MARCH 23, 2014
WITH HIS LONG BLACK HAIR pulled back neat into a ponytail, the poet cuts a dashing, foreign presence on stage. His delivery calls slam poetry to mind. Rhythmic and raw, it crests and crashes over the ears of the audience, his words righteous and accusatory, as if he were preaching of fire and brimstone, or railing against the infidels.
The book of poetry from which he reads is his first. In the initial three months after publication, it sold an incredible 100,000 copies — this, in a country of 5 million (about one for every 50 residents), the equivalent of 6 million copies in the United States.
On the front cover of the book, in great white letters on black background is the name of the young man and his eponymous collection: Yahya Hassan. On the back, in small print, a single line of biographical info: born in 1995, a stateless Palestinian with a Danish passport.
Hassan is “fucking angry,” as he told Politiken, the country’s largest daily on the eve of publication. Among young men in general and young men of Hassan’s profile in particular, this may not seem especially newsworthy. But the target of Hassan’s outrage is at once provocative and familiar, even conventional.
“As soon as our parents landed in Kastrup, it was as if their role as parents had ceased. And then we saw our fathers rot passively on welfare, lying on the sofa with a remote control in hand, accompanied by a disillusioned mother who never said a thing one way or another,” Hassan told Politiken. Young men like himself who became dropouts and criminals, says Hassan, “were not let down by the system, but by our parents. We are the orphaned generation.”
For months now, Yahya Hassan has been the biggest story in Denmark. The young poet has collected literary awards and garnered widespread praise for having the courage to speak his controversial mind. He has also received death threats. On a December afternoon at Copenhagen’s central station, a young man assaulted Hassan while reportedly shouting that he was an infidel who deserves to be killed. At one of his readings, police protection cost 1,000,000 kroner, or a little less than $200,000.
“The rot is everywhere in the ghettos,” Hassan told Politiken in the same interview. “Just look at how many of the underclass receive welfare benefits and state support. While adult men can recite the entire Quran, go to the mosque every day and play holy, there is no agony associated with cheating and defrauding the system — especially when it comes to obtaining disability benefits. The social rot is pervasive.”
On a popular television news show, he went one step further: “There is a generation of stupid immigrants, [Hassan uses a derogatory term here] who run around and won’t accept the society they’re living in and who won’t accept the Danes. Goddamnit — Denmark is the land of the Danes […] if you don’t feel comfortable in the country you’re in, you should try to find another.”
This is the provocative side of Yahya Hassan’s public face — the polemicist who is not shy to offend. The other side is the poet as raconteur. In so far as Hassan’s criticism is valid, it is made most persuasively through the poet’s evocative imagery, the perceptiveness of his observations, and a string of revealing contrasts between the words and actions of authority figures in his community. The same uncle who preaches Islam, Hassan observes, keeps his computer stocked full with porno.
In a similar fashion, Hassan’s poetry works to expose hypocrisies large and small. The father who is God-fearing and loving only in the mosque; the young men who carry a knife in the pocket and a grudge against the world, spoiling for a fight; others who are quick to take offense at any perceived slight to Islam but seem to see nothing wrong with the abuse, misogyny, and fraud in their midst — all of these are observed and singled out for criticism. Taken together, Hassan puts forth a sustained, far-reaching critique of the Muslim immigrant community in Denmark.
But to sum up the collection in this way is somewhat misleading. As a young man of merely 18, Hassan has but one true subject. He drapes no artistic license over the source of his material. Instead, like one of many tiles in a great and disturbing mosaic, each poem is a painful testament of early sorrows — a catalogue of violent evenings and tearful partings, interspersed with accounts of visits to Lebanon and memories of rebellion, crime, and time spent in centers for young delinquents. The memories suggest, flesh out, and complement each other, piecing together one very unhappy collage of Hassan’s adolescence.
The signature style of his poetry is all caps, such as “Outside the Door”:
I SAT IN THE WARDROBE WITH A CHRISTMAS DONUT IN HAND
AND LEARNED TO TIE MY SHOELACES IN SILENCE
DECORATED ORANGES WITH DIANTHUS SPICE AND RED BANDS
HANG FROM THE CEILING LIKE PERFORATED VOODOO DOLLS
THAT’S HOW I REMEMBER KINDERGARTEN
THE OTHERS WERE LOOKING FORWARD TO SANTA CLAUS
BUT I WAS JUST AS SCARED OF HIM
AS I WAS OF MY FATHER
The best poems of the collection come early, capturing Hassan’s alienation from Danish society and the brutality of his home life. Hassan pays his father back in nearly every one of these, observing his hypocrisy and violent caprice — mocking him as “NOT JUST A REFUGEE WITH A FULL BEARD AND JOGGING CLOTHES,” grilling halal meat and distributing slaps.
