A New City on the Waterfront

After almost three decades I revisited the Speicherstadt recently. This warehouse district in the middle of Hamburg has changed beyond recognition. Freihafen, as it was then known, is now called HafenCity. It is a brand new city being built within the perimeter of an old one. There are a lot of new buildings under construction and I saw so many free-standing cranes in one block that for a moment I thought I had reached Dubai. 

I flew to Hamburg from Heathrow. The mid-term school holidays had already come to an end and the airport wasn’t too busy. Two years ago most of the aircraft in the world were grounded because of the pandemic and now many airlines and airports are grappling with a shortage of staff. These days, at the hotel where I work, I meet more guests than usual whose bags have been lost by the airlines. I travelled to Hamburg to meet a friend, Sami, who had flown there a week earlier from Florida. He too had lost his suitcase while travelling from America to Germany. 

When Sami came to the airport to meet me he enquired about his lost luggage at the counter. He was escorted to a large room that was full of lost luggage and couldn’t believe his luck when he found his own luggage among the rows of suitcases. It thus proved doubly worthwhile for him to have travelled to the airport that morning. He doubted that the airline would have delivered his suitcase for many more days because they were short of staff.

Sami handed me a ticket he had purchased for 9 euros and told me it was valid for a month for unlimited travel not only in Hamburg but throughout Germany. I thought he was pulling my leg. But he explained that the German government was trying to cushion rising fuel and living costs by offering train tickets at a giveaway price, the offer being valid for three months. Public transport in Hamburg still runs on an honesty system as there are no ticket barriers to pass in order to reach the platforms and you are only required to carry a valid ticket for your journey. It seemed incredible because in London you have to go through barriers when travelling, whether by Underground or Overground. 

I had caught an early morning flight from Heathrow to Hamburg and the cab ride to the airport had cost me roughly the same as the London-Hamburg airfare. I had booked accommodation in a hotel near Lake Alster. In fact, there are two Alsters – inner and outer – joined by a bridge. When I lived in Hamburg in the 1990s, I didn’t know that in the mid-17th Century, the residents of this town paraded their daughters along the lake boulevard to get them married, thus endowing it with the name ‘Jungfernstieg’, which means ‘the path of the maidens’. Incidentally, it is still customary in Kashmir to escort an unmarried woman in a garden on the shore of Lake Dal near Hazratbal to meet her prospective husband or his family for the first time. 

When I lived in Hamburg, I often visited Freihafen to see friends who had offices there. They stocked oriental rugs in big warehouses built a century earlier. When leaving Freihafen by car in those days, you had to drive through a customs post and open the boot for the officers to check that no merchandise from bonded warehouses left the free port without payment of duty. There was always a strong aroma of coffee hanging in the air and you intermittently heard the rattling sound of car tyres on the city’s cobbled streets.

I looked up the address of Tamim, a friend who ran an oriental rugs showroom just outside the Freihafen but was now operating his business from a warehouse in HafenCity. I found his door number and walked in to meet again my long-lost friend. When you enter a warehouse in the old Speicherstadt, you hear the long peal of an electric bell that alerts a business owner that he has a visitor. It had been a while since we last met and at first I mistook him for his older brother. Tamim called his son, Jakob, who sat in the office next door, to introduce him to me and pointed to a tray made of papier-mâché on display in his office with his business logo hand-painted by an artist in Kashmir. He told Jakob that I was the person who had given it to him. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Kashmiri product still on display after more than 30 years: it had originally been made for me by a white-haired artisan in Srinagar.

Tamim told me that only 20 out of 400 oriental rug dealers have survived in HafenCity. I calculated that he must have been doing something right to have survived in a business in which the survival rate is 1 in 20. He has been in this trade for more than four decades. There was a boom in the oriental rug trade in Hamburg in the 1980s when container-loads of hand-knotted rugs arrived here from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The oriental rug trade faced competition from the machine-made rugs produced in Belgian factories during the 1990s. There was a slump in demand as minimalist home decor became fashionable. The Nepalese manufacturers of the rugs had adopted modern abstract designs and these rugs became all the rage in the early 1990s. I had accompanied Tamim from New Delhi to Kathmandu where a crusty manufacturer had spoken to him in German, asserting that time was money, implying that other clients were queuing for his merchandise.

