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Swede of the Week
A writer who dared a minister to get in his skin

A writer who dared a minister to get in his skin

Published: 14 Mar 2013 15:50 GMT+01:00
Updated: 14 Mar 2013 15:50 GMT+01:00

An open letter by Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri challenging Justice Minister Beatrice Ask to "change skin" with him has sparked an unprecedented response in an ongoing debate about race and ethnicity, making him our pick for Swede of the Week.

Until Wednesday, the 34-year-old Khemiri was probably best known for his 2003 debut novel One Eye Red (Ett öga rott), which went on to be a best seller and earned the young author the Borås Tidning award for best literary debut.

Since then, he's written additional award-winning novels and several plays, a number of which have been translated to other languages and produced on stages abroad, and been hailed as one of Sweden's most talented young writers.

However, none of Khemiri's works has arguably generated as much immediate and wide-ranging response as the roughly 2,000 words he penned for Wednesday's edition of the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.

The text, entitled Dear Beatrice (Bästa Beatrice) was billed as an "open letter" to Sweden's justice minister and written in response to comments she made about the ongoing Reva project, which stands for Rättssäkert och effektivt verkställighetsarbete ('Legal and effective execution of policy').

Speaking on Sveriges Radio (SR) last week, Ask defended the controversial programme, which resulted in "foreign-looking" commuters being subject to random ID-checks on the Stockholm metro system in an effort to round up and deport illegal immigrants.

SEE ALSO: A list of The Local's past Swedes of the Week

Khemiri reacted to Ask's explanation that "there are people who have been previously convicted who always feel they are under suspicion".

"Interesting choice of words: 'previously convicted'. Because that's exactly what we are. All of us who are guilty until proven otherwise," he wrote, questioning both the Reva project as well as Ask's ability to fully appreciate the sentiments of victims of racism.

"I'm writing to you with one simple wish, Beatrice Ask," Khemiri continued.

"I wanted us to trade skins and experience. Come on. Let's just do it."

Khemiri, who was born in Stockholm to a Tunisian father and Swedish mother, then describes a range of personal experiences, from being chased by skinheads to being followed by police who "circulate like sharks", to illustrate the fact that "it's impossible to be a part of a community when the Power constantly assumes that one is the Other".

"But the guards continue to spy and somewhere, deep down, deep in our common body, there is probably a shameful pleasure in getting a taste of that structure that trapped our fathers; to get an explanation as to why our fathers never succeeded here; why their dreams died in a sea of returned applications letters," he writes.

It didn't take long for Khemiri's open letter to make waves across Sweden. By Wednesday morning, a #BästaBeatrice hashtag appeared on Twitter in which people shared their own experiences of racism in Sweden or offered criticism of Reva and the justice minister.

As it happens, the hashtag was spawned by 23-year-old Arman Maroufkhani, who moved from Stockholm to Dublin two years ago.

"When mum, who's worked in the Swedish pharmaceuticals industry longer than I've been alive, looks for work and is asked if she can take a language test #BästaBeatrice," his tweet read.

By the end of the day, the article generated more than 250,000 views on DN's website, more clicks than the most popular article of 2012 had generated in an entire year.

The article was also shared more than 60,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and garnered more than 120,000 likes.

According to one social media expert, the article reached more or less every Twitter user in Sweden.

"For starters, it's a very good article, but it also contains a clear conflict and turns directly to a known person. That's a classic approach that works on Twitter which is very polarizing," Hampus Brynolf, a digital strategist at Intellecta told DN.

When reached by The Local for reaction, Khemiri seemed a bit taken aback by the response, but refused to be interviewed.

"I sort of feel I've said all that I need to say in the piece," he said.

Indeed, he also passed up on an opportunity to meet Ask face-to-face on Sveriges Television (SVT) on Thursday morning, leaving the justice minister to respond to Khemiri's challenge without him being in the room.

Speaking on SVT, Ask reiterated that police have "very clear" rules and that they can't arrest someone "simply because they have dark hair".

"This us and them mentality is regrettable," she added, admitting that Sweden has a "hidden xenophobia that makes people feel like they are on the outside".

Khemiri's text in DN elaborated on this "inner struggle" he and other Swedes with foreign-born parents face in engaging with Swedish society.

