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I had completed the nine years of elementary school and was off to a high school, which I would go to by bus. Finally, I would be bidding farewell to the world of childhood. I was to leave the school which thronged with filthy children and their familiar stench: the sour butter they were given at break mingling with the reek of the playground’s mouldy sand to produce a strange, sharply pungent smell, which I could almost feel gnawing at my brain.
I would leave this behind with no fond memories. Memories had no palpable presence as far as I was concerned, at least not then. I was still in the latter stages of my sixteenth year and I had moved to a school where I was to be one of the juniors, who – so I had heard – inspired revulsion in the older years.
On my first day at school, after we had been parcelled out into classes, I met Zeena for the first time. She came over on her own initiative and sat down next to me without a fuss, drawn to me by the scarf I wore on my head. She was wearing one just like it.
In her rapid Copenhagen dialect she asked me: “From Palestine?”
Her eyes shone and she shouted happily: “Me too!”
That’s how it happened, simple as that: the encounter that gave birth to a friendship that would live on like a bastard child.
She was surprised that she hadn’t met me before, claiming she knew most of the Iraqi families in Copenhagen. From what she said I quickly realized that lots of people here knew who she was because she came from a well-known family.
We became friends without meaning to, without choosing to. Friendship between expatriates, Iraqis especially, is not a matter of choice; it is, like many other things beside, no more than a condition imposed by exile.
The Iraqi community in Denmark was much like its equivalents in neighbouring European states: the split between Islamists and communists itself oscillating between extremist to apathetic according to the conditions provided by the host country. Denmark provided segregation and inward-looking extremism. It was no wonder, for example, that I did not meet a Christian Iraqi until I was twenty. Where was I going to encounter people who were different, if I spent my entire life moving between those who most closely resembled me?
Though Iraq was made up of numerous sects and communities, many of these I met only by chance and at too advanced an age to readily accept such unexpected novelty into my life. Christians, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomen: as odd to me as if they were Japanese or Indian. The weirdness came from conceiving of people who speak the self-same dialect that I speak at home, but who do not live as I do.
When I hear the word “Christian” for example, I picture a pious Catholic from Southern Europe. How can a man be an Iraqi and a Christian at the same time? How can he be Sunni, in fact, when at the word the image of a Saudi with an unkempt beard and short thaub leaps into my mind, accusing me of unbelief, of heresy and abandoning the true faith. I have not met this stereotype either, true, but it has been put into my head that this is how he is.
I have been programmed: intellectually, geographically, methodically. Ninety per cent of this programming has been unintentional, the inward-looking rites practised by the community and practised on me, in turn.
As a child, not a word passed me by in childhood without me picking it up and building ideas upon it. I built on every word, and kept building and building until it became a skyscraper, only to discover that the foundations were about to crumble, riddled with woodworm and rot.
Insularity on insularity, like an infinite spiralling regression: television inside television inside television inside television. Insulated inside the homeland, then insulated among the sons of the homeland, then insulated inside ideas, beliefs and principles. Everything in this exile of ours is turned in on itself: even my self is turned in on itself; myself separated from my self, neither knowing the other.
Perhaps exile gives you much when you are an individual but takes more when you become a group. Becoming part of an Iraqi community living in Copenhagen you learn how to pick your way through the vastness of its labyrinth of overlapping links.
I, for instance, as a member of this community, know exactly how I shall proceed:
Firstly, I belong to my family – i.e. my mother – which suddenly decided to adopt Islam as its starting point for understanding the world. Thus, I am an Islamist.
Next, I am Shia. I was born that way and I have never once thought of choosing another classification to replace it. Here we come to an important point. I am not from one of those Shia families that can boast of a history of struggle against the Baathist regime: no martyrs with which to adorn itself; no executions, no prisons. Nothing except one of my mother’s brothers, executed for belonging to the Communist Party, and what a dishonour that is, to have a relative executed on such a charge, when we are trying to fit in with the Islamists! My family’s whole history will be seen as shameful and my standing suffers in this link, which tightens about me bit by bit.
