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A writer who dared a minister to get in his skin

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A writer who dared a minister to get in his skin
15:50 CET+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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