like that we are stronger than the system and the government. We know our rights and what we want to fight for. We know our purpose.”

The doors of the underground open and we step off, ascending the stairs to Altona. We find a small table in the sun, opposite a group of homeless men, lying around on mats and cardboard, a few metres from us. Several bottles of empty liquor give away their state. “These guys are from Poland,” says Arash. We sit and drink our coffees. “You know,” he continues, “Hamburg is one of the richest cities in the whole of Europe. I was shocked that there were homeless here, because it’s so rich. In my opinion it’s a great shame on this government and the people of Hamburg that there should be any homeless. Last winter for instance 13 homeless people died. 13 died in cold weather. Some from Germany, Poland, from everywhere. If I was a Hamburger it would break me that in this rich city 13 people, 13 humans, died because they lacked shelter…As an immigrant who arrived here I want to play my part, play a role, I want to be accepted and to take responsibility here—but I knew also that I don’t have any power. I am at the bottom. Still, I can play my part. So I thought I can cook soup, Iranian soup, in my home, and bring it out and give people soup. So I wrote on Facebook: “Hello, hello Hamburg, I am here now and am so happy to be in your city. I hope you will accept me. I love your city, I love you all and I want to take responsibility for myself and do my part for solidarity so I am going to make Iranian soup—Reshta—and take it out to share. Please come and join me if you would like. We can do this together if you want, but I will be doing this.” I got so many messages back from people wanting to support this simple action. In a week I got 700 messages, and new friends from all over: Hamburg, Europe, Syria, Afghanistan. We started a big Facebook group so that we could communicate simply. We made soup and took it to areas where there were homeless. We came here to Altona. I know these guys. When they wake up from drinking they need healthy soup. I came here and we sat together and drank soup and started chatting, over soup and bread.”

“Do they ask you for money, or for more help?”

“Sometimes, and we give what we can. For instance, when people needed sleeping bags or clothes we posted messages on the Facebook group and others would reply and bring things. It was just a simple way of doing things between us, neighbours caring for neighbours. It’s how I am also in my home. I see outside the window a man or woman and I can see that he or she is hungry or cold with no jacket. I can take soup from my fridge and go out and give it to her. This is how action works.”

“And that’s how you became famous here?” I ask.

“Yes, through the social media posts. But getting famous became a problem. Let me explain. In the first month the biggest TV channel came to make a documentary about us. Then other NGOs and organisations saw this, and they got jealous. They’ve worked here for years and now this newcomer has jumped in front. One woman from one of these organisations took me aside and said, ‘look, Arash, I’m not like this, but I want to explain to you honestly what is going on. You are an immigrant, and you come here for just one month, and you did this and you got very famous and you have hundreds of followers. Everyday you do two shifts in two stations and give out hundreds of meals but these organisations have been here for 10 or 20 years and they have reputations.”

“You were a threat to them?”

“It was like the mafia. NGO Mafia. They told me that I can participate but only with their organisations. But that’s not what I do. ‘Not because I don’t respect you,’ I told them, ‘I respect you for what you do for the homeless, but our idea is different from yours. That is all.’ I hope they understand.”

“What’s the difference in the way that you operate?” I ask.

“The NGO will say ‘our organisation can give you 1000 sleeping bags’ but I tell them that we don’t have space to store 1000 sleeping bags. We’re just people living in small houses. Our idea is we share what we have from our houses, we share it with the people who don’t have houses. Not more than this. It is about sharing. When someone needs a sleeping bag we don’t go to an NGO, but we go to a neighbour and ask and then they give it to that person. So we don’t need big organisations. The NGOs just want to show they are the ‘mother’ of our action. That they are the umbrella. But we don’t want that. And it’s not because we don’t admire them and respect their ideas. Of course we do. But we have different ways to reach the same goal. And we can work alongside NGOs. Our goal is to be good neighbours, to never leave anyone out. But they didn’t accept this. They want me to volunteer to work for them! But, I want to say, ‘why do you have this mind-set whereby always immigrants have to be your volunteer? Why don’t you come to OurHouse Soup and be our volunteer?’ In Hamburg there are many organisations working with NGOs. It’s a bourgeois atmosphere. They like feeling generous. If I’m an immigrant in Greece, they send me jackets, they send donations. More money and more donations come from Hamburg than anywhere else. But they only feel good when they are in charge of helping. This is the paradox that you cannot see about yourself.”