That is how things are. No more to add but etcetera, etcetera, etcetera . . . until the last link in this endless chain of links closes about my neck.
As is the habit of things in this warped culture, the skies of exile dropped Zeena on my head.
That tall girl.
Maybe she wasn’t all that tall, but she was certainly taller than me. I had to lift my head when I spoke to her, as though she were gazing down at me from on high, decanting her power and personality while I stood there, meek and tame, and allowed this great surge of authority to cascade into me.
When she and I walked side by side, a sense of how small I was would tug at me. I was very small. Indeed, I almost vanished entirely in her presence and lost all sense of myself. I was aware of nothing but her size, as though it were some vast mass of will about to topple onto me.
Zeena was not extraordinarily beautiful.
Perhaps she was. I don’t honestly know; I’d grown used to the way she looked.
Her eyes would stir my anger and I was always fighting not to look into them. The malice they oozed would somehow leap out to envelop her entirely and, in some obscure way, mask her femininity and beauty. Her eyes were of average size. Looking at them it appeared that they were large, so wide did she open them. I often imagined that she would have liked to swallow up everything with her eyes, to consume everything she could.
But what provoked me and kindled my resentment more than anything else was her prodigious allocation of intelligence: despite my reservations, it dazzled me.
It was impossible to ignore a quality like this in someone like her, whose every atom was woven together with its fellows to produce a flawless tapestry of intellect in the shape of a young woman. The revulsion and hostility she evinced towards anyone whose misfortune had rendered them unpleasing to her, in no way detracted from the force of her presence.
Everyone knew how Zeena was. Most families in the Iraqi community would warn their daughters against befriending her, yet despite this tainted reputation, everyone loved her company. I have no idea what it was that made anyone who saw her so reluctant to part company with her, only to loathe her the minute they got away. An odd thing, and a source of much bewilderment to me. It was because of this that many people pleaded with me to free myself from her, from Zeena.
* * *
Our school was a large one. Its design was modern, fitting for our headlong generation, which was primed to get away from the past and to throw itself into the arms of the years ahead in equal measure.
As with the majority of high schools in Denmark, its students were divided into two streams: one standard secondary school stream, further split between the arts and sciences and another, which we called HF for short, whose students were usually older in age, and who tended to be those who had chosen to delay their education.
It was quite normal to have students as old as twenty-five, sometimes older, since those taking the HF course were able to graduate after just two years, not the three years which we secondary students had to complete.
It was from this stream that Emad graduated with marks that astonished his teachers, easily earning him the right to go to medical college. Or, rather, to go back there. Truth be told, his marks would have got him into colleges whose entry requirements were higher than medicine, but he refused all other offers and insisted on his former subject.
A blend of indifference, pity and wonder swept through me as I watched Emad reiterate his desire to study medicine once again. How determined he was! Three years of his life studying medicine in Iraq, then two years studying in Denmark, then another two years in HF, only to start all over again with the same subject he had left behind. He never gave up his dream, even living alone in order to give his undivided attention to his work. Or that’s what I thought in the beginning.
He left home, and I was delighted.
I would be forced to put up with him no longer. After years of his ignoring me – repaid with an identical indifference from me – I had ended up deliberately avoiding contact, preferring to keep to my room, even though he, too, rarely left his room, so consumed was he by his studies.
At times his ambition would enrage me. I thought it hungrier than life required.
I did not think the same way, which I explain by the fact that I was raised in Danish schools that are more vocational than academic in their orientation. Perhaps because I have not had such academic values implanted in me from when I was small, I have not had the same dreams as Emad. I dreamed of becoming a teacher in kindergarten. That’s an ambition, too, but not of the sort that our community demands and respects, especially since our family is an academic one.
