Ethnic Relations/ Europe/Denmark
mustafa.hussain at GET2NET.DK
Thu Jan 4 23:41:03 UTC 2001
Dear Readers of the List,
Since there are more than 750 subscribers of the list, including many research students like me, perhaps someone, somewhere, may find the following text as an interesting piece of journalism (from New York Times) in their discourse analytical studies - perhaps both as a sympathetic story about the plight of ethnic minorities in Denmark and how the administrative elite look at the problems with the immigrants.
(Doktorand, Soc. Inst. Lunds Univ.)
DK-2750 Ballerup, Danmark
Tlf. +45 44685428
December 18, 2000
By ROGER COHEN
AARHUS, Denmark This is a love story with its share of pain. It begins in a Turkish village where geese roam the dusty streets and
days turn to the rhythm of harvest and prayer. It ends in this bustling Danish port town where passion undid tradition and
cultures of East and West clashed.
Ali Simsek started it all. Like millions of Turkish immigrants drawn to a Europe that needed laborers, he turned his back on the
harsh hills and hushed nights of central Anatolia to become a "guest worker" in a Danish timber factory near here. That was back
in 1970, and as befits a "guest," he did not plan to stay forever.
So much for plans. His wife and four children soon joined him a
simple procedure at the time. He worked hard, made money, obeyed
the law. But Mr. Simsek never learned a word of Danish or forsook
Turkish customs. So when his oldest son, Bunyamin, turned 17, it
seemed natural to arrange a marriage for him.
Back in Turkey, the daughter of Mr. Simsek's closest friend was
waiting, a modest young woman in a traditional headscarf who knew
nothing of life outside the village. The couple were married in a
month. "I did not know I could say `No,' " Bunyamin says. "What my
parents said was the truth. So I said `Yes.' "
But the arranged marriage would collapse, undone by the sharp
cultural differences between Bunyamin, a Dane in all but name, and
his Turkish bride. For millions of second-generation immigrants in
Europe, people who are often tugged between strict tradition and
freewheeling Western habits, the failure is an emblem of the
unsettling contradictions of their lives.
European governments, uneasy about an influx of foreigners, now
say these immigrants must resolve the contradictions by embracing
the culture of their adoptive lands. The bureaucrats have focused
on arranged marriages as disastrous: they hinder integration,
offend Western values and encourage immigrant ghettos, or so
officials say. They also bring more immigrants because "family
unification" is one of the few legal ways left to get into Europe.
"Immigrants must adapt to Danish cultural norms, which include
free speech and the right to choose your spouse," said Nils
Preiser, a senior Interior Ministry official. "Arranged marriages
are a problem because compulsion is unacceptable and because if
generations of immigrants find their spouses back home, ethnic
groups remain separate."
Certainly division seems hard to overcome. In many ways, Bunyamin,
now 30, is a Dane. He was 2 when he arrived in Aarhus; he is a
Danish citizen; he speaks fluent Danish. Unlike his father's
cautious generation of newcomers, this second-generation immigrant
is at ease with the brisk give- and-take of Western society.
But he is olive-skinned, black-haired and dark-eyed. No Viking,
he. Four portraits of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern
Turkish state, hang in his living-room. He is a Muslim; no Danish
bacon for him. This year, he is fasting for Ramadan. Some people
call him a "Nydansker," or "New Dane," a term that sets him and
others like him apart.
"Like many second-generation immigrants, I have two identities,"
he says. "An outside face for my Danish friends, and an inside one
for my family. I cannot give up one or the other. With my name, my
religion and my appearance, I will never satisfy people here that
I'm a Dane. And I know these calls to become Danish are dishonest
because we are always presented with a moving target."
Politics of National Identity
As European states accept often
grudgingly that they have become "immigrant societies" despite
enduring self-images of ethnic homogeneity, they are looking anew
for ways to preserve their national culture, or whatever
globalization has left of it.
This campaign often portrayed as the defense of a cohesive
European model of society against a fragmented American
"multicultural" model crosses party lines. In the featureless
post-cold-war political landscape of a Europe no longer at risk,
the politics of national identity have become pervasive, a
leitmotif of the times.
