"People with dark hair always have to go the extra mile"

Journalist Michel Abdollahi was born in Tehran in 1981 and moved to Hamburg in 1986. His big breakthrough came with his television documentaries on social issues such as integration, racism and right-wing populism. He spoke to Qantara.de about his book "Deutschland schafft mich!" (Done away with by Germany – What happened when I found out I wasn't German after all)

By Schayan Riaz

Mr Abdollahi, in the media and in PR texts, you are often described as a "super model migrant". I find that a bit strange ...

Yes, it is strange. I struggle with that description. I mean, what is a "super model migrant"? Does that mean I eat traditional Bavarian sausages and sing along to Schlager music? Does that make me integrated? I am integrated when I believe in the system here in Germany. And even if I don't believe in the system, it should be enough that I abide by Germany's laws. It should make absolutely no difference what language I speak, what food I eat, what music I listen to and to whom I pray, as long as I enjoy working here, pay my taxes, and am part of society. But no, people with dark hair always have to go the extra mile. We have to be western. But what is "being western" anyway, and why is it worth aspiring to? Why isn't it worth aspiring to be "eastern"?

The issue of integration has been part of your life since your childhood, since you moved to Germany from Iran. What are your memories of that period of your life?

It is not as if I constantly experienced hostility. I had a wonderful childhood, a wonderful time at school, wonderful teachers and wonderful friends. But of course there were always a few people who showed me that I wasn't welcome here. Although there weren't very many such incidents, there were apparently enough of them to remain lodged in my memory. And I ask myself, why are those memories so vivid? Why don't I tend to remember the nicer things more? For example, during a geography lesson, a teacher once said to me that he had contacts in Amnesty International if I ever needed help. I just said "thank you", but to this day, my friends and I still talk about it, because we just found it so incredible at the time. What kind of help did he think I would need from Amnesty International?

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This kind of everyday racism is still very prevalent in our society. Has nothing changed over time?

I am very happy to be Iranian, very happy to be a Muslim, very happy to be German. I am very happy to be all these things and it enriches my life. It enriches society. But apparently, it's not enough. If a politician is very well integrated and people then say that the country is not ready for a Federal Chancellor with a migrant background, then that's racism. When predominantly Green or left-wing voters in beautifully gentrified parts of a city look carefully to see whether there are enough Paulas and Alexanders in the local playschool rather than Murats or Ozgurs, that's racism too. Ali has a harder time than Alexander finding a flat. That's the reality.

We are experiencing an alarming lurch to the right in Germany, which you describe in detail in your book "Deutschland schafft mich". As a person with a migrant background myself, should I be worried about my future?

My aim is not to show that the lurch to the right only affects people with black hair or Muslims, but that it also affects people who are just standing up for what they believe in. There are numerous examples of violence against people who don't have any kind of migrant background at all. I tried to write all of this down in detail. But to get back to your question: five years ago, I didn't have the impression that people in Germany were worried about their health and their future. Now, however, many people seem to be just that. I find that quite astonishing.

What can be done to change that?

I've stopped looking for a solution. The problem would first have to affect 100% of the population for the state to intervene. When it does, then swift action is taken. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that. But if something only affects 25% of the population, then everything takes so much longer. Walter Lubcke (a German Christian Democrat politician – ed.) was assassinated in mid-2019. It is now the middle of 2020 and in the intervening period, there have been attacks in Halle and Hanau. People have been killed. But it doesn't really seem to concern people. Nothing has changed since the days before Hanau or Halle. Until the next attack happens, we'll act like we have everything under control. This is the narrative of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who said that Halle was a warning sign. Life is so much easier when we use terms like "warning sign" or "isolated case".

In an open letter to Angela Merkel, which you published on Facebook in September 2018, you outlined your concerns and fears relating to racism, xenophobia and right-wing populism. Was there any reaction from the Federal Government?

No, there was no response whatsoever. But that's okay in this case. After all, the purpose of an open letter is to wake up society. This is why I printed in my book the responses I did receive, to show what kind of ambivalent reactions I got. I wrote about my worries, and people wrote back, telling me that it was all nonsense; that they are more afraid than I am. When it comes to migrants' worries, a lot of people feel personally attacked. Then they sit down and write me endless letters, trying to pick holes in my arguments. But that's not what it was about. If someone made a fennel salad for me although I don't eat fennel, and I then tell that person that I don't like fennel, that person is not going to respond by saying "Well, I don't like aubergines".

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Do you really read every single response you receive?

That's part of being a journalist. It's research. I'm getting a direct response; I've got information right at my fingertips. There are, for example, people who quote the Koran to me, and then I think "Oh God, here we go again." Then they tell me that we Muslims want to kill all infidels. People send me different sura. But the issue is so complex that even devout Muslims have to seek advice from various religious authorities to get an answer to their questions. And even then, the religious authorities don't always agree with each other. But these armchair analysts think they can analyse the Koran better than any religious authority.

You take it all with a good dose of humour. Indeed, humour seems to be an important tool for you, both in your book and in your journalistic documentaries.

There are journalists who are deadly serious all the time. Humour in certain situations does me good. The world is not all dreadful and bad, and you need something to make you smile. But I would like to make it absolutely clear at this point that since the attack in Hanau, we cannot approach everything with humour and satire alone. That just doesn't work. How can you approach the death of nine people with humour and satire? How can you square that circle artistically? The answer is that you can't. This is a matter for the public prosecutor, for the government, for the police. And if they don't want to react, then humour and satire are of no use at all. Then I have to use the tools provided by democracy. I cannot create an artistic installation. We have to make sure that something like this does not happen again.

Interview conducted by Schayan Riaz

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan