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No Longer Just Nordic

Growing Role of Immigrant Communities Is Changing What It Means to Be a Swede

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page A01

MALMO, Sweden -- In one of his most popular songs, Swedish hip-hop artist Timbuktu sings of two strangers warily eyeing each other on a Stockholm subway, one a white Swede, the other an immigrant, each with his own thoughts and prejudices.

"I wonder why he's eyeing me like this," the white Swede asks himself. "Maybe he's planning to follow me and rob me at knife tip. I bet he's a drug user that beats his kids, forces his wife to wear a veil."


Timbuktu, 29, a hip-hop artist born in Sweden, performs songs about racial prejudice and stereotypes. (Keith B. Richburg -- The Washington Post)

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Country of Immigrants

Timbuktu knows something about racial prejudice -- as a black man born in Lund, Sweden, whose first language is Swedish, but who for most of his life has had to deal with the stares, the taunts, the curiosity and the inevitable question: "But where are you really from?"

From first grade through sixth, he recalled, he fought frequently during recess with a group of three boys who taunted him with racial insults. Even though he's a celebrity in Malmo, which he calls home, he says he is still followed by security guards when he enters a department store. And while his DJ sessions can pack the house, he finds he is denied entry to some clubs.

"I'm Swedish, definitely, and more and more so now," said Timbuktu, whose real name is Jason Diakité. He is the son of a black American man from Harlem and a white American woman from Scranton, Pa. "But Sweden still has a very clear picture of what a Swede is. That no longer exists -- the blond, blue-eyed physical traits. That's changing. But it still exists in the minds of some people."

Across Europe, societies that were once solidly white and Christian are being recast in a multicultural light. The arrival of large numbers of people from the Middle East, East Asia and Africa -- many European countries now have minority populations of around 10 percent -- is pushing aside old concepts of what it means to be French or German or Swedish.

In Sweden, nowhere is the change happening faster than in Malmo, the country's third-largest city behind Stockholm and Goteborg. It is a gritty shipyard town of about 265,000 people. Once a major industrial center that drew people from abroad with the prospect of jobs, Malmo has lately fallen on hard times as factories have closed.

About 40 percent of Malmo's population is foreign-born or has at least one foreign-born parent. The bulk of foreign-born people come from the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq and the Horn of Africa. Among school-age children, 50 percent have at least one foreign-born parent, and analysts project that the number will soon reach 60 percent.

The city's official Web site boasts that its inhabitants come from 164 countries and speak 100 languages.

A walk through the Mollevangstorget area of Malmo, where Timbuktu lives, shows how much immigration has changed this city. The Middle East restaurant sits across the street from a falafel shop, down the road from an Indian shop and the Tehran Supermarket, which is filled with nuts, dates, dried fruits and banana-flavored tobacco imported fresh from Iran.

"Immigrants like being here, because they can find things from their own country," said a man working behind the supermarket counter, who gave his name only as Rahim. "Four thousand Iranians live here. But there are Swedes shopping here as well."

The ethnic diversity is part of what drew Timbuktu, 29, here to make his music. "Malmo is a quite interesting town for the way Sweden may look in the future," he said in an interview over coffee at the city's Hilton Hotel, as two female fans ogled him from a table nearby.

Almost 12 percent of the roughly 9 million people living in Sweden as of this summer were foreign-born, government statistics show. Sweden has long hosted white immigrants from Finland and the Baltic countries. But according to the latest figures, about 7 percent of the population comes from outside Europe, most of them nonwhite.

Elsewhere in Europe, immigration has caused significant social turmoil, giving rise to political parties with anti-immigrant platforms, such as the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria and the Pim Fortyn party in the Netherlands. But in Sweden, the process has flowed more smoothly. Though immigrants here frequently experience prejudice and rejection, it appears to be less institutionalized than in other European countries; an anti-immigrant party in Sweden got just 1.4 percent of the vote in elections two years ago.


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