In Germany, the new buzzword of the center-right opposition
Christian Democrats is "Leitkultur," a vague "guiding culture,"
Christian and German, to which immigrants, many of them Muslims,
are being asked to conform.
In Denmark, the prime minister, Poul Rasmussen, a center-left
Social Democrat, said recently that he could not accept certain
"aspects of the Islamic religion," like interrupting work with
prayer. "It must be clear that in Denmark we work in the
workplace," he said.
The message is clear: Conform, at work and in marriage. Denmark,
saying 90 percent of Danish Turks find wedding partners in Turkey,
passed legislation this year to deter any immigrant younger than 25
from bringing a foreign spouse to Denmark.
The aim of such policies may appear reasonable: promote
integration by obliging immigrants to become fully adapted members
of society. But a close look at Bunyamin Simsek's odyssey through
his arranged marriage, a passionate affair, divorce, family tumult
and uneasy adjustment to Danish life suggest a more complex and
Ali Simsek, trained as a Muslim cleric and known in his central
Anatolian village of Kizilcakisla by the high title of Ali Hodja,
never really wanted his son Bunyamin to be a Dane. Strictness
marked the boy's upbringing. As dozens of Turks followed Mr. Simsek
to Aarhus from the village, a conservative spirit came with them.
Early in life Bunyamin learned two central elements of Turkish
culture: respect, particularly of parents, and honor, particularly
that of the family. The Turkish word for honor, "sheref," was often
heard, and its singular weight was unmistakable.
Like millions of children of guest workers there are 2.3 million
Turks in Germany and tens of thousands in Denmark Bunyamin found
himself tugged between two apparently irreconcilable worlds.
Home was Denmark, but it was also the Turkish village, to which
the family traveled most summers a cluster of houses and dirt
roads gathered around a mosque where the boy played with animals
and the open fields seemed thrillingly vast.
In the summer of 1987, Mr. Simsek told Bunyamin that he would
marry Sorgul Ceran, a young woman whose father, Ali Ceran, had been
a close friend since elementary school.
"We had known each other all our lives, and we wanted to join the
families," said Mr. Ceran, who works in the building trades.
But the joining barely masked a cultural abyss. Sorgul, six years
older than the teenage Bunyamin, had never set foot in Ankara, let
alone Denmark. When, a year after their marriage in the village,
she secured Danish residence papers and traveled to join her
husband, she plunged into the unknown.
A son, Alattin, was quickly born. The couple lived with Bunyamin's
parents. Sorgul led a protected life, largely insulated from Danes,
while her young husband went out to study architecture. But when
university studies ended and he spent more time at home, things
"My wife was wearing a veil and that was a problem for me in
Denmark," he says. "You have to adapt, give up something to get
something, but she would not. I was going out with Danish friends,
but it was awkward with Sorgul. I felt I could not show her in a
Sorgul's version of events is that Bunyamin's father insisted that
she cover her head. She says that when her husband asked her to
wear makeup, she did but still could not please him. Confined to
home, how could she adapt and learn Danish?
When, in 1993, the couple moved to their own apartment in an area
of Aarhus known as "the ghetto" because so many immigrants live
there, the arguments became more bitter, even violent at times.
Bunyamin, who, finding nothing in his chosen field of
architecture, was working as a cabin attendant for a Danish charter
airline company, Sterling Air, felt suffocated. But Sorgul could
not bear the thought of their son's being raised without a father.
"I was living my life for my parents, to satisfy them," Bunyamin
said. "But then I saw that I needed to live things for myself, and
I could not do that without leaving Sorgul."
But divorce is dishonor, and dishonor, as the young Bunyamin had
heard so many times, is anathema. Mr. Simsek would be shamed before
the 3,000 Turks of Aarhus, whose spiritual authority he had become,
his "sheref" shattered.
So when in 1994 Bunyamin announced that he was considering
divorce, the response from his father was immediate: "In that case,
you will not be my son anymore."
The Other Woman
By now, another woman with roots in Kizilcakisla had entered
Bunyamin's life. Fatma Oektem's grandfather came from the village
to Denmark in the 1970's. But born and raised in Aarhus, fluent in
Danish, Fatma, 27, is very different from Sorgul: at home in the
West, emancipated, sparkling, sophisticated.
