To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Ahmed Jihad Hamada plans to become a doctor

Photo: Tine Harden
Since fleeing to Denmark at the age of five, Ahmad has had to get used to new places many times. His college lifestyle with partying and alcohol did not go down well with his parents – but they eventually managed to meet half way.
A pragmatic approach to religion is necessary, according to Ahmad – not least when you’re planning to become a doctor.

Ahmed Jihad Hamada tells his story in "New Men in Denmark", a series of portraits of ethnic minority men living in Denmark.

KVINFO/7.2.2008 In line with Muslim tradition, a son is given his father’s name as a middle name. And as my father’s name is Jihad, that became my middle name. And growing up in a small village in the north of Jutland it was an easy name for the others to make fun of. Before we came to Denmark we had lived in Algeria, where my father had been stationed as an officer in the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation: Ed.).

In Algeria, Palestinians were met with enormous sympathy and, being the family of a PLO officer, we lived a life of luxury with free accommodation and a car with a private chauffeur. But then the leader Yasser Arafat promised that the PLO would help Libya, which throughout the 1980s had been involved in military action against Chad. Palestinian officers were to train soldiers in Libya. This wasn’t exactly the cause for which my father was fighting. So, instead of setting off to the Libyan desert to train soldiers to kill Africans, he decided to desert from the army.

My parents fled to Denmark with my five-month-old younger brother and me. I was only five years old at the time. After waiting for three years in different asylum centres, we were given political asylum. We got a small apartment in Aalborg and I started at primary school. The school wanted to test my Danish language skills in a reception class first, but my father said "put the boy into a class with the Danish children and see how he does." The school reluctantly agreed. I did well and quickly made Danish friends, probably because I was the only one in the class with a different background. The thing that shocked me most was the Danish packed-lunch culture. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a packed lunch. The sight of traditional Danish liver pâté turned my stomach – what on earth was that brown gooey stuff?

A menu of red sausage and beer
It has been my lot in life to have to continually get used to new places to live and new schools. After a year in Aalborg, the Danish Refugee Council offered my family a place to live in a village outside the small town of Års. By now, my parents were fed up of living in a small apartment so they jumped at the chance. We moved and became the first foreign family in the village.

My first day at school started off with school assembly which included a song followed by The Lord’s Prayer. It was somewhat of a culture shock. I had been raised with Islam and I knew that The Lord’s Prayer was something Christian. How should I relate to it? I chose to stay quiet during assembly and continued to do so for the next year.

Although, on occasions, I was reminded that I was different, I settled in well and made new Danish friends. A lot of them lived very close by and there was always room for a playmate at dinner time at my friends' houses. The only problem was that I didn’t eat pork. The classic problem situation was birthday parties when sausage rolls would be served. And of course, it had always slipped their minds that Ahmad didn’t eat pork. After a few years things began to change. Parents would serve sausage rolls filled with chicken – just for me.

In many ways, I had a secure and happy childhood. It was different for my parents, though. Even though they were welcomed by the locals, it was hard for them to make new friends. The cultural differences were too great and, in a way, my parents were left on the sidelines. The social event of the year was the annual village fête, in which my parents politely took part for the first few years. The menu at the fête consisted of red sausages and beer. As neither of them drank alcohol nor ate pork it was difficult for them to take part fully. They soon ended up giving up bingo at the village hall, too. The bingo caller read out the numbers so quickly that they couldn’t keep up. And, as the main prize often consisted of half a pig or a bottle of schnapps, the prizes weren’t worth much to them either.

Alcohol and family loyalty
My parents had better luck finding work. My mother had studied biochemistry in Algeria but gave up the idea of studying further in Denmark. Instead, she got a job in a kindergarten where there were a lot of Iraqi children. My father quickly found employment in a number of factories, but he really yearned to have his own company. After a few years, he took the plunge and opened his own pizzeria in Thisted. Yet again, the whole family upped sticks – this time moving to Thisted. By now, my little sister had been born, along with another little brother. I had left secondary school and was well into my first year at college (1.g) in Års. I had ended up in a class where there was a lot of social interaction between students so I was none too pleased about the decision to move to Thisted. But, of course, I accepted my parent’s decision and went with them.

My time at college in Thisted was both fun and difficult for me. Staying loyal to my parents, I didn’t drink alcohol in my last years at secondary school, where drinking was associated with a lot of status. It was unbelievably hard to be at a party, and people didn’t understand why I didn’t drink. For my part, I couldn’t understand the point of getting drunk just for the sake of it and saying things you would never say if you were sober. But, at the same time, I wanted to be part of Danish youth culture: Drink beers and score girls.