"One voice says: they have no bloody right to prejudge us. They damn well can't close off the city with their uniforms. They aren't allowed to make us insecure in our own neighbourhoods," he writes.

"But the other voice says: what if it is our fault? We spoke too loudly. We had hoodies and sneakers on. Our jeans were too big and had a suspiciously high number of pockets. We made the mistake of having a skin colour associated with criminality."

The themes touched on in the open letter are ones that feature prominently in many of his works, which often have protagonists with foreign backgrounds.

"Does anyone at all understand anything about a story that is not their own?" one of the primary characters, Kadir, asks in Khemiri’s second novel, Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger.

Another short reflection Khemiri wrote for DN in the wake of the 2010 suicide bombing explored the feelings of Amor as he tried to act "normal" amidst an intense police hunt.

Entitled I Call My Brother (Jag ringer min bror), the piece has since been expanded into a book and adapted to the stage with the production currently touring across Sweden.

Khemiri's text closes with a back and forth of questions and explanations related to Reva and Ask's explanation that it "wasn't about racial profiling but rather 'personal experiences'".

"And here you cut in and say: but how hard is it to understand? Everyone must follow the law. And we answer: but what if the Law is illegal?" he writes before highlighting the helplessness felt by many in the face of Reva and what it represents.

"Reva is a logical extension of constant, low-intensity oppression; Reva will live on in our inability to formulate our hardened national image.

"And tonight in a queue outside a pub near you, non-white people will systematically spread out so they aren't stopped by the bouncer, and tomorrow in your housing queue, those with foreign names will use their partner's surname in order to avoid being passed over, and recently in a job application a totally regular Swede wrote "BORN AND RAISED IN SWEDEN" in upper-case letters simply because she knows what will happen otherwise."

David Landes

Follow David Landes on Twitter

Editor's Note: The Local's Swede of the week is someone in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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Your comments about this article

16:49 March 14, 2013 by skogsbo
So basically he is man enough to force an issue, via email, websites or twitter, but when the very person he 'targeted' the article at asks to meet him 'face to 'face', which would seem the polite, civil and normal way to communicate, he refuses. He is clearly carrying his parents' chips on his shoulders, for some reason and even when he is given a fair crack of the whip, he turns it down. No respect from me.
17:07 March 14, 2013 by TG22
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
17:24 March 14, 2013 by just a question
That man is a writer, his job is make people think, but apparently this is too much to ask from Swedes
17:26 March 14, 2013 by skogsbo
I wouldn't mind if he just wrote a so called 'opinion piece', but he used the media to specifically target someone, then denied them a civil response. Very spoilt child like. It's like "hey look I'm an immigrant and I can say what I like and don't you dare speak against me, because I'll label you a racist etc.." just like that other guy.
18:28 March 14, 2013 by Rishonim
Kol hakavod Jonas Hassen Khemiri. I respect and appreciate your insight. Don't pay heed to the racist posters on TL, they are nothing but a bunch of small people.
18:30 March 14, 2013 by EmployedProfessional
The idea of Beatrice, butt-naked on that SVT sound stage,shaking in her winter boots was the point!

Her dead minded,thoughtless drivle filled that studio well enough.

She jst kept digging and digging herself in deeper and deeper as expected!

What a first class fool.

I hope she actually views the segment and at least trys to engage in some personal assessment,if she's capable of it!

Mr.Khemiri will have plenty to work with now when he (without a doubt) faces her in future programs!

He's playing the fool for all she's worth.
18:36 March 14, 2013 by awash
thanks David Landes for translating this wonderful piece, one of the best I ever read in a while, and to which I relate myself in many respects. Hmm, easier said than done for the above commentators as you've never been in Khemiri's nor my shoes. Spoilt child? oh give me a break, either you've not read the whole article or you're just trying tarnish a guy who spoke the truth about the consequences of having a little bit more melanin than people like Ask in this country. Just let's swap our skins for an hour and then you will understand how it feels to live like this all of your life.
18:55 March 14, 2013 by notpresto
I don't understand why so many Sweds of different ethnic backgrounds have a problem with this issue. When it is the very law that is being targeted that of "illegal immigration' that protects the opportunity of lawful immigrants to live in Sweden. I feel strongly when the place I waited in line for and the hoops I jumped through are ok for some and not others.

Maybe that is not the case, we all want to be "Law abiding citizens" and there for it seems that the profiling is the real issue here.

