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Poet’s Vollsmose event goes off without a hitch

Yahya Hassan was the talk of Denmark throughout the autumn of 2013 (Screenshot: OPGANG2 TURNÉTEATER / Søren Marcussen)

Originally published in The Copenhagen Post - Vol. 16, Issue 48

Perhaps the most talked about poetry reading in Danish history happened without drama on Tuesday evening, when outspoken poet Yahya Hassan read from his self-titled debut publication to a crowd of about 250 at an Odense school.


Several hundred uniformed and plainclothes officers had the school under observation since Sunday and began securing the area hours before the poet’s appearance. In what police officials called one of their biggest operations ever, students were dismissed early, a complete bomb sweep of the area was conducted and road checkpoints were established. A no-fly zone with a 5km radius was also established around the school.


According to police estimates, security for the event cost about one million kroner. The cost, they said, was more than the amount spent on security for high-risk football matches.


One man was arrested and 15 were turned away by police outside the school.


Off-again, on-again

The reading had initially been slated for the public library in the Vollsmose council estates, but was cancelled by police out of fear that Hassan, 19, would be in physical danger due to his critical comments about Islam.


Earlier this month, Hassan was assaulted at Copenhagen’s Central Station and has since lived under police protection. Still, he was vocally critical about the initial decision to cancel the event.


“Who is it that protects this freedom of speech we talk so much about? The library, the police, Politiken, the authorities, the council, ministers and politicians keep talking about freedom of speech and say that it matters above all else,” Hassan told Politiken newspaper when the event was initially called off. “And yet they don’t have the balls to go out to Vollsmose. It’s a damned admission of failure. It’s bullshit.”


Police had strongly cautioned against the event. The chief superintendent of Fyens Politi, John Jacobsen, told Politiken that police recommended the event be moved from Vollsmose’s library because police could not guarantee order and safety. Jacobsen denied that they were unable to protect Hassan, but instead said that police feared that general chaos could break out.


“We can handle Yahya Hassan’s personal safety at any location,” Jacobsen said. “This is about the concern for public calm and order.”


City officials eventually rescheduled the reading and moved it to the school, which police felt would be easier to secure.


Enough of the latte crowd

Hassan rose to national prominence after an initial column in Politiken newspaper critical of his parents’ generation of immigrants. That was followed up by a widely-seen appearance on the TV programme ‘DR Deadline’. The attention he received led to an explosion in book sales and several speaking engagements. He has also been profiled by the Wall Street Journal and was honoured as the debut author of the year at a recent book forum. A translation of his poems into English is also underway.


Hassan said he intended Tuesday night’s poetry reading as a way to speak directly to the people who shared his own background.


“Instead of continuing to speak about these people, it is important for me to speak with them,” Hassan said as the event began.


Only a handful of the attendees were Muslim, however. The majority appeared to have a white, middle-class background.


Hassan said during the event that he could not control who chose to purchase tickets, but in the lead-up he made it clear who he was hoping to reach.

“I’ve spoken with Politiken’s cafe latte segment, now I want to go out and talk to people with my background and from my generation,” he told Politiken. “What do I get out of 300 white people standing and clapping for me? I already know we agree. What about the others? It is them who I need to reach.”


No major confrontations

Despite police concerns, the event was orderly and without any major fireworks. A few Muslim audience members told Hassan during a question and answer session that they felt he had unnecessarily generalised about an entire community with his poetry and media appearances.


The young poet, however, countered that if what he described did not apply to other Muslims, than they should just ignore him or speak out publicly about their own experiences.


Although Hassan often came off as defensive and aggressive during the Q&A session, he also had the crowd laughing on numerous occasions.


Most Muslim residents of Vollsmose who spoke with the press afterwards appeared not to support Hassan’s views, but felt he had the right to express them. Many said the public appearance was unnecessarily provocative.


Bulletproof vest

When Hassan spoke at an event at Politiken’s lecture hall last week, he entered wearing a bulletproof vest due to the threats of violence that have followed him ever since his emergence on the national scene.


Asked by Politiken if he was concerned that he could be killed, he admitted he was.


“Yeah, it could happen. But so be it,” he said. “You cannot protect against everything. It’s important to get out into those areas [like Vollsmose]. It is important to talk about freedom of speech.”


Kevin McGwin contributed to the reporting of this story

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