COMMENTARY: Defining Swedishness
By Anna-Liina Kauhanen
What does it mean to be Swedish? This is a question that Qaisar Mahmood has been pondering. And who has the right to call him, or herself a Swede?
Are they people who weigh their suitcases before going to the airport, drink wine in a box, and sleep on white sheets?
Why is Swedishness so political, but at the same time so hard to define? It is something whose content should be understood somehow, as the term often emerges when the conversation turns to immigration, integration, and multiculturalism.
Mahmood is a passionate motorcyclist and a civil servant working for the Swedish state. He recently got on his motorcycle and went on a ride in a quest for authentic Swedishness.
Mahmood got the idea from a board game that he played with his friends, called Lingon, lådvin och långkalsonger ("Lingonberries, wine in a box, and long underwear").
Players score points the more Swedish they show themselves to be. However, those who were playing were left with a sense of dissatisfaction. How is it, that applauding on a plane would be a typically Swedish thing to do?
On his motorcycle ride Mahmood experienced the Sweden of roundabouts and small communities where nobody was to be seen, and where nobody was missed.
The result was a book Jakten på svenskheten, or "Hunting for Swedishness".
The task was not an easy one, considering that hardly anything is as difficult for anyone to handle as a struggle over his or her own identity.
Globalisation and the technical development of the internet age create new communities, but they also isolate people. People are born in one place, move somewhere else, study in another location and work on different continents.
When people are on the move, a longing ensues. Swedes are united by a need to find something in common. However, there is very little to share.
Mahmood is an interesting and quite an obvious hunter of Swedishness. He is an immigrant who lives the life of a middle class father in the prosperous Vasastan neighbourhood of Stockholm.
Mahmood was born in Lahore, Pakistan. His family moved to Sweden to the suburb of Tensta when Mahmood was seven years old. It seems quite stark, but the motorcycle ride soon reveals what seems to define Swedishness the most. It is the surface – skin colour.
Dark skin means that a person is different from the rest. Hotel receptionists address him in English, passport inspectors examine him thoroughly. It doesn’t matter how well he speaks English or what academic degrees he has in pocket.
Along the way it comes out that Mahmood is a nationalist in his own way. He feels that society needs a sense of national cohesion. Mahmood compares the search for a national identity with genealogy: people have a need to place themselves historically, geographically, emotionally, and ideologically. People need a common story, but they do not have to look the same to achieve that.
Swedishness is like an onion, Mahmood says, but not in the sense that the core of Swedishness would emerge after peeling away one layer after another. Instead, new layers always grow on top of it.
The agrarian society, industrialisation, the flourishing of the "people’s home", and the current state of affairs have all added their layers to what it is to be Swedish.
Now it is the time for immigrants to nurture Swedishness – if they are allowed to do so. Mahmood’s daughter is asked to bring food from her home country for the school’s bazaar.
Perhaps we’ll make pytt i panna, she ponders.
But without the pork.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.8.2012
ANNA-LIINA KAUHANEN / Helsingin Sanomat