Monday, July 21, 2008

The Cartoons

When I was on my way today through the busy streets towards Al Manara Square in the centre of Ramallah, a man started walking alongside me. He was limping slightly and was struggling to keep up with my pace. I looked at him briefly but continued at my own tempo. Then he spoke to me and asked me to slow down my speed a bit. He pointed to his leg and said that he couldn’t move very fast; it was Israeli bullets that were stuck in his hip and which had crippled him. I looked at him with a quizzical expression and he asked me where I came from. As usual, I said that I came from Copenhagen. When I said this, he immediately reacted by asking me why we wanted to humiliate the Prophet. Why had we published the Muhammad cartoons?

We were still walking side by side when the man grabbed my wrist tightly. I continued to walk and tried at the same time to pull my wrist out of his grip but he held on tightly. I told him that I had nothing to do with the drawings and that I didn’t agree with them being published, but he continued asking why I wanted to degrade the Prophet. He suddenly pulled me through the mass of people right across the pavement and looked at me saying ‘security forces’ — and revealed that he was in some way or another related to the security forces. I went along with him, but said loud and clear that he now had to listen to what I had to say. He held up a finger to his mouth signalling that I should be quiet. I was taken over to a group of men who stood on a corner and he told them that I was from Denmark and that Denmark, apart from the Muhammad cartoons, also had deployed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t think that the situation was particularly dangerous and his friends on the corner looked at him and just started smiling. They weren’t interested. He let go of my wrist but he continued to question me about Danish foreign policy in the Middle East. He was clearly well informed. I tried several times to get through to him, ‘now listen!’, but where before he’d put a finger to his mouth, he now covered both his ears with his hands, showing me that he didn’t want to listen. Anyhow, I told him about how I did everything I could to distance myself from the Danish government and that I in no way represented Denmark, but he didn’t want to listen and so I left quickly, disappearing into the crowd of people heading towards the centre of Ramallah.

Before I’d left for the West Bank, I’d heard many stories about Danes who hadn’t dared to talk about where they came from when travelling in the Middle East. On the website of the Danish Foreign Ministry, any travelling in the occupied territories was discouraged but I simply wouldn’t let myself be intimidated by having a Danish passport as I in no way agree with the policies of the Danish Government and its cultural war against Muslims. The Muhammad cartoons were, in my opinion, simply abusive towards a minority in Denmark and directly connected to the racist policies of the government. The case was not about freedom of expression at all — there was never any doubt about whether the drawings could or could not be published. They were simply published without any problems at all.

Although I don’t support the policies of the Danish Government, I nonetheless happen to represent Denmark as a Dane, which I can understand, although the state and the population are two separate things. However, I felt a total reversal of the usual power relations when the slightly mad man simply refused to listen to me. This was pretty much in line with the self-righteous arrogance of the Danish government when the unrest started. To begin with, it refused to even listen to the waves of criticism flowing in from the Arabic societies. Here, then, was the crippled Palestinian who refused to let me speak or to explain that he was treating me unjustly. What I experienced was powerlessness, combined with the frustration of not being recognised as a person. My anger turned mostly to the Danish Government, whose stupidity had just put my life in danger.

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