January 16, 2012
Hawra al Nadawi in Danish paper Politiken

Hawra al Nadawi in Danish paper Politiken

On December 12th, the Danish widely read newspaper Politiken interviewed Hawra Al Nadawi. The young writer was long-listed for the IPAF (Arab Man Booker), for her first novel ‘Under the Copenhagen sky’ published by Dar al Saqi, Lebanon, in 2010. Below, with some delay, the English translation of the interview that didn’t go unnoticed in Denmark (approximate translation — thank you Google! — as I have no knowledge whatsoever of Danish). As several Danish colleagues confessed, such a book giving an insight into the Arab emigrant population of Denmark has been missing and sought for. Original version at the end of the English post

Article by Sandra Brovall, published by Politiken on December 12th, 2011.

The car turns right onto Brøndbyvester Boulevard, and three gray skyscrapers come into view. The heavy bricks make the rest of the houses on the boulevard in Brøndby Strand seem tiny. From the backseat Hawra al-Nadawi gets excited: “Oh, I’m quite nostalgic. I lived right there in the middle ‘. She points at Brøndby Strand’s 15-story landmark in concrete.

It is morning and we were taken by Hawra al-Nadawi back to the suburb where she grew up. Here she came as a 7-year-old with her family from Iraq, and here she lived most of her childhood and early youth. It was also here that the now 27-year-old author wrote the first part of her debut novel ‘Under the Copenhagen Sky’.

About the novel.
The book has just been nominated for the prestigious International Prize for Literature Prize for Arabic Fiction. She is several decades younger than the other 13 nominees. And she is the only woman among the 13 selected. It was not the idea of literary prizes that made the then 20-year-old Hawra al-Nadawi shut herself up in the room of her childhood home in a residential block, and start a novel on an old style stapled blue lined notebook. “I just wanted to write something that took so long that I could write every day. Gradually it became a book, “she says. The car stops in the parking lot at the red brick shopping center Brøndby Strand Centre, where she hung out with his friends.

Born in Baghdad
When she gets out of the car, she spots the yellow Netto store. Here she spent many hours after school, for it was here that the city library was. Today, a new modern library of glass was built, as the writer gets to miss her old haunt, where librarians knew her by name. “It looks very sophisticated, but I do not like it,” said Hawra al-Nadawi in a peculiar blend of perfectly accentuated British and Danish with an accent that is hard to place.

Hawra al-Nadawi
It’s been two years since she was last here. In 2006 she moved with her parents and two younger siblings to London where she lives today. At home they speak a mixture of English, Arabic, Kurdish and sometimes Danish. Her mother is Kurdish-Iranian born in Iraq, while the father is Arab Iraqi. She was born in Baghdad in 1984. Her father was a sports teacher and part of the political opposition to the president and dictator Saddam Hussein. Both her parents were imprisoned. Hawra al-Nadawi came with her mother. She spent the first two years of her life behind bars. Although she was too small to remember anything, her mother told her how she had to protect her daughter in the overpacked prisons, so the guards would not take her and put her in a children’s prison. In 1986, both her parents were released under the so-called general amnesty. Hawra al-Nadawi then grew up in Baghdad, got a little sister and was awakened by the bombers who launched the Gulf War in 1990.

Escape from Iraq
That day in 1991 when Hawra al Nadawi’s father was arrested for the last time she was six years old. It was just after the Gulf War, and she stood with her cousin in front of the family’s house in Baghdad when a car with two men stopped in front of them. “Won’t you call your father?” Said one of the men, pointing at her. He was commonly dressed, so she thought he was one of her father’s friends, and ran in to fetch him (…) When, without explanation, he was released three months later, he fled first, and then the whole family, to Denmark. In 1992 they moved into an apartment in Kisumparken in Brøndby Strand.