When I expressed this wish, my mother was dismissive: “Work hard at your studies first and things might change, God willing.” Then, as if she was talking to herself as she folded my clean clothes, she said: “Your brother will become a doctor, and you’ll be washing dirt off Danish kids.”
“So be it.”
“Nothing less than a respectable college!” she snapped.
She fell silent as she smoothed out a piece of my clothing, then said, shriller: “What’s wrong with engineering and pharmacology!”
My mother’s dreams found no way into my head.
“If everyone became doctors tomorrow who would there be to cure?”
“That won’t happen so long as there are people who think like you .” Then she said: “Always remember, we’re not imported labour like the other foreigners. We came here as refugees.”
I didn’t see why this sentence should find its way into our discussion.
* * *
Starting high school, my links to Danish people were suddenly cut. I no longer took the occasional wander with Christina and Andrea. I no longer abused little Nikolas whenever I saw him. I no longer spoke to his brother Claus with feigned arrogance as I used to do. I no longer spoke to him at all, even though he had followed me in order to be in the same high school.
My links to them were completely broken, neighbours and school friends alike, and I found myself caught up in a wave, which swept me down a path I did not know and had not meant to travel, like someone circling the Kaaba, squeezed by crowds that pull you round, comfortable in the knowledge that you will not deviate from your circling path, for your feet move despite yourself. A wrong turn from you would require the whole process to be started again from scratch, but you are dragged onwards.
Though I have never circled the Kaaba before, I have circled the Kaaba of my exile, an experience is sufficient to acquaint me with how my feet can march forward without any conscious instruction from me to do so. I ended up marching forward, unaware that, bit by bit, I was being assimilated into an atmosphere strained and charged with racism.
I do not understand how I allowed myself to become aligned with one group at the expense of another. In the chaos of this conflict I made no choices; I found myself leaning one way before I even understood what made me lean. Perhaps it was because we were at that age at which our differences become tangible. Perhaps the sudden awareness of our inequality is what caused us to separate so completely: the Danes on one side and the foreigners on another. If an individual from one of these groups slipped into the other, they would be scorned and rejected by their side.
I was naïve; I was not armed with the knowledge of what I might encounter in an environment like this.
One day I went over to a table to help a Danish classmate. We had just finished a maths lesson. The girl asked me about something she didn’t understand and while I was busy with my explanation I felt someone tug me gently from behind. I turned to find Zeena, who had gripped my arm.
“Maria! Don’t hijack the girl’s lunch break.”
Then she pulled me after her. I was still reeling from the surprise. When we had moved away she whispered in my ear: “Don’t go helping a little slut like that again.”
“But she asked me . . .”
She cut me off quickly. “Say that you didn’t understand the lesson, either.” She tucked my arm under hers and muttered: “Don’t answer a Danish whore.”
I did not understand why Zeena dragged me into a friendship with her, because I wasn’t the type to inspire it and anyway, she knew lots of girls; she had contacts in every class, even among the HF students, who looked down on us juniors.
Why me, then?
From the day I first became acquainted with her, up until very recently, Zeena introduced me. She introduced me to lots of girls and a not inconsiderable number of boys. Because I was genuinely uninterested in boys, this indifference of mine protected me from them; at least, the ones that Zeena showed me to.
What really caught my attention was the world of young women. Zeena gave me an appetite for this world, though once again, this was nothing more than curiosity. It is in my nature to enjoy watching without making a direct assault.
I admit to the fact that I enjoyed the company of the girls Zeena introduced me to. No doubt about it. But my lacklustre presence offered them no encouragement.
They tried. They tried their utmost. But it was no use. No one was to drink from my waters for I was a tainted river. Only those dying of thirst or curiosity would consider it and both qualities were lacking in these girls so they left me, and my need for them, be. Though I made no approaches, they were the best thing I could find to support my longing.
Their world was different. To be more precise, each one had a world of their own. Luma the Lebanese girl, who looked down her nose at schoolwork and fiddled constantly with her mobile phone and lost it constantly and, astonishingly, found it most of the time. I once came across it on the floor of the girls’ toilets.
