It’s the story of a Danish-Palestinian teenager who has seemingly lived a lifetime in his 18 years: abused as a child, he is a ward of the state who finds a voice in poetry, becomes a surprise success in Denmark described as a cross between Rumi and Eminem, but the same verse criticizing his family, country, and religion earns him adulation as well as death threats.
His name is Yahya Hassan and he’s become a Danish literary sensation of sorts.
First, the numbers: Hassan, at a mere 18 years, penned a poetry collection with a first print run of 800 that has since sold more than 100,000 copies in a country with a population the size of Miami. It has also brought him at least 30 death threats, 1 attempted assault, and widespread attention.
His work is an eloquent declaration of his abhorrence for “the Danish welfare state, his family, and Danish Muslims at large for hypocrisy, cheating, and failure to adapt,” as the New York Times put it, words that have brought him a mixed bag of reactions: commercial success from mainstream Danes, death threats from Muslim extremists, and “a dubious embrace by right-wing politicians.”
His work is a curious mix. Written only in capital letters, his verse has been described as one of “abrupt clarity,” while the contours of his subject matter – his life – remains mystery.
According to clues pieced together by the NYT and International Herald Tribune, Hassan spent his early childhood in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, moved to Denmark, and experienced trouble at home. He was a difficult child with an abusive father who, according to Hassan’s own verse, displayed violence at home and tenderness at the mosque. By age 13, Hassan was such a menace to his family at home and society at large – he dropped out of school and was engaged in petty burglaries and low-level drug dealing – he became a ward of the state, passing through a series of Danish institutions. The result: a searing bitterness toward the state, his family, Muslim immigrants, and Islam as a whole, all of which burns through the pages of his controversial verse.
His journey to poetry is unclear, though reports have hinted at various entrees – long periods of isolation in which he discovered literature, a government-run hip hop workshop, a teacher who recognizes his talent and encouraged Hassan to write.
His poetry is typically rife with profanity and graphic depictions of his life and experience.
Poems like “Childhood” and “Disgusted” deal with issues like the immigrant ghettoes, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, religion, and child abuse.
In “A Radius of 100 Meters,” he “provides a depressing panorama view of a few thousand square meters of ghetto life, describing his father’s violence as well as his social security fraud,” according to the Tribune.
“Long Poem” hints at the hypocrisy of Muslims, pointing to superficial displays of faith betrayed by amateur acts of vigilantism.
Muslims – and Muslim immigrants in Europe – are his main target.
“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,” reports the Times.
“There’s something wrong with Islam,” Hassan told the Wall Street Journal. “The religion refuses to renew itself.” It needs a “reformation,” he said.
It has raised eyebrows – a Muslim-born immigrant Dane and self-professed atheist, taking aim at Muslims in a country where cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad fanned intense passion and protest in 2005.
It has also made Hassan, a Muslim immigrant turning on his religion and “his people,” a darling among Danes.
“I knew when I would tell my story would break many taboos and many people would get offended and my parents would get angry,” he told the WSJ. “But my premise was that I would have to tell it as it is.”
Few poets are as surprising or as polarizing as Hassan: Depending on who’s reading, he is a hero, a traitor, a genius, an angry kid.
For readers who think they’ve got him figured out, however, Hassan has another message.
“What I write, that’s my identity, that’s who I am,” he said in another interview. “But that doesn’t mean I am the way my readers think I am. The reading depends on the individual reader, the reader’s reality. I’m not responsible for the interpretation.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.