I knew a few wholesalers of the oriental rugs who rented big warehouses in Freihafen in the 1990s but were financially in dire straits and borrowed money from others for their businesses to remain afloat. My friend, Sami, was reluctant to run his father’s business because several other

merchants owed his father money and it was quite a performance to get it back from them. He chose to work for a hotel in Hamburg instead.

I asked Tamim about a rug wholesaler from Lahore who had rented a warehouse in Freihafen in those days. He said it took a lot of patience to survive in the oriental rug trade in Hamburg, which is why only a handful of Afghan and Iranian businessmen are still in business in HafenCity. Some of the big rugs in Tamim’s warehouse are made of silk and worth more than 30,000 euros each, and yet he has to stock them for years before someone would actually buy them from him. The timing is always important in the successful running of his business. Tamim had seen quite a few booms and downturns in the last 40 years. 

Tamim brought for me from the kitchen a kettle of Afghan-style tea. When I lived in Hamburg, I had become addicted to Afghan tea to such an extent that when I returned to Kashmir I shunned the white tea that was drunk at my home. Kashmiris add milk generously to their teas and serve one kind with sugar and another with salt. I even bought a tall cup when I returned to Srinagar just to be able to enjoy a large cuppa.

Jakob came over to his father’s office again to have a chat with me. Tamim told me that his son was focusing on the online business and it had given him a reason for optimism because the oriental rugs trade is otherwise in decline. Jakob said that he was trying to create an online marketplace for the buying and selling of oriental rugs in Europe rather than pursuing a hybrid offline-online business model. 

‘You always tend to play a catch-up game with the big players in the online world’, he said. He had studied informatics, the study of computational systems, before joining his father’s business. He understood the significance of size in the online business world that gives leverage to a business. Otherwise, the winner takes all. Countless others never make it in the online business world and their stories are all but forgotten. Jakob said that it was an uphill task to bring an age-old trade into the new millennium by creating an online marketplace just for hand-knotted rugs.

Before I could take my leave, Tamim offered to accompany me on a walking tour of HafenCity, which is due to be completed in 2025. The newly-built citadel on the edge of the river Elbe looked calm except for an agitated dog whose barks resounded among the glass buildings. Tamim told me it was good for the old Speicherstadt to get a new lease of life by turning it into HafenCity. In fact, the old warehouses have now been given the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. 

When these red-brick warehouses were built more than a century ago, thousands of residents were moved from the area. And now thousands of people have moved into this neighbourhood to create a new community. You can already see a thriving cultural scene as the new residents sit around the tables outside the cafes for a Kaffee-klatsch. The planners of HafenCity wanted to get the balance right by trying to attract young and old alike to this regenerated part of the old Hamburg. A new university has been built which focuses on architecture and urban planning. Tamim told me that sometimes one of these new residents would drift into his warehouse and buy a rug for their flat in HafenCity.

The next day, I went to Landungsbrücken to catch a boat tour of the port. Hamburg is one of the busiest ports in Europe, as one can see from the many containerships moored at its terminals. It was via Hamburg that many Europeans emigrated to America by crossing the Atlantic on passenger liners. I had myself boarded a large ferry in Hamburg and travelled to Harwich in the 1990s, but cheaper air travel has since put paid to this service.

Many boats were waiting at Landungsbrücken to cruise the port, ranging from an old Louisiana-style riverboat to a catamaran. I had only seen the containerships from afar but when you see them at close quarters you become aware of their enormous size and just how many containers are stacked on top of each other on their decks. Modern cargo ships can carry as many as 24,000 containers. Hundreds of containers are lost at sea each year but this is only a tiny fraction of the traffic as millions of containers are shipped each year through various ports across the world. 

A short distance from Landungsbrücken lies the infamous Reeperbahn. I had unwittingly moved into this area when I lived in Hamburg for a few months and regularly saw the dazzling neon lights on my way home in the evenings. And walking along the Reeperbahn, which means ‘rope walk’, was indeed like tightrope walking. At that time I believed that Hamburg was essentially a sinful city and that nightlife can only be declared by flashing neon. 

I walked from Landungsbrücken to have a look at my old neighbourhood. It looked decidedly seedy in the daylight. The Beatles had played in a club in Reeperbahn for many months before they became famous. Since it was a seaport, Liverpool was well-connected with Hamburg. When a reporter asked John Lennon what it was like to grow up in Liverpool he retorted that he hadn’t grown up in Liverpool – he had grown up in Hamburg. The city has likewise played a role in my own bildungsroman. 

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