Meet Yahya Hassan, the Danish-Palestinian teen poet sensation(Read article summary)
Hassan's poetry has brought him literary fame but also 30 death threats.
Itâ€™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 heâ€™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 â€śthe Danish welfare state, his family, and Danish Muslims at large for hypocrisy, cheating, and failure to adapt,â€ť 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 â€śa dubious embrace by right-wing politicians.â€ť Â
His work is a curious mix. Written only in capital letters, his verse has been described as one of â€śabrupt clarity,â€ť while the contours of his subject matter â€“ his life â€“ 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 Hassanâ€™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 â€“ he dropped out of school and was engaged in petty burglaries and low-level drug dealing â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€śChildhoodâ€ť and â€śDisgustedâ€ť deal with issues like the immigrant ghettoes, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, religion, and child abuse.Â
In â€śA Radius of 100 Meters,â€ť he â€śprovides a depressing panorama view of a few thousand square meters of ghetto life, describing his fatherâ€™s violence as well as his social security fraud,â€ť according to the Tribune.
â€śLong Poemâ€ť hints at the hypocrisy of Muslims, pointing to superficial displays of faith betrayed by amateur acts of vigilantism.
Muslims â€“ and Muslim immigrants in Europe â€“ are his main target.
â€śHe finds particular fault with the ways their lives in Denmark are circumscribed â€” as are those of so many modern immigrants â€” by clinging to the remote control that brings satellite TV, in this case Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, to their living rooms,â€ť reports the Times.
â€śThereâ€™s something wrong with Islam,â€ť Hassan told the Wall Street Journal. â€śThe religion refuses to renew itself.â€ť It needs a â€śreformation,â€ť he said.
It has raised eyebrows â€“ 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 â€śhis people,â€ť a darling among Danes.
â€śI knew when I would tell my story would break many taboos and many people would get offended and my parents would get angry,â€ť he told the WSJ. â€śBut my premise was that I would have to tell it as it is.â€ť
Few poets are as surprising or as polarizing as Hassan: Depending on whoâ€™s reading, he is a hero, a traitor, a genius, an angry kid.
For readers who think theyâ€™ve got him figured out, however, Hassan has another message.Â
â€śWhat I write, thatâ€™s my identity, thatâ€™s who I am,â€ť he said in another interview. â€śBut that doesnâ€™t mean I am the way my readers think I am. The reading depends on the individual reader, the readerâ€™s reality. Iâ€™m not responsible for the interpretation.â€ť
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.