On your first visit to Jamal’s, you might not notice anything extraordinary, other than its particular comfort. Dr. Jamal Anwar leans across the carved alligator bar to warmly greet his customers-many of whom he has been serving for the last ten years. Behind him a few steaming pots and a pile of vegetables on a cutting board designate the kitchen area. The rest of the room is lit by flickering candles atop tables where friends and strangers sit together, enjoying a mango cocktail or a cup of tea before they order one of Anwar’s traditional Indian dishes.
Anwar’s kitchen is part of Berlin’s “Volksküche” subculture, meaning it’s inspired by the informal squatter kitchens of the 80’s, who served their communal dinners to everyone who came along in return for small donations. In the Volksküche tradition, Anwar has always been concerned about his guests. “The most important thing is the people who come here. I like them very much. This is like a family meeting.” Every Saturday Anwar starts cooking at one in the afternoon so he’ll be ready when the doors open at 7:00. The tasty Indian dishes cost around six marks apiece, and Anwar cooks them with his heart. “The vegetarians here, they don’t know how to make vegetarian food that is good for them, he explains. “If you want to be a vegetarian, you have to eat a lot of lentils.” Although it’s a nice place to spend a Saturday evening, many of Anwar’s visitors don’t come just to share his food. They also know that Anwar’s place is part of a bigger project that connects Berlin to a completely different part of the world. And when they go to his kitchen, they’re a part of it too.
Since 1994, Anwar, a Geologist, has been using all the proceeds from his restaurant to help poor people in his native Bangladesh have access to clean water. The idea came to him when he was working at the legendary “Buchhandlung” Volksküche on Tuchosky Str. in 1993. “At that time we used to spend the money we earned on ourselves. But I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we spend this money on something else? So I started the project drilling wells in Bangladesh.” Starting in ’94, Anwar went to the Bangladeshi slums about once a year with the money that he had raised in Berlin. If he found at least 20 people without access to water, he would drill a well. The methods he used were intentionally cheap-he put down bamboo platform and a pulley, and spent about 2000 DM. “I used the easiest method so the people could do it all themselves. That meant that if something broke, they could repair it without any help.” In about six years, Anwar built over 100 wells. No small feat when you consider that more people in Bangladesh die each year from impure water than from any other disease-including AIDS.
But last year Anwar ran into a problem-he found out that most of the water in Bangladesh, including the water in his wells, is contaminated with lethal levels of arsenic. Whereas several organizations say that arsenic occurs naturally in the Himalayas, Anwar’s research points to unnatural origins-namely the introduction of chemically controlled agriculture in the 1960s’ “Green Revolution.” Anwar’s research also shows that the arsenic can be filtered out at almost no cost. “It’s a simple matter, putting the water in clay pots and allowing it to settle. 70% of the arsenic settles down with iron when it oxidizes. Then you filter it out with sand and charcoal.” After the water has been filtered, the arsenic level drops below the legal standard. This is the same method that Bangladeshi people have been using for hundreds of years. Anwar believes that no one is willing to indorse his plan, however, because they can’t make any money out of it. “I wanted to start a program to teach the villages how to maintain the filters, but most engineers don’t want to do that because they want to keep selling new ones.” Now Anwar’s decided that if he can’t get anyone to support his project from Berlin, he’s going to go to Bangladesh to do it himself. He’s also preparing to fight against big companies, the World Bank, and even the UN Health Watch who have all put out reports that there’s nothing wrong with the water in Bangladesh.
As if his Volksküche and his projects in Bangladesh aren’t enough to keep him busy, Anwar also holds down a full time job in Berlin. At Integrated Environmental Quality Management in Neukölln he works with “a differen type of people altogether” than those he sees every week in his Volksküche. Here he advises small industries about how they can run environmentally conscious businesses. His colleagues, meanwhile, have little to do with Anwar’s other life. Some of them have come to see him in the Volksküche, and his secretary typed his menus. But many of them are unaware of Anwar’s moonlighting. In the kitchen, on the other hand, his guests are learning about new facets of his work all the time. “I’ve known Jamal for about five years now,” says one customer called Mac. “At first I thought he was just a cook in a Volksküche, but then I started to see this really amazing person standing behind this bar every week.” Now, like many of Anwar’s visitors, Mac praises Anwar as a big influence in his life. “I want to organize artists and then arrange events-gallery exhibits, concerts, etc. The money that we make will go to project’s like Jamal’s.”
Jamal opens his Volksküche every Saturday at 7:00. To get there, go into the courtyard of Brunnenstr. 183, in Prenzlauerberg. Walk all the way to the last building. On the right you will see some wooden stairs going into a small opening. Go up the stairs-and remember to duck your head!
BY STEPHANIE AKIN
Update 11.2009: You will find Jamal´s Volksküche now at Bandito Rosso every 3rd and 4th Friday. Check out http://www.banditorosso.net
Update 2019: Jamal’s VoKü is currently no longer taking place at Bandito Rosso