Mahmut Baksi was born twice. The first time, in Kozluk, a village in Turkish Kurdistan, in 1944. His left-wing and nationalist activities brought him into conflict with his landowning family and with the Turkish authorities. Mahmut chose to leave, and he sought political asylum in Sweden in 1971, where he was born the second time. The metaphor of a second birth comes from the introduction to his book of short stories, Hasan Aga, published in 1979. “I will be eight this year. I came here [to Stockholm] on May 25, 1971. This is my new birthday. I usually get a lot of candies and things to play with from my immigrant friends.” In Sweden, Mahmut found that dark-skinned immigrants were treated like small children; he reasoned that Swedes dated their birth from the day they entered the “new world.” One in eight persons in Sweden is an immigrant or descendant of a foreign-born. Sweden is reputed worldwide for its liberal policy toward political refugees. Here, too, as official statistics compiled by Elin Clason show, the doors are opened wider for those from Eastern Europe than to those from the eastern Mediterranean. The sting of racial violence against black and brown people with the recession of the last decade in most of northwestern Europe has not left much mark in Sweden. Middle Easterners and Africans have not been beaten with billy clubs, gunned down in the street or pushed from moving trains as in France, England, Germany and the Netherlands. But a leaflet distributed two years ago calling for a “Swedish Sweden” is within memory. Although the economic crunch has not been as heavy in Sweden as in other countries in the area, there is an order of priority at the workplace: Swedes, Poles and Finns, Greeks, and then Middle Easterners and Latin Americans. During his first decade in Sweden, Mahmut feels he was treated much like the other 20,000 Turks and Kurds in the country. Now, at 40 or 13, he has achieved success in Swedish terms. A member of the Swedish Writers Union, a freelance radio and newspaper journalist, and a prolific writer of books for adults and children in three languages (Kurdish, Turkish, Swedish) and, as of last year, a Swedish citizen, he tries to take advantage of his status to work for the Kurdish cause. Though he is most well-known in Sweden for his work on the immigrant experience, his own priorities are doing propaganda on the Kurdish question and writing for his own countrymen. —Joan Mandell
When did you start to write, and why did you leave Turkey for Sweden?
I studied to be a teacher. I finished college in 1963, but was not able to work for very long as a teacher. In 1964, I was dismissed by the Turkish government for teaching in Kurdish. From 1964 to 1966 I did my military service as a regular soldier—had I not been dismissed from my teaching job, I could have served as a teacher. After the military, I went back home to my family’s village, where my grandfather was a big landowner.
I worked for two years as a daily columnist for a Turkish newspaper in Batman, Kurdistan, writing on the Kurdish question, against capitalism, and against my own family. When I tried to help people in my village, my family called me “un-Muslim” because I was trying to tamper with the God- given order of rich and poor. During my military service I met thousands of very poor young people, and Turkish leftists and intellectuals. They convinced me to ask myself why I had so much money compared to them. My grandfather later said that if he had known how my ideas would change, he would have paid money so that I wouldn’t have had to enter military service. I also got good ideas from my teachers.
In the newspaper, many capitalists refused to advertise because of my articles, so the owner told me he had to dismiss me. I went to Istanbul in 1968, where I met many Turkish communists, progressives and “separatists”—this is what the Turkish government calls Kurdish nationalists. They encouraged me to write about my life: boarding school, military service, the Kurdish question. Some Turkish intellectuals published it. A few months later, the government banned it and the court demanded that I serve a 15-year prison sentence. As a person with some reputation, especially at a time when the Turkish left was strong, I was able to stay out on bail. At the same time, I worked as a union leader for chemical workers in the DISK federation, responsible for a certain section of Istanbul, and I worked on the organization’s magazine.
Finally my lawyer said that he could no longer save me from jail, and he was sure I’d get at least 15 years. He told me I should choose between prison and leaving Turkey. I got a false passport. On August 25, 1970, I drove to Germany with some friends and some German money. In those days, you needed money, not a visa.
I stayed in Hamburg for one month and then went to Berlin, where I was granted political asylum. The German government wanted me to go to Nuremberg, but I refused. As for Berlin, it was impossible for me to live there: among more than 100,000 Turkish workers there were many agents, police and neo-fascists.
I came to Stockholm on May 25, 1971. The Swedish police immediately knew my passport was false. They locked me up for six hours, took my money and my belt. But I was eventually admitted to the country.
From 1971 to 1974, I worked as a dishwasher. This is the school that all Third World immigrants must first attend when coming to Europe. I went to a teacher’s school to study Swedish and about Swedish society, and at night I washed dishes. When we did practice teaching, I chose a school that was attended by many Turkish and Kurdish immigrant children. I was very surprised to see that these children couldn’t use any language properly—they spoke half Swedish and half Kurdish or Turkish. They were very poor, physically ill, asocial, aggressive, involved in petty criminal activities, and in deep conflict with their families and Swedish society alike.
I wrote an article about Kurdish and Turkish schoolchildren in 1974, called “Child Slaves.” It was printed in the largest Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, and the government authorities were very angry. I was blacklisted: For two years I couldn’t get a job as a teacher. The social welfare office told me to work in a restaurant. Many individuals in Sweden helped me indirectly with work, to get freelance assignments on the radio. I started to publish on the immigrant question. When I became more famous, I was able to start writing on the Kurdish question once again. Now I’m working freelance for Aftonbladet [the daily newspaper of the Social Democratic Party], make radio programs [Baksi is currently promoting a tour of Kurdish and Turkish singers], and I have a scholarship from the Swedish Writers Union.
Are you planning to go back to Kurdistan?
I can’t go to Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria. My sister was killed along with 14 other young Kurdish people in Syria in 1981, 800 meters from the Turkish border. I went there for two months after her death. I got photographs of the massacre through a source that bribed someone in the Syrian police. Aftonbladet sold these photos around the world and I wrote a book about the affair. Now it’s impossible for me to go to Syria.
There are over 2 million Turks working in western Europe. What led to this massive exodus?
I remember when my grandfather bought a Ford tractor—an American model manufactured in West Germany. He said to the villagers who worked on his land, “Now I have a non-Muslim boy to work for me and he is very clever so I don’t need you anymore.” So they left the village. When I go to Hamburg or France now, I meet some of them. They are not angry with me because they know I am against that system, but they remind me of what my grandfather said.
Hundreds of thousands of people were pushed out of their small villages by mechanization. There were about 40,000 small villages with 100 to 200 inhabitants each. Seventy-five percent of the population lived in these small villages. In Istanbul and Ankara there were few jobs. Western Europe needed workers. Most of those who migrated remained in Europe. For them, there is more democracy in western Europe, and more social life. They find that they can’t readjust to Turkish or Kurdish society, where they are now considered foreigners.
There are now 20,000 Turks in Sweden. When did the immigration start?
In Sweden, Turkish immigration started in 1965. We knew nothing about Sweden from school. We thought Eskimos lived in Sweden, that there was no sun for six months, that people lived in ice houses. What Middle Easterner would even think of coming to such a place? When my mother came to visit in 1976, she brought me five kilos of salt as a present.
In 1965, two families came here from central Anatolia and lived here a couple of years. They went back to Turkey and talked it up, and the Swedish embassy promoted Sweden as a wonderful country. From 1965 to 1970 many Kurds and Turks seeking employment left central Anatolia for Sweden. During these years, there was already a housing shortage in Sweden, so the workers lived five to ten to a room. When the suburbs were built in the 1970s, their living situation improved and they brought over their wives and children. Some of the children growing up here are already taking over their parents’ jobs in grocery shops or as cleaners.
Since ordinary workers can no longer enter Sweden easily, those who do come now try to take advantage oi the Swedish policy of granting residence status to all members of the immediate family of a resident or citizen. People pay high dowries to the fathers of daughters who have Swedish permanent residence status. They can’t do this in other countries, like Germany.
What about those seeking political asylum?
Before 1971 there were only five Kurdish political refugees in Sweden from Turkey, but after the 1971 coup many young men came as political refugees. In 1974 there was an amnesty in Turkey and many political exiles went back home. After the 1980 military coup, many more came to Sweden. It is easier for Kurds than for other Turks to enter Sweden because we have no country, and according to Swedish law have the right to apply for political asylum. The government checks out potential political immigrants with the Kurdish organizations here. Most of those who came to Sweden as workers have their families with them. Most who came as refugees are alone.