The dilemma
Hawra al-Nadawi points up on the first floor of a low level of housing built in the early 1970s. Up there behind an orange sash is her old room. There she wrote the first four chapters of her first book about the Danish-born Iraqi girl Huda, who meets the older Iraqi Rafid who has fled from Baghdad. An initiation novel where the protagonist is not just struggling with the transition from child to adult, but also with his own national identity. “Her biggest dilemma is that she is both Dane and Iraqi. She has never been to Iraq and she has never seen anything other than Denmark. Yet she is not Danish. She feels neither the one nor the other, ” says Hawra al-Nadawi about her protagonist. She states that the book is not autobiographical. But this dilemma she has always lived with herself. “I’ve never felt neither Iraqi, Dane, or for that matter, Kurd or English. I am a bit of everything, “she says. Yet she feels more at home here in Brøndby Strand, than she does in London or Iraq, where her father moved in 2003 to work for the new government.
“I do not feel safe in Iraq. And I’m not really accustomed to London yet. If I have children again, I could well imagine that they would grow up here, “she says.

Favorite subject: Danish
Hawra al-Nadawi walks down a quiet residential street. Her old school in yellow bricks appear. Here she went from fifth to ninth grade, before she went to college at Western Borgerdyd Gymnasium in Valby. Hawra al-Nadawi liked school, people running and screaming over the school yard with colorful school bags atop their backs, jackets in their hands. The feeling of being different was always there. My novel gives an insight into how it feels to grow up as a young immigrant in Denmark. That, I think, deserves a Danish audience.

There were children of many nationalities at school, but she was the only one who wore a headscarf. Other children had perhaps immigrant parents, but they were even born in Denmark. And Hawra al-Nadawi could remember that there had been another life before the quiet residential streets, packed lunches and woodwork classes. One of the places she felt quite at home, was the Arabic literature classes, to which her mother introduced her. At Brøndby Strand library she read every day after school, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, among others. As a teenager, she got through the entire library collection of Arabic – then she started to order from other libraries.

At that time, she started to write in Arabic. “Every time I wrote an essay in Danish, told my teacher that I thought in Arabic. In Danish, you must put an end to your sentence. In Arabic, I am freer. The language is richer. I’m more articulate in Arabic than in any other language,” she says.

Outsiders story
When, as a 20-year-old, she told her parents that she had dropped out of college a year later, to write her first novel instead, it was no great surprise to them. When the book was finished four years later, she sent it straight to the renowned Lebanese publishing house Dar al-Saqi. Only her father had read it. Yet she knew that they would publish it. Surprised, she was on the other hand, when the publisher woke her one morning a few weeks ago and told me that she had been nominated for the prestigious Arab literary award (the IPAF, or Arabic Man Booker — translator’s note!).

In January, the 13 nominees will be reduced down to six, and then the winner will be invited to Abu Dhabi in March 2012. The award also includes – in addition to $ 50,000 – a translation from Arabic into other languages. With translation, the novel will reach a new audience, maybe even a Danish one. She likes the idea of a Danish audience. “The media may well get the impression that people with other backgrounds are ignorant, unpleasantly different, or that they will not integrate. People rarely dive into the feeling of being an outsider, or how you are affected by being different. My novel gives an insight into how it feels to grow up as a young immigrant in Denmark. That, I think, deserves a Danish audience “.

Original version below.
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Bilen drejer til højre ad Brøndbyvester Boulevard, og tre grå højhuse kommer til syne. De tunge klodser får resten af husene på boulevarden i Brøndby Strand til at virke bittesmå. Fra bagsædet udbryder Hawra al-Nadawi begejstret: »Åh, nu bliver jeg helt nostalgisk. Jeg boede lige der i midten«. Hun peger mod Brøndby Strands 15 etager høje vartegn i beton.

Det er formiddag, og vi er taget med Hawra al-Nadawi tilbage til forstaden, hvor hun er vokset op. Her kom hun til som 7-årig sammen med sin familie fra Irak, og her boede hun det meste af sin barndom og begyndelsen af sin ungdom. Det var også her, den nu 27-årige forfatter skrev første del af sin debutroman ’Under the Copenhagen Sky’.

