Copenhagen’s easy charm sparks multiculturalism thoughts

April 7, 2012

Nyhavn - Copenhagen's vibrant harbour

Amal was fascinated by the sight of the two cute teenagers wearing bright headscarves walking down Strøget, Copenhagen’s famous shopping areas and the world’s longest pedestrian street with a wealth of shops, from budget-friendly chains to some of most expensive brands.

They were obviously Muslims and looked Arab, and she edged closer to them to hear what language they were speaking. It was Danish.

A few metres away on the 1.1 kilometers stretch running from City Hall Square to Kongens Nytorv, she saw more Muslim girls, this time giggling with friends and making remarks in Dansk, the language spoken by around six million Danes.

She again smiled, increasingly convinced that there were, after all, Muslims’ successful integration stories with real heroes and a resistance to the prejudice that Muslims were merely religious fanatics with a propensity for committing acts of terror.

The public relations executive was on her first visit to Denmark’s capital after Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national carrier, launched its first direct flight to a Scandinavian country and she knew she had been charmed.

She particularly appreciated the open tolerance that the city offered to the wide mélange of residents and visitors.

Amal welcomed the sight of many Muslim women standing out with their head scarves walk down crowded streets and ride their way on the famous Danish bicycles without restraints. More than one third of Copenhageners cycle to work and the city has a target of least 50 per cent by 2015 and she heard that both figures included Muslims.

“I am glad that the prejudice about Denmark being singularly tough on Muslims and Arabs is not really a full dark blanket,” she said. “I am sure that there are deep problems related to non-integration and non-acceptance, but there are also stories of real success. If only people from both sides could build on them!”

Amal, who had traveled extensively thanks to her job, was well aware that several European countries were facing real challenges about the status of Muslims as bias and chauvinism were ominously replacing tolerance and acceptance among large segments of their populations.

Allegations that Muslims were threatening Europe and were working on imposing an Islamist character on the old continent were being fuelled by politicians from the far right.

“I was particularly thrilled to see many young Muslims who seem to have integrated well and are part of the Danish society,” Amal said. “This is highly significant because I feel that the core of the struggle between pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim forces in Europe is young people, particularly those who attend public schools run by the state. It is in these mixed schools that their character is built, their identity is forged and their views of life are formed. I am glad that Muslims are not ostracized in this character-construction process,” she said.

Amal said she did not have the illusion that it was an ideal world for Muslims even though their contributions in the nation-building process were both historic and critical.

“I am aware of the daunting challenges and intimidating times that Muslims have to face every day, and especially in the labour market, and the agitations by far-right hate-mongers exploiting Europe’s economic hard times and ominous psychological and moral malaises afflicting European societies. However, I believe that Muslims do have options and can use innovative ideas to move forward vibrantly, proud of their identity and intelligently negotiating family and local social contexts,” she said.

In February, İkram Korkmaz, a Muslim studying at a hospitality college in Copenhagen to be a nutrition assistant, refused to taste pork and wine, both banned in Islam, despite threats from the staff that he would not graduate.

However, upon hearing about his case, Danish Education Minister Christine Antorini sent him a letter, informing him that the school management could not force him to taste anything that went against the dietary restrictions stipulated by his religion. Korkmaz told the media that the culinary college softened its attitude after the letter and that he was thankful to the minister.

A country that has the oldest state flag in the world still in use, the Dannebrog, cannot compromise its tolerant nature despite relentless onslaughts by xenophobia and radical politicians keen on mileage and ephemeral seats, Amal said to herself.

She increasingly felt at ease in Copenhagen, described by its natives as “an active, pulsating city with a human face – open, welcoming and with something for everyone.”

She offered silent thanks to the people who made it possible for Gulf Air to fly to the Scandinavian capital while her brilliant eyes were looking at the brightly coloured 17th century townhouses cafes and restaurants lining up the Nyhavn, the “New Harbour.”

Several modern yachts and historical wooden boats could be seen moored in the 300 metre-long canal dug in 1671-1673 into the city to enable ships to sail to the centre and unload their goods.

It has dramatically changed since the times when Hans Christian Andersen, the fairy tale writer and poet, lived in the area with the seedy reputation and today it is one of Copenhagen’s touristic hotspots and for much better reasons. The smart cafés and restaurants add to the charm of the capital’s most popular district.

Amal was impressed with the streets that inspired the tales of Andersen and wanted to see the statue of his Little Mermaid and her mind raced to imagine how Andersen used the special setting to write his fairy tales.

Since her early age, she was familiar with the tale of the Little Mermaid who was ready to give up her life in water to become the princess of the human prince she had fallen in love with. The boat ride to Langelinie where the statue of Little Mermaid is located was short and Amalenjoyed relapsing into her childhood days.

The visit to Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world situated in central Copenhagen, was another opportunity for Amalto re-live childhood moments in an area that has charmed visitors for almost 170 years.

For the Danes, Tivoli, a remarkable combination of an amusement park, a cultural venue and a wonderland situated in the heart of the city, is a national symbol, a cultural institution and the bearer of tradition.

This year, Denmark’s 71-year-old Queen Margrethe II joined a team to design stage sets and costumes for a new production of “The Nutcracker” at the concert hall at the Tivoli Gardens in November.

Another temptation for Amal was to try to find out whether life on the other side of the Öresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden, was different.

She was aware that with the 17-kilo-metre Öresund Bridge, the longest road and rail bridge in Europe, it takes only 35 minutes by train from the centre of Copenhagen to the centre of Malmö, Sweden.

Tempted by making a two-nation trip to both Denmark and Sweden, she took the train to Malmö.

Her first sight after venturing out of the train station and crossing a small bridge was two veiled girls walking smilingly with blond girl-friends, and Amal felt confident that the city, known as the most cosmopolitan in Sweden, was open and tolerant.

As she as she sat at the Gustav Adolfs Torg looking at the people walking by, jogging and seemingly having a good time, she was impressed with the shopping plazas in the centre and with the variety of buildings that encompassed different architectures from historic ages to Renaissance to modern high-rises.

Back on the 35-minute train ride to Copenhagen, Amal’s mind on how the bridge connection between the metropolitan areas of Copenhagen and Malmö has made it easy for more than 60,000 people to commute easily and without border control every day.

A visit to either Copenhagen or Malmö cannot be complete with a short trip to the other.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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