Profiling clearly is not a perfect system by its very nature, it just happens to be one of the most effective tools in targeting any criminal and is a common place aspect of investigative law enforcement. I mean why would I enter "Volvo" on Blocket when I am looking for a "Lada". You could always search every make and model but what a waste of time and effort.

What I found most disappointing of Jonas Hassen Khemiri was his lack of courage. His lack of courage to offer a solution to the problem that we all face. His lack of courage to stand face to face and bring real and intelligent debate with Justice Minister Beatrice Ask. Instead making the choice to strike from the security of his keyboard.

To me when you find a problem or issue do not fear to scream it from the hills as Mr Khemiri has to his credit, just be prepared to offer a solution, a way forward and to face those whom move to offend or upset you. Otherwise your point will be missed and you risk just being branded another whinger.
19:12 March 14, 2013 by Svensksmith
He's too skinny. His skin wouldn't fit me.
19:27 March 14, 2013 by skogsbo
Awash, the solution for better treatment of all immigrants, more employment opportunity, better language tuition etc is to say half the number of us immigrants, you just can't have your cake and eat it. I think most immigrants would prefer to come here and take a chance with the massively over stretched system, than stay in their home country?
19:45 March 14, 2013 by Khazara
The denial of racism is essential for it to be practiced-
20:05 March 14, 2013 by grainofsand
Kudos to Khemiri for writing what he did

And Kudos also to Ask for acknowledging the "hidden xenophobia that makes people feel like they are on the outside"

Hopefully this article and more like it will spark up a debate and push for a change in Swedish culture.
20:11 March 14, 2013 by EmployedProfessional
My second and third generation friends had better jump in to this matter and put an end to it.

Hey,I can always relocate if it gets too stupid here.

In a very big way,they have more to lose than us newly arrrived folks who are justifiably p o'ed.

This is their home and THIS IS A HORRIBLE SLIGHT TO THEM most of all!!!

Asians,Africans,and all others who look"different",WAKE UP!!

This is your moment!

This is your country too!
22:28 March 14, 2013 by biliousbob
My father is from Jordan and my mom from the UK. I am just as dark as this guy. Sweden is great. Its clean, its safe and society functions. If the police want to ask me a simple question to know that I am legal who cares? Two minutes to help keep this place like the reason we came here in the first place. No problems. If I cheat on the subway fare and they get me then I deserve it. Why is it that so many people come here, to a successful country, with financial success, low crime and low corruption and then start complaining. You came here because it is successful, not because it is a failed state! If you came here to challenge the system and the system changes you will have destroyed the whole reason you came here in the first place. Sweden has given me much more than I have given Sweden and if they want two minutes of my time they can have it.
23:19 March 14, 2013 by goldenabdullah
To Mrs Ask, YOu do not needing to live in his skin. I am living in his skin every day. Even more dark and I am telling you how it is. Sweden is great in this skin. That is why so much is coming here. Sweden more generous than Germany and France and everything.

In my country we say the loudest mouth tell teh biggerst lie. Pleese Sweden do not listen to this loudmouth.
23:34 March 14, 2013 by Max Reaver
Have you read his books before? His "Ett öga rött" has been made into a movie, and I liked it a lot. Basically it was about a young man's struggle with his foreign identity while attempting to find his place in society. The low level of oppression as the author mentioned in the open letter is clearly illustrated as numerous examples in the book, of which I myself recognized a few. If you have read the book or watched the movie, then you will understand why he's doing this. Calling him a coward for not confronting Ask in SVT is also an act of cowardice. What were you doing when he raised the issue?

Kudos to Khemiri for his initiative, and kudos to Ask to openly admit the existence of hidden xenophobia in the society. Smart solutions will come, especially when the whole society starts discussing about it. But first, you have to wake them up from the slumber of denial. Don't blame the guy for not taking the second step after he took the first. Because all of us here, me included, can't even do half of what he has done!
23:56 March 14, 2013 by Svensksmith
I tip my hat to you, biliousbob.
01:07 March 15, 2013 by Eric1
This man's motive seem to be racist. He is using his skin color to demonize others. Shame on his shallow mind.
06:46 March 15, 2013 by coldjava
Hahah what a joke...

I understand why this is most especially painful for some. 'Some' refers to the mixed swedish folks who are half swedish, half asian, african or whatever.

