Most people who have heard about but never visited Norway (and a few of those who have), probably imagine the country as pristine, fresh, spacious and white in all senses of the word (although I have to confess we are having an unseasonal mild spell right now, and the snow is vanishing at an alarming rate this evening – as I write, I hear the ominous sound of dripping water). It is all of these things, and the Norwegian tourist board and foreign ministry are projecting rustic and wild images of the country worldwide in a bid to attract tourists. However, the moment you step off the airport express train in downtown Oslo, you discover that you’ve arrived in just another European city. It is noisy, dirty and cosmopolitan. The proportion of immigrants (and their descendants) is comparable to what you’ll find in many cities on the Continent. Take a taxi, and chances are that the cab driver is a Pakistani. Take the commuter train to Holmlia, and you enter a vibrant suburb where nearly a hundred languages are spoken. A visit to a street or school in Holmlia brings you about as far as you get from the imagery of national romanticism.
The highest concentration of immigrants in Norway is in the Oslo area. One of the oldest and most established settlements is in Drammen, a largish town half an hour’s drive south of the city. In terms of nationality, the largest groups in Drammen are Turkish and Pakistani, and they have had more than their share of hostility and indifference from the majority. For many years, Muslims in Fjell (the area where most immigrants live) tried – in vain – to obtain permission from municipal authorities to build a mosque. Since the Rushdie affair and, more recently, in the years after nine-eleven, their identity as Muslims has become increasingly marked in Norwegian society. The hijab, virtually unknown a decade ago, is now used routinely by many Muslim girls and women in Drammen, and other signs of religious revitalisation are also evident in parts of the Muslim population.
At the same time as some strengthen their religious minority identity, most immigrants – Muslim or not – and their children wish to participate fully in Norwegian society. Like in other European countries, non-European immigrants in Norway are relatively underprivileged. The de facto ethnic segregation is considerable. The labour market is far from colourblind, and immigrant children generally have school results below average. There is, in other words, a general lack of shared arenas where ethnicity and religion do not serve as boundary markers, where anybody can participate, and which may serve as pathways into other sections of Norwegian society.
The task of ‘integrating’ into Norway is not easy, even – say – for an Englishman. Everyday life is governed by tacit norms and subtle codes, bits and snippets of a way of life which usually goes without saying because it comes without saying. Some cultural realms shared by most Norwegians, such as winter sports, Christmas and national pride, are simply inaccessible for a great number of immigrants.
For these and other reasons, sports and perhaps especially football (soccer) can be important when one tries to transcend ethnicity and religion. Like in many other countries, sport clubs are ubiquituous, and a boy who is a skilled footballer is almost automatically popular among his peers, regardless of his colour or surname. A man of Pakistani origin who participated in the toughest cross-country ski race of the country – an endurance test of more than fifty kilometres – made the headlines and elicited much approval. He wasn’t stupid enough to say that he did it ‘for his community’, and for that reason, he did.
Drafn, known for its football, ski and bandy, is the largest sports club in the ethnically mixed neighbourhood of Fjell. Thanks to a handful of enthusiasts who saw the importance of sports years ago, Drafn has initiated pioneering anti-racist campaigns, and have actively sought to attract minority youths for a long time. The attempts have largely been successful in so far as the active membership in Drafn is unusually variegated. However, there are problems. For some time, I have been in contact with Dag Ramberg, a board member in the club and former chairman, who has asked for my help in sorting out some issues, and perhaps to propose solutions.
This is where the difficult bit starts. The problems are easy to see, but less straightforward to grasp fully. In addition, one has to maneuvre quite skilfully in the political arenas of Drammen – it ain’t my town – to make an impact and not just be written off as a naïve dogooder from the ivory tower.