This is Hassan’s father as a Dane might see him — an anonymous, mostly harmless and vaguely pathetic figure — but Hassan’s poetry draws a stark portrait of a domestic tyrant. Before commencing a beating with a wooden plank, the father lets his sons choose: the hands or the feet? Then he makes the boys stand with backs against the wall, arms outstretched, one foot aloft. His daughters and wife fare no better:
I WAS CARVING A WOODEN STICK IN SCHOOL
WHEN A TEACHER HANDED ME THAT TELEPHONE
THEY ALWAYS RANG MY FATHER WITH
WHAT HAVE I DONE NOW, I ASKED
AND BROUGHT THE TELEPHONE TO THE EAR
BUT IT WAS MOTHER
SHE SAID THAT SHE HAD GONE AWAY
I BEGAN TO CRY IN THE WORKSHOP SHED
THE EVENING BEFORE WE WERE SENT TO THE LIVING ROOM
THE DOOR TO THE BEDROOM WAS CLOSED
SOUNDS BEHIND THE DOOR AND A PEEK THROUGH THE KEYHOLE
MOTHER WITH A CABLE AROUND HER THROAT
I PULLED THE DOOR OPEN AND HE TOOK HIS BELT OFF
I HAD ALREADY BEEN TOLD TO REMAIN IN THE LIVING ROOM
At the mother’s departure, the family splits according to gender. The daughters go with the mother while the sons remain with the father. When his brother wets the bed, Hassan sneaks the sheets for his mother to wash.
The father soon seeks a new wife, first a kind Saudi woman who came “ON A VISA FOR THREE MONTHS / BUT LEFT AFTER ONE,” and then a Tunisian woman who is introduced to the kitchen “WITH A GENEROUS GESTURE.” A new family of half-brothers and sisters begins in short order. “Yet another” is born while Hassan is at a youth institution.
The quality of the poems diminishes as the collection goes on. Emotional substance, as well as the play of imagery, give way to simple hubris about Hassan’s years as a petty criminal. Beautifully captured scenes of lives rooted far away — money hidden under a carpet for misfortunes back home, or how Hassan’s family “SAVED UP A KIDNEY FOR AN UNCLE IN DUBAI / AND A HEART OPERATION FOR GRANDPA IN LEBANON” — give way to a bunch of braggadocio about how many grams of weed were stolen from so-and-so, and then a series of encounters with various authorities, and so tediously on.
These unfortunate episodes sink to their low point in an ugly and violent robbery of a young woman after she refuses to dance with Hassan. With few exceptions, but most jarringly in these pieces, Hassan remains the central subject of his poems, the intended object of our thoughts and identification, whether the fits of rage are his father’s or his own. Given Hassan’s tender years, we ought to excuse his narcissism. For such a moralist, however, Hassan is much too easy on himself. Reading him is like listening to Eminem, except that all the irony is directed outward.
A slimmer volume would have been better, but the collection is a remarkable achievement all the same. Hassan has invigorated one of Denmark’s most difficult conversations with a vital and distinctive voice.
The only advantage of the collection’s length is that the output makes it possible to trace the chronology of Hassan’s life, and gain an impression of its totality.
From a violent home life to various institutions and then petty crime, Hassan’s story becomes a collective metaphor for the lives of second-generation immigrants, the atmosphere of Muslim households and life on the social fringes — areas of dark matter for most Danes. Before Hassan objected, his editor had wanted to name the collection, Ghetto Poems.
Danish ghettos, we should be clear, are not the mean streets of West Baltimore. Wander into the wrong part of Copenhagen, and you might find yourself admiring the tranquil and welcoming atmosphere, the new playgrounds, the rich diversity that feels local and settled. You may also get your bicycle stolen, this is true, but in comparison to the realities of life in American inner cities, the Danish welfare system offers a progressive dream. There is universal health care and universal education with a monthly stipend for university students. Also: subsidies for child care and unemployment insurance; generous maternity and paternity leave; a minimum wage and welfare benefits that can support a family, and so on — in short, a decent, dignified life for nearly each and every one.
But this sort of reasoning is a touch too blithe and dismissive. While their circumstances may not be desperate, the poor in Denmark still face significant obstacles. For immigrants and their descendants, discrimination is a serious problem, as are disparities of opportunity and social isolation. Many, maybe even most jobs come through personal connections, but immigrants are effectively excluded from most professional networks.
The first wave of immigrants arrived to Scandinavia through guest-worker programs in the post-World War II boom years — to Sweden already in the 1950s and a bit later to Denmark and Norway. After these programs ended, immigration persisted through asylum and family reunification. A series of reforms were enacted after the number of immigrants increased in the 1980s and 1990s, including increased restrictions of immigration coupled with the introduction of integration policies.
According to a recently released report, immigrants and their descendants constitute about 10 percent of Denmark’s population, 16 percent in Copenhagen. Immigrants and descendants from non-Western origins are particularly overrepresented in the crime and dropout statistics, underrepresented in the labor force, and more likely to be dependent on public assistance and disability benefits than native Danes and immigrants from Western countries.
Nonetheless, social trust in Scandinavian countries remains the highest among OECD countries, with Denmark consistently at the top of the charts. Numerous studies confirm that there has been no significant retrenchment of the Danish welfare state. Due to institutional path-dependence, and more importantly the firmly established norms, values, and expectations of the citizenry, cuts to the welfare state are deeply unpopular and politically perilous.