Here's a news for you. Somalis and black Africans have been experiencing discrimination since who knows when. Reminds me of a foreign looking migration broad woman who gave me hell when I applied for my student permit extension. The case was later transfered to a swedish man and was approved in a week. Accept that you're unique and refusing to alter your way of life to more Swedish like is the first step. Not the best example but I've seen mixed race people of African/Caucasian decent refer to themselves as African American in the US.

Welcome to the club.
07:40 March 15, 2013 by RobinHood
Illegal immigration seems to be the cause of much friction in Sweden. It seems about one in ten non- European looking people is living here illegally. That figure is way too high, no wonder the police are suspicious. Get the number of illegal immigrants down to a tolerable level, and the problem will go away, as the police turn to more important issues instead.
08:19 March 15, 2013 by hpunlimited
No matter what country you move to or what government is in place. Prepare yourself always to be at a disadvantage, that is just the way it is. Is it racism? nope.

Humans were created to live in small kinships and communities and it is up to the newcomer to fit in, not to make the community fit in with you.

Sorry but the government is not your daddy or your mommy and responsible if your are being discriminated against by some guy on the street.

Also it makes me wonder if this Jonas-clown thinks that prisoners are violated against their freedom of movement when they are locked up. I am sorry dude, but if you are breakting the law and not paying for your "tunnelbana" ticket, shoplifting etc and the police finds out that your are here illegally, why shouldnt they be allowed to check ? should they only do background checks on swedes with white skin then? because they certainly check every lawbreaker, that is just common sense.
10:25 March 15, 2013 by Frobobbles
Am I correct when observing that the arguments about REVA in this man's article are zero? All his 'arguments' are emotional stories about childhood and other irrelevant things?
13:53 March 15, 2013 by Migga
What`s the point of this writers article? To play out emotional arguments and list all the negative events in his life? To what end? What does he hope to achieve with this? Raise awareness? Well I guess he did but I`d say that most know that those that look different are treated different. No matter if it`s ones skincolor, haircolor, sex or cloths.

Was his point to get an auidience with Beatrice Ask? Well he did but now he doesn`t want to face her?

Was his point solve the issue? How? In what way? He didn`t offer any aswers, he just listed all the faults. There was nothing constructive in his criticism.

Sweden has racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia and hate towards gays or religious people. Just like all countries do. If Beatrice Ask moved to another country where she`d look different she would experience the same things, if not worse. She doesn`t need to change skin, she just has to get on a plane.

Racism is hardly something unique to Sweden. It`s bad that the author has experienced the things he has, it shouldn`t happen. At the same time it`s good to hear he hasn`t been killed, raped or assulted because that`s what happen in some countries. Sweden has work to do but it has come a long way. That should be celebrated and used as motivation to work from. Having articles where the issue is cheapen by emotional arguments won`t lead to the problem being solved.
16:43 March 15, 2013 by kemoe
Wake up Sweden, Your days are numbered if you don't!
16:54 March 15, 2013 by Max Reaver
Have you even understood the context of this open letter? The letter is meant as a response to Ask's comment. Ask said:

"Upplevelsen av varför någon har frågat mig kan ju vara väldigt personlig. Det finns tidigare dömda som uppfattar att de alltid är ifrågasatta, fast det syns ju inte på någon att man har begått ett brott. (…) För att göra en bedömning av om polisen arbetar enligt lagar och regler så måste man ha helhetsperspektivet."

She implied two things, one, the feeling that one is discriminated against is only personal emotions and from the broader perspective, there is no racism in the legal action of the police. Second, by saying "previously convicted" she implied that dark-skinned people all may have committed crimes earlier, even though it's not conspicuous. As a response, Khemiri is challenging her POV by relating the so-called "personal emotion" to racism. This is by showing how racism manifests and becomes visible as people's feeling when discriminated against.
17:01 March 15, 2013 by notpresto
@ Max Reaver

What have I done?

I have looked my wife and three sons in the eye and said what could of been my final goodbyes to travel to places in the world where people struggle everyday with death and oppression to try and bring a little of the opportunity that have been afforded me to them. I have cleared landmines from football fields, helped rebuild girls schools and ravaged communities of people whos names I will never know.

These are my actions my way of trying to leave the world a better place then I when I found it.

