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Explanatory Models: The Migrant Poetry of Athena Farrokhzad and Yahya Hassan

By Agri Ismaïl.

i.

YOU SEE EACH OTHER IN A PHOTOGRAPH
AND FLEE
FIRST ONE THEN THE OTHER
TO A COUNTRY WHERE PEOPLE MAKE OUT IN THE STREET
AND SO WE’RE BORN CROOKED INTO THE UNIVERSE [1]

- Yahya Hassan, “WORDS”

When Saudi authorities confiscated hundreds of poetry collections at the Riyadh book fair in March 2014 due to their “threatening” content, the West was both appalled and somewhat bemused. It has been a long time, after all, since Western governments feared poets. Yet as antagonism toward immigrants grows all over Europe and extremist rhetoric merges disenchanted populism with outright racism, two immensely popular poetry collections – one Swedish and one Danish – have garnered significant controversy for their depictions of the immigrant experience, earning their authors the kind of publicity usually reserved for polemicists and politicians.

At a glance, the authors and their work might appear similar: Athena Farrokhzad, whose long Swedish poem Vitsvit (2013) was shortlisted for Sweden’s equivalent to the Booker Prize, the Augustpris, was born in Iran and fled as a child from the Islamic Revolution to Sweden in the 1980s, while Yahya Hassan, who has sold over 100,000 copies of his eponymous debut collection Yahya Hassan (2013), has an author bio that simply states “born 1995, stateless Palestinian with Danish passport”. Both have courted controversy: a recent radio talk in July 2014 by Farrokhzad became a leftist call to arms, leading to liberal outrage as her “communist and radical feminist” opinions were broadcast by the supposedly nonpartisan Swedish Public Service radio. One right-wing Swedish Member of Parliament went so far as to throw out his television set and cancel his broadcast receiving license in protest. Hassan, meanwhile, has been banned from mosques all over Denmark for his poems railing at religious hypocrisy, the nineteen year-old poet now garnering the support of high-ranking Danish politicians and requiring bodyguards to accompany him to his readings. In one those strange coincidences that every now and again results in two movies on the exact same theme being released almost simultaneously – your Tombstones and Wyatt Earps, your Armageddons and Deep Impacts, these two books were also published within a few months of each other. Here, however, the similarities end: in the books themselves, the authors present views so divergent it is as almost as though the poems were composed in direct rebuttal to one another.

Even as physical objects, the books present an observable dichotomy. Immigrant hardbacks from the age of globalised publishing – my copy of Vitsvit having been printed in Lithuania before migrating to Sweden, the Hassan book bound in Latvia before customs let it enter into Denmark – the former has a mirrored, metallic cover reflecting and distorting the face of whomever picks up the book and contains only white pages, the occasional white black highlight over a verse or two rendering the underlying white text visible, a measured, reverse redaction. By contrast, the latter carries the name of its author in the big, bragging letters of a Hollywood star’s name eclipsing a movie poster, including virtually no punctuation with each and every verse capitalised: the Caps Lock screed of an angry teenager.

 

 

ii.

There are experiences I can not write about here. Experiences that depict patriarchal violence in an intimate sphere, that feel impossible to describe to a predominantly white audience. Because my abuser looks like me. At a time when racism is so naturalised that even I see a potential terrorist in a stranger that could just as well be my brother, no goodwill in the world can fool me into thinking that the connection between men from the Middle East and the oppression of women isn’t an immediate one. An attempt at explaining this violence using explanatory models that I aim to oppose would be as devastating as the experience itself.

- Athena Farrokhzad
Excerpt from her review of Yahya Hassan in Aftonbladet, 22/01/2014


The Swedish suburb of Tensta in 1971, built as part of a utopian project to provide every citizen with affordable housing, which quickly deteriorated into segregated immigrant neighbourhoods  (Photo by Holger Ellgaard  licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reviewers of Farrokhzad’s Vitsvit have compared the typographical design, the white text and black highlights, to everything from DYMO-labels to ransom notes and terrorist letters, racially-charged interpretations that attempt to force the work into the established migratory narrative, all while misunderstanding the choices behind the poem’s formal presentation. (After all, would any typographical choice by a non-immigrant Swede ever be compared to terrorist letters?)  As per Farrokhzad’s own admission, there are experiences that she declines to portray, instances where reality veers too close to the heightened rhetoric of anti-immigration propaganda, to be accurately represented to a predominantly white, middle-class audience. Vitsvit, then, is rather a curation, computer highlights of passages that render the white-on-white text legible, emerging as the experiences that Farrokhzad has chosen to share.

