The first time I heard about Hammed Khamis was from a Turkish Sufi named Selman, who frequented a tekke in Schöneberg I sometimes went to. He didn’t mention that Hammed was a professional thief turned journalist and book author. I would get this later. Rather, he said Hammed was a fixer – someone who expedited the work of journalists wishing to get the scoop on Berlin’s Arab underworld.
I had mentioned to Selman that I was interested in writing a story about Sonnenallee, Berlin’s Arab street, known as “the Gaza Strip”. I had been told that all of the Arab businesses there operated behind German front men. The chamber of commerce and industry put forth certain requirements, and if you didn’t have a permanent residence permit you couldn’t own a business. The Arabs had the capital, but no papers. So they paid a German friend a couple thousand euro to go to the chamber of commerce and register the business in their name. industry. And voila. It was easy.
I wanted to get the dirt about what the German media referred to as “arabische Clans” and “Großfamilien”, the extended families that were supposed to run all sorts of mafia-style rackets in Berlin, and apparently were to be found making deals in the shisha cafes that lined Sonnenallee. At least that was what you got from TV series like Four Blocks and Dogs of Berlin.
I didn’t own a TV and I had never watched episodes of either series, but I suspected both trafficked in the usual Arabic clichés. In fact this is what Kubilay Sarikaya, the co-director of a gritty Spandau kiez drama Familiye (2018) had told me.
It was as though a couple of wet-behind-the-ears white-bread Germans had sat down at some Friedrichshain café terrace and tied to imagine their way into a world they knew nothing about, said Kubilay. I knew the reality of Sonnenallee lay somewhere else and I was looking for someone who would give me the lowdown.
“Then Hammed is the man for you,” said Selman.
Selman told me that Hammed did work for RTL and some of the other big TV stations who wanted stories on the Arabic underworld. “Usually he takes money,” said Selman. “But just mention my name and you will probably get an interview for free.”
About a week later I called Hammed up, wanting to arrange an interview for a later date. This wasn’t how Hammed operated. He made his plans off the cuff. Fair enough.
Weeks turned into months, my interest in Sonnenallee waned and I forgot all about Hammed. Till I started a job researching TV documentaries for a small media company that did work for RTL and other TV stations.
The segment was called “Ohne Filter”, it aired every Monday on RTL at one in the morning, and basically they took an urban microcosm somewhere in Germany – they had done Kotti and Frankfurt’s Bahnhof Viertel, – following the lives of three local protagonists in their private quests, till at the very end they are brought together to exchange experiences.
According to my boss, they were interested in doing a piece on Sonnenallee. I immediately thought of Hammed. Over the internet I did a brief investigation into Hammed’s person, discovered that he had been a successful burglar, but had never been caught. Somewhere along the line he decided to go straight, quit the life of crime and took up journalism. He wrote two books about his experiences and went on TV talk shows, where he spoke about his tricks of the trade as an ex-burglar. I convinced my boss to let me go track down Hammed to pick his brain about Sonnennallee. She gave me the go-ahead.
I was to go to Wedding, Leopoldplatz. There I was to call Hammed again to get more details as where to meet. Ultimately, we agreed upon a bar on Groningerstraße, but as soon as I showed up in this typical beer-sodden Berliner Eckkneipe, Hammed, dressed casually in T-shirt, jeans and trainers and a baseball cap, took me by the arm and guided me outside.
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” he suggested, and led me down the sidewalk and into a Sportwettladen, the kind of dodgy place with fruit machines in the corner, where Berlin Ausländer squander away their hard earned wages. Hammed ordered a tea. I did likewise and we took a seat at a table in the back, under a couple of big screens broadcasting live football games.
“Zlatan Ibrahimović!” said Hammed. “I can watch him all day long. Do you know that he is a Gypsy? Why do you think he’s so extroverted?”
We sipped our tea, and Hammed told me about the razzias – the police round-ups on Sonnenallee.
“It’s racism,” said Hammed. “Pure harassment. Do they think that gangsters live in Neukölln? Or that these criminals actually live in Neukölln? The police know everything. They are just doing it so that they can say to the public, ‘See, we’re doing something.’ It’s bullshit.”
Hammed told me the story of a girl who came from one of the families frequently mentioned on TV, like the Abou-Chakers or the Remmos. She walked into the bank one day and said she wanted to open up an account. The clerk took one look at her name and refused her outright.
“What’s up with that?” said Hammed. “You are stigmatized just because of this name. I get so angry when I hear these stories. It’s pure racism. 300 officers do a razzia one day and they find – what – fifty kilos of tobacco. Do you know how much that shit costs?”
According to Hammed, all of the clans you hear about in the media belong to the same ethnic group: Arabs from east Turkey, around the city of Mardin. That’s where Hammed’s parents came from before they moved to Lebanon. Then the family got stuck in the civil war and ended up getting asylum in Germany.
The family settled in Osnabrück. Because of the family’s “Duldung” status, whereby as refugees they were allowed to live in Germany, but not work, Hammed quickly turned to a life of crime.
