06 November, 2010
If you're a regular reader, i apologize for not having kept up in the past two weeks. Between enjoying Copenhagen and shuttling back and forth to Malmo four days, losing my laptop (and luckily getting it back!), then returning and settling in to home once more, it's been difficult to write. I hope to fill things out from my notes within a couple days.
03 November, 2010
As we walked Copenhagen the morning before my flight, Torbjorn asked how it felt to be returning home for a second time this year… and i really couldn't tell him. In Turkiye we'd discussed the contrasts between life at home and abroad, the different opportunity spaces we found in a different culture, yet this time was different. Whether spurred by deeper confidence as a traveler or by a genuine uprooting from the sense of home (shuffling back and forth among my father's house and the cheapest possible apartments), i couldn't predict what i'd feel. Another friend put it this way in an email:
I began to think that, after the liberty and freedom of the past two and one-half weeks, being in the village of Newburgh with NO public transport or coffee shop for that matter, how confined (trapped?) you must be feeling.
Yet as the plane descended, and the Boston skyline shone against an apricot sky - one that reminded me of a childhood postcard - i felt a wash of gratitude. Truth is, for the moment i'm quite happy to be surrounded by the familiar. Coming back to Maine i felt a certain sense of relief, the sense that i'd not have to feel a linguistic outsider. It was cold - but this morning the sun, which i had hardly seen in two weeks, shone bright through bare maple boughs, straight into my bedroom.
It's hunting season, and as i clean clotted leaves and pine needles off Dad's roof i can hear the report of a distant rifle. There's one in the closet - but as much as i want to, i'll never be a deer hunter. As much as i yearn that particular familiarity with the forest, my capacity is one for music and prose instead. Hearing shots i think back to security guards i saw in Kurdistan, to the ethnic tension in Malmo - the police apprehended the prime suspect in October's shootings, by the way - yet there's no real comparison to draw as far as safety goes; only the sense of home, the pleasure of raking leaves out of the perennial beds, smelling the catmint, knowing the heuchera and wild geranium and Canada anemones will be there next spring in all the familiar spots, nibbling some parsley from the kitchen garden. There is a great peace to it, though no better than the peace of remaining calm and grounded in the bustle of a million people; a sense of home, though for a traveler that sense winds vine-like through life, too easily uprooted to cling to.
01 November, 2010
Longtime readers of the blog may remember me mentioning Torbjörn, a Swedish dormitory-mate who became a close friend. When in June we parted, i knew i'd see him again someday, despite an ocean between us - but i had no idea i'd see him again so soon. Torbjörn studies at Malmö University in southern Skåne province, which happens to be forty minutes from Copenhagen; trains cross the Øresund, bridging the two cities, thrice each hour.
on the city bus at 6 AM: Mr. T after a night of dancing
In Odense, Kolding, and Copenhagen i'd hunted up places to eat falafel and shawarma (another name for kebap), a task not that difficult. Middle-eastern food is to Scandinavia what Mexican cuisine is to the USA: immigrant food become an inexpensive, fast-food staple, and often served alongside pizza and burgers. In an Odense kebab-and-pizza shop i chatted halting Turkish, while in Kolding the Iraqi youth who served me grasped English barely enough to communicate. (Not bad, considering it would be at least his third language; i find it ironic when monolingual Americans expect US immigrants to "speak g-ddamn English!" and inspiring when i meet young, perhaps even foreign-born EU service-sector employees fluent in four or more tongues.)
What does kebab have to do with Torbjörn, though? Well, my friend's academic field is international migration, and there could be no better place to observe the challenges of the ensuing integration than Malmö. This industrial city, third-largest in Sweden, swelled with labor immigrants from Europe between the second world war and 1973, then after a year thanks to Sweden's sympathetic policies, family reunification brought a second wave. A third accompanied 1990s ethnic violence in the Balkans and more recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with more open borders within Europe, and today in Malmö's Rosengard neighborhood one can hear many different languages. Of the 270,000 people in Malmö, 34% are foreign born; within Rosengard, 86%.
Today, however, Rosengard's ethnic diversity stands as a question: do Swedes embrace multiculturalism as a value only from a distance? To what extent have ethnic minorities become a collective "them" to the "us" of Swedish society, and vice versa? Similar questions have arisen across Øresund, where in the past week, Danish officials unveiled an ambitious plan to rehabilitate 'ghetto' neighborhoods with "no connection to the surrounding society". In both countries, nationalist parties - Folketing and Sweden Democrats - have found popular support swell along with anti-immigrant sentiments. This BBC article describes the situation in 2006, but as tensions swell, Malmö has seen a spate of riots and (ethnically motivated?) violence, with eighteen shootings, one fatal, targeting immigrants in the past year. Seven, according to the Copenhagen Post, occurred in October alone.
That unrest is fueled by several interacting factors, many of which collectively contribute to Rosengard's high unemployment rate: language barriers, an absence of social capital (in particular social networks). Since much of the hiring in Sweden proceeds through informal contact, immigrants who know no one in the Swedish labor system have difficulty finding work. Even highly educated individuals from, say, Iran, lack the Sweden-specific education employers seek; for others, previous work references may be difficult to check into. Discrimination plays a small role, as people who assume Swedish-sounding surnames have shown increased likelihood of employment. Torbjorn points out that the third wave of immigration came largely from non-western cultures, suggesting this widened the gap between immigrant and Swedish values and introduced more fear and paranoia to the mix. "No one cared about Islam," he told me, "as long as it came from Bosnia or Kosovo, and not from arab states or Somalia."
Perhaps i was on edge, or perhaps their really was a tension in the air. When i snapped a photograph of a pizza shop (to illustrate the signage in multiple languages), the owner emerged and reprimanded me. Rosengard has, to some, become a case study in the failure of multiculturalism, and maybe he didn't want his business being associated with the place's negative image.
As i try to make one argument or another, i am left mute. I don't know enough about the place, though i wish i lived in this festering ground of Otherness, wish i could understand and help to bridge the cultural chasms that form when parallel societies, insulated from each other, emerge unable to dialogue. Torbjorn tells me the citizens have worked to increase integration, but their efforts are often unnoticed by media outlets. "If you hear only bad news of an area, you start to think it is true, which also affects the people who live there." One wonders how many moments of tolerance, how much common ground is overshadowed by a single violent act.