Not that Farrokhzad herself or any narrator speaking on her behalf can be found in the work: the verses are uniformly presented as statements from the members of a family – an idealistic father, an optimistic mother, a technologically-minded brother, a pragmatic grand-mother and so forth – a cacophony of various voices that initially appear as dependable archetypes. The characters represent not only different elements of the migratory experience but also the contrasting languages. Compare the father’s Marxist-tinged advice with its correct but stilted, overly formal Swedish in verses such as “My father said: I wrote of bread and justice / and as long as the starveling could read / I did not care about the font” and “My father said: How much resistance can the human flesh bear / before the lashes of the whip become permanent” to the grandmother’s pithy retorts as though she were the matriarch of a hit TV-show (“My father said: Whose father are you depicting / My mother said: Whose mother are you depicting / My brother said: What brother are you referring to / My grandmother said: If you don’t finish chopping those vegetables soon there’ll be no dinner.”),  whose words often contain the usual trappings of Middle Eastern poetry translated to a western language, with sentences seeming oddly verbose, excessively flowery and melodramatic  (“My grandmother said: A wound in the dawn when the sleepless night pushes through / A darkness that cannot be seized /  The sensation of skies where other moons rest”). Yet even these archetypes cannot convey the totality of Farrokhzad’s experiences, so she gradually breaks these down as the work progresses, the expected voices no longer as easy to place. In verses such as “My grandmother said: Belonging is like a mirror / If it breaks, you can fix it / My mother said: But in the reflection a shard will be missing” the grandmother’s pragmatism and the mother’s idealistic views on integration are reversed until the concept of identity in Vitsvit is reduced to a script read by interchangeable voices, where much is ultimately said, but virtually nothing is acted upon. Vitsvit is an extended act of ventriloquism, a conjuring of family members who echo the Bible, Paul Celan, Beyoncé; a grandmother’s sage advice sounds eerily like the lyrics to Rihanna’s Jump. The only time the first-person pronoun appears in the work is at the very beginning, following verses depicting a mother’s attempt to assimilate, to shape her foreign mouth into making Swedish sounds. Here, Farrokhzad writes:

To think that I sucked on those breasts
To think that she put her savagery in my mouth

Outside of this one admission, Vitsvit remains free from definitive declarations; instead, contradictory statements get to form a multifaceted factuality. No sooner does the closest thing to a manifesto this poem allows itself to provide emerge:

My mother said: Write this
For the sake of my prosperity my mother sacrificed everything
I must be worthy of her
everything I write must be true

This immediately undermined by the following verses:

My grandmother said: Write this
Mothers and languages resemble each other
in that they ceaselessly lie about everything

We are denied any singular truth in Vitsvit; rather, every statement is refuted, every voice echoing something or someone else. As soon as a verse presents an undisputed statement (e.g. “My mother said: Never underestimate the trouble people go to / to articulate truths that are possible for them to endure”) it reveals itself as the echo of someone else’s words entirely – in this case something Frantz Fanon wrote decades ago, rather than a cogent explanation of the current rise of racist rhetoric in Scandinavia.

This accumulation of conflicting experiences are transmitted in snippets of language veering from the poetic (“a dawn dying in my eyes before sleep has dissolved”) to the consciously broken and pedestrian (“we have never tasted better saffron rice”), anchored around the recurring motif of the colour white manifested in snow, rice and, especially, milk – at once a natural bodily secretion tying together mother and child, a cause for nostalgia for the homeland’s milk and a comment on the welcoming country’s unnatural obsession with dairy products. In addition, Farrokhzad’s poems portray the immigrant experience as anything but homogenous, arguing that it is impossible to accurately describe it without acknowledging its shifting nature, where different migrant experiences twist around each other:

My father said: The traveller is superfluous to the place she is from
My mother said: The traveller thinks she is indispensable to the place she goes to
My father said: The traveller is superfluous to the place she goes to
My mother said: The traveller thinks she is indispensable to the place she is from

These repetitions often form conflicting commands to the narrator to depict reality in the way that each interlocutor sees it, a struggle perhaps most clearly outlined in the following verses:

