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Majdid Sairafianpour - Muslim and Danish citizen

Photo: Tine Harden

Majdid Sairafianpour sees no conflict in being a full member of Danish society and a practising muslim. To him, integration is not assimilation. You have to stay true to your own background. He feels he has become more religious after settling in Denmark.

Majdid Sairafianpour tells his story in "New Men in Denmark", a series of portraits of ethnic minority men living in Denmark.


KVINFO/7.2.2008 My three elder siblings and I grew up in a well-to-do and conservative family in the Iranian city of Isfahan. The different roles of men and women were well-defined in my family; My father was Foreign Minister and my mother was Minister of Home Affairs. There was a great sense of security growing up in a home where we knew who to ask what. It was my mother to whom we went to for help with family matters, such as when we needed pocket money or new shoes. Homework and maths were my father’s field. My parents instilled in us the importance of a good education. This also applied to my sister, who after qualifying as a teacher, went on to study psychology at university.

The Islamic revolution and the ensuing war against Iraq proved to be a turning point in my life. I quickly realised that I had to leave Iran. I was young and couldn’t just sit waiting to be drafted into military service. My mother managed to convince my father that it was time for them to help my older brother and me to flee the country to study abroad. And that was how my brother and I ended up in Denmark in 1987.

New ways of learning
It felt strange to have to start a new life from scratch and learn a foreign language. My brother and I were sent to different places. To begin with, he was sent to Frederikshavn and I was sent to Aalborg. However, after some negotiations, I was allowed to join him in Frederikshavn. We were both keen to learn Danish as quickly as possible so that we could start studying at university.

Some Iranians we met in Frederikshavn advised us to study at VUC (Adult Education Centre: Ed.) rather than a language school, which they told us was a "waste of time". This proved to be good advice. After just six months we had learned so much Danish that we were admitted onto a GIF course (a one-year course for foreigners with a higher secondary education: Ed.). We learned so much here, not least because of our teachers. The way maths and physics were taught was completely new to us. In Iran, you learn formulas off by heart, entered the figures, and then worked out the result. "You may have correctly solved the problem," said my physics teacher,"but it merely shows that you are good at memorising things off by heart". "The figures aren’t the most important thing. It’s your way of thinking that matters. You have to think physics". This opened up a whole new way of learning for us.

We did so well in our final exams that we started at university in the autumn of 1998. My brother went to the Technical University of Denmark and I went to the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Copenhagen University.

Three children with three different men
Once again my brother and I had to settle into new surroundings – and this time we weren’t together. He was lucky enough to get a room in a house with an elderly lady in Bagsværd. Here he was really well looked after. But for me, things went differently.

I rented a room with a single mother with three children in Brøndby Strand. I later found out that none of her children had the same father. As well as this, she had a young Iranian boyfriend who also lived in the apartment. She herself was in her late forties. It was somewhat of a culture shock to me. One day she refused to let me into the flat and refused me access to my possessions. I went to the police station and they referred me to the local authorities.


It turned out that she was claiming welfare benefits and was not entitled to rent out a room. At the time I didn’t have any concept of what it meant to be on "welfare benefits". The whole episode ended with me eventually getting my things back, but I was left without a roof over my head. For a couple of weeks I was resigned to sneaking into empty auditoriums at the university and spending the night there, but I eventually got a room at a halls of residence in Rødovre (suburb to Copenhagen: Ed.).

Foreign bacteria
Life at the student halls of residence suited me and I began to live a normal, student life. I had peace and quiet for studying, focusing on exams and conducting lab tests. From an academic point of view, I was doing well. I didn’t miss out on the social aspect either. We were a total of 30 Iranians on my course and all of us soon became good friends. A bag of pistachio nuts was enough reason for us to hold a party. The Danish students that saw us probably thought we had been smoking pot or something. After all, to them, we had to be on something seeing as we didn’t drink alcohol. The difference between how Danes relaxed and how we relaxed was considerable.

