Wednesday, 19 July 2006

My Summer (Part 2: Denmark)

I’m leaving for the airport to go to England in two hours, and life has just been so hectic lately I literally haven’t had a free hour, so my apologies for not keeping you updated on my life (And of course you’ve all been waiting eagerly for the next installment of my summer vacation .
I came back from Medina almost a week before my family did since I had one of my best friend’s wedding to attend. A couple of days after that I traveled to Denmark for the Youth Leader’s event, which as trips go was pretty fantastic.

Denmark is a beautiful country, and is miles away from the chaotic, busy atmosphere of Cairo. There you feel life is moving at a much slower pace, where the buildings are all quaint two story cottages like you see in movies. And as much as I enjoyed crossing the street without fearing for my life as I usually do, seeing trees, greenery and more trees instead of sand, desert, and more sand; I’m afraid the lack of noise and people and cars did shock me for quite some time. As did the crazy amount of bikes! I still can’t believe how common spread riding a bike is; even parliament had bikes parked outside!! And let’s not mention how incredibly hot it was, even though the majority of my luggage was sweaters and jackets!

The trip was hosted by the DUF, (the Danish Youth Council), and their hospitality was heartening and inspiring. During the week we were there we were escorted around by a multitude of members of the DUF, as well as a large number of Danish youth from many other organizations. A special shout out to Solvej and Claus, who worked tirelessly around the clock to make sure that everything was running smoothly. And of course to Marie, to whom I promised that I would somehow subtly include mention of her political party: The Social Liberal Youth. Smooth, very smooth :)

There’s so much we did in this trip and so much we learned, there is just no way I can include everything. So I’ll just give a quick summary of each day (as best as I can remember) and anything that occurs to me as I go along.

The flight to Denmark was the longest flight I’ve ever been on so far, not even including the transit time spent in Paris. But that was nothing compared to the shock of finding out that Air France were very sorry, but my luggage had been delayed in France. I got a toothbrush and toothpaste for my troubles, and was escorted by Solvej to the hotel. There I learned that we were only a total of 10 participants, 6 guys and 2 girls. And funnily enough, all 4 girls were originally Egyptian, although one had lived her life in England and one in California. And one of the guys was Egyptian too. What can I say? Egyptians all the way :)

Our first day was spent riding a boat on the canal, and eating at a Moroccan restaurant. Some of the people accompanying us were those I’d met in Abu Dhabi, and can I just mention how wonderful life is sometimes? Those were people I’d never expected to see again, or at least didn’t expect to so soon, and getting the chance to do so was truly great and something I’m very thankful for.

Bright and early the next day we took a bus to the DUF, where we were introduced to the council by Yeppe, the president and whom we met in Abu Dhabi. It was interesting to note how casual everyone was; I don’t think I saw one suit or tie the whole time I was in Denmark, it definitely seems like a fun working environment. And I was even more impressed when I saw the main entrance of the DUF, where a veiled woman was one of the pictures they had on the wall:

We then visited the DSF, which is the National Union of Students, before going to a church in Norrebo which is the most multicultural part of Denmark, to talk with the pastor. The unique thing about this pastor is that she was so interested in keeping things calm in her community she was doing her best to try and include the Muslim community into the community at large. For example, she gave the local imam (Muslim male who leads the prayers) a room at the church. So some very interesting dynamics for sure. We then had dinner in private homes (And Marie, you make the best banana type desert hands down), and went to Tivoli, this beautiful amusement park. I even got to see fireworks, which we usually never see in Egypt.

The next day we went to parliament in the morning, where we heard about politics in Denmark from some of the youth politicians, and it was inspiring to know that youth here were extremely well informed about what goes on in their country, and were an intrinsic part of the whole process. A quotation I heard from Stefan (member of the Liberal Youth party) stayed with me and made me reflect: “Because we do not believe in absolute truth we fear absolute power.” Interesting perspective.