“You don’t really plan to be a criminal,” said Hammed. “In the Gastarbeiter neighborhood where we lived in the Sandgrube (a housing project in Osnabrück) it was normal. Turks, Kurds, Gypsies, Arabs. I learned it from the Gypsies…for them it’s just work. That’s how they make their dough. Break-ins, thefts, bagatelles. I started breaking into cars first. Then you do it more and more. Robberies, fraud. You learn it automatically. If you feel morally reprehensible, then most of the time it’s too late, you’re stuck too deep.”
Hammed started making the acquaintance of burglars, robbers, fraudsters, safe breakers. Word got around. Jobs were set up. He stole pictures, gold. Sometimes Hammed went abroad to commit his crimes. He was never caught.
Hammed can’t tell me what his biggest job was – they might trace him – except to say it was in the six digits. But he does tell me about one spectacular burglary he committed in Osnabrück.
“There was one job where the people were gone for a long time. We knew that. We had the cleaning lady in our pay. It was a three-floor house with objects with a value worth tens of thousands. Antique furniture, jewelry, you name it, a huge stamp collection. We organized a truck, and for three days we worked, all of us wearing blue overall work uniforms. We worked there, totally normal, day and night. The neighbors brought us water and offered us food. Nobody even noticed. They thought we were workmen. It took three days.”
Pretty soon Hammed was making thousands of euros through his crimes. Then he started making tens of thousands, lived the high life in Osnabrück discotheques. It all felt swell for a while.
“When I was 23 I bought my first Porsche,” remembers Hammed. “Suddenly you’re standing in front of the white man and the tables are turned. There was nothing cooler. You’re the boss now. The car dealer doesn’t ask where the money comes from. He’s not interested.”
But it was all somehow unsatisfactory.
“At some point you realize that you don’t fit into society,” says Hammed, “that you don’t have friends, that the girl that you’re going out with isn’t even interested in you, only your money. And I always felt sad and depressed on my birthday on the anniversary of the death of my mother, on holidays, when I would sit alone at home. You could have as much money as you wanted but the presence of friends and family you can’t buy. And then you notice it. But you’re stuck to deep. You can’t just say, ‘I’m cutting out.’ There’s always stuff to take care of, something that has to be picked up, things that people want from you.”
At 33 Hammed moved to Berlin. He was homeless when he arrived, slept on a park bench in Friedrichshain. His bag was stolen that first night. He ended up finding a WG, while working for one euro fifty in a shisha bar. Gradually he got his act together and got to know people. His life started to become interesting. He started to write. He had always written. But somehow no one ever encouraged him. Writing was for “white” people, he learned. Not for Kanaken like himself.
His first book was published on 7 March 2012 as Ansichten eines Banditen from the Sich-Verlag in Magdeburg, a book about his career as a criminal. In 2016 he published Der Jungle von Calais, about life in a French refugee camp. He got a nomination from the Grimme Online Award for his blog. Hammed started writing articles for Neues Deutschland. Soon he was getting invitations to appear on TV. He was on Hart Aber Fair, where he spoke about his career as a burglar and street criminal. Galileo did a segment on him.
From the sales of his books alone Hammed hardly earns enough to live. Remunerative are the invitations to read and hold talks, at youth clubs, correctional facilities, schools. He often works with underprivileged youth in Problemvierteln.
“I’m one of them, you know what I’m saying? A white guy couldn’t do that. Not in those neighborhoods.”
Today Hammed travels all over Europe and the world, writing about whatever strikes his fancy. Not only does he offer his services as a researcher and fixer, but he also advertises himself as a bodyguard, translator, driver, stringer. He has a couple new projects in mind. One is a book about Gypsies – Sinti –like the ones he grew up with in Osnabrück. The other idea is a Romeo and Juliet story about a Turk and a Kurd.
For the moment he lives in Wedding, but he dreams of getting away.
“It’s too messy here,” Hammed tells me as we walk down a Wedding street, throwing a glance at the cast-off Sperrmüll. “I don’t want to say there are no rules. But street justice rules the day here. Look, the people here sit around drinking their beer. They aren’t homeless. They just would rather not sit in a bar where the beer costs three times as much. That doesn’t bother me. That’s okay. But when you go a bit further in the direction of Leopold Platz then you have the homeless scene, the Gypsies there – they don’t know any German. Then you have the junkies. Heroin. It’s a real bring-down. Sometimes they accost you. Or you’ve got the refugees at the church. It gets to you. Try walking through there nights. You don’t feel good. Doesn’t matter how strong you are. Or what family you belong to. No one cares. The other thing that bothers me is there’s garbage all over the place. Berlin’s nice insofar as there’s garbage cans everywhere. Everywhere you turn there’s a garbage can. Use them! Over there four car wheels are laying around. Somebody’s dumped their shit here. There’s a mattress laying around. Then it’s gone. And there’s another mattress there. What the hell? This is the place where you live! Take care of it.”
Despite wanting to change addresses, Hammed lives a good life. He doesn’t have to work some deadbeat job. He travels the world in search of stories. He is in demand by the German media. He has a holiday home in Morocco. But at times his past catches up with him.
“It’s your birthday, say. Or it’s Christmas, Ramadan, whatever. It’s hard. Till today. You notice it. People avoid you because you are were a criminal. You are filled with hate and anger. Tears. Then you’re screwed.”
Text by Robert Rigney for Berlin Bazzar
Photos by Anastasia Chistyakova
Illustrations/Artwork by /d1dcm