For a short while I tried drinking alcohol, but I quickly gave it up. Why should I drink something I didn’t like just so I could fit in with the others? I wasn’t going to sell myself short with something that weighed so heavily upon my conscience. Discos didn’t really do anything for me either. Perhaps it’s because I never went to places like that that I never experienced being called offensive names or experienced people shouting "go back home" at me. That sort of thing doesn’t happen at university but it does in bars and discos.

When not studying, I spent most of my time with other Iranians. Of course, the Danish language thing probably played a part in this. Sometimes misunderstandings between Iranians and Danes would crop up because of the language barrier. Once, during a practical experiment in the lab, one of the Danish students started talking about "foreign bacteria in the culture". "What did you say? Are you calling me foreign bacteria in your culture?" screamed a furious Iranian student. But, of course, the Danish student hadn’t been talking about Danish culture but about micro-culture.

My wife felt that I was too young
In my third year at university I started tutoring an Iranian woman in chemistry. She wanted to be accepted to study radiography. She was a very reserved person which I really liked. I had dated some girls from my course, but I didn’t like it when they took the initiative and asked me out. "You’ll have to wait until I ask you", I always said.

After tutoring her in chemistry for six months, I asked her to marry me. She didn’t say yes immediately. She was three years older than I was and thought that I was a bit too young. But we eventually got married in 1991 in Copenhagen City Hall.

Malaria research
For the next seven years my wife and I lived in a family halls of residence in Valby. When our son was born, it was no problem getting someone to look after him. Both my wife and I were very busy with our studies. My wife didn't get accepted to study radiography and switched to a course to train as a dental technician instead.

Having gained my Master’s degree, I started on a PhD research project studying Malaria. In connection with this, my family and I moved back to Isfahan where I collected plants and carried out studies into ethno-botanical conditions which could be used to fight Malaria. My daughter was only two weeks old when we went. My original goal was to move back permanently to Iran after completing my Master’s degree.


After a couple of years, we returned to Denmark. I completed my PhD dissertation in 2002 and spent the following three years working as assistant professor at the university. About ten years ago my brother returned to live permanently in Iran. He was one of the first to do so. But we decided to stay in Denmark. I don’t think you can plan you life. Things happen by themselves and life moves ahead according to the opportunities that come up along the way.

A future as a pharmacist
Alongside my work at the university, I took part-time work at a pharmacy to supplement my income. I had a student loan that needed to be repaid. The pharmacist at the Dom Apotek pharmacy in Roskilde suggested that I apply for my pharmacist’s licence. To gain such a licence you have to be approved by representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Danish Medicines Agency.


Today I am Quality and Education Manager at Roskilde Dom Apotek and have 40 people working under me. In the near future I hope to take over as Deputy Manager. Once I do this, I’ll be able to apply for positions as Chief Pharmacist.

Integration is not assimilation
I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I am Iranian. I have kept my long surname and I have given my children Iranian names. If an Iranian customer comes into the pharmacy, I speak Persia. It’s an extra service to have staff who speak Arabic, Persian or German – something many Danes still have not grasped.


Integration is not assimilation. It’s important to stay true to your own culture. I don’t actually like the word integration at all. We should talk about citizenship instead. You don’t have to feel like a Dane to want to take responsibility for the society in which you live. And this is a view I think applies to every aspect of life, both large and small. If I see someone dropping litter in the street I tell the person that what they are doing is wrong.

As a citizen in my community I expect that the local authorities use their financial funds in a responsible way. When I received a letter from my local authority saying that they planned to place my daughter in a class for children who need special Danish language teaching I had to react. She was only in the first grade, and, according to her teachers, she didn’t need any special language teaching at all. It turned out that the local authority had been given extra funding to be used to provide children with an ethnic background extra Danish language classes. Due to a lack of children to fill these extra classes, they had simply decided to enrol all children with foreign names. Why on earth should my daughter be put in a class with Ali and Mustafa who have real learning problems to be taught something she is already capable of doing to begin with? What a waste of tax-payer’s money. I made my feelings very clear to my local authority.

