Photo by Morten Holtum (Courtesy of Gyldendal)
Yahya Hassan is an 18-year-old Muslim Palestinian immigrant to Denmark who has become a social critic, celebrity writer, and general shit-stirrer—all thanks to a slim volume of poetry. Since the release of his self-titled debut collection in October, he’s been all over the Danish media, at least in part due to his subject matter. His poetry, written in all caps in Danish, is full of rage directed at his parents’ generation, a group of Muslims he accuses of hypocrisy and abandoning their children. He’s penned lines like:
YOU YOU’RE A MUSLIM? / YOU YOU DON’T KNOW/ IF YOU WANT HALAL OR HARAM / YOU YOU KNOW YOU WANT HARAM / BUT YOU YOU PRETEND YOU WANT HALAL / YOU YOU DON’T WANT PIG / MAY ALLAH REWARD YOU FOR YOUR FOOD HABITS.
Some of his poetry documents an abusive childhood; Yahya grew up in a poor neighborhood of Aarhus, and flirted with crime from an early age. He blames much of that on his mother and father. “As soon as our parents landed in Copenhagen airport it felt as if their role as parents was coming to an end,” Yahya told the Danish newspaper Politiken in the interview, published on October 5, that turned him into a teenage social commentator.
He’s been a frequent guest on television programs where he debates other young Muslims, and his willingness to bluntly criticize them in front of outsiders has earned him many accolades from the media. Yahya Hassan sold 11,000 copies in the first 24 hours it was available, and over 100,000 have been printed total, making it the most popular Danish poetry publication of all time.
His fellow Muslims, however, have a lot less affection for Yahya than Danish society. “To many young Muslims, Islam is an identity marker, like belonging to a subculture, such as punk,” said Helle Lykke Nielsen, a PhD in Middle Eastern studies and an expert in integration at the University of Southern Denmark. “They feel they’ve had their identities attacked by Yahya Hassan’s poetry.”
Yahya has been literally attacked by his detractors. On November 18, the poet was assaulted by a radical Muslim who had previously been convicted of terrorism under Danish law. Later that month he did a reading in Vollsmose, a poverty-stricken suburb of Odense that’s home to many Muslim immigrants. The authorities had so many concerns about the event they gave Yahya bodyguards and made all of Odense a no-fly zone.
Helle sees Yahya’s controversial poems as a positive development—the backlash, he thinks, is just a consequence of Muslim immigrants joining a society where people speak freely about their religions and criticize others in the mass media. “Danish Muslims will have to get used to the fact that Islam is up for debate,” he said. “It’s a step toward better integration, where we can discuss Islam and religion in general without prejudice.”