By Riema Ali and Ali Ali (Aab) • Illustration by Casper Øbro • From #11, 2015
A: Wars, discrimination, terrorism and racism. In the whole world it is all going in the same direction. I am not sure if this is the reality or what we are made to see. But I can feel the hate everywhere. I might be exaggerating, and my personal insecurity could be playing a role, but I feel helpless. You cannot resist the whole movement of hate. It is like a tide or a big torrent that is taking everybody. It is like a natural phenomenon, a disaster. If you don’t have a religion or some kind of spirituality, you need to create your own. Develop your own defense mechanism or your own religion, myths and illusions to help you cope with this harsh reality.
R: What was the first defense mechanism you adopted?
A: The first one was an idealization of myself – idealization of everything that was rejected in a process of conflict. I came here and I felt forced into an identity that I did not choose. An identity based on the stereotypes and prejudice that were born several centuries before I existed. So I went back to myself. I tried to find some elements that I could use as my base in order to restore my self-esteem and the parts that were damaged by – let’s call it – the hate and the hostility that I found in society. I was aware of that mechanism … I like psychoanalysis. I also went back to the culture I came from and started finding positive aspects of it and idealizing them. Some of them really exist. After all, any culture is superior to others in one aspect or another.
R: Like what? Give me an example.
A: Well, it is going to be simplistic. Imagine yourself alone at home in the evening. And somebody is knocking on the door, not planned. It is the spontaneous intimacy between people, taken for granted in “the East”. You need that kind of intimacy. Here in Europe – if you can generalize – there is some kind of distance. It is nothing new, but maybe I am saying it in my own words. It is the basic need of intimacy and communication that is granted and fulfilled on a more spontaneous, less calculated and less self-conscious level. I am not saying that it does not exist here. But maybe there are different levels in different cultures. In short it is intimacy, close relations. You can rephrase that any way you want. I think you understand it.
R: So it is the consumerist culture. It is almost as if you have to pay for much of what you used to have granted in abundance. The scarcity you experienced was mostly material, while you lived in abundance of social interactions and human compassion.
A: But this mechanism is not enough. You need to relate to people around you. Self-glorification and self-worship becomes ridiculous, especially if you end up disconnected from the people around you. Not disconnected in a physical way, but in an emotional way on the deeper levels of communication. You also need the acknowledgement of people around you. That is harder to accomplish. The second mechanism is looking for somebody who really thinks like you. Somebody you identify with.
R: Maybe I can identify with you, because during my first year here I missed everything I used to do. No way to communicate anything from my background. No way to translate the jokes that I used to tell. It was hard, because I did not share anything with anyone.
A: I totally disagree with you. For me it is not about sharing something. I believe that we all share the same needs and values, but we express and project them in different ways. But the point of communication was missing. The deep level of communication was hard to get to. I had a feeling of social distance from the people around me.
A: The second problem may be derived from the first one. It is hate. Distance leads to hate. It was not that somebody hated me, it was something more. If I want to put it in a provocative and simplistic way, I would say that everybody hated everybody on the basis of stereotypes and prejudice. My experience in central Europe did not correspond with my expectations of a Europe that overcame two world wars – and a long cold war – to come to terms with its diversity and put aside the hostility. I found groups of nations pathologically proud of their affiliations and imbued with a division and hatred that I had expected to have disappeared a long time ago.
R: Like what?
A: To my surprise, Europeans had problems with each other. It was not only prejudice against me on the basis of my Arab background. But the way Russians are rejected in Central and Eastern Europe, how the Roma people are vilified, how Ukrainians and Russians demonized each other. It would even go as far as people from the same nation and same country looking down upon each other and exchanging negative stereotypes. You cannot avoid that intergroup conflict. Facing this, I found myself helpless. I would have friends belonging to different groups and hear them talk negatively about each other, seriously and systematically justifying stereotypes and vilification of each other. This would appall me. Not because I am an angel or a radical philanthropist, I am too naughty to be that, but it is easy to realize that I am also prone to be blown by this storm of group hate. I belong to one of those groups, and not just any group, but a group that is internationally vilified, so I would be the biggest loser.
R: Have you ever expressed this kind of prejudice?