As we sit talking one of the Polish men staggers to a neighbouring tree to urinate. His back is to us and he sways unsteadily, trying to focus. Families and Saturday shoppers pass by unperturbed, as if he is invisible, this young man peeing in a central Hamburg square in full daylight. I however am transfixed. Whether the poor man will be able to finish, when his legs are barely able to prop him up, is an open question. It seems as if the peeing goes on forever. Gallons of the stuff, liquid waste from last night’s copious drinking. He just about manages, and zips himself up before turning and staggering back in our direction to reach his makeshift cardboard mat. He has a young face, and is handsome. He is the same age as my youngest son, I think. As he approaches us, his legs give way, and there’s an almighty crack as his skull hits the ground, barely a foot away from us. He rolls over and passes out. Soon an ambulance pulls up, and we tell the medics that he might have hurt himself falling. The medic replies, “They’re just drunk. This is just the way they are. Nothing we can do.” The medic shouts at the man on the ground, and when he slurs incomprehensibly the medic looks at me. “Like, I told you, they’re just drunk.” And of course I can see this. I walk past countless homeless people on my high street in London. I have a narrative running in my head as I walk: No point in giving you anything because I know youll just blow it on drugs. Besides Im feeling skint myself. How the hell did you get into such a state anyways? Where is your pride and dignity? How could you let the world see you like this. I dont think you are really a beggar. I think in some way you have chosen this way of life. Anyways, I do more than the next person. I at least volunteer in my community. Someone else can pick this one up. Someone with a job who does little. Im on benefits myself. I know Im not a bad person. I gave a fiver to that woman last week. Fuck it. He wont remember me. Ill just walk past this one. This is the narrative looping inside my head so that I can bear seeing a homeless person. So, is this what Arash is asking me to look at? That all of Europe, “the West,” is as guilty of dehumanizing as are the bourgeois givers of Hamburg?

That evening I get back to my hostel to pack for departure. I’m certain that I’ve failed to complete the editor’s assignment. I haven’t found the “future of literature.” At least not in Arash Hampay. Emailing the editor a zip file of Arash’s photographs, I include the links to Parwana Amiri and promise him that I’ll deliver my best draft within the week. I’ve got that time available to me in a remote part of Normandy. I write during the long train journey from Hamburg to the north of France, where I’ll spend time with my aging parents. It’s a lovely, quiet visit and by Friday I’m sending the editor my first draft. We catch up on Skype.

“Your draft is wonderful,” he tells me. “Arash is so compelling. But what about the future of literature?”

“It didn’t come up, I mean despite trying. You read the draft.” The editor’s silence tells me that I haven’t answered his question. “Isn’t that Parwana Amiri remarkable,” I try diverting.

“Yes, completely.” He sounds sincere. “I found the blog totally compelling; I just read right through, what…twenty or thirty pieces?”

“I see a lot of these blogs that tail off, but she’s posting significant work, twice a month or more, for two years now.”

“That’s true. And while going through Moria and Ritsona, not to mention getting there in the first place.”

“The poems in the exhibition were lovely, very recognizably hers,” I prompt.

He agrees but his mind is elsewhere. “Did you read that fable? Chopping wood to survive at Moria. Amazing. And those reports, just the relentlessness of it.”

“So, is this the future of literature?” I quote the editor’s question back at him.

Even with the video turned off I can hear him frown. “Right, I get it. Arash is a photographer. I read that in your draft.”

“Right.”

“But Parwana Amiri.”

“She’s a real writer.”

“Her work’s great.”

“You should publish it.”

“Yes, but I don’t want to drop the Arash piece.”

“No, nor do I.”

“He’s so compelling.”

“And those photographs.”

“I think I have an idea…”

What if this is literature?

Recent work by Parwana Amiri

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Chloe divides her time between her own filmmaking/writing practice, political activism and frontline teaching; running critical thinking programmes for at risk and marginalised young people. She is a director and co-founder of Otherfield Film Festival, and her work has been shown in international film festivals, including IDFA, Sheffield Documentary Festival and London Film Festival.

Photographs by

Arash Hampay is an activist and photographer from Iran, now based in Hamburg, Germany. He is the founder of OurHouse Community, a help centre and mutual aid project in Athens, Greece, and OurHouse Soup, in Hamburg and elsewhere, making and sharing soup with others. He also organized the travelling art exhibition “Why Borders?” (currently showing in Hildesheim, Germany).

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