Immigration as a family business

Afghan-born comedian Passun Azhand doesn't have many German heroes, and pretends he's a tourist to get better treatment in Germany. 

Afghan-born comedian Passun Azhand
Afghan-born comedian Passun AzhandFoto: Paulina Hildesheim

Berlin-Passun Azhand is a Berlin comedian who performs in both English and German. He fled from Afghanistan to Germany with his family when he was eight. They first stayed with his uncle in Berlin before seeking asylum and settling in Bad Driburg in western Germany. On an episode of Heroes, a comedy show on public broadcaster ZDF airing 2 July, he discusses his life and art with German comedian Kaya Yanar.

Berliner Zeitung: How did you get the Heroes gig?

Two years ago I hosted the first series. Comedians like Freddi Gralle and Kawus Kalantar and Daniel Wolfson were in it and I think they recommended me as a host. I did my comedy thing and then the production company was interested because of my story. The problem was that they asked, “So who’s your German hero?” and I don’t have many German heroes. I said, “Is there a way you could get Bill Burr to come over?” They said I need to find a German comedian. The only thing I can remember is Kaya being on Was guckst du? and we, as a family being very fresh in Bad Driburg, watching him and laughing. My initial thought, as a 16- or 17-year-old boy, was like, okay, immigrants are allowed to be the centre of attention. I didn’t think I wanted to be a comedian but I wanted to be in show business. I never told anyone. It was like, shut up, you’re a chubby immigrant kid.

What is your story?

My father worked for the Afghan government and we fled when the Russians pulled out. There was only one destination: Germany. My dad is a Social Democrat – he was actually a Communist but turned into a Social Democrat – so the United States was never an option. Our emigration had different stages because my parents kind of were hoping they could go back. But after seven or eight months – we were in Budapest – we were actually planning to go to the Balaton for two days because we had been through so much. We were going to stay in tents on the lake and just have fun. That was the night the Afghan president was executed by the mujahideen. For my parents there was then no going back. The next day we left from Budapest to Berlin, that’s where my uncle lived. One of the first things I saw when I woke up in Berlin was the TV tower. I was like, what is this ugly but interesting thing?

Do you think of yourself as Afghan or German?

I’m a German. I mean, I use my background when I’m surrounded by other people who have a certain background but I’m a proper German. I was a German when we got here. After just a couple of months I said, all right, this is it, we upgraded nationalities. We came from the second league of nationalities to the elite. I never had a patriotic thing towards Afghanistan. My dad was a Communist and an intellectual and my mom was a teacher for Persian literature. I’m realising now it was really difficult for them. Even if you’re very tolerant and young, if you’re from Afghanistan this is a completely different place. They also realised we spoke the language and they didn’t so we became like a family company: we had to communicate and they gave us the strategy.

You talk about race in your stand-up. What have you experienced?

There’s different kinds of racism. What I get is like when you go to a supermarket and you have someone in front of you - let’s say it’s a young white lady - you see the small talk between the person working in the supermarket and that person. When it’s my turn, I say “Hallo!” with a giant grin, and all I get is a grunt. My initial thought is I’m either too big or too dark. It’s certain little things that I don’t care about anymore. It also depends where you are. I have a joke that when I’m in certain parts of Germany I don’t speak German, I speak English. I don’t have a German accent so they instantly think I’m a tourist. I get treated so much better. The thought is with English, this is a tourist who’s gonna fuck off in a few days. Let’s be friendly.

Have you ever been back to Afghanistan?

No. I flew over it when I flew to Australia. I usually fall asleep on airplanes – and I woke up because it was shaking, turbulence. So I woke up and I turned on the the screens to see where I was and I was exactly over Kabul, Afghanistan. I felt like I was supposed to wake up to realise: hey, this is where I was born. And then I had the deepest sleep I ever had and when I woke up, we were in Singapore.