BY: ALISON SMALE
Like many teenagers, Yahya Hassan does not lack for bravado. But his way of expressing it stands in stark contrast to that of most of his peers: At just 18, the Danish-Palestinian Hassan has emblazoned himself on Denmark’s consciousness with a poetry collection that appeared with a first print run of 800 last fall and has since sold more than 100,000 copies.
The collection, which criticises the Danish welfare state, his family and Danish Muslims at large for hypocrisy, cheating and failure to adapt, has won him death threats as well as a dubious embrace by right-wing politicians. But his commercial success is reaching far beyond Denmark.
Many eyes were turned to Hassan last month when a German translation of his Danish-language verse collection, Yahya Hassan, appeared in time for the Leipzig Book Fair. The translation sold 9,000 copies in the first week, and the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine published a German version of the fierce poem Hassan wrote on the Ukraine revolt against then president Victor F Yanukovych.
With his ponytail and mesmerising way of chanting verse, Hassan proved a forceful presence at the fair. Sporting giant sunglasses, he rattled off six or seven of his poems seemingly almost in a trance, removing the sunglasses to reveal his eyes closed.
He then left his hour-long reading abruptly, declining to sign any books. At his hotel, asked why, he said: “I was done.”
That kind of abrupt clarity marks Hassan’s verse — written in capital letters. By contrast, all but the basic outlines of his life are shrouded in some mystery.
Hassan, according to clues in his verse and media reports, arrived in Denmark from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon as a child. By the time he was 13, he was so much trouble to both his family and society that Denmark’s welfare state made him its ward, shuttling him through a series of institutions. All the while, his contempt for the state and its actions towards him grew.
Or at least that is what he writes. His anger at a violent father who, in Hassan’s account, displays tenderness only when visiting the mosque, and his dismissal of welfare workers and what he portrays as their pathetic attempts to make him happy, burn with the veracity of firsthand experience.
But other aspects are less clear. For instance, few clues emerge about how he came to love literature, or how he induced the police to bring him a copy of Crime and Punishment.
A rapper before he became a poet, Hassan first caught the attention of Johannes Riis, the literary director of the Gyldendal publishing house. He would write some 170 pages of poetry over the course of several months before publishing the first 800 copies of Yahya Hassan in October last year.
Sales took off after an interview in the Danish daily Politiken whose headline, containing an expletive, quoted him on his hate for his parents’ generation. He finds particular fault with the ways their lives in Denmark are circumscribed — as are those of so many modern immigrants — by clinging to the remote control that brings satellite TV, in this case Al Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, to their living rooms.
The images of life in the poorer parts of Aarhus, the port city where Hassan lived, are bare and dirty. The language used to describe his brushes with state institutions is rife with expletives.
His observations have appealed not just to the literary establishment, but also to the kinds of arguments advanced by the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party. Of that connection, he said: “It’s all the same to me. I have the responsibility for my poems. I don’t have any responsibility for what others do with them.”
His perceived criticism of the Muslim world in Denmark has earned him at least one assault and death threats. In the country where the newspaper Jyllands-Posten stirred Muslim anger after it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, and where the anti-immigrant right-wing is on the rise, existing emotions have helped keep the spotlight on Hassan.
“His talent is so explosive that I have no doubt it will prevail beyond the media blitz,” argued Lars Bukdahl, a Danish poet and poetry editor. Already, he added, Hassan has forced many liberals to confront his critical observations of the welfare system and of how Danes cope with immigrants.
Asked how he might see himself at 30, Hassan said he had no idea. Are his poems a cry from the heart? “I do not cry,” he said. “I depict with words.”
He added, “I don’t ask as many questions as journalists.”