In the Midst of Muhammed Time
“Nothing freezes the imagination like family loyalty or political correctness.”
Erica Jong, Seducing the Demon
There are many reasons to write a book. In most cases, an author has something she would like to express to those around her, something she would like to get off her chest, something pressing. As the Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela put it, “Writing is to combat fear – the personal and the political – and to understand life.”
So she sits down, decides to make it happen, starts venting. And it is wonderful. What a relief.
In such cases, the result doesn’t have to be a book. It can be an email finally written to an ex-lover, a letter composed to your mother, but never actually placed in the mailbox. It can be a text-message so beautifully formulated that only once it is sent can you finally breathe again, move on, as it were.
In our case, we were prompted by a mood that slowly spread over Denmark, a tension between new Danes and old Danes, one hovering still, weighing down on our collective chest. This mood grew out of seeds planted in the 1980s with Glistrup and his issues with “Muhammed-Danes”1 , slowly growing larger and larger like a big balloon – an atomic cloud – and finally becoming so uncontrollably huge that none of us could escape it, or escape taking a position on it: the Integration Question, one’s attitude toward foreigners.
The “Muhammed crisis,” the uproar over the cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten featuring caricatures of the prophet Muhammed, was quite likely the straw that broke the camel’s back, especially considering all that led up to the crisis: discussions in the media about integration in Denmark; all the negative stories about second-generation immigrant boys from Blågårds square ; the criminals, the outcasts; tales of arranged marriages, violent murders, imams and fundamentalists; of domestic violence and overflowing crisis centers; of the Swedish girl, victim of an “honor killing.”
And then, of course, there was the aftermath of September 11th. The invasion of Afghanistan. The war in Iraq. Political rhetoric reminiscent of a specific, recognizable tone of fear from the period before and during the Second World War. The priesthood (Tidehvervspræsterne) and the Danish People’s Party thundering out of the radio like a long, intractable rainstorm.
All the new words and concepts that we Danes began to grasp and debate over our breakfast cereal—twenty-four hour rules, familial connection claims, repatriation, integration contracts, minimum wage—and all the new boundaries that would now be set for foreigners. Both refugees and immigrants. No distinction. Just them, those with dark skin. Boundaries – not possibilities. The whole tone: Them and us. Them and us. It was all black and white.
Us: two women in our thirties, academics, with our respective racial, geographic and cultural backgrounds. We live side by side. Each with a mark upon her body. And a neighbourly relationship that slowly transformed into a warm friendship, to where a few times a week we began to eat dinner together and discuss life, each in mutual astonishment over the other’s culture, habits, and impressions of things. Soon there wasn’t a single thing we hadn’t discussed, and gotten into a heated dialogue about – from Barbie to Burkas, from Bush to beer, from professional women’s challenges on the job market to the perfectly manicured lawns on “Desperate Housewives.”
We felt that society was speaking, if not about us, than to us, telling us that our friendship was impossible, because we were too different. We came from far too divergent origins and backgrounds. How could we have something in common: a fundamentalist and a feminist?
We felt that someone or something drove a wedge right down the middle of what we shared. It was as if we were in the midst of a love relationship and society and the media was our intolerant family standing on the sidelines waiting to arrange a marriage for each of us with some newly imported greenhorn.
So we, too, began to doubt our friendship, and we started asking each other questions. We became annoyed that the fact of our friendship actually posed a problem – for us as well as for the society around us. “Why won’t she take that scarf off?” thought the one. “Why do I always have to explain my scarf?” thought the other. “What do you two talk about?” Shabana was asked by her friends. “Why do you sit there inside all the time and eat?” Mette was asked.
And the threat of terrorism only made it even more difficult to trust one another. “Are they sitting in there hatching a plot to bomb Her Majesty the Queen, and we’re just a bunch of stupid Danes letting them into our home?” thought Mette. “Why should we constantly be under suspicion, every time it’s about Muslims in the media?” thought Shabana.
So this became the background for our book: We had a friendship that crossed boundaries. We were having the exact kind of dialogue that was being called for the whole time, but was lacking, between the East and West, black and white, them and us.
We would like to explain how much we have learned from each other, in spite of the circumstances and the many trying times from the beginning of the new millennium of September 11th until today, five years after that horrific terrorist attack that permanently changed the world.
This book is put together from parts of actual discussions we had in the five-year period between 2001 and 2006, as we remember them, and some of the emails we wrote to each other within the last year, while both in the U.S. on vacation and family visits.
It is also built on some of the judgments we both still have and have had about each other. And it tells of what we found we have in common, in spite of our differences. It speaks of doubt and fear of the foreignness in other people, but also of the foreignness in ourselves.
This isn’t to say that we have all the answers, the truth, that we’ve found the golden formula, and now intend to enlighten you all. Rather, we have found many truths, and we would like to share them with you, you reading this book. We have also found many myths, and together with you, we would like to rid ourselves of them. For we still have doubts. We constantly find things we disagree about, over which we may never come together.
This book does not belong to any political party. Instead, this book tells of how the political can suddenly become personal simply because someone hangs up a notice in a laundry room. It deals with how close to one another we actually are, how multifaceted we are as people, how much we can have in common with people we don’t even know, and how fundamentally little we share with our own flesh and blood. This book is about halal Christmas lunches and soft-serve ice cream with pig-fat in it, about how to be totally crazy about God and Oprah at the same time.
It deals with neighbourliness and the many undiscovered and undeveloped friendships floating up and down the stairwells of inner city Nørrebro (or North Boston) and through the evergreen hedges of a Løgstør (or Long Beach) . But it is also about the many indifferent friendships, barely alive, because they are based upon the idea that “similar children play together best,” friendships where the crucial questions are stifled at just the moment when they most need to be asked.
Shabana does not speak for all New Danes in Denmark, nor does Mette represent all other Danes. The practice of integration and dialogue, from our perspective, is not about generalizations, but powerful examples that form positive stories and, in this way, alter the state of affairs. This practice consists in being open toward others. To quote Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
For Shabana, it has been a great challenge to write this book, for one, because she is not used to writing. But for the book to really mean something where she is concerned, it was also necessary for her to reveal herself, to talk quite personally about her upbringing and experience, things about which, under different circumstances (in the U.S., for example), she would not have spoken. But she felt that it was necessary to do so, so that other “foreigners” in Denmark might possibly learn from her experiences. She believes in the expression: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
We are neither Buddhists nor Hindus. We are not out on an ideological mission to “convert” all Danes to “love thy neighbour,” or God, or to drop all their meaningless consumption and donate all their extra money to charity. We’re not trying to open all the borders in “halal-hippie” fashion and let every economic refugee invade these precious green groves. Nor do we endorse the other extreme, hopping on the bandwagon against “the dark ones,” focusing on the few who destroy it for the many, thus distorting the bigger picture.
We were just lucky that we accidentally became neighbours in a very small stairwell, in a very small apartment building, and got smacked right in the face with our very large judgments of one another. Take this as a story, an example, an offering – a ray of light perhaps.
Here is our story of what we saw when we opened the door.
Shabana Motlani & Mette Bom
The preface is translated by Ph.D. Sharon B. Oster, Assistant Professor of English, University of Redlands