Beatrice’s Last Smile

Reviewed by Muneeza Shamsie in Dawn

Iqbal Ahmed grew up in Kashmir and migrated to Britain in 1994. He has written two memoirs about the immigrant experience in Britain — Sorrows of the Moon: In Search of London and Empire of the Mind: A Journey through Great Britain. His new book, Beatrice’s Last Smile: A Journey through Germany, extends the discourse to Europe. During the writing of the book he came to “realise the truth of Proust’s saying that ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’.” The rich commingling of cultures, experiences and lives that Ahmed portrays in this new book — a collection of vignettes about people and places — creates trans-geographical links across the globe; the many migrants he describes range from Afghans and fellow Kashmiris to those from Nigeria and Poland.

In the book’s epigraph, Ahmed quotes from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno’: “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

The title of Ahmed’s book engages with the story of Beatrice, Dante’s guide to Paradise in Divine Comedy. She is believed to have been inspired by Dante’s unrequited love for the elusive, real-life Beatrice. As such, Ahmed’s reference to Beatrice symbolises the difference between imagination and reality, and the dreams and illusions central to the experience of migration and quest for a better world. Ahmed illustrates this literally in a brief, but vivid, anecdote, in which Beatrice happens to be the name of the young woman that Ahmed’s friend Suleiman fell in love with in London when he ran a flourishing business there. Although she abandoned him long ago, she lives on in the imagination of Suleiman, who is now bankrupt in Munich.

Ahmed begins his book about the immigrant experience in Europe by noting that he made his first trip outside India in 1988. In Srinagar, aged 18, he became the first person in his family to own a passport. A cousin invited him on a business trip to Hamburg where he stayed with his cousin’s business associate named Sharif, a prosperous Afghan businessman. Sharif had lived in Germany for 30 years, but during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Sharif’s nephew Faiz lost his father and found himself in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Sharif “moved heaven and earth” to bring Faiz to Germany. Faiz enrolled in college and, as Ahmed writes, was more fortunate than most exiles fleeing from Afghanistan’s wars: some could not cope with Germany’s alien climate, others missed loved ones and many were jobless — one doctor discovered his Afghan qualifications were not recognised in Europe and resorted to menial jobs. As a consequence, his marriage collapsed.

The strength of Ahmed’s compact and vivid writing lies in the small details and the many characters, countries and cities that he conjures up so fluidly. He writes, too, of the growing conflict in Kashmir, the “almost continuous curfew” in 1990 and that, during this period, he was sent to Hamburg again, but alone, as his cousin’s business representative. This time, he discovered the city on his own and learned by trial and error. He took classes in German (having done a basic course in Srinagar in the hopes of reading German literature one day) and made new friends and acquaintances, including Pakistanis who could be divided between being pro- or anti-Zia.

Throughout the book, Ahmed welds in comments and observations on literature, art and architecture. In 2010, during his visit to the town of Heidelberg, he discovered “Iqbal-Ufer”, a road named after Allama Muhammad Iqbal who had studied at the university there and whose

Writing on Berlin Wall

“ancestors hailed from Kashmir.” Ahmed’s descriptions of the university include a passing reference to the 1954 film The Student Prince which was set in Heidelberg. Then there is mention of Ahmed’s old Kashmiri friend, Jahangir, who owned restaurants in Heidelberg, had married a German and was well-integrated into German society, yet whose sight walking with Ahmed caused a passerby to mutter “Ausländer raus”, meaning “foreigners out.” Through incidents such as these, Ahmed builds in colonial history and the growing Western xenophobia today in the name of nationalism.

His descriptions of cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Heidelberg include references to the Third Reich and the Nazi rhetoric of racial superiority which led to the notorious pogrom against the Jews and which he treats as warning against the dangers to the growing racist rhetoric and violence today on both sides of the Atlantic. In Munich, once “the capital of the Nazi movement”, Ahmed joined a walking tour of places historically associated with the Third Reich, and he provides a particularly moving description of his visit to the erstwhile concentration camp at nearby Dachau.

In marked contrast, Ahmed describes present-day, multicultural Munich as “one of the most liveable cities in the world today.” Derek, an old Polish friend from London, now lives there. He had fled Krakow during the Cold War and experienced physical, economic and emotional hardship while living in different countries; he now plans to return to a freer, post-communist Poland. 

Ahmed is also a witness to great changes in Berlin, which was divided into East and West when he first visited in 1988. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin saw rapid “regeneration”: when he visited again in 2017, there were new buildings, new train stations and a new airport. Artists and musicians from the world over converged there. Ahmed’s friend James, the son of a Nigerian pastor, moved from London to Berlin because it offered greater possibilities for his music career as a DJ but, as James pointed out, with fewer black people in Berlin, he was more aware of his skin colour there than he was in London. James introduced Ahmed to Bola, an American-educated Nigerian woman, daughter of a Christian father and Muslim mother, defying the conventions of her privileged family to live in Berlin and pursue a career as a singer.

Ahmed underpins all this with memories of Delhi, where he frequented the Goethe-Institut situated in a building named after Max Müller who had translated the Upanishads into German. He reveals that his decision to migrate to England and not Germany was determined by his command of English. Even so, it was a state of limbo and not-belonging that he experienced in London for many years because knowledge of English and English literature did not prepare him for the solitude and exclusions of life there. He longed for Kashmir, that paradise “lost to political turmoil.” Ahmed knits together reminders of Kashmir, his homeland, with references to his life in now-familiar London to illuminate that of friends and acquaintances in Germany. His book makes a profound comment on adaptation, mutation and change and provides a thought-provoking comment on identity and belonging in today’s troubled world.