Morsal is buried one week after her death. In the morning, the women wash the body, cleansing it of its earthly sins, in keeping with tradition.
The teenage girl's thin body is covered with stab wounds, evidence of the knife that was plunged into her torso. The women wrap the body in linen and lay it into a coffin made of a light-colored wood.
At noon, six men lift the coffin to their shoulders and begin walking, leading a procession of 200 men and women dressed in black. Ghulam-Mohammed Obeidi, the father -- who lost his daughter and now, more than likely, his son in a single night -- is at the center of the group. They walk along a path that leads to the new Muslim section at the back of a cemetery in Hamburg's Öjendorf neighborhood, to where a group of construction workers stand leaning against an excavating machine. The women stop as the men carry the coffin to the grave, which is lined with boards, a rectangular hole in the ground with pale sand piled up around its edges.
This is where the story ends, with the body of a stabbed girl being brought to her grave. Her name was Morsal Obeidi, and she was 16. Born in Afghanistan, she died a few days ago, in a parking lot in Hamburg.
In the years between her birth and her death, Morsal Obeidi tried to lead the kind of life she believed was correct, the kind of life other girls in her school led. Perhaps she was trying to do precisely what politicians and social workers are constantly encouraging immigrants to do: to become integrated.
A Life in Two Worlds
But her parents and her family -- especially Ahmad, her oldest brother -- were an obstacle to integration. In the end, Morsal Obeidi was torn apart by the need to live a life in two worlds, and by the daily struggle to be the kind of person she wanted to be.
Morsal met with Mohammed, her cousin, on the evening of May 15, a Thursday. They were sitting in a McDonald's restaurant. Morsal had only been back in the city for a few months, after a prolonged visit with relatives in Afghanistan. It was spring in Hamburg. As they ate, Mohammed thought about the plan that he was keeping a secret from Morsal. It seemed harmless enough. Mohammed said later that Ahmad, Morsal's brother, had asked him to bring his sister to the Berliner Tor train station. "He said to me: 'I want you to meet Morsal today. Then walk to the Berliner Tor with her. But don't tell her anything. I just want to talk to her."
It seemed harmless enough.
Morsal and Mohammed arrived at the suburban railway station shortly after 11 p.m. They walked around the corner to a small parking lot next to an apartment building, where they sat down to smoke a cigarette. At 11:20 p.m., Ahmad suddenly appeared out of the darkness. Morsal recognized him -- and froze. Ahmad approached his sister and then, without saying a word, began stabbing her. He stabbed her a few times. "I think he must've taken something first. Drugs. Or maybe he got drunk. I tried to stop him, but he pushed me away," says Mohammed.
Ahmad Obeidi, 23, is a strong, athletic young man. Morsal tried to run away, but she stumbled and fell. Ahmad stood over her and continued to stab her, five times, ten times, still silent as he swung his right arm up and down over his sister's body. He seemed intoxicated. The police counted 20 stab wounds, inflicted with such force that Ahmad would later wear a bandage on his right forearm.
Morsal screamed, waking up the residents of the apartment building. Passersby called the police. Ahmad fled to a nearby subway station, and Mohammed followed him. The two cousins boarded a train, where they sat silently across from each other, a killer and his accomplice.
Mohammed spent a short time wandering through the night before going to a police station, where he was interrogated for six hours. It was Ahmad, he said, who had killed her.
At approximately noon on May 16, roughly 12 hours after the killing, police officers stood at the door of Ahmad Obeidi's apartment. He allowed them to take him into custody without resisting, and he confessed to the crime. To the officers, it seemed that Ahmad, the murderer of his own sister, had been waiting for them.
In the days following the crime, it was frequently referred to as an "honor killing." A murder for the sake of honor? Is this even possible? Doesn't a man who cold-bloodedly kills his own sister, a girl seven years his junior, little more than a child, in fact lose all honor?
A Criminal for Whom Germany Was Foreign
The family was certainly not without its problems. But there was a critical difference between Morsal, who wanted nothing more than to be free, and Ahmad, who was a criminal to whom Germany had always been a foreign place. He staggered through life, unstable, a failure in life. He killed his sister for having become too comfortable in the ways of the West. He resented her for her uncovered hair, her makeup and her short skirts.
By reconstructing Morsal's life, we realize that there are various ways to become integrated, to succeed in Germany, and that different people adjust to German society at different rates. Morsal was always a step ahead, while her brother Ahmad always lagged behind.
Morsal had a German passport, like her brother and the rest of the family. Ghulam-Mohammed Obeidi was the first to come to Germany. He arrived in 1992, when Helmut Kohl was still chancellor. The father was barely 30 years old, a good-looking young man who had been trained as a pilot in the Soviet Union. He had flown the legendary MiG-21 jet fighter, an aircraft capable of traveling at twice the speed of sound. Obeidi flew combat missions against the religious mujahedeen, and he was a member of the Communist Party, which soon fell from power when the Soviets withdrew and the mujahedeein took Kabul. Obeidi fled to Hamburg, where there was already a sizeable Afghan community. It seemed a good place for a new beginning, a place where he would not be alone.