I don’t need an additional identity
I’ve become more religious living in Denmark. Unfortunately, many people think that Islam is all about identity – if you have no job and no social life then the only identity you have is religion. This applies to Danes who convert to Islam, too. Many young converts lack support and adult contact and look to Islam for security. And all this about Danish women suddenly wearing headscarves and refusing to shake hands with men – what’s going on? They haven’t chosen to be a Muslim because of the religion; they’ve done it because they feel secure in the role of a woman subjugated by men.

I don’t need an additional identity. My position within the community is secure enough and the life we live isn’t so much different from the Danish way of life. In fact, some of our closest friends are Danish and we are always invited to their various confirmations and weddings. Our children have loads of Danish friends, too. My interest in religion is a philosophical one. Islam is a philosophy, but you can’t isolate Islam from the societies in which it is practiced. In itself, Islam is pure compassion, but when it’s mixed with certain cultures, which are both pitiless and brutal, something else happens.

For example, at one time, I had a co-worker who started wearing a headscarf when she came back from maternity leave. She had read in the Koran that women should cover their hair. The fact that our religion says that women should wear a headscarf must be understood bearing in mind the state of society at the time these things were written down 1400 years ago. At that time, a headscarf was seen as protection from male sexuality. This was also the case in non-Muslim societies. In today’s Denmark, the society is protection in itself and there is no need for women to cover themselves up. With all respect to the headscarf, it’s just not necessary in Denmark.

The way society is structured in Denmark, people know exactly when and where it is appropriate for men to approach women in this way, for example, at discos or at a party. But if a woman is waiting at a bus stop late at night it’s unlikely that she will have to fend off advances from men. I tried to explain this to my co-work.

Religious spokesman
I am a Shia Muslim and a spokesman for our mosque, Imam Ali Islamic Centre on Vibevej in Copenhagen. Officially, there are approximately 30,000 Shia Muslims in Denmark. However, it’s estimated that of the 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, around 80,000 are, in fact, Shia Muslims. Our mosque works towards creating dialogue between universities in Denmark and Iran. One way we do this is by providing grants to those interested in studying theology at a university in Iran. In the same way, we also try to create mutual links with Christian organisations.

Coming as close together as possible to each other and seeing things from each others’ point of view is educational for all parties involved. In order to be able to view Islam separately from the societies in which it is practiced requires that Denmark has its own form of Islam. But as long as most imams continue to come to Denmark from outside, and understand and know nothing about Danish society, this will never happen. It would help if it was possible to educate imams at universities in Denmark. Take Imam Abdul Wahid Petersen, for example. Even though he’s an imam for a conservative branch of the Sunni Islamic faith, he possesses the ‘soft’ values that stem from him being Danish. He is both open and tolerant. I can discuss thoughts with him which I couldn’t possibly discuss with other imams. We need more imams like him.

We need to create a link between the past, the present and the future. This isn’t a new idea. The epitaph of the Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhi (1207-1273) on his headstone in Konya, Turkey, reads:


Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

My red passport
It worries me that, unlike many other countries, Denmark refuses to acknowledge that we are living in a multicultural society. We will never move on if we fail to recognise each other and fail to be given the same rights. Both my wife and I are Danish nationals. But my red Danish passport isn’t as good as other Danes’ red passports. I can’t invite my family to visit me here. It’s so embarrassing. 

When the Danish Embassy refuses to let my family visit this is based on the idea that everyone who comes into Denmark intends to settle here and abuse the Danish welfare system. It’s preposterous – not least because they charge administration fee of DKK 5,000 for processing an application, whether it is successful or not. I am a Danish citizen and tax payer but I can’t even invite my sister to come and visit. That's life for you!


Translation: Andrew Bell

Born in Isfahan, Iran in 1967 
Arrived in Denmark in 1987 as a political refugee
Completed his Masters in pharmaceutical science in 1995 and a PhD on Malaria in 2002
Quality and Education Manager at Roskilde Dom Apotek
Spokesman for the Shia Muslim mosque Imam Ali Islamic Centre
Lives in Skovlunde, north of Copen-hagen, with his wife and two children

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