‘2016 was a crappy year, but here’s why there’s hope’

OPINION: Teysir Subhi writes about why being racially abused on the bus turned out to be the moment that convinced her there is still hope for the world in 2017.

'2016 was a crappy year, but here's why there's hope'
Freelance writer Teysir Subhi. Photo: Private

2016 was a pretty crappy year, I hardly need to tell you that, but I'm sure there's hope. The night is darkest before the dawn.

Just like a few weeks ago when I was on the bus and an elderly woman got on. She stood right in the middle of the designated space for baby carriages, where I was standing with mine, and refused to move.

Then she complained out loud how immigrants and their baby buggies have taken over Sweden and soon you will not be able to ride the bus any more. She looked around, as if she was hoping to get someone to agree, but no one reacted. It was dead silent. The woman looked at me with an ice cold and searching look and then said, in a loud voice: “Could you go home, you're ruining this country.”

I was perplexed. An uneasy feeling spread through my body. I watched my fellow passengers while trying to hold back my tears. They squirmed. One woman took out a book and looked like she was reading, while others pretended to fiddle with their mobile phones. The woman and I were now aware we had an audience, and she seemed to be revelling in the attention.

It is not the first time I have been the victim of racist harassment. In my previous job as a journalist and commentator, I was on the receiving end of hate and threats many times, often in written form. I have always thought that there is something very frightening about being exposed to it in real life, that it requires a certain degree of madness to dare to offend a total stranger.

The woman continued to watch me with disgust in her eyes. I looked at the passengers again who were pretending that the abuse had never happened. I thought about who they are. Perhaps they agree with the woman and her views? Or perhaps they are the kind of people who loudly object to racism online, safely behind their screens, but in real life quietly look on while I'm being verbally abused and offended.

I wanted to tell the woman that it is not very strange that she feels there is no space for her on the bus if she insists on standing in the pram space, but after a long week at work I did not have the energy to protest.

I surrendered and said that of course she could stand there, there's space for all of us. The woman looked nonplussed and almost a bit disappointed by my indifference. She looked at my three-year-old son, embarrassed, and then at me. I looked at her, questioningly. She started chatting to me about the weather and I reluctantly answered. Then she began to tell me about her life.

Shocked at the sudden U-turn, I listened to the woman.

She told me how her husband had passed away earlier that year and how she had been forced to sell both her cats when her pension was no longer enough. Because she did not have any children or relatives still alive, there was no one she could ask for help. She was alone.

Every day she would take the bus to do her grocery shopping and intentionally stood in the pram space in the hope of having someone to talk to, and after numerous attempts she had given up. She felt lonely and bitter. In the middle of the conversation I realized that the woman was not actually driven by hatred but by fear, and that is a feeling we both share. Fear over our uncertain future. The difference is that she has given up and has instead started to hate.

When I reached my stop it turned out that we were both getting off there. Before we parted, she apologized. We hugged and said goodbye.

Yes, 2016 was a crappy year. But as long as there are more people like this woman, who have the courage to defy their fear of the unknown, there is hope.

Teysir Subhi is a Gothenburg-based freelance writer and teaching student. This is a translation of an opinion piece first published by Metro.


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.