It’s Friday. It’s dark. It’s cold. Really fucking cold. You just finished your last lesson for the week of your 3-hour-a-day intensive German classes…but you couldn’t hang out with the other students after class was over because you had to go to work (not that you could afford a long night out right now anyways). For you, though, work means something completely different than for most of the people in this city. You’re here illegally and you found out quickly that even though you’re an auto mechanic with years of experience nobody is willing to hire someone under the table.
So you’re here. On Warschauer Strasse. Freezing your ass off trying to sell drugs.
Welcome back to ‘Real Berlin: Gesichter und Geschichten’, a series in which we interview people from all corners of Berlin to learn their story. Some faces you might already know, most you won’t. They will all have wildly different paths but what they will all have in common is that they intersect here in Berlin, and we’ll try to figure out how and why they do.
We’ve had a longer break than normal in this interview series because I have grown obsessed with trying to get this interview. I previously had a nice chat with a dealer in the summer but we had not launched this series yet, so there were several questions that I wanted to ask in order to have a complete story. I went up and down Warschauer Str. and Revaler Str. at least 3 times a week looking for this guy but never found him. So I gave up and went on trying to get an interview from another dealer…this proved to be even more difficult.
Just having a conversation with a dealer is easy, but say that you want to interview them for a story and you’re going to get a lot of no’s. After several times of receiving the instructions from potential interviewees to go fuck myself, I finally found an extremely friendly guy who was willing to share his story.
Meet Lateef. Five months ago, shortly after his 21st birthday, he got on a migrant boat in Alexandria, Egypt and took off on the extremely long ride to Italy. He is a trained mechanic but had a hard time finding a job after the shop he worked for shut down. This is a rapidly growing problem for the youth in Egypt where birth rates are increasing but job opportunities are shrinking, causing rising economic instability. Recognizing this problem was not going to get better, he decided to leave his parents, his 2 brothers and 1 sister behind and pay a smuggler 1,000 EUR to get him into the EU.
He doesn’t remember how many days he was on the boat, but he said the long journey did not bother him because he only felt excitement about his new path in life. I tried to get more details about his journey out of him, but for this part of the story he clearly wanted to remain vague for some reason. He said he doesn’t know exactly where in Italy they were, but they approached the land late at night and the boat let them off close to the shore so they only had to swim about 100 meters or so. Once on the beach they met another smuggler who was responsible for getting them showered and onto the closest train station.
He spent a couple weeks in different cities along the way, but his goal was always Berlin. I asked him why and he said it was clear: he was coming from an economy where his generation faced constantly decreasing chances for employment, so he was going to go to Europe’s strongest economy where he thought he would have the best chances. Berlin being the capital city, he thought, would be his best shot at a new life.
He quickly learned that this task of finding a job would be harder than his optimism had led him to believe. He spent the first weeks travelling around Berlin to different auto repair shops who all told him there was no chance of working there. He needed a new plan, so he reached out to his social media group of other Egyptians in Berlin to see if anybody could help. One person, also here illegally, said that he could get him a job pushing drugs around Berlin. Having no other obvious alternative, he accepted.
For the last 3 or so months he’s been selling mostly pot at different spots around Berlin…making 10 dollars every time he closes a deal (that he splits with his partner. He takes the orders…his partner delivers the goods.). While he mainly sells pot, he says he can organize the other ‘best sellers’ of coke or ketamine. I ask him who his typical customer is and he says he gets a whole range of interested clients…from normal looking older Germans to people on their way to Berghain to hardcore addicts. This is why they ask everyone leaving the S-Bahn station if they’re looking to buy…because you never know who’s looking for a little distraction from real life.
He claims that the scene is actually well organized and there is no aggression from other dealers regarding territories or other topics, which leads me to ask him about the stabbings that happen seemingly every couple of weeks there in the area. He tells me, “Look…we are trying to get people to come here to buy from us, so it doesn’t do us any good to create a scene that people are scared of.” It is, however, a scene where you are dealing with people looking for sometimes harder drugs, and the whole ‘shady’ nature of the transactions due to its illegality can easily lead to high-stress situations that get out of hand. This makes logical sense to me…but I haven’t compared them to police reports to see if that is mostly the case. Regardless, this is not the easiest way to make a buck.
This is not his long-term plan though. He intends to make his status legal, but he admits that he hasn’t figured out how to do that quite yet. With his earnings he’s been taking German classes 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. And I must admit, after only being here for 4 months his German was incredibly good. He even found a German girlfriend which has made him even more committed to staying.
What strikes me most about Lateef, is that although he been ‘beaten up’ for a little bit by life and is not currently in a place he wants to be, he speaks in a tone of optimism our entire talk. Even though Berlin was a tactical choice, I asked him if he enjoyed the city. I would imagine he would have a warped perspective of the city from his current standpoint, but he surprisingly said that he loved Berlin. More specifically, he said, ‘I love Berlin, but it does not love me back.’ When I asked what he meant by that he said that thousands of people walk by him every day, most of them seeing him as a problem of the city, and many on their way to clubs that he could never get into. But he refuses to let it stop him from following his dream and talks of all the beautiful sites in Berlin and how he was shocked at how green it was. Keeping with his positive spirit he says, “someday it will love me back”.
I thanked him for his time and headed home. On my walk back I found myself reminded of the Biggie Smalls lyrics, “To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of, Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter (it’s all good)”. I’m not saying that all drug dealers are good-hearted people…but they are people…just trying to make it through this game of life like you and me.
(Note: Lateef is not his real name as all details that could make him identifiable have been removed from the story. I chose the Egyptian name Lateef as it means kind hearted…which I found fitting to his nature. Good luck Lateef.)