Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Riots 2: A bitingly cold day in 2003...

I take the bike to Rosengård, my first visit. Curiosity at finally getting a closer look at the notorious suburb with its jarred skyline. The cars plunge into the tunnel-like passage under a huge overpass, on top of which a big super market has been erected - an imposing structure which as I try to recall it take on the hazy features of a crumbled pyramid of grey desert stone. This is the big main street which shoots into the ward, or perhaps shoots out of it like a long grey tongue which it sticks out at the rest of society. That’s about as much as I’ve seen of Rosengård until now, but this time I enter it on a winding bicycle road and I’m struck by how beautifully planned the area appears. The towering buildings are thinly spread out in a gently sloping area covered with green lawns and checkered by a network of undulating paths and walkways. Between them are playgrounds. Here and there are small drug stores and kiosks with curious names like Babylon Food. I see many children. A family is out for a walk: a wrinkled elderly man with a white moustache and grim look, a woman in head dress.

I take a quick glance inside the new super market, "City Gross", its logo written in big blue and yellow characters, the colors of the Swedish flag. What's the need of such an obtrusive national statement, I thought. The absurdity of it all. I'm reminded of the function of flags to mark sovereignty in a contested terrain. It's like the reception of the Migration Board which I once visited, where the immigrants are greeted by an enormous portrait of the Swedish king, sternly smiling and in military uniform. Michael Billig once wrote a book about what he called "banal nationalism", by which he meant the "normal" and unobtrusive flagging of nationality in everyday life which no one hardly ever notices and which people don't tend to regard as connected with nationalism at all. Billig's point, I think, is that such nationalism is not harmless at all, since it easily turns into more overt and aggressive forms of nationalism in times and places of need. Now what happens in places like Rosengård or the Migration Board is that banal nationalism becomes impossible. Here the flag almost by necessity loses its innocence and becomes a symbol of a more strident and overt nationalism. At the same time, it grows to monumental, grotesque proportions, assmuming forms that would be in bad taste elsewhere. It becomes a boot in the face. Perhaps the reason that I'm so disturbed by discovering these portraits and billboards is that they offer a kind of creepy and monstrous closeup of the nationalism which also pervades the rest of society in a more banal and seemingly more harmless form. The creepiness of the king's smile derives from the fact that it is far from a mere smile. It is interlaced by a layer of implicit messages: Firstly, there is the innocuous "Welcome", which I presume may be the official meaning. Secondly, the portrait functions as a "flag", as a marker of territory, and hence of another meaning: "Don't forget where you are, this is Sweden". The third meaning is: "Here where we identify as Swedes, even if we do not always say so openly". I think of the sheer impudence of such a message, especially to people who have come here as refugees from across half the globe...

At City Gross everything seems big, larger than man: the buildings, the stacks of merchandise, the parking lot outside, the roads, society… Apart from the blue and yellow, it’s grey and feels grey. Big, boring, and meaningless, like the deafening traffic below. But close by in a few winding corridors is a bazaar-like market, which delights me with its colorful kitsch, glittering furniture and articles in gold and pink, plastic paintings of Mecca, exotic music CD’s – and above all its human scale. There are even some old men playing chess.

In this area, the Rosengård riots broke out shortly before Christmas in December 2008. More about them next time.

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