I needed to decide for myself how I was going to live my life. Perhaps the Danish sense of independence had influenced me, and I liked the idea of being able to stand on my own two feet. So, at college, I decided to see what it was like to drink. I kept it secret from my parents to begin with but, of course, they found out eventually. This ended in a long talk. My mother was convinced that I would become a drug addict or, at best, an alcoholic. My father took a more relaxed approach. We made a deal that it was okay for me to go out and have a couple of drinks, but, under no circumstances, should I come rolling home drunk. In retrospective, I think that this was a very diplomatic solution to the problem and I realise that my parents made a real effort to understand me. Naturally, it was difficult for them to accept my choice. But what other choice did they have? The alternative was that I would move away from home.

The necessity of compromise
I grew up in a home where Islam played a significant role. It’s a religion with many rules and commands which, in a non-Muslim country such as Denmark, are impossible to adhere to fully. Compromises are a necessity. The way my parent’s practice their religion is also tailored to the society in which they live. For example, according to the Koran, my father is not allowed to sell pork. But pork is a very popular pizza topping here so he has to make a compromise and serve it.

Another Islamic command that needs looking at concerns the accumulation of interest on money. According to the Koran, practicing Muslims may neither pay nor receive interest. But how can anyone live in Denmark today without having a bank account? Should they hide their money under a mattress? This "rule" prohibits many Muslims from buying property or investing in shares or bonds. I hope this will change. It took Moses 40 years to travel through the Sinai desert, which is about the same size as Zealand. An Imam compared this with the fact that it takes around 40 years for the ideas of a new generation to win ground.

My parents and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I can’t turn my back on the values which I have been brought up with. I still see myself as a Muslim but not as a very religious person. My limit is still pork, which confuses many of my Danish friends who say, "If you eat beef, why don’t you eat pork?" But I have no desire to do so. And, unlike drinking alcohol which makes socialising easier, I can’t see any advantage to eating pork. And with all the black marks I have already scored in "the heavenly book", one white one surely won’t go a miss!

Does your mother wear a headscarf?
I’ll never be 100% Danish. I’ll always be a foreigner when people see me for the first time. But, as soon as I open my mouth, most discover that I’m not an idiot and they begin to relax. I have had experiences, however, where I have been judged purely on the basis of my Muslim background. When I was at college I went to meet a girlfriend’s parents. The day before, Danish TV had aired the film Not without My Daughter. During the pleasant dinner conversation, the girl’s father suddenly started to cross-examine me. "Does your mother wear a headscarf?", he asked. "Does she have a job? Does she do all the work in the house?". I was furious but managed to control myself. And I still managed to thank them for the invitation. Even though I knew I wasn’t on home ground, it still felt like a knife in the back.

Another time when I was reminded that I wasn’t like all the others was just after the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh was murdered by a man with a Muslim background. At that time, I was working in a fish factory in Hanstholm while waiting to start studying medicine at university. The people there are a tough lot and they aren’t affected by things lightly. But the murder of Theo van Gogh made the factory workers’ blood boil. Six of them cornered me into what I can only describe as an interrogation. "Are you pleased that he has been murdered?" they asked, and "does your mother wear a headscarf?" It was extremely uncomfortable to have to sit there and be held accountable for a crime some idiot or other had committed in The Netherlands.

Feels at home studying medicine
During my second year at college I decided that I wanted to study medicine. It's a subject with both a scientific and a human aspect to it – and luckily, my grades were good enough to get me in. It was a major step for me to move to Copenhagen and, to begin with, I didn’t enjoy it at all – a freezing cold winter, no friends, and studying a difficult subject that required loads of work.

However, I soon made some good friends, helped on the way by the university fresher’s course for new students. A fresher’s course isn’t just about getting drunk and partying. It allows you to create a social network and meet people with similar interests. It’s such a shame that so many girls with Arabic names were on the list of those who had opted out of our fresher’s course. Taking part without drinking is no problem at all, and you get just as much out of it socially. And you could even make some Danish friends.

The university atmosphere offers plenty of room for diversity, and prejudice isn’t something you often come across. I feel at home here in a culture where disagreements and differences in opinion are sorted out and discussed through sensible dialogue. The study of medicine requires a lot from those who study it. Because you have to read so much you can easily forget to go out on a Friday evening and talk to friends. As a result, you can end up being seen as an antisocial bookworm if the only thing you have time for is studying. So I have chosen to become active in the student club. At the club, you can meet up with others over a cup of coffee or a beer, or even play a game of table tennis or two. I also take part in the annual student stage production. I love being on the stage and I can really express myself and let myself go there.