Drafn’s economic situation is precarious, partly because the parents of immigrant children tend not to contribute to voluntary work. This kind of work, which typically amounts to selling hotdogs on match days (well, if you disapprove of pork sausages, I’m sure you can be assigned to the soda fountain), organising raffles and annual flea markets, is absolutely essential for the survival of any sport club in Norway which is working with children. In my experience, an attendance of around 75% or higher is expected, although clubs rarely have effective sanctions against parents who repeatedly fail to show up. At Drafn, most immigrant parents rarely take part. It is also a cause of some irritation among ethnic Norwegians that immigrant parents rarely drive the kids to away matches – also something typically shared in the parental group.
As a result, adult immigrants relinquish an opportunity to reduce tension and prejudice, and they also lose an important arena for integrating into the local community; simultaneously, the finances of the club (Drafn) are plunged into the red. The neighbouring club Skiold (based in a largely monoethnic Norwegian area) has refused to help Drafn by taking over some of their groups, the official reason being economic. But of course, one suspects other motivations may be lurking not too far below the surface. In Drafn itself, some of the older board members have suggested, bluntly, not to accept children with a ‘foreign’ background, thereby hoping to improve the economic situation.
Against such views, Dag Ramberg takes a more holistic and inclusive position. He argues in favour of strengthening the existing positive image of sports in Fjell as being colourblind, to solicit for economic support wherever it can be had (which in Norway usually means the public authorities), and to think about the future of Fjell and Drammen in the long term. Notably, he argues that the tendency towards ‘ghettoisation’ in Fjell will prove disastrous. If new housing projects are of a kind that do not attract ethnic Norwegians (Fjell already has its share of nondescript high-rise blocks of flats), segregation will continue, Drafn and other border-crossing institutions may collapse, and the people who warn that immigration is tantamount to the creation of a permanent underclass will be proven right.
There are doubtless people in Drammen who do not really mind having most of the immigrants in one place, probably not foreseeing the social problems that are likely to arise in the near future given such a scenario. There are others who think, not entirely unreasonably, that the minority parents are to blame for the situation, and who accept that their children suffer as a consequence. Few have the foresight of Ramberg.
This is where I come in. I have been thinking recently about how to go about this. The most realistic thing to do is simply to write an article in the local newspaper, Drammens Tidende. I could easily argue that children with a future in Norway are to important to be sacrificed due to the neglect of parents with a past elsewhere. I could add that a club of this kind deserves special treatment and public subventions. I could also say that it is potentially dangerous to encourage the perpetuation of an ethnically marked, segregated working class area – better to have mixed neighbourhoods. This last argument is not uncontroversial, neither in anthropology nor elsewhere, but in the present situation in Drammen, it seems evidently sensible. One does not have to go to infamous Parisian banlieues to see the disadvantages of physical segregation in a society where everybody either participates in the same labour market or is brutally excluded.
I could say these things in the paper and add a few others. For example, I could point out that the idea of voluntary work in evenings and weekends for sport clubs, kindergartens and juvenile brass bands is a curious cultural institution which takes time to get into. I might even mention that many immigrants spend much of their free time with relatives (while Norwegians tend to be more strongly integrated in the locality) or even with ethnic or religious organisations. The reason that I am hesitating, is that (a) my intervention might easily be written off as coming from an academic Besserwisser (‘one who knows better’) with little knowledge and no experience of local circumstances; or (b) that people might understand perfectly well what I was saying – nothing there that they didn’t know already – but they would disagree. In this way, an intervention on my part could merely confirm the already widespread view that liberal cosmopolitans comprise a ‘moral élite’ with no proper understanding of, nor sympathy with, the problems of ‘ordinary people’.
I am going to write something in Drammens Tidende, but right now, I’m uncertain as to what and how. Keeping quiet would just indicate indifference, but saying the wrong things would make the situation worse. Underestimating the intelligence of the readers would be the worst sin in this debate. We’ve been debating immigrants and ‘integration’ in this country for many years now, and the last thing we need is a repetition of familiar arguments and facile moral correctness. I welcome suggestions!