My best and worst days in Denmark

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.

My best and worst days in Denmark
Farah Bahgat in Copenhagen. Photo: Karis Hustad

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


Creator of iconic Danish TV series dies aged 105

Lise Nørgaard, the creator of Danish television series Matador, has died aged 105.

Creator of iconic Danish TV series dies aged 105

Danish journalist and author Lise Nørgaard died late on New Year’s Day after a short illness, her family confirmed to media in Denmark on Monday. She was 105.

Nørgaard created Matador, the 1970s TV series loved by millions of Danes. The series remains hugely popular in 2020s Denmark, decades after its release.

The impact of Matador means that Nørgaard’s passing will be considered a loss of one of Danish television and popular culture‘s most influential figures.

In a statement, Nørgaard’s daughter Bente Flindt Sørensen said her mother was “deeply grateful for her many friendships with young and old alike, which she maintained until her death, and for the incredibly many people she met along her way, or who followed her, and who have embraced her with great love and overwhelmingly positive interest.”

“She was a frontrunner and a role model and great inspiration for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she said.

“We have all benefited from her love, life experience, wise advice and positive and humorous approach to life. We are grateful to have had her in our lives for so long, and she will be greatly missed,” she said.

Born in 1917 in Roskilde, Nørgaard was a trained journalist and worked for Danish newspapers of record Politiken and Berlingske during her career.

In the 1960s, she wrote for the weekly magazine Hjemmet, giving advice to young women and girls on topics including sex and gender roles. Her views and advice often clashed with patriarchal outlooks of the day.

She also wrote manuscripts for two films starring Dirch Passer, the prominent Danish comedy actor of the 1960s and 1970s, and several episodes of seventies series Huset på Christianshavn.

Despite her impressive career up to this point, most Danes will remember Nørgaard primarily for her legendary series, Matador.

Made by broadcaster DR in the late seventies and early eighties but set during a period spanning the years 1929-1947, Matador follows a range of characters and families spanning the class divide, portraying life in a provincial town as it goes through generational change and historical upheaval.

The depth of Matador’s characters, brilliance of Nørgaard’s writing and polished acting by its large cast has long-since secured Matador a position as one of Danish television’s all-time great shows.

Mixing melodrama, light humour and intrigue, the series has almost become part of the national subconscious over the years. Many Danes can recall scenes, characters or memorable lines from the show – even if they were born decades after its original broadcast.

Millions of DVDs and VHS tapes of the series have been sold, setting records according to DR.

Despite its popularity and impact, Nørgaard told the journal Journalisten in 2017 that “I think it’s a bit boring that things always have to be about Matador”.

“I feel that I’m a journalist first and foremost,” she said.

In a programme made by DR in 2017 to commemorate her hundredth birthday, Nørgaard said “being old doesn’t make you something special”.

“You are just someone who has lived long,” she said.

Nørgaard will be buried at St. Pauls Church in Copenhagen, according to the family statement, which also requests peace to honour the memory of their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother until the funeral has taken place.

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