An Afghan Enclave in Europe
Today, Hamburg is home to about 20,000 people of Afghan heritage, more than any other European city. Close to 7,000 have German passports. Before the murder of Morsal, Hamburg's Afghan community was relatively loose-knit and was rarely perceived as an ethnic group, partly because these immigrants had been so deeply divided at home that there was little left to unite them as a community abroad.
When the communists came into power in 1978, the supporters of the king were the first to leave Afghanistan. In 1989, the communists fled the victorious mujahedeen. After the Taliban was ousted in 1996, many of its supporters also went abroad. In other words, each group was fleeing from the next group that would follow it into exile.
Once they had arrived in Germany, the groups found that they had little in common. Old enemies were now neighbors, living together in the same city. To make life together more tolerable, these disparate immigrants focused on the one thing that could surmount all ideological differences: the family.
The family became their safe haven, and it was to be defended at all costs. The family, in this new, foreign world, could not be allowed to disintegrate.
This emphasis on the family created great pressure to conform, to obey the rules -- and it sealed the fate of Morsal Obeidi. Her father brought his family to Germany in 1994, when Ahmad was 10 and Morsal was only three. He could no longer work as a pilot in his adopted homeland. An Afghan elite soldier was not in high demand in Germany, and so he learned to drive a bus. He never learned enough German to truly fit in. Everyone here seemed to be overtaking him, even his own daughter.
Obeidi started a business selling used buses in Rothenburgsort, a Hamburg neighborhood. Today there are three dilapidated buses and an old Mazda on the lot at Obeidi Auto Export. Ahmad, the killer, ran his father's business, a business with almost no inventory worth selling. The family lived on another street in the same neighborhood in a new, five-story building adjacent to the motorway. It was neither a very good neighborhood nor a troubled ghetto.
Obeidi's family grew, and he soon had a wife and five children. Though relatively unsuccessful in the world outside, at home he was still in charge, still the man of the house. His family was the source of his pride, and he could not abide the thought of anyone complaining about them. He was determined that no one in the Afghan community should be able to say that his children had brought shame on the family. But this was far from his family's reality. Ahmad, the eldest son, became a criminal. Morsal, the pretty daughter, became too German. In his police file, Ahmad was soon listed as a violent criminal. Morsal, hoping to escape the blows from her father and brother, repeatedly sought the protection of a child and youth welfare agency.
In this new world, the proud men are the first to become losers. They lose their way of life, because in their world their only claim to authority is the fact that they are men and that, as men, they can resort to their one advantage over women, brute strength. They cling to old concepts like honor, because honor is something that even a loser can invoke.
'You Are Bringing Shame to the Family'
Morsal attended the Ernst-Henning-Strasse Schule, an elementary and junior high school in Hamburg's Bergedorf neighborhood with students from 18 different countries. In the same neighborhood, near a pedestrian zone, she would often get together with friends after school. It was not a very attractive place to meet but, being in a different neighborhood, it offered Morsal and her friends an opportunity to get away from their families. There they could hang out, smoke, listen to music and occasionally drink alcohol. Morsal liked hip-hop music and Afghan pop. She was 16 and not unattractive to the boys.
"She was outspoken and spirited," says Helmut Becker, the deputy principal at her school, "and she was never shy about contradicting people." Morsal took part in a project that involved students educating other students. She was even awarded a certificate that identified her as a "conflict mediator."
There are many files about Morsal Obeidi, filled with the sparse comments of the many Hamburg agencies with which she came into contact over the years: the youth welfare agency, the school authority, the police. The files describe Morsal as a relatively poor student. In January 2007, the principal of her school, Dorit Ehler, informed her that she would not be able to complete the requirements to graduate from the vocational-track high school she was attending. Ehler informed the parents that she planned to keep Morsal back a grade, but that perhaps something could be worked out. The parents, however, had made up their minds long before, and they withdrew their daughter from the school.
Morsal, unlike her older sister, was obstinate. She was 14 when she began to resist her parents' authority. She was tired of being complacent, of living according to the old Afghan rules, which seemed irrelevant to her life in Hamburg. She argued with her parents about her appearance and her behavior, her uncovered hair, her makeup, her tight jeans and about smoking and drinking. They argued about her friends and acquaintances. For former fighter pilot Ghulam-Mohammed Obeidi, the family's reputation was at stake. It was the only thing he had left to lose.
A Father and Son Turned Violent
The police say that he became violent, and so did his son Ahmad. They were losing control over Morsal, and losing their self-control in the process. "You are bringing shame to the family," they said to her.
Morsal fled repeatedly.
At 14, she was already a regular visitor to welfare agencies, especially the Children's and Youth Emergency Service (KNJD) on Hamburg's Feuerbergstrasse -- a three-story, red brick building, and not the sort of place people seek out unless they have no place else to go. The children and adolescents who came to the KJND were put up in single rooms, each with a bed, mirror and sink. The comments in Morsal's record reveal a pattern. Two sentences that appear frequently are: "Admitted to the KJND" and "Morsal checked out of the facility."