In the long run, I wouldn’t mind becoming politically active and fighting for the better use of resources. At the moment, I am a member of the group Sehat, which means "health" in ten languages. It’s a debate forum about the state of health among ethnic minorities. Many female Muslim students are met with opposition when they wear a headscarf. On the other hand, I think it’s a problem if a female Muslim medical student refuses to touch a man. You have to have a pragmatic approach towards religious doctrines if you want to live in a modern non-Muslim country – particularly if you want to be a doctor.

Tired of being ’the good immigrant’
My mother can’t understand why I don’t have more Arabic friends. She is well aware that many of those studying medicine come from Arabic backgrounds. But I haven’t made a conscious effort to seek out Arabic friends. Just because you share the same background doesn’t mean that you automatically have anything else in common. Of course, the fact that I grew up in the provinces and had mostly Danish friends when growing up has influenced things. It would have been different if I had grown up in the Mjølnerpark area of Nørrebro where 97% of those living there have an ethnic background. In places like that, it’s like being in a small village – everyone knows everyone else’s business and everyone talks about each other once their backs are turned. As I have told my parents, "If you move in among the other Arabs over here, you’ll end up with the same problems as they have."

When I’m having a really bad day I feel like a real misfit – not really Danish, not really Arabic, not really from Jutland, and not really from Copenhagen. I have dark skin but green eyes. I haven’t got to grips with my own identity yet. I’m also sick and tired of being known as the "exemplary immigrant". I’ve discussed immigration policy with some Danish friends and some racist comments have come out. When I ask them to watch what they are saying they reply, "We didn’t mean you. You are different. You’re all right." 

The immigration debate that has been raging over the past few years plays upon peoples’ fear towards anyone foreign. I hope the attitude towards immigrants will lighten up soon and the strict immigration regulations will be relaxed. When it comes down to the basics, immigration is all about economics and welfare. If everyone is doing well socially and economically then they will treat each other well. I think we’ll have to wait a generation or two before things start getting better.

Political impotence
All of my friends from Thisted have moved to Copenhagen to study. I feel at home here. A big city offers so many opportunities for a person to be spontaneous. If I want a chocolate milkshake at 5 in the morning, I can go out and get one. But during Ramadan I miss my family and I miss how nice it is when we are all together. My parents use me as their sparring partner. For example, if my father is having a problem with one of his employees, he will talk it over with me. My mother has started a SOSU education to become social care assistant and she wants to borrow my books. I think that’s funny.

We watch Arabic television, including Al-Jazeera. When I watch the news about the Middle East I feel politically impotent. The situation is grotesque and it affects me on a personal level. Like when Israel built a wall that went straight through Palestinian areas. Now, part of my grandmother’s land is behind this wall. The right to tend her land has been taken away from her. It’s a conflict within a conflict, and I can see no solution to it. It was also depressing when Israel bombed Lebanon last summer. We had a small, fledgling democracy there that was bombed to smithereens. And then they wonder why more and more individuals turn to terrorism.

I suppose it’s just a question of time before some psychopath blows himself up at Nørreport station (train station in central Copenhagen: Ed.). I’ve begun to view the terrorist problem as a natural disaster. It can hit anyone anywhere at anytime. No one can control it. And we all have to learn to live with it. But it’s sad when the conflict is brought to Denmark and a Molotov cocktail is thrown thought the window of a synagogue, or someone tries to burn down a mosque because of something going on somewhere else in the world.

Love and parents
My parents would be overjoyed if I was to marry an Arabic girl. They would gladly set me up with a nice girl from a good family. I’m just not sure that I could go along with such an arrangement. I’d like to hope that I’ll meet an Arabic girl and really fall in love with her. But it’s more likely that I’ll fall in love with and marry a Danish girl. This won’t be without its problems on the family front. However, I still want to be a good son and please my parents. But I’m confused about this whole thing and don’t really know what I think myself.

My worst fear is that my father, on his death bed, doesn’t regard me as a good Muslim and feels that he is to blame. Not that I share his feelings, but it plays on my mind. The things that I do to be a good son, I do out of loyalty towards my parents. Not because of religion. If you ask for advice from religious people, who are supposedly in the know, you get wildly different answers. And it ends up with the one with the longest beard shouting the loudest. I’m tired of those religious people who are self-proclaimed representatives of different groups. It really ought to be possible for a person to train to become an Imam in Denmark. And, just as Danes pay 1% in church tax, we should do the same and create a Muslim "national church" which can accommodate all Muslims and make them feel at home here. This would be a new way to be a Muslim.

Translation: Andrew Bell

Born in Algeria in 1985
Came to Denmark as a refugee with his family in 1990
Grew up in the north of Jutland
Currently studying medicine at the University of Copenhagen
Active member of student associations, including the Sehat society
New Men in Denmark - read more stories here

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: