Ali was barely five years old, playing with his toys in Pakistan, when the Berlin Wall came down. Twenty years later, he stands behind the grand Berliner Dom, alongside the Spree River, with a cart selling Russian army hats, madruskas (Russian dolls), ushankas (Russian fur hats), bernstein (orange stones) and other remnants of Germany’s communist past to tourists.
Ali is just one of a dwindling number of hawkers selling East German memorabilia in Berlin since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The hawkers, a wide array of Turks, Pakistanis and Russians, are no different to the hawkers who might be found near tourist hang-outs anywhere in the world.
As I eyed his wares, Ali told me that, although the souvenirs elicit attention from tourists, the fascination to collect the memorabilia is dying out.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, this kind of business will not be around,” he said. “It is on its way out.”
Ali said he recognises the incongruity of a Pakistani selling communist memorabilia in the middle of Berlin, but “this was the only business I was able to get into”.
He said that after battling to find work, his Pakistani friends got him in touch with a network of German and Russian suppliers.
The hawker maintained he had an acute awareness of the historical sensitivities surrounding the things he sells: “Many are offended by it,” he said, looking down at ominous rows of defunct military headgear. “People who appreciated the goods are communist sympathisers, though youngsters buy the Russian hats when they go partying,” he said with a smile.
Ali joked as he showed me an original hat and a fake one made more recently in China.
Another Turkish hawker named Tamer, standing metres away from Check Point Charlie, concurred before kissing a euro banknote: “This is my first sale for the day,” he said joyfully. “Things are not the same as they used to be.”
Tamer, in his late 50s, said he had been selling souvenirs for more than a decade. Profit margins were always low and he had to work two jobs to see his daughter through university.
But the waning interest in communist memorabilia does not indicate a waning interest in Berlin as a tourist destination. In the first seven months of 2009 about 4,6-million people visited the city.
Like Ali, Tamer told me that he had hoped the celebration marking 20 years since the fall of the wall would have meant more for his business: “Many stop and look, find the items funny, but that doesn’t normally turn into a sale.”
Christian Tänzler, media relations manager for Berlin Tourism, said that although the hawkers had been around for 20 years, he didn’t see them as an integral feature of Berlin’s history.
“I don’t see the hawkers being more important than the plethora of museums and authorised souvenir shops in the city. There is still a sensitivity to these goods and people forget that there are many who get offended by the selling of them.”
Tänzler said that although many bought goods for fun, there were others who couldn’t stand to look at anything that reminded them of this period in German history.
He said that although the city is not against people working on the streets, the city won’t aid their survival.
“While they do pay taxes and they do have permits to trade, most of the sellers aren’t aware of what it is they are selling. They aren’t aware of the history and of the significance. A lot of the time there is no context, no story to tell. This is just the most raw form of commoditisation in our history,” Tänzler said.
The authenticity of the goods has also posed a problem, he said. “We prefer tourists to go to museums and authorised stores to purchase these items, as this offers more historical context.”
Ali is aware of the limitations of his present occupation: “I won’t be doing this for too long,” he said. “There is no future in this.”