A: To some extent. I think I did, against some groups back in Syria. Like the strictly orthodox Muslims and others, whose values and practices differed much from mine. But that was a teenage issue for me. As you grow up you start to understand people more. However, that never affected my personal relations with people and I was always able to question the wider iron cast image of other groups. For example, when Iraqi refugees came in huge numbers into Syria after the War in Iraq, Iraqis were depicted in a very negative light as taking the jobs and money from Syrians. But I could never see them that way. I don’t think it is only because of my good economic situation that never forced me into a harsh competition for jobs and finances. I mean, come on! It is stupid to ignore the problem of corruption and crimes, committed by politicians, and lay the blame on Iraqis. It was easy to see that they were used and abused for a political agenda. In problems of intergroup hostility, ethics is not the most important thing. But look how dangerous it could get. Ethics aside, prejudice and intergroup hostility is simply dangerous and stupid. People who behave and talk like that are sowing the seeds of social unrest, if not war. And it is a food chain of groups looking down upon each other and vilifying each other. In Prague, for example, I have a friend who says she hates Russians, and I told her that her attitude towards Russians is identical to the attitude of some Czechs towards her. And she said she knew that. I felt that it was a dead end. When somebody is proud of their hate, they need a shock to open their eyes.
R: How do you feel about belonging to a group that is criminalized, I mean Arabs or Muslims? Have you been put in a position where you find yourself attacking them in order to distance yourself from them and disidentify with them?
A: Belonging to a criminalized group? Well, to your surprise, I have started to like it. I did not adopt their identity. I even think the majority of Arabs and Muslims have values that considerably contradict with mine. Instead of changing my identity, I added mine to theirs. I feel like one of them now, in matters of being misunderstood and unjustly treated and misjudged. I don’t share the traditional views and religious devotion, but I share much of their experience, and I feel I understand them better than many others do, which brings me closer to them in an alienating atmosphere like that in “the West”. I felt like defending some group, not because I identify with them, but simply because I felt it is right to give my point of view, which is definitely more enlightened than that of any Westerner here. Not because I have any extra mental powers, but just because I happened to live among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, and I had the chance to understand their relations and psychology – if not thoroughly – better than people here do.
R: I think your case is quite different from those who want to break away with their background through participation in the campaign against that background. I have seen examples of Arabs who openly and indiscriminately attacked Islam, and others who created an image of themselves as typical victims of that culture. I have noticed an undertone of pragmatism in what you say. You kept away from ethics and morality. How do you justify defending a culture that you do not identify with?
A: After all, we cannot break away from ethics. We, you, I, and even the people who hate us, have our own ethics, but we cannot argue using ethics as strongly as we can using facts. I am talking about hate breeding hate, and that is a social fact. If you want me to talk from a subjective point of view, I would say that I find it shameful and degrading to defend a dominant culture and take part in the vilification of the weak and disadvantaged in order to be accepted.
A: So we have been talking about me – a regular immigrant who is not taking any work from anybody. Instead I am paying money for my residence and education. I could be considered a tourist that should be welcomed. Yet I have been faced with several kinds of misunderstandings and rejection. What about you as a refugee?
R: At first sight I would be treated as …
A: A parasite?
R: No. People were very suspicious about how on earth I got here. The usual image is that of a dependent woman who got married in order to be able to enter this country. The way they perceived me has always influenced the way I got to understand Danish society. Because I think the question about how I got here is asked because they have the feeling that I am an intruder.
A: Who would ask you?
R: It could be anyone, from the immigration service to the taxi driver. They were really surprised that I could get here. Because refugees who get here are usually men who get smuggled, or at least this is probably the image they have about refugees. I don’t know. I was never what they expected. Moreover, I don’t correspond to the image of an Arab woman they might have carved into their minds. My look and behavior does not comply with the simplistic image the media creates of “Middle Easterners,” if I allow myself to use the word for the sake of science. I do not want to sound superficial, but I did not change my way of dressing or my lifestyle when I moved from Damascus to Copenhagen. If you want to talk about the deeper aspect of personality, I was also able to present myself with some kind of freedom and take responsibility for my attitudes. And I did not find myself a case in point. I think I represent many Syrian women and men, especially those with whom I grew up and shared my early years of youth.