Afterwards we visited a media center, a cultural house, and then had some free time. And since I still hasn’t gotten my luggage I decided to go shopping in what is pronounced as “stkhol” street (I think) where I encountered my first walking street and my first mime :)

In the afternoon we headed to a Danish folk high school located in this gorgeous area (which looks too beautiful to be a school), to meet students who were taking a course called “Next stop: Middle East” which involved them actually traveling to the Middle East. They had never actually met anyone from the Middle East before though, and so were extremely excited to see us. The attention from so many people was kind of strange, especially since I never think of myself as particularly intriguing or anything, but that day I felt special lol. We had sessions on conflict resolution, and one of our activities involved writing down all we could think of when we heard the heard “conflict” and then circle in red the negative words and green the positive words.

We met a group called “Muslims in Dialogue” the next day, and it was inspiring to hear the activities of this group where its members are all volunteers and whose funding doesn’t rely at all on the state. I especially liked the poster they hung up saying “Samtale fremmer forstaelsen,” which translates as “Conversation promotes understanding.” Also very true. We prayed the Friday prayer at a mosque, and although officially in Denmark there are no mosques (i.e. a building built solely for Muslims to pray in), there are many mosque ‘buildings.’

In the evening (or late afternoon as it may be since the sun sets around 10pm), we had a reception at the DUF, and we returned to the Danes something that belonged to them. One of the participants, Mahmoud from Syria, had been present when the embassy was burning, filming the events. And what should land next to him than the Danish emblem. He took it and gave it back to illustrate how it was a symbol that should have been respected even if it didn’t mean anything to those who burned the embassy, simply because the Danes respected it. And I think it was an action that was very much appreciated.

We’d left Copenhagen the night before to go to Arhus, and it’s a beautiful city, albeit quieter, if that’s even possible. We visited a Christian scout organization camp, and I’m so so glad I wasn’t those scouts; why on earth would you voluntarily put yourself through such ickiness? No showering for God knows how long, sleeping in grass in the midst of bugs in the cold. Well, at least I know it’s not for me—the walking alone up all those hills would kill me And I think the walking pretty much tired us all out, since we took the rest of the day off to do whatever we wanted.

We visited Gellerup Parken, a “ghetto,” the next day, and not to sound at all ridiculing; the truth is that the “ghetto” cracked me up. The area was beautiful enough to rival Dokki, and the view from one of the apartments rivaled the view from the Corniche.

But I guess things are relative. For example, we visited “Bazar Vest,” which is a Middle Eastern style bazaar later on in the day, which the Danes think is a representation of the multitude of cultures that exist within their community; but although the food was pretty good, everything else was just an imitation of the real thing, and so of course it fell short. But at least it was an effort and a step. Last but not least, we met with a YMCA group who were working with religious dialogue in Gellerup before we left Arhus back to Copenhagen to catch our flights the following morning.

So this trip wasn’t very “academic-y” nor was it a conference, but nevertheless I am deeply grateful I got a chance to go. Not everyone gets a chance to look through the eyes of the “other” so well, nor a chance to fully experience what it’s like to actually be a citizen of another country. Misconceptions are easiest to shatter when you can actually have physical proof in front of you, and there was nothing more tangible (for me at least) than seeing DUF publications with veiled women on them, praying in a mosque, visiting an Islamic school, meeting Danish Muslims, seeing how people reacted to us and the like to truly make what I’d previously only known by what I’d heard reality in my mind. It showed me that our media misrepresents the “other” just as much as the Western media misrepresents Islam and the Middle East

I had fun on this trip, I made contacts, and I built bridges, but most importantly I made friends. It doesn’t matter that we were of different faiths, nationalities, ages, genders, political views and so on, only that we respected those things in each other and made a real effort to understand one other. I’m not an optimistic person by nature, so when I say that there’s a lot of hope in this world, then I see it as completely possible. Simple things like the waitress genuinely smiling to us at breakfast, although she’d probably never seen 4 veiled girls sitting at one table, are the things that stick in your mind and help you relate your experiences to others; telling them that bridges can be built and that there is no road that is impassible. Visiting Denmark has enriched me greatly, widened my perspectives and helped me truly believe that our similarities overcome our differences, and that it’s only up to you to choose what to focus on.

I think it’s time to wrap this up now so I don’t miss my flight. Hopefully I’ll update my blog in 10 days or so when I find time, and I’ll have a lot of experiences to relate.

Until next time,
Salam Alaykum (Peace be upon you).

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