Halfway Thoughts | Roses are red, violets are blue, sorry Yahya, I don’t agree with you
Every summer, when schools shut down, parliament closes and all Danes really have to complain about is the lack of sun (or burning sun/wind/rain/heat – really any kind of weather is the type to complain about here), one topic is certain to come up: immigrants! Whether it’s their refusal to eat pork or insistence on circumcising their sons, the one place Danish media can find stories that will provoke and ignite all sides of the political spectrum is among immigrants. This summer was no different, except that the debate continued long into the autumn largely thanks to a young man named Yahya Hassan.
Hassan is an 18-year-old Dane of Palestinian origin who recently published a book of poems based on his upbringing in a Danish ghetto. He writes of the abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father: beatings, forced marriages, and a life lived in fear with parents who were more concerned about cheating the system or buying the best special offers than their children’s happiness.
Personally, I haven’t been moved by his poetic skills. I find his poems only slightly better than your average ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’ rhymes. But as with any other person who has lived through that kind of hardship and risen above it, I salute his courage to tell his story. It’s an important one that needs to be told. Just like Lisbeth Zornig’s story of molestation and negligence growing up in a small Danish village.
That is how I see Hassan. Just like Zornig, he tells a tale of hardship that no child anywhere should live through. Just like Zornig, he has been a victim of not only his parents, but of an entire community willing to overlook abuse. Just like Zornig, he has an important story that needs to be told. But also just like Zornig, he represents a minority that must not be mistaken for the majority. Unfortunately, that’s where I begin to feel nervous. Because while all Danes know that Zornig’s childhood isn’t the norm in Denmark, many think that Hassan’s is the norm among children of immigrants.
Hassan is in part to blame for the generalisations. He points his finger at an entire generation of Palestinian refugees who came to Denmark in the 1980s. And even though he has said that his accusations are only aimed at those who raised their children as he was raised, many people following the debate don’t make that differentiation. Hassan has said he sees himself as a poet and not as a voice in the greater integration debate. He may have thought that was possible before publishing his poems, but that possibility disappeared with his first interview. And now that his story has gone international thanks to the Wall Street Journal and he won big at last week’s book forum, he has become a prominent voice, like it or not.
But even if we pretend that he can actually be removed from the debate, plenty of others have grabbed the opportunity to once again criticise Muslim and Arab immigrants without making the distinction that Hassan has at least attempted to make. And that is what worries me.
I have to make it clear that I am in no way saying Hassan shouldn’t have published his poems. The threats made against him for voicing his critique only underline the point he has tried to make about a way of thinking based on violence. And I’m not saying that there aren’t any problems or that violence against children doesn’t take place in immigrant communities. It does. And it is a problem that too many people have been too afraid to address for too long. But as long as many, many families feel that they are under attack only because of their ethnicity, the debate will be a pseudo one, because none of the people who can actually do something will want to get involved. And if we want to change the lives of the Hassans of the future, they have to be.