A: And do you think that the image of an Arab woman here denies much of the diversity and individuality that you experienced back home – and still experience here?
R: Yes. On several occasions I have been faced with phrases like “Oh, I thought you were from Southern Europe or Mexico” with a tone of approval. As if it was less approved of to be from Syria.
A: So they feel they are paying you a compliment if they relate you to another identity than the Arab?
R: Exactly. And they pushed me to reflect on the fact that I am from Syria. Because they implied the undesirability of my background and the subordination of my identity to other identities. This provoked me – maybe out of a feeling of injustice – and I started to question the unjust standards they base their judgment on.
A: Don’t you think we are both radical in our arguments and the things we mentioned? We have been mentioning only the negative sides of our experience. What about the positive ones? The good examples?
R: You are talking here about stereotypes and prejudice, right? And they are – by definition – brutally generalized, so they express and influence the majority of examples. On the other hand, these prejudiced experiences cut deeply into your personality so that no matter how common they are – and you know that they are quite abundant – they occupy your whole psyche and invade all aspects of your life.
A: Now back to you being a refugee. How do you think you differ from other refugees?
R: It is the wrong question to ask. You should ask about what I have in common with other refugees. As a refugee who gets asylum you are always faced with expectations of the ideal image of a refugee. The system, at least those who are recruited by the system, expects you to fulfill that image. You are also limited by that image. The refugee who learns good Danish, and is grateful for what they get from the government, and who lives on the financial aid of the government. It usually comes as a surprise to others when they hear that I am working, or looking for a job, or even studying. So the question should not be about how I differ from real refugees, but how we all differ from the stigmatized image in our individual ways. If I am accidentally more successful in my process of integration, or if the system is treating me better than other refugees, that does not reflect positively on the system. A system should treat people as people, as human beings, and not as machines or measure them to what they achieve or “produce”. And in the case of refugees it is about how close you get to the image of an ideal national citizen, and I find that degrading to the humanity of both refugees and natives themselves.
A: I have been several times to the Trampoline House (in Copenhagen) and I have seen the wide spectrum of ideological and religious affiliations the members belong to. How do you think they see you? Especially those refugees who do not share your values and points of view?
R: For me it is always hard to be different and hard to express myself in a way that is not provocative. Still, we have this feeling of belonging; of sharing the same suffering and – believe it or not – it surpasses much of the ideological and spiritual differences. Automatically, when you ride with people on the same bus, live through the same fears and wait for the same relief, many boundaries wither away.
A: What about competition between you?
R: Between refugees who have almost nothing to lose, there is no competition. And what I have learned from these guys is that when you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fight over. And by “nothing to lose” I don’t mean the emotional attachment they develop and the personal intimacy, because it is all they have got. And everything else is subordinated to that in such a situation of alienation and uncertainty.
A: As an Arab woman who does not correspond to the conventional image, did you experience prejudice from the refugees and immigrants themselves?
R: Of course, but you cannot ascribe it to a whole group. There are individual cases and it becomes a marginal thing in the face of all other problems, if not for them, then definitely for me. And I have seen many examples of those refugees who integrate their values and the humanistic aspects of their culture into the atmosphere of freedom they can enjoy here. This shows not that these different cultures are inherently contradictory, but how complementary they can be.
A: How do you feel about radical nationalist movements? Do you feel targeted? What are the psychological implications for you?
R: For better or worse, I do not feel targeted. Because I am usually faced by approving remarks about how “accept refugees like me” and how they “have no problem with refugees like me”. I do not feel targeted, but I feel offended by such views. I am not a piece of product to be chosen, tried and approved. Neither are those refugees who do not share my status.
A: What do you do in the face of hate?
R: I cannot change the world. But I believe that I can change a small community around me. One thing is for sure; we cannot stay passive. I communicate one message to empower someone who thinks like me, or to those who disagree with me, and I don’t think it is bad to start a huge discussion with the opposite side. Two words that describe my strategy of coping with hate is: never ignore… I will always have my way to react to those remarks that I find ignorant, and in the process, I will also learn from them. Who am I to claim that I know better about everything?