Stilehæftet blev til roman
Bogen er netop blevet nomineret til den prestigefyldte litteraturpris International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Hun er flere årtier yngre end de øvrige 13 nominerede. Og hun er den eneste kvinde blandt de 13 udvalgte. Det var dog ikke forestillingen om litteraturpriser, der fik den dengang 20-årige Hawra al-Nadawi til at lukke sig inde på værelset i barndomshjemmet i boligblokken og påbegynde en roman på et gammelt stilehæftes blå linjer. »Jeg ville bare skrive noget, der tog så lang tid, at jeg kunne skrive hver dag. Lidt efter lidt blev det til en bog«, siger hun. Bilen standser på parkeringspladsen ved det murstensrøde indkøbscenter Brøndby Strand Centrum, hvor hun hang ud med sine venner.

Født i Bagdad
Da hun stiger ud af bilen, får hun øje på centrets gule Netto-butik. Her brugte hun mange timer efter skole, for det var her, byens bibliotek lå. I dag er der bygget et nyt moderne bibliotek af glas overfor, som får forfatteren til at savne sit gamle tilholdssted, hvor bibliotekarerne kendte hende ved navn. »It look’s very sophisticated, men jeg bryder mig ikke om det«, siger Hawra al-Nadawi på en særegen blanding af perfekt accentueret britisk og dansk med en accent, der er svær at placere.

Det er to år siden, hun sidst har været her. I 2006 flyttede hun med sine forældre og to mindre søskende til London, hvor hun bor i dag. I hjemmet taler de en blanding af engelsk, arabisk, kurdisk og til tider dansk. Hendes mor er kurdisk-iraner født i Irak, mens faren er arabisk iraker. Selv blev hun født i Bagdad i 1984. Faren var idrætslærer og i politisk opposition til præsident og diktator Saddam Hussein. Blot to måneder efter Hawra al-Nadawis fødsel blev begge forældre fængslet. Hawra al-Nadawi fulgte med sin mor. Hun tilbragte sine to første leveår bag tremmer. Selv var hun for lille til at kunne huske noget, men moren har fortalt hende, hvordan hun måtte gemme sin datter i det stopfyldte fængsel, så vagterne ikke skulle tage hende og putte hende i et børnefængsel. I 1986 blev begge forældre løsladt under den såkaldte generelle amnesti. Hawra al-Nadawi voksede derefter op i Bagdad, fik en lillesøster og blev vækket af de bombefly, der indledte Golfkrigen i 1990.

Flugten fra Irak
Den dag i 1991, da Hawra al-Nadawis far blev anholdt for sidste gang, var hun seks år gammel. Det var lige efter Golfkrigen, og hun stod sammen med sin fætter ude foran familiens hus i Bagdad, da en bil med to mænd standsede foran dem. »Vil du ikke kalde på din far?«, sagde den ene af mændene og pegede på hende. Han var almindeligt klædt, så hun troede, det var en af farens venner, og løb ind for at hente ham. Men da faren så mændene, begyndte han hurtigt at skifte tøj, og moren begyndte at pakke en taske med mad til ham. Udenfor førte mændene faren ind i bilen. Da faren uden forklaring blev løsladt tre måneder senere, flygtede først han og derefter hele familien til Danmark. I 1992 flyttede de ind i en lejlighed i Kisumparken i Brøndby Strand.

Det er den lejlighed, Hawra al-Nadawi står foran. Hun peger op på første sal af et lavt boligbyggeri bygget i begyndelsen af 1970’erne. Deroppe bag en orangerød vinduesramme er hendes gamle værelse.

Der skrev hun de fire første kapitler af debutbogen om den danskfødte irakiske pige Huda, der møder den ældre iraker Rafid, der er flygtet fra Bagdad. En dannelsesroman, hvor hovedpersonen ikke bare kæmper med overgangen fra barn til voksen, men også med sin egen nationalitet. »Hendes største dilemma er, at hun både er dansker og iraker. Hun har aldrig været i Irak, og hun har aldrig set andet end Danmark. Men samtidig er hun ikke dansk. Hun føler sig hverken som det ene eller det andet«, siger Hawra al-Nadawi om sin hovedperson. Hun fastslår, at bogen ikke er selvbiografisk. Men dilemmaet har hun altid selv levet med.