My father said: Speak the language that pays for your bread
My grandmother said: Speak the language that keeps distance to what happened in the words
My brother said: Speak the language that wakes the machine to life
My mother said: Speak the language that is worth betraying me for

Farrokhzad’s reluctance to provide clear propositions and her use of distancing stylistic and rhetorical techniques could easily feel evasive and indecisive, a cultural relativism that has paralysed the poem from being able to present an opinion, but the value of Vitsvit lies precisely in its refusal to commit to a point-of-view. It takes a step back from the passionate discourse of op-eds and pathos-laden essays engineered to go viral. “But, on the other hand, let’s not forget…” This poem seems to respond to the informing didactic arguments, before electing to not say anything at all.

 

 

     iii.

DADS SIT ON THEIR ASSHOLES AND
MAYBE THEY WILL SAY A PRAYER
WITH SPIT IN THEIR BEARDS
PLAY CARDS
AND BABBLE ISLAM AND AL JAZEERA

- Yahya Hassan, “LONG POEM”


Upturned waste bins in Copenhagen’s Nørrebrogade after riots in 2007. The graffiti says “Fuck you! This is war!”  (Open Source photo)

While Farrokhzad heeds the Wittgensteinian adage of passing over what she cannot speak of in silence, Hassan shows no such ambivalence. In his work the hypocrisies of religion are aggressively dragged into light: uncles extol the virtues of Islam while having porn on their computers, rituals such as circumcision and halal butchery are seen as violent, barbaric acts, arranged marriage leads to implied rape (“I FIDDLED WITH THE COUSINS / IN THE NAME OF ALLAH”) and the common custom of cousins marrying has biological consequences (“IT IS ABOUT AGE AND INBREEDING” Hassan writes, before presenting a childlike list of additions “COUSIN + COUSIN = GRANDFATHER AND GRANDMOTHER” and so forth down the list of relatives until he reaches “UNCLE + UNCLE’S WIFE = HANDICAPPED CHILDREN”). 

Hassan dissects the effects of globalisation using crude, simple signifiers, demonstrating how on the one hand it has facilitated international migration while also hindering integration, allowing bodies to travel while enabling minds to remain unmoved and unchanged. In the poem “SATELLITE,” he writes: “WE HAD NO DANISH CHANNELS / WE HAD AL JAZIRA / WE HAD AL ARABIYA / WE MADE NO PLANS / FOR ALLAH MADE PLANS FOR US”. It is a shame, therefore, considering Hassan’s keen eye for hypocrisies and malfunctioning social services that the main narrative thrust of his poems – ordered in such a way that they create a chronological narrative from abusive childhood to juvenile facilities to a life of petty crime – is such a sketchy portrait of a father who remains a disappointingly simplistic character: an abusive figure, prone to violent outbursts. Aside from one instance of giving his kids a kiss on the cheek and some pocket money as he drops them off at school, the character only ever threatens and abuses.

In an interview with the Danish daily newspaper Politiken in 2013, one of the early media appearances that turned Hassan into a household name in Denmark, Hassan remarked: “As soon as our parents landed in Kastrup[2], 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”[3]. In making his father stand in for all immigrant fathers, Hassan – intentionally or not – commits the same fallacy as the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, where the same crime is interpreted differently depending on the person committing it: an honour killing is indicative of a cultural travesty inherent in all members of the Muslim community whereas, say, Anders Breivik’s mass-murder remains an act committed by one troubled individual that in no way reflects on his ethnicity or background. The minority member’s responsibility for the minority as a whole is extended to even positive acts such as writing well-received collections of poetry: the contents of a book by Hassan immediately represent all Muslim migrants, his words representative of an entire generation – Hassan’s publisher Gyldendal, founded in 1770, even wanted to name the book Ghetto Poems.

