An Arab Comes to Town

This is the name of a documentary made by the Danish journalist Georg Larsen and Lebanese filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein. The film shows Ahmad on his first trip to Denmark meeting Danes with Arabic backgrounds and hearing them tell about their lives in Denmark. It was shown on Danish TV one or two years ago. And this Monday it was screened for the first time at a cinema here in Beirut.

I write that it’s about Danes with Arabic backgrounds, but part of the film actually explores whether they are Danes or not. Ahmad speaks to first and second generation. He meets the boys on their way towards a life in crime and girls dreaming of becoming engineers. And they talk about their views on the Danish society, on Danes and on where they feel they belong.

I saw the film in Denmark, but quite enjoyed watching it again. It was interesting for me, because while I often agreed with or could understand many of their conclusions, I often disagreed with the path they took to get there. Very generally I would divide the young people into two groups. The well-educated and well-behaved (mainly girls) and the “tough guys”, who don’t care about school, don’t care about work…. Don’t really care about much except getting time to pass as easily as possible. At least on the surface.

It quite quickly becomes clear that those tough guys actually do care about a lot of things. They say they don’t feel like they belong in Denmark, but that they belong even less in Lebanon (or whichever Arab country). But there’s no doubt that they have a giant wish to belong somewhere. So when they drop out of school, start stealing for fun and end up stabbing someone and going to jail it’s not because they don’t care or respect the Danish society (like quite a few Danes are beginning to think). It’s frustration with not feeling they belong anywhere. And I understand that feeling. It’s a big part of why I’m now in Beirut.

However, their tendency to blame society for everything I don’t agree with. And I personally think that many of the problems they have are exactly the same as the problems many ethnic Danes who grow up under the same circumstances have. I also think it’s a shame that they make it so easy for Danes to shut down and ignore the problems that are really there. Cause why should Danes care that a young boy who is more interested in smoking hash than doing his math homework doesn’t feel at home? If the same guy went to school, became productive somehow and then chose to leave the country it would seem like a much bigger loss. And I guess part of me feels that they don’t have a right to give up on a country that they haven’t given a real chance. Even if they feel the country won’t give them a chance.

But while I understand the boys’ frustration, I admire the girls’ stamina. They insist that they are Danish no matter what other people tell them. They insist on proving that they are good Danes by going to university, getting jobs and becoming law biding citizens like everyone else. And they insist that all those things can be done while wearing a veil.

I take my hat off to those girls and all other Danish/Lebanese/Arab/Muslim or whatever, who insist on their right to define who they are instead of letting the majority do it for them.

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