Since his rise to fame, Islamists have threatened to kill 18-year-old Danish poet Yahya Hassan. They are angered by the portrayals in his writing of his immigrant family background, which he describes as backwards, hypocritical and blinded by religion.
Yahya Hassan has only written one volume of poetry. It’s modern, free verse stuff that doesn’t rhyme, the kind of thing that usually no one reads. Yet these days when Yahya Hassan enters a room, even one at the publishing house that printed his poetry, first he has to wait for his two bodyguards to check the place out: Okay, no attackers here, you can go in.
Hassan is 18 years old. His self-titled book “Yahya Hassan” sold over 100,000 copies in Denmark within the space of just a few months. It also earned him over 30 serious death threats. Hassan, whose book is also being released in German translation and who is expected to make an appearance at the Leipzig Book Fair this week, lives in Copenhagen and is a Danish citizen, even if his name doesn’t sound like a typical Danish one. He’s not a big fan of the Danish government, though.
But that’s not the reason for the death threats.
This teenaged poet has broken the law of silence within his family and expressed criticism of his father, who beat him and the rest of his family. Hassan’s poetry describes how he sees his background — backwards, hypocritical and blinded by religion. In short, he’s saying exactly the things that xenophobic critics of Islam often do. That, at least, is the accusation against him.
Then there’s the fact that all this is taking place in Denmark, a country that was rocked by controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad a few years ago. No wonder there’s been such a strong reaction — 100,000 books sold in tiny Denmark would be proportionately equivalent in Germany to at least 1 million copies.
Poems with the Force of a Fist
Hassan enters the room at the publishing house with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled down low. He takes a quick look around, gives a shy greeting, then sets his beer — it’s 1 p.m. — and a pack of Prince cigarettes on the table.
There’s a small tattoo on his right hand, three letters: “ord,” Danish for “word.” That is Hassan’s work in a nutshell — the power of words. His poems have hit Denmark with the force of a fist.
The book opens with a poem titled “Childhood,” which describes Hassan’s father’s brutality. The breathlessness of these lines sets a rhythm that continues through the following 75 poems.
Together, the poems tell the story of a boy whose family comes to Denmark from a refugee camp in Lebanon, a family with an overwhelmed and violent father, who’s a good Muslim at the mosque and a brutal man at home. He beats his children and his wife, and when she eventually leaves him, he arranges for a new wife to be sent to him from Tunisia, a “new headscarf,” as Hassan contemptuously writes.
It is Hassan’s own story. Like the first-person narrator of his poems, Hassan dropped out of school and ended up living in various institutional homes. In the book, he starts committing small burglaries with his buddies and doing low-level dealing — until a teacher notices his writing talent and starts to encourage him.
Breaking the Silence
The language of his poems is highly precise. The controversy over the book is not a question of how Hassan writes — his literary merit is uncontested. It’s a question of what he writes.