In good clich fashion, she and Bunyamin met aboard one of his
flights to Antalya, in southern Turkey. As a cabin attendant, he
served her. On her return, in early 1994, they again met by chance
at a gathering of Aarhus Turkish associations.
"Oh," Fatma joked. "Can you please fly me back to Turkey?"
go back to Turkey?" Bunyamin asked.
"Because I'd like to live there," she said.
"You could never do
that," he responded. "You'd be unable to adapt."
"Oh really," Fatma said. "Do you want to bet?"
With that, they
shook hands on the bet and, as they tell it, their lives were
changed. They could not part hands that seemed made to be forever
intertwined. "Our love was clear in that moment," Fatma said. "And
that was the beginning of hell."
Here were two descendants of immigrants, both Danish citizens,
living in a Western city and falling in love. One was married, so
complications were likely. But the reaction they endured was in
many ways that of an Anatolian village: theirs was forbidden love.
Turkish women in Aarhus started calling Fatma to shout at her:
it's because of people like you that we can't let our husbands out
of the house. Her grandfather summoned Fatma and said: if you keep
seeing that man, there will be war between our families.
Her sister was repeatedly reduced to tears by insults. If ever Mr.
Simsek encountered Fatma on the street, he would turn his head away
"It seemed that even before we started something beautiful,
everything was already ruined," Fatma said. "Our affair was the
topic of conversation in the community. We were back in the village
and the village had decided we represented danger."
Unable to stand the pressure, Fatma left for Antalya, where her
father lives most of the time, then went to Germany to train as a
tourist guide. But Bunyamin persisted, telling his father, "I will
be a bad man in our people's eyes, but I must be happy."
Sorgul, his wife, was desperate. By her account, Bunyamin had
taken to drinking heavily and disappearing for long periods. In a
last effort to save the situation, Sorgul said she would accept
Fatma, even in their home.
But to Bunyamin, the idea was unthinkable, another illustration of
the cultural gulf between them. Finally, they separated.
Sorgul, helped by an uncle in Aarhus, moved out, taking much of
what the couple owned, but plunging into a depression so deep that
when a court finally approved the divorce in 1997, custody of
Alattin was awarded to Bunyamin.
Back in the village, Sorgul's parents were shattered. To them,
Bunyamin suddenly changed, wanting a woman of Western mores.
"Bunyamin is a Dane, but Sorgul is still Turkish," Mr. Ceran said.
"After such things, no reconciliation is possible." Honor killings,
common in eastern Turkey, are unknown in Kizilcakisla, but the
Cerans and the Simseks in the village never speak now.
Even when Mr. Simsek finally relented on the divorce, he insisted
that his son "must never marry Fatma." Arguments about money
lingered between Sorgul and Bunyamin: they never talk to each
other, even today.
At last, on March 6, 1999, Bunyamin and Fatma were married in
Aarhus; they took up residence with Alattin in Bunyamin's old
apartment. Ali Simsek still commands authority: when he arrives,
the couple rushes like children to hide their cigarettes.
That the severe father has softened, even telling his new
daughter-in-law that he has learned that "respect has nothing to do
with how long your dress is."
Mr. Simsek confesses that he has also learned something else: "Ten
years ago, 80 percent of marriages here in the Turkish community
were arranged. But I have seen that many results are bad. It's more
healthy, I think now, for children to find partners here." He
paused, before adding, "But between Turks, of course. Not with
Alienated From Danes
By rights, having suffered at the hands of old Turkish custom, the
young, bruised couple, both Danish citizens, should be enthusiastic
supporters of their adoptive land and its campaign to bring "Danish
culture" to all, including the more than 8 percent of inhabitants
who are immigrants.
But the reality is one of increasing alienation, particularly for
Fatma. She has been jobless for a while and finds companies, when
they see her name, asking where she is from before declining even
to interview her. Always, she says, there is the sense of "us" and
"them," the old Dane and the new Dane, the blue-eyed and the
"They say we'll change or threaten their culture, but if your
culture is strong what do you have to fear from Islam?" Fatma
asked. "The fact is the Danes have little national culture left.
They adopt Halloween. They adopt Thanksgiving. They adopt
Valentine's Day. They eat burgers. And they see our more genuine
culture and worry."
