Immigrants Who Can Do More Than Just Rap

In his literary debut, "One Eye Red", first published in Sweden, Jonas Hassan Khemiri tells the story of 15-year-old Halil, whose diary is an attempt to write himself an "Arab identity". Christine Müller spoke with the author

photo: Johan Markusson
Jonas Hassan Khemiri: "As an adolescent, I tried to distance myself from Swedish identity"

​​Your book was published in Sweden in 2003. What was the public reaction like?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: Very good. Some people saw the book as the "true immigrant voice" finally making itself heard. In reality, though, I was trying to question whether there is any such thing as "the authentic immigrant voice. What do we mean when we say "immigrant"?

Is the issue of hybrid identity becoming more important in young Swedish literature?

Khemiri: Yes. No matter what their age and ethnicity, writers are increasingly examining their relationship to the Swedish language. I find that very inspiring. My protagonist also uses language to help him in his search for identity: Halil speaks perfect Swedish. But when he speaks with Swedes, he adopts immigrant slang, changes the word order and creates words of his own. That is his attempt to ward off total conformity.

Halil rebels against the discontinuation of Arabic lessons at school and against his liberal father. How much do you identify with this attitude?

Khemiri: As an adolescent I tried to distance myself from Swedish identity – to the point of completely romanticizing my Arab origins. Once I said to my father: "We'll be going home soon." My father asked: "What do you mean?" Like the protagonist of my novel, I was born in Sweden. But the book is not a biography, it is fiction. Some critics equate Halil's black-and-white view of the world with my attitude, even though I am trying to describe and expose his way of thinking.

Is this a critique of a failed policy of integration?

Khemiri: Halil's attitude is an example for a particular reaction. When you are constantly reminded that you don't look Swedish, you tend to see yourself as "not Swedish". I am more concerned with what is meant by referring to someone as "Swedish". What is a real Swede? Do you have to shop at Ikea, be blond or listen to Abba? Am I a real Swede or a Swedicized Arab? I'm tired of the way people constantly focus on cultural differences; I advocate looking at people as individuals.

In Germany, Sweden's policy of integration is regarded as exemplary. Has it changed over the past ten years?

Khemiri: Slowly but surely people are no longer asking how immigrants can integrate themselves into Swedish society, but rather what discriminatory processes in Swedish society are keeping immigrants from finding their place. Should we try to train immigrants to become Swedes, should they have to pass Swedish tests before they are admitted? The real issue is to integrate Swedish people into the modern globalized world.

What brought about this shift in consciousness?

Khemiri: My book, of course (laughs). People are gradually realizing that they can't always look at the differences, at what "Swedish" is supposed to mean. People can always find something that disqualifies you from being "Swedish", be it language skills, skin color, etc. According to these criteria, we will never be Swedish. And for me it is important to show that it is not the immigrants who are the problem here.

Interview: Christine Müller

© Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch/ 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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