From the Land of the blondes to that of the Two Niles
July 31, 2006 7 Comments
I left Copenhagen a few days ago and find that my experience of that city was quite underwhelming even without having expected much on arrival. Perhaps it is because I was there for too short a time to appreciate anything more than its architecture and its tourist face. But even on the level of the gut, I only felt a mild stimulation and it usually takes me a very short time to appreciate the pulse of a city. This pulse, when faced with the foreigner, especially the African, beats fast from hostility and defensiveness. The Africans that I met there told me horrific stories of the racism and xenophobia that they had suffered since their arrival. Their variety of stories had in common an inward looking Danish culture that feels vulnerable to the outsider while simultaneously feeling superior to him.
A Ghanaian professor who took his doctorate from the University of Copenhagen and later taught at the same school told me of students who walked out during his introductory class: they refused to be taught by an African, thinking that there was no possible way he could be qualified. He would start his classes with the painful joke that he ‘had not come to play music.’ This was said to me with a laugh but I could tell that it still hurt him all these years later. He observed that early in his sixteen-year stay Copenhagen, he was criticized for not speaking Danish. Immigrants had to integrate into this new society and learning the language was the first and most important step. But once this was done, he said, the charge became that skilled migrants like him were there to take jobs from the locals. It is the same refrain heard in many European countries that reflects a fear of a world that those same countries have benefited so much from by trading with or conquering it in the past.
A Nigerian taxi driver told me repeatedly of the slurs that he had suffered there, the provocations. The Cartoon Controversy according to him was less an assertion of free speech than a much publicized provocation that all those who are not white and Danish feel in their new home. It seemed a great shame that a society so accomplished would lack confidence to the extent that it fears people who are merely seeking a brighter future for themselves. But let me not make it seem like all was doom and gloom.
The Danes know cocktails. I had the best margarita of my life there: the phi phi. The magic ingredient in it is chili so that the slight burn of the tequila as it went down my throat was followed by the warmth of the spice. The lounge in which I had numerous phi phis was like a million others in any major city that you care to go to. It had low lighting, jazzy music playing and a hum of conversation at the exact pitch and volume as New York or Nairobi or London. There is a convergence of desire I have been arguing to all and sundry, a decades-long rise of an urban elite that is essentially global in its outlook. And it is this very elite that I think can be argued, even without the benefit of the phi phi, to be managing the convergence of state norms and operations. This has led, especially in Europe, to governments that appear cut off from popular consensus and drawing their legitimacy from a kind of internationalist elite worldview. It is the calm cover to a roiling and boiling sea.
There is a tradition of gift giving to the state and the country in Denmark that fascinates me. The queen’s residence is four palaces contributed by seventeenth century merchants. They face – across a small body of water – the city’s opera house which was built for half a billion dollars contributed by Mærsk Møller of Maersk shipping fortune. I wonder why this same tradition has not taken root in Kenya. Perhaps it is because the way the idea of the public space is constituted is as a trough from which to grab wealth and not to deposit it. You take from the center, a center that no-one seems to believe that they occupy (you will notice that Kenyan politicians and bigwigs wear a perpetual cloak of victimhood and a sense of operating from the margins.)
For the days I spent in Copenhagen, I run every morning. And got lost each time. Running in a new city tells you a lot about it. In New York for example, where I lived for some years, runners will nod to each other. I used to feel free to sidle up to a fast running one and ask whether we could push each other. The answer was invariably an enthusiastic yes. But in Copenhagen, I felt watched and suspected of some crime. Perhaps I was just a surprising sight. But in a city with pretensions of sophistication, I felt like I was in a rural town, what with the wide-eyed ‘who are you?’ stares and the averted ‘I am not seeing you’ gaze.
Next post is on Khartoum, Sudan where I have been for the past twelve hours.