What kind of work are the Turks and Kurds doing in Sweden?
Most are dishwashers and cleaners. The Finns, Yugoslavs, and to some extent the Greeks, are in the factories. But still life here is easier for Turks than in Germany. There, many work in factories on yearly contracts. This year more than 200,000 moved back to Turkey because their contracts were not renewed. They also have problems finding housing. Because of the differences in workplace and living conditions, the Turks in Germany are more politically conscious than those here. In Germany, 80,000-90,000 Turkish children don’t go to school; in Sweden they all do.
What are the main problems faced by Turkish-Kurdish immigrants in Sweden?
There are enormous cultural problems. We don’t accept this society’s cultural values and they don’t accept ours—on religion, food, women, morality. Children easily adapt, but not parents; this causes big conflicts within the family.
For all immigrants to Sweden, there are 240 hours of language instruction. This benefits those from some countries more than others. Most Turkish immigrants are illiterate. Sweden gives the possibility for a better material life, but it has not met our demands for culture and language. Swedes think we are very primitive and we must accept Swedish culture at once and forget our background. They are very suspicious about people with black hair.
Are there Turkish and Kurdish women working in Sweden?
Young women, before they have children, work in restaurants, offices and hospitals as cleaners. Most can’t speak Swedish. Though there are special literacy courses available, they are often after job hours and the women say they are too tired to go.
The biggest social problem for women here is that they lose contact with their husbands. It is relatively easy for men to integrate in Swedish social life, to go to a pub, disco or cafe where it is possible for them to meet Swedish women. They say their wives cannot adapt. Most women do not want to go out for social entertainment, and most husbands are embarrassed by their wives’ clothing and manners. The gap between levels of personal freedom for men and women in the Middle East increases here. Many men have left their wives, but without divorcing them, to live with Swedish women. In fact, this has happened to a majority of young couples. In some cases the woman goes back to her father’s house, unable to remarry because she is not divorced. In other cases she stays working in Sweden. Her husband may visit her and take her earnings for himself. It is typical for a Turkish youth to come to Sweden, get sexual experience with Swedish women, at 20 or 21 go back to Turkey to get married and bring his bride back to Sweden. Three months later he doesn’t want to live with her anymore. Often he sends his wife back to Turkey, with a child. Both Swedish and Turkish women are victims of this behavior.
What sorts of organizations are there for Kurds in Sweden?
All Kurdish political parties are represented in Europe. In Sweden, the Kurdish National Union is an umbrella organization for 17 organizations. It is officially recognized by the Swedish government—the first to give us official recognition. The Swedish government has financed publication of over 20 books for adults and children in Kurdish. Copies of these books are available in the Swedish embassy in Turkey, but Kurds are afraid to go past the Turkish guards at the embassy to get them, since all books in Kurdish are illegal in Turkey. I helped translate Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking into Turkish and into Kurdish, but poor Pippi can never go to Turkey with her Kurdish identity.
Last year, President Mitterand gave French government support to a Kurdish institute in Paris. In Germany and England, however, there are no official Kurdish institutions. Only the Swedish government has supported Kurdish publications.
When Turks return home, do they try to make any changes in Turkish society as a result of living in Europe?
Here the Kurdish-Turkish workers are like slaves, but back in Turkey, on vacation, they are treated like aghas. They go back and tell people how wonderful Sweden is. They lie about their circumstances. They enjoy their vacations, but they want to get back immediately to Sweden because there are no human rights in Turkey.
How are workers’ remittances invested in Turkey?
Mostly in houses and small shops. But small villages can only take so many small shops, so when people started looking for other places to invest their money, something like a mafia sprung up. There are schemes that encourage workers to send their money back to invest in factory projects that really don’t exist.
In 1983, 16 billion Deutschmarks were sent back to Turkey in remittances from Europe, but, according to Turkish newspapers, another 50 billion marks remained in banks in Europe because people were afraid to send their money back. Turkish banks have opened in Germany and France. They advertise cheap housing in Turkey, for example, to encourage the workers to send back their earnings. Another phenomenon is that a man can now pay the equivalent of 20,000 marks to reduce his military service from 24 to two months and he doesn’t have to have his head shaved like the other recruits. We make propaganda within the Kurdish community that this money will go to the Turkish government to buy more weapons from the US to kill our families.