Whenever I think of Luma, I smile. I loved the fact she was short; she was like me in that respect. Her ever messy hair and vacuous chatter went well together. She talked a lot. She talked and her hair was a mess. A tangle of words and her hair an even greater tangle. I didn’t understand half of what she said as she preferred to speak in Arabic and I had never experienced the imposing size of the phrases she uttered in her Lebanese dialect, albeit with unsimulated gentleness.
I discovered this preference when an argument broke out between her and a Danish girl and Luma began screaming out words in Arabic every other second, while Zeena made futile attempts to shut her up and contain the situation.
She was wild, shouting out, “My goodness . . . my goodness” and repeating things like “That bastard child, I didn’t do anything to her . . . damn her”.
I suddenly realized that, in this, Luma was the opposite to the rest of us. When we lost our tempers we resorted to Danish. For my part, I prefer Danish when I get angry. Only Danish allows me the freedom to swear and to find release with the first phrase that pops into my head. Arabic increases my anger and compacts it, then leaves me unable to get past the compressed ball of rage in my chest. Every Arabic insult, even the little ones, are a sin to speak, unlike in Danish where, despite their shameful meanings, they are just words.
Emad once mentioned that Arabs are slaves to words; words provoke them more than the meanings themselves. At the time, I thought that Emad was just philosophizing as usual, but today I believe him.
How could it be that Luma, with all her patriotic pride and insistence on speaking Arabic, was born here like the rest of us? My explanation is that her family force-fed her a heavier dose of patriotism than is normal in homes like ours.
Here, patriotism does not refer to the dutiful passion for one’s homeland that you would recognize, you who love your land from the luxury of your birthplace. Here, it means knowing just more than a little about your homeland, means chewing as much of it as you can, masticating its language between your jaws and storing it behind your tongue like qat.
No matter if you’re Palestinian, a Palestinian scarf on your head and a sixty-year-old cause carried on your shoulders; no matter if you’re Iraqi, the map hung round your neck, abusing Saddam for ruining your life, then picking a fight with the flies on your face as proof of your origins; no matter if you’re Iranian, deliberately leaving the stamp of your Iranian accent on your Danish, only content when your house is furnished wall to wall with the carpets you brought from Iran; no matter if you’re Turkish and pity the rest of humankind because they aren’t Turks, too, and continue speaking Turkish to strangers even after they have sworn to you they don’t understand a word you’re saying; no matter if you’re Pakistani, now and then declaring your great pride at your partition with India and donning your traditional clothes to strut through Copenhagen’s streets each afternoon before eating your fill, or more, of curry.
No matter! Never mind! For these affectations can only impoverish you, can never enrich you, in a country that has shaped you as it wants.
Your patriotism here has no meaning, because you, after all your patriotism, are no more than a foreigner.
Truly, a foreigner. The patriotic fragrance, which you suppose that you give off, means nothing to a Dane who sees you simply as an alien and it is foul to those who share your skin and who are sure to notice the extent of your assimilation.
Luma seemed more patriotic than us, for sure. She danced the dabka and listened to some singer called Fairouz and cooked meals at home herself, while some of us hardly ever entered the kitchen at all. From time to time she would be surprised by her large family back in Lebanon, who mocked the sleeves on her shirt – never shorter than the minimum decreed by her father – who could not believe that their relative born and raised in Europe did not stay out late at nightclubs as they did or break her 8pm curfew.
Zeena alone set out to captivate me. I once heard that fear is infatuation’s other face, and I, without a doubt, was infatuated with Zeena despite my fears. I was like that without understanding why. I was confused. In the end, though, I let Zeena lead me on.
Selected from Tahta Sama’a Kobenhagen (Under Copenhagen’s Sky),
Dar al-Saqi, Beirut 2010
Translated for Banipal 44 by Robin Moger