Morsal was most afraid of her brother Ahmad. While she began to feel at home in Germany, he lost the ability to strike a balance between his family's old and new worlds. He dropped out of school. His German was poor. He began drinking, and by 13 his name had appeared in police records for the first time. Since then, Ahmad has faced criminal charges roughly 30 times -- for offences like assault, harassment and burglary.
On Jan. 20, 2007, for example, he got into his car, drunk. He stopped at a light and attacked four men, beating one of them with a club and stabbing another in the thigh with his knife. When the police arrived at the scene, he faced them with a broken bottle in his hand.
A number of attacks on Morsal are also noted in his police file. But most of the attacks were never reported -- or documented. According to police records, Ahmad beat up his sister on Nov. 1, 2006. The older sister, the report reads, scratched Morsal in the face as she was lying on the ground. There were more blows on Nov. 8, 2006. This time Ahmad threatened her with a knife, but without using it. He shouted at Morsal, accusing her of violating the family honor. Morsal filed a complaint against her brother, and she was returned to the KNJD. On Jan. 19, 2007, Ahmad allegedly beat her up again, this time in the office of the family's used car and bus dealership. His sister dressed like a slut, Ahmad told the police.
Perhaps Ahmad already sensed that he was a failure, and that he had messed up his life. But according to a relative, he loved Morsal. The youth welfare agency's files refer to their relationship as "highly ambivalent." Morsal was afraid of Ahmad, but he was also a refuge, and sometimes she spent the night in his apartment. The two shared a common fear of their father. Morsal confided in a member of the KJND staff, telling her "she felt closest to her brother, even though she also had many disagreements with him."
In early March 2007, the family sent Morsal to stay with relatives in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. They wanted her to study the Koran and familiarize herself with prayer, and to shed everything that was German about her, the many bad influences and her supposedly dishonorable life. The parents, who had told their daughter that the trip was to be a vacation, soon returned to Germany. But Morsal was kept behind for nine months -- to be reeducated.
In Afghanistan she lived with her cousin, Yussuf Obeidi, a stately man in his mid-fifties. She attended a Koran school, filling her notebook with surahs, which she wrote down onomatopoeically using German letters. "Morsal was here because she wanted to be here," the cousin claims.
Defending Family Property
The Obeidis are not a noticeably conservative family. Nevertheless, it valued traditions, and one of them was to defend the family's property: zar (gold), zamin (property) and zan (women). In their traditional world, it was set in stone that these things are the property of the man.
Morsal was allowed to return home to Hamburg in January of this year. She later told the police that she had been taken to Afghanistan to be married there, and that she was only able to return to Germany by promising to obey the family.
These are the statements of a 16-year-old girl. The father, standing at the door of the family apartment in the Rothenburgsort neighborhood -- a pale, gaunt man -- has no comment.
A friend would later say that Morsal had a baby in Afghanistan. But the police say that they have no knowledge of a birth. The situation became more acute seven weeks before Morsal's death. The staff of the youth welfare agency tried to remove Morsal from her parents' apartment. On April 11, both Morsal and her parents agreed that she would move to a facility in another city, Flensburg. According to the youth welfare agency's files, "Hamburg was a dangerous place in every respect" for Morsal.
On April 25, Morsal decided to leave the Flensburg home. According to her record, she "wanted to live with her family again, but only if the parents did as she wished." The youth welfare office discussed the matter with the family. The father agreed to take in Morsal again, but only if she "obeyed the family rules."
The father was hoping for a new Morsal, and Morsal was hoping for a new father. Both were disappointed.
Morsal began staying out all night. The police have learned that when she returned to her parents on May 11, after being away for three days, her father immediately began beating her. Morsal fled to her room, where she tied together sheets and lowered herself from her window. But when she reached the ground, her 13-year-old brother tried to choke her and beat her, knocking out one of her teeth. Morsal returned to the youth welfare agency, where the staff tried to convince her to return to the home in Flensburg. An official at the youth welfare agency wrote in her file: "She should not be given any other opportunity than to return to the girls' facility." But Morsal was against the idea and was released.
But she didn't go home this time, and the parents reported her as missing. A friend told them that Morsal was staying in an apartment in the city's Billstedt neighborhood.
The Obeidis went to the apartment, where another argument broke out. The father, according to the youth welfare agency's file, beat the daughter relentlessly, and the argument "ended in the police being called to the scene."
Perhaps it was on that day that Ahmad, the brother, devised his murderous plan. On the evening of May 15, he made his way to the Berliner Tor train station. He should have been in prison at the time. In October 2007, Ahmad had been sentenced to one year and five months in prison without parole. He received a court order to begin serving his sentence on May 2, 2008. But on May 9, his attorney petitioned the court to postpone the sentence. The court denied the petition on May 15.
But by then it was too late for Morsal Obeidi.
It was the night she encountered Ahmad on the small parking lot across the street from the train tracks -- a fatal night for two siblings who no longer knew exactly where they belonged.
Traces of Morsal's blood remained behind on the concrete in front of the building's garage. Three days later, all that remained were a few dark spots, as black as motor oil.
JOCHEN-MARTIN GUTSCH, PER HINRICHS, SUSANNE KOELBL, GUNTHER LATSCH, SVEN RÖBEL, ANDREAS ULRICH
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.