My best and worst days in Denmark

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Farah Bahgat - [email protected]
My best and worst days in Denmark
Farah Bahgat in Copenhagen. Photo: Karis Hustad

Egyptian journalist Farah Bahgat recently left Denmark after a year living and studying in Aarhus and Copenhagen. Here, she reflects on her lasting impressions of the Scandinavian country.


At the dining table in my sublet apartment in Amager, south of Copenhagen, I was having my farewell dinner with my roommate and our friend, when they asked me to look back and choose my favourite and least favourite times in Denmark.

Where do I begin? I have come a long way, from knowing nothing about Denmark - other than the Muhammad cartoons - to knowing every Danish word that could possibly be coupled with 'tak' (Danish for ‘thanks’).

Last year, I came to Denmark having heard that it was perhaps not the most Muslim-friendly country in the world. But having lived my entire life in a developing country, I was pretty excited to move to the relative paradise of a welfare state.

It was not just a studying opportunity for me, it was an opportunity to run away from the many frustrations of post-revolutionary Egypt.

In August 2017, I arrived in Aarhus, where I was scheduled to spend the first year of my Master’s degree, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, a headscarf and my preconceived notions.

During orientation week at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, we watched a PowerPoint presentation about Danish values – things like humility and hygge, which, to be honest, seemed too ideal to be real.

I can easily recall my least favourite times in Denmark: the little things that constantly reminded me that I did not belong here. Like how every time I got on a bus, or went grocery shopping and people would stare at me like some sort of alien who just landed from a UFO. I even caught a teenager on a bus taking a photo of me and my hijabi friend who was visiting from Egypt at the time.

Danes seemed to be very united in a way, or, for lack of a better word, it seemed like there was this sort of exclusivity, like Denmark was only a place for 'real Danes'.

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It's no secret that it is difficult to befriend Danes, so my friends were my classmates, and because it was an international course, I had friends from more than 20 different countries.

We tried to familiarise ourselves with Denmark. We ate rye bread and liquorice. We even followed the Jutland tradition of throwing cinnamon on whoever turns 25 and happens to not be married.

But feeling out of place became a collective feeling – all of my friends felt the same. To this day, my friend Tanja tells me “I can’t believe that even a white German like myself was shamed for not integrating in Denmark”.

Regardless of our diversity, we each experienced difficulties with living in Denmark, which was surprising given the progressive and “hyggelig” image of the country that was presented to us during the orientation week at the beginning of our studies.

It felt like hygge was a Danish word for a reason: it was only for Danes.

Attempting to get out of my bubble, I decided to do some volunteer work, which led me to work on a video for a charity. Every Monday evening I would prepare dinner with refugees – 'new Danes', to use the term favoured by the charity’s organisers – and volunteers, and anyone else who wanted to join.

Some weeks we made pizza, other weeks we made traditional Syrian food. Hygge was not candles and fur blankets, but rather the warmth of the company, embracing the differences between every one of us, people who never met before and people who thought that they were not welcomed here.

READ ALSO: It's official: 'hygge' is now an English word

Mira, the Danish organiser at the charity, became a close friend – her number became the first I would dial on a bad day. She was my window to Denmark, not just in the sense that she introduced me to most of the Danes I met, but we also bonded over how we were both searching for our identities. For me, living with Danes challenged my identity; for Mira, working with 'new Danes' challenged hers.

During my year of study, I reported on news topics including the lockoutghetto plan and departure centres. This also meant that I spoke to many people with immigrant backgrounds in general and in many cases also Muslims.

The consensus that ‘they [politicians] want assimilation not integration', or ‘the government does want us here’, often came through strongly, with the perceived hostility of immigration minister Inger Støjberg and her hardline positions on refugees often prominent in the views of those I spoke to.

Støjberg’s statements turned the discourse, making it no longer about integration versus assimilation, but rather a clear statement: You are not welcome here.

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I moved to Copenhagen for the summer of 2018, by which time parliament had passed the burqa ban.

I did not let my thoughts about politics ruin my summer. I went to a “Muslim attire” store in Nørrebro one day and bought a burkini to go to the beach. I was frightened to wear it in a country where people commonly swim naked.

To my surprise, most people did not look at me even once, no death stares, no “go back to your country” shouts, nothing. If anything, I was just as not-looked at as the naked swimmers.

Summer in Denmark was wonderful. I am not exaggerating when I say it was the best summer of my life so far. Every little corner of Copenhagen was just beautiful.

I have witnessed two revolutions in Egypt. Since I began working as a journalist, I have covered strikes, terrorist attacks and forced displacement of communities. I have worked for a website that the Egyptian public cannot access because of censorship and have seen friends arrested for practising their jobs as photojournalists. Compared to this, reporting in Denmark is a breeze.

But when August began, so did one of the most difficult assignments I have had to cover as a reporter.

On August 1st, hundreds of people gathered, covering their faces, in protest of the ‘burqa ban’, in a country where only a few dozen women wear the niqab, and fewer still the burqa.

The burqa ban was a topic I had been avoiding for a while. I lost count of how many fights I had with ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ friends who believed they were entitled to decide what women should or shouldn’t wear.

When I arrived at Superkilen, the park in Nørrebro, Copenhagen where the demonstration took place, my eyes were instantly filled with tears. I was caught up with different feelings: frustration, anger, gratefulness and love.

I pulled myself together and filmed the report that was later published on The Local. When protesters started marching towards the police station in Nørrebro, I took my spot ahead of the march to be able to get a better shot of the crowds.

READ ALSO: 'From one day to another, we're criminals': Muslim women speak against Denmark's burqa ban

Sobbing behind the camera, I watched the people chant “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”, and “no racists in our streets”.

I have never worn a burqa or niqab, but as a practising Muslim woman, I never felt as accepted and loved as I did during this protest.

I was surrounded by people who might have no connection to Islam whatsoever, and might even disagree with its basic precepts, but were there to fight for the rights of other human beings.

August 1st marks my favourite day in Denmark.

After my farewell dinner in Copenhagen, we ended up watching YouTube videos, the 'things to do in Denmark' kind of videos, which were hilarious after spending a year and not doing any of the things that were mentioned.

My favourite things about Denmark weren't mentioned in these videos: how I felt at the protest on August 1st, my experiences cooking meals with new and old Danes together and how Mira and her home became a place I could go and find happiness, even on my worst days.

What these videos were missing was the inclusivity I found in Danes and in Denmark, and I hope that next time I’m around I get to witness more of this inclusivity.

READ ALSO: The ten things I'll miss most about living in Denmark



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