»Jeg har aldrig følt mig som hverken iraker, dansker eller for den sags skyld kurder eller englænder. Jeg er lidt af det hele«, siger hun. Alligevel føler hun sig mere hjemme her i Brøndby Strand, end hun gør i London eller Irak, hvor faren flyttede til i 2003 for at arbejde for den nye regering. »Jeg føler mig ikke tryg i Irak. Og jeg er faktisk ikke blevet vant til London endnu. Hvis jeg får børn engang, kunne jeg godt tænke mig, at de skulle vokse op her«, siger hun.

Yndlingsfaget dansk
Hawra al-Nadawi går ned ad en stille villavej med tjørnehække, carporte og løvfyldte forhaver. Hendes gamle folkeskole i gule mursten dukker op. Her gik hun fra femte til niende klasse, inden hun fortsatte på gymnasiet på Vestre Borgerdyd Gymnasium i Valby. Hawra al-Nadawi kunne godt lide folkeskolen, hvor to tredjeklasser løber skrigende hen over skolegården med farverige skoletasker på ryggen og jakkerne i hænderne. Følelsen af at være anderledes var der altid. Min roman giver et indblik i, hvordan det føles at vokse op som ung indvandrer i Danmark. Det, synes jeg, fortjener et dansk publikum.

Hawra al-Nadawi
Der var børn af mange nationaliteter på skolen, men hun var den eneste, der gik med tørklæde. Andre børn havde måske også indvandrerforældre, men de var selv født i Danmark. Og Hawra al-Nadawi kunne godt huske, at der havde været et andet liv før de stille villaveje, medbragte madpakker og sløjdundervisningen. Et af de steder, hun følte sig helt hjemme, var i den arabiske litteratur, som hendes mor præsenterede hende for. På Brøndby Strand bibliotek læste hun hver dag efter skole blandt andre den egyptiske nobelprismodtager Naguib Mahfouz. Som teenager var hun nået igennem hele bibliotekets arabiske samling – derefter begyndte hun at bestille hjem fra andre biblioteker.
På det tidspunkt var hun begyndt at skrive på arabisk. »Hver gang jeg skrev en stil på dansk, sagde min lærer, at jeg tænkte arabisk. På dansk skal man sætte punktum et vist sted og komma et andet. På arabisk er jeg mere fri. Sproget er rigere. Jeg er mere velformuleret på arabisk end på noget andet sprog«, siger hun.

Outsideren historie
Da hun som 20-årig fortalte sine forældre, at hun droppede ud af Ingeniørhøjskolen efter et år for i stedet at skrive sin første roman, var det ikke nogen stor overraskelse for dem. Da bogen var færdig efter fire år, sendte hun den som det første ind til det anerkendte libanesiske forlag Dar al-Saqi. Kun hendes far havde læst den. Alligevel vidste hun, at de ville udgive den. Overrasket blev hun til gengæld, da forlaget vækkede hende en morgen for et par uger siden og fortalte, at hun var blevet nomineret til den fornemste arabiske litteraturpris i verden. Til januar bliver de 13 nominerede skåret ned til seks, og derefter bliver vinderen inviteret til Abu Dhabi i marts 2012. Med prisen følger – ud over 50.000 dollar – en oversættelse fra arabisk til andre sprog. Med oversættelsen vil romanen nå et nyt publikum, måske endda et dansk. Tanken om et dansk publikum kan hun godt lide.

»I medierne kan man godt få det indtryk, at folk med andre baggrunde er ignoranter, ubehageligt anderledes, eller at de ikke vil integreres. Man dykker sjældent ned i følelsen af at være en outsider, eller hvordan man bliver påvirket af at være anderledes. Min roman giver et indblik i, hvordan det føles at vokse op som ung indvandrer i Danmark. Det, synes jeg, fortjener et dansk publikum«