Moreover, the most recent European Social Survey shows that nearly half of Danes strongly agree with the statement that immigrants make the country a better place to live. This is up from a third of the population that said the same in 2002, when the survey began to ask the question. Over the same time period, there has been a slight decrease in the number of people who share the opposite sentiment: from about 18 percent at its height in 2004, the 2012 figures show that only 12 percent of the population feels that immigrants make Denmark worse off.
But Danish attitudes towards immigrants are more complicated than these figures would suggest. Nearly 80 percent of Danes express some level of concern over immigration, according to the European Values Survey, with half of these expressing “much” or “very much” concern — in line with the number of those who feel that immigrants are a drain on the social welfare system. 30 percent of the population feels there are too many immigrants in the country.
The issue of immigration and integration first emerged as the country’s most salient political issue in the 1990s. Driving the conversation and exploiting popular anxieties to electoral success were the newly constituted Dansk Folkeparti (DF, Danish People’s Party). An offshoot from an anti-tax movement, the founders of Dansk Folkeparti acknowledged the overwhelming popular support for extensive public benefits and morphed instead into a nativist party, seeking to preserve the Danish welfare state for ethnic Danes.
In a mere half decade, DF has established itself as the third largest party in Denmark. In 1966, election surveys show that more than 80 percent of manual workers voted for socialist parties. As recently as 1990, that number was still over 70 percent. But little more than a decade later — and six years after the birth of Dansk Folkeparti in 1995 — more than half of manual workers had voted with the emergent right. More unskilled workers under the age of 40 voted for the Dansk Folkeparti than the Social Democrats. Drawing blue collar voters away from the Social Democrats, the traditional center-left guardians of the welfare state, DF became an overnight force.
As a crucial member of the ruling coalition after the 2001 parliamentary elections, DF wielded an outsized influence on immigration issues and introduced a number of far-reaching changes. These included more stringent criteria for family reunification, including a controversial ban on reunification for spouses aged under 24, and a requirement that a couple’s attachment to Denmark must be greater than to any other country (in addition to other rules around housing, self-support, and collateral requirements). A short-lived Ministry for Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs was established (the center-left coalition abolished it after gaining power in 2011), cash assistance to new immigrants was lowered and work incentives increased. As Jørgen Goul Andersen, a leading Danish scholar puts it, “integration policy has become an integral part of labour market and vice versa.”
Besides trying to stem the flow of immigrants generally and Muslims in particular, DF has sharply escalated the rhetoric against immigrants.
Last year, for instance, it published the names of 685 new Danish citizens in newspapers and asserted that one of these names, statistically speaking, is a potential terrorist. As regards integration, DF has argued that all future generations of immigrants should be counted as “descendants” until they become culturally integrated. It was left unclear how this could be established, but the goal could not be clearer: to mark future generations as non-Danes all the way down, and thus inflate the level of threat to Danish culture and society.
Not surprisingly, the tone and tenor of these conversation have marginalized and alienated immigrants. Though the most recent election of 2011 relaxed some of the above policies, many remain in force under the ruling center-left coalition.
This is the context and controversy that Yahya Hassan has entered with relish. Nearly a decade since the Prophet Muhammed cartoons, the teen poet has reignited the Danish debate over free speech and the integration of immigrants and their descendants. While he has met with general encouragement, many are anxious that he is adding political ammunition to the anti-immigrant right.
“There is something wrong with Islam” says Hassan frankly, suggesting that the religion of his parents needs a reformation. At the same time, he is usually clear-eyed and forthright that the problem is rather a certain sort of Muslim. Hassan is no Bernard Lewis, nor is he Ayaan Hirsi Ali; his is not a thesis of the clash of civilizations.
Instead, Hassan’s major contribution is to have authored a common reference point — a captivating, powerful narrative that has entered popular culture, familiar and known across Danish society, to ethnic Danes and immigrants alike. Additional narratives will complement Hassan’s account, or they will contradict it, or they will simultaneously do both or neither, but they will create greater room still for what is and can be a Danish story. At the moment, it is telling that even Hassan, though a Danish citizen, nonetheless identifies himself as a “stateless” Palestinian with a Danish piece of paper. The Danish and immigrant societies seem to exist in parallel with one another. Much like the residents of Chicago’s North and South sides inhabit different social realities, so too do Copenhageners in Frederiksberg and those in Nordvest, where you are as likely to overhear conversation in Arabic as in Danish. Though they live in the nearness of one another, these lives hardly intersect in any meaningful sense. And the youngest generations, both new and native Danes, are already growing up with a different conception of what it means to be Danish.
The young life of Yahya Hassan could be used to illustrate both the failures of integration, and the promise of a more socially inclusive Denmark. The poet is still in the news, most recently with a dispatch from Kiev, where he went to receive an award and found himself in the midst of something greater. Meanwhile, the teacher who discovered Hassan’s literary talents when he was merely 14, and soon began a romantic affair with him, has published a novel based on their relationship. It was all the talk on the news shows. Uncharacteristically but wisely, the poet has had no comment.