It is the cowardice of man that Khemiri is struck by. That by which we stand by and allow it to happen. It is always easy to take the first step when the risks are so small. I too can stand on Twitter and Facebook and say "Hey everyone there are racists out there and I dont like it one little bit." Why not just tell the world that night follows day.

Imagine the changes that would have been made if Rosa Park just decided to pen a nasty letter to the bus company or the Unknown Rebel of Tiannemen Square said well "They will hear about this on Twitter"

Actions will always speak louder then words, and when the words are as powerful as Jonas Hassen Khemiri are then his actions would be well...... I guess we will never know.

The most disappointing and heart breaking thing I have ever read of Khemiri is

"I sort of feel I've said all that I need to say in the piece,"

Really! Nearly the whole of Sweden is listening and you stay seated at the back of the bus. Cowardice indeed.
11:26 March 16, 2013 by Max Reaver

You underestimate the power of words. Words can become the beacon for people to rally behind. I dare you to say that Martin Luther King's famous speech is an act of "cowardice" because it was only words and not your kind of action? I also dare you to say that Obama's "change" didn't help him win the election? King's "I have a dream" has inspired a whole nation. Khemiri is leagues away from King, but his action of speaking up has achieved a similar effect, albeit on a smaller scale. Immigrants nationwide followed his example and shared their experience on Twitter, where they can be read and heard. They rallied behind Khemiri's open letter to Ask. This is an act of defiance against the hidden norm of never admitting the existence of hidden xenophobia (smygracism). In a country like Sweden, it's close to an uprising.

I read Khemiri's letter in Swedish. It contained strong language, but to call it "nasty" is an exaggeration. If Rosa Park sent a letter of complaint to the bus company, which I dare you that few African-American ppl did in her time, she would've still created a storm of movement. It was her defiance that mattered. If submitting the letter is done in a good way the outcome won't be any weaker than refusing to give up her seat. Rosa wasn't even the first activist who refused giving up her seat, ever heard of Irene Morgan in 1946, 11 yrs earlier? Of course you haven't.

Now lets talk about the Tank man from Tiananmen. He was completely unknown in China due to heavy censorship. If you show his picture to a Chinese several years ago, they wouldn't even recognize it. Ironically, this changed only after the introduction of social networking platforms in China such as Twitter. The online discussions made censorship much more difficult. If Rosa and your Unknown Rebel had Twitter, they could only use it to spread the message much faster! Communication is different compared to when you were born so live with it.

As to why Khemiri refused to talk in SVT, my guess is he didn't expect his letter to be taken this seriously. After all, if you lived your life under perceived low-level oppression, you'd expect the letter to be brushed off rather than making a huge impact. Khemiri never prepared to debate in such a short notice. Even presidential candidates in US must take time to prepare for debate, Ask really didn't give him much.
13:31 March 16, 2013 by Migga
@ Max Reaver

"In a country like Sweden"

What do you mean?
23:27 March 16, 2013 by Max Reaver

What do you think I mean? :P

What I meant is something of this magnitude is very unheard of in Sweden.
08:28 March 17, 2013 by Migga
@ Max Reaver

Ok, good. I wanted to find out before I went on a rant. But if that`s what you meant then there is no need.
13:40 March 17, 2013 by KFF
It's an interesting text about Khemiri, written by Mohamed Omar (one of the other migrant literary stars in Sweden. Thrown out when he became a radicalised muslim and somewhat antisemitic due to his experiences in the swedish media together with the middle eastern conflicts):

"Then, while I was still fresh as a writer, before I become worthy of vaporization, was cited as saying and I Khemiri, but also the poet John Anyuru, often in the same breath, as representatives of this new tantalizing trend.

As a 'successful blackhead "I was invited as a lecturer to the country's high schools, sometimes as a substitute for Khemiri, when he could not. We, the three musketeers tidbits from the suburbs, stumbled on each other a few times. But a deeper relationship we never got. I did not like Khemiri, he lacked character was cold, plastic and calculating, and I do not think he liked me either.

He was scared enough of my passion and my intemperate way to talk about my visions and ideas. For him, literature is largely a matter of business and to scam swedes as he put it crassly."

Khemiri is mostly in i for the money and respect that one can achieve by being a part of the left-liberal establishment. That's my take on it anyway.
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