Similarly, when the largest newspaper in Sweden chose a reviewer for this collection they gave the task to Farrokhzad, the “other” immigrant poet. Though Hassan was inspired by Knausgaard’s My Struggle which he has claimed allowed him to portray his father with the required ruthless honesty, Knausgaard’s father will never stand as a prima facie example of the Norwegian father (not to mention that Knausgaard by way of his excessive description was able to paint a much more multifaceted portrait than Hassan). The lack of insight into the monster that the father remains detracts from the powerful introductory poems that in clear, raging language portray an immigrant family attempting to fill space not built with them in mind (rather, they were intended for a Danish nuclear family) and the subsequent emulation of refugee camp conditions long after the camps themselves have been left behind:

IN THE APARTMENT I BURNED WE ALWAYS ATE ON THE FLOOR
DAD SLEPT ON A MATTRESS IN THE LIVING ROOM
THOSE OF MY SIBLINGS WHO WERE BORN
SCATTERED THROUGHOUT THE APARTMENT
ONE BY THE COMPUTER
ONE CRAWLING ON THE FLOOR AND ONE BY MUMMY IN THE KITCHEN
(…)
I SPREAD OUT LOADS OF NEWSPAPERS
UNTIL THE MOST OF THE FLOOR WAS COVERED
GAZED AT ALL THE WORDS AND PICTURES
UNTIL THE FOOD WAS BROUGHT OUT
IF DADDY SAW WORDS LIKE SEX OR COCK
OR THE IMAGE OF A SCANTILY CLAD SCANDINAVIAN
THAT WOULD APPEAL TO AN INFIDEL
HE TORE IT OUT OR TURNED THE PAPER UPSIDE-DOWN

In spite of this shallow portrait of a father who seems to always be taking a child behind closed doors and removing his belt, these opening poems remain the most forceful of the collection, the distance of time allowing for a sharpness of detail far surpassing the crime poems that come later in the chronology, poems that espouse a tiresome, unoriginal gangsta braggadocio. “GRADUATION” is the rare late poem that has Hassan contemplate a greater perspective with its description of a rebuffed act of kindness that turns into outright violence:

A CHUBBY GIRL SITTING IN A CORNER
I FEEL SORRY FOR HER AND ASKS IF SHE WANTS TO DANCE
SHE SAYS
I DON’T WANT TO DANCE WITH A PERKER[4]

This leads to:

NEXT DAY A DESCRIPTION IN JYLLANDS-POSTEN
MAN ARABIC APPEARANCE BETWEEN 20 AND 25
WANTED AFTER VIOLENT ROBBERY

The issue with Hassan’s attempt at a singular truth is the positioning of these words within the insular Danish cultural sphere: it is not so much the message – that of a young man of Middle Eastern origin pointing out the flaws of those like him – that rankles; after all, variations on this very message can be found daily in Scandinavian hip-hop (where Hassan himself first started out and, we can surmise, was the source of his aesthetics: the self-titled collection, the all-caps). Rather, it is that this truth has been packaged by the old Danish cultural guard into a book of poems and has been presented to a mainly white, poetry-reading middle class as capital-T Truth. Hassan’s words are not directed at minorities or the people he is denouncing; instead, the third person form dominates the poems, and his poems mimic and emulate the voice of minorities. In extensively homogenous societies such as Denmark or Sweden, minorities only get to have one voice at a time.

 

iv.

TWO GUYS FROM 9TH GRADE
ATE A MUSHROOM AND BURNT DOWN THE SCHOOL

- Yahya Hassan, “THE MILL”

Your mother gave you the name of a warrior to equip you for the winter

-  Athena Farrokhzad, Vitsvit

Screenshot from an ad by the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats, showing a large group of veiled Muslim women with prams rushing to overtake an old lady on her way to receive limited government funds. (Source)

Similar to Farrokhzad’s invocation of white motifs, Hassan turns to fire as a source of imagery: in his Denmark, apartments, schools and cars are routinely set aflame. After all, what better element to use to signal a rejection of these snow-covered countries and their socialist states? Though the 2013 Husby riots in Stockholm received unusual media attention, the truth is that the youth in these suburbs – filled with the massive concrete block housing developments of Sweden’s Million Programme[5] intended to create “good, democratic citizens” – have set cars and storage units on fire for years out of boredom and the isolation segregation forces upon people where employment, prospects, money and of course mainstream culture will forever be out of reach.