That very erosion of national distinctions, occurring throughout
Europe, provides fertile ground for nationalist or anti-immigrant
outbursts that pay politically. Karen Jespersen, the interior
minister, recently boosted her popularity by saying asylum-seekers
who commit crimes should be banished to a desert island.
Of course, she was talking about criminals, and crime is rampant
among disoriented second- or third-generation immigrants in Denmark
growing up between worlds. But such negative messages about
immigrants tend to cling to all of them, industrious or idle,
law-abiding or criminal. The far-right People's Party prospers by
denouncing the "family reunifications that bring in 15,000
immigrants a year."
On his flights, Bunyamin is often asked by Danish clients where he
comes from. Aarhus, he replies. That meets incredulity. Well,
guess, he suggests, and the replies come in: Greece, Italy or Spain
but never Turkey. "They think I'm nice, so they don't imagine I
could be Turkish," he says. "Turkey, for them, is Islam, and Islam
Fatma notes how newspapers often refer to crimes by "two-language
kids." Thus bilingualism, an advantage, takes a negative
connotation. Under a new test for immigrant children entering
school, her 5-year- old nephew was asked what he used to buy things
in shops. "Money," he said, and was failed; the right answer was
"The Danes say one thing, that they want to integrate us, and do
another," Bunyamin says. "That's why we have to fight."
He fights, chairing an "Integration Committee"; Fatma works for an
immigrant women's group. Three earnest social workers pay them a
visit. They want to know why immigrants have more difficulty
finding jobs. They are told about prejudice, and then one, Lars
Jakobsen, bares his feelings:
"Yes, the fact is many Danes think, O.K., you came here for a
while to work, but don't try to bring all your families here, don't
abuse our hospitality." He adds, "Islam is seen as a danger." No
mosque with a minaret has yet been permitted in Denmark.
Jakob Buksti, the transport minister, says an interview: "We have
to integrate by preventing ghettos, arranged marriages, young women
forced to marry men back home. We have to tighten rules on refugees
and bringing relatives."
Across Europe, such political messages are garnering votes. But
they appear to ignore two basic questions about integration: On
what terms should it happen, and how can it occur when subtle
barriers are constantly erected?
Arranged marriages are an easy target of attack. Safter Cinar, the
head of an association of Berlin's 130,000 Turks, says such unions
remain "the basic culture, the usual pattern." But he adds,
"Western governments portray this all as coercion, but that is not
so, or rarely so."
The real issue, it seems, is that these marriages bring in new
immigrants. But then Europe, many say, needs immigrants 75
million over the next 50 years by some government estimates to
compensate for its aging population. And Fortress Europe is
surrounded by people clamoring to get in.
Back in Kizilcakisla, for instance, the exodus continues. Bekir
Siltas, Sorgul's brother-in-law, says all the young villagers
leave. "Most people try to find a way to marry their children to
someone already in Germany, or Denmark or Holland," he said. "The
first choice is get them out to Europe. There is no money here."
Sorgul has already found a new husband in a nearby village through
an arranged marriage. He has not yet secured Danish residency
papers, so the couple lives apart. Sorgul, who has begun to learn
Danish and found a job sorting mail at the post office, warily
voices hope that her new husband will allow her to continue
As for Bunyamin and Fatma, the star- crossed couple, their passion
is now spiced with the occasional argument. "I guess Romeo and
Juliet are what they are because they never did get each other,"
Fatma observes. "We got each other, and now we can argue about who
does the dishes and who feeds the cat."
He says you need to be realistic. She says you have to dream. He
says the Danes have some history they can be proud of. She says
they have none. He says he wants to stay in Denmark. She says she
wants to leave because in Turkey, she would be "invisible."
For now, they will remain, Turks in Denmark with Danish passports,
in-between people. With them is Bunyamin's son, the now 12-year-old
Alattin Simsek, a Danish citizen, fluent in Turkish and Danish,
proficient in English, and already a computer whiz.
The boy, two generations removed from Ali Simsek and three decades
on from his grandfather's pioneering three-day train journey from
Anatolia to Aarhus, has created his own Pokemon Web site. The site
has already attracted 12,000 visitors; their culture is global,
their nationalities unknown.
The New York Times on the Web
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