‘Sweden has come out of every challenge victorious and better than before’

OPINION: How a 20th century diary and days of exploring Stockholm gave Faisal Khan hope for Sweden's future.

'Sweden has come out of every challenge victorious and better than before'
Waving at ferries in Stockholm. Photo: Faisal Khan

Every Sunday I take my kids and go out to explore what lies beneath my Stockholm. We sometimes go to the city. We start at the end of Drottninggatan where we childishly crawl through the pedestrian promenade and laugh as we read the quotes inscribed on the pavement by the famous Swedish writer August Strindberg. We sometimes get his black humour and sometimes we don't. “Let's go on!” we tell each other, leaving the unexplored matter for another day.

Along the promenade, as we browse through shops, cafés and kiosks, we end up in the Hötorget square. We buy a fruit basket and sit on the stairs of Konserthuset and observe how people trade collectibles at the weekly secondhand market. Our last purchase was a diary from the mid-1900s written by a woman. That was the best ten kronor I have ever spent.

We sometimes let ourselves wander at one of hundreds of natural reserves. One of the most frequent spots we always wish we end up in is Nyckelviken, Nacka. We walk through the thick forest and find our way to the banks of Östersjön as we stop and play a game of guess what the birds are telling us. There are many big rocks standing tall from the sea which offers us a perfect setting to just chill and watch the big ferries pass by. We always make sure that we shout a “hej hej” at the ferry passengers and wave at them. We shout so enthusiastically that almost always our high fives are answered with hand waving gestures of happiness.

We call it our Constitutional Sunday.

My wife and I moved to Sweden from Afghanistan in spring of 2004 with our daughter, then only three years old. Since then we have struggled to find our way around this country which differs in so many ways not describable in words from where we came from.

Suddenly our lives changed so drastically that sometimes absorbing the changes seemed too much. We had found a safe sanctuary far from the daily madness of the war which seemed as a never-ending nightmare back home.

Today the daughter we brought from Afghanistan at the age of three with almost zero possibility of having her own thoughts has grown to become a firebrand young feminist who says she comes from Järfälla and is not fearful of defending her constitutional rights.

Whenever she argues with me trying to get out of our weekly exploration expedition she says that the same constitution which gives me the right-to-roam laws of 'allemansrätten' that give me the right to go out and explore gives her the choice of saying “no, I don't want to be part of childishly screaming at the passengers of a party boat or laughing insanely at the silly inscriptions on the pavement”. It fills my heart with pride over my choice of moving to Sweden. I tell myself I still have two kids naïve enough to believe that my silliness is fun, until they grow to learn their constitutional rights.

As we celebrated June 6th, Sweden Day, this week, I was filled with a sense of pride and Swedishness. I call myself “A Swede by Choice”, but sometimes I fear losing what I have. Now that I have tasted the sweet taste of freedom I have become a greedy person and want to see my rights flourish even more.

A friend of mine in his 60s, whom I call “A Swede by Chance”, always adds to my fears when he claims that Sweden is on a self-destructive path. “It is not a Sweden I had foreseen,” he one time told me. He probably has lived through a time when Sweden was better than what I experience as citizenship deluxe.

He also complains about Sweden's dark days and cold weather, whereas I see it as the brightest and warmest landscape anywhere in the world. I can testify to this fact because I have travelled the world and have not yet discovered a place this warm and this bright.

I also see the challenges my adopted country is facing which sometimes makes me unwillingly see what my friend is seeing. However when I read excerpts from the diary I bought at the second-hand market I understand that this is not the first time Sweden has been presented with a challenge. I also see how Sweden has come out of every challenge victorious and better than before. This feeling gives me optimism for a better future.

May God bless Sweden and Swedes. All of them: by chance and by choice.

This is an opinion piece by Faisal Khan, an entrepreneur with a background in media. He moved to Sweden in 2004 and has lived here ever since. Follow him on Twitter

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Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.