Cars burning in the Stockholm suburb Husby during the 2013 riots. (Photo by Telefonkiosk, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is therefore laudable that Farrokhzad has created a work that tempers the migrant’s disillusionment without allowing it to become rage, but as an author, she has an intellectual distance to the topic by way of her relative maturity (compared to the nineteen year-old Hassan) and years of political activism. She has had the time to hone her anger and use it as a constructive tool; as such it is perhaps not surprising that her work appears more measured than Hassan’s. The difference in prospects for the two authors cannot be ignored either: a Persian family fleeing the Islamic Revolution to Sweden in the 1980s (My family arrived here in a Marxist tradition” is Vitsvit’s opening verse) will have had different opportunities than Palestinian refugees arriving in Denmark in the 90s. Again, not all migrants have the same story. Farrokhzad emerges as the “objective” poet creating a collage of various viewpoints, anchoring them in the works of Celan and Fanon, while Hassan, the centre point of every experience recounted, is the verbose teenager raging against the immediate hypocrisies of society that the older Farrokhzad has since long looked beyond. YouTube clips of Hassan performing show him delivering his verses in an affected monotone, cadence mimicking the Muslim call to prayer as he recites “I I PISS ON ALLAH AND ON HIS MESSENGER” as though he were chanting from the very mosques from which he has now been banned.

In her review of Hassan’s book, Farrokhzad writes:

Fuck, I thought. A young debut poet with Palestinian background who accuses the Muslim diaspora of hypocrisy, misogyny and general barbarism, what a godsend for the Danish People’s Party. When I get the book in my hand, it has already sold a hundred thousand copies and given new fuel to the never-ending debate about those who cannot be integrated./blockquote>
This accusation later riled Hassan when Farrokhzad was mentioned in an interview. As he remarks of her:

I think she is a hypocrite. She talks about racism all the time and says she has experiences that she can not talk about for something she calls a white society, because she feels so much racism. But I think this is racism in itself.

It could be argued that in spite of the rage filling Hassan’s pages, permeated as they are with the cynicism of disaffected youth, he shows an idealism that Farrokhzad can no longer afford as a mere voice amongst many, without having to consider the work’s reception. Here, segregated Muslim communities would be freed from Islamophobic representations of them as the bogeyman du jour and would, instead of resorting to death threats, be able to shrug off the perceived insults found in “LONG POEM”, where Hassan writes in the broken Danish associated with immigrants:

WHAT IT IS YOU TELL YOURSELF
ABOUT YOUR GOD
WITH SKUNK ODOUR ON YOUR MOUTH?
YOU YOU ARE MUSLIM?
YOU YOU DON’T KNOW
IF YOU WANT HALAL OR HARAM
YOU YOU KNOW YOU WANT HARAM
BUT YOU YOU PRETEND TO WANT HALAL
YOU YOU DON’T WANT TO EAT PORK
MAY ALLAH REWARD YOU FOR YOUR EATING HABITS
YOU YOU WANT FRIDAY PRAYER TIL NEXT FRIDAY PRAYER
YOU YOU WANT RAMADAN TIL NEXT RAMADAN
AND BETWEEN FRIDAY PRAYERS AND RAMADANS
YOU YOU WANT KNIFE IN POCKET
YOU YOU WANT TO BUMP INTO PEOPLE
AND ASK IF THEY HAVE PROBLEM
THOUGH ONLY PROBLEM IT IS YOU
YOU YOU WANT DANISH CUNT
UNTIL YOU WANT MY SISTER

Seen through such a prism, Hassan’s work certainly seems braver than Vitsvit with its reticence and variety of intertextual flourishes. In the end, however, Hassan’s stance rather resembles naiveté more than it does idealism. In presenting the father as a lazy, hypocritical lout and the narrator as an immoral, wannabe gangster, Hassan ultimately uses archetypes just as Farrokhzad does, but where she uses said archetypes to deconstruct our monolithic view of the immigrant and to, as she states in an interview, “use the ruler’s tools to tear down the ruler’s house”, Hassan uses them to look at his own  people with the same eye as the native. Indeed, he demands to know if there is any truth in the ways in which immigrants are portrayed by society and culture. Though it is Farrokhzad who makes overt references to the work of Frantz Fanon throughout Vitsvit, ultimately Hassan’s book is also indebted to Fanon, illustrating as it does his quote that the oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.


[1] This and all other excerpts by Hassan and Farrokhzad are my own translation, unless otherwise specified.

[2] Copenhagen’s airport.

[3] Translation: Pedja Jurisic in the LA Review of Books

[4] Danish derogative epitet indicating a middle eastern immigrant.

[5] A controversial housing programme implemented in Sweden between 1965 and 1974 that aimed to build a million new homes in a 10-year period.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Agri Ismaïl is based in Sweden and Iraq. His work has previously appeared in The White Review (online), Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera and the Swedish journal Glänta amongst other places. He tweets at @a9ri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 18th, 2014.