Johannes Anyuru: De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar (They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears)
Sweden has the reputation of being a liberal, tolerant society, as indeed it is. However, it is no more immune from racism than other Western societies. Though Sweden has welcomed many immigrants and the immigrants are treated tolerably well, it has been said that it is one of the most ghettoised countries in the West, as the immigrants generally do not integrate into mainstream Swedish society. In the last election in Sweden (2018) the Swedish Democrats (the anti-immigrant party, equivalent to Britain’s UKIP, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, France’s Rassemblement national (formerly Front national) and similar parties in the West) had 12.86% of the votes and won sixty-two seats.
Johannes Anyuru, like some of the characters in this book, was born in Sweden but with a parent who was an immigrant (Anyuru’s father was Ugandan). Anyuru himself converted to Islam in 2007. However, though this book is certainly about racism and anti-Muslim feeling in Sweden, there is more to it.
The book opens with Göran Loberg, a satirical comic artist, about to sign books and discuss the limits of free speech with Christian Hondo, owner of a bookshop in Gothenburg. Loberg has published work caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed and otherwise mocking Muslims. Hondo says it’s not that he hates religion, but he does operate from what he calls a traditionally subversive perspective.
However, as we know, three Muslims are also arriving at the shop. All three are wearing suicide jackets and are armed. The three are two men, Hamad and Amin, both Muslims but born in Sweden, and a woman, who is married to Amin. We are not sure where she is born, at least initially, either in Belgium or Sweden. Nor are we are sure of her name. She claims to have forgotten her name but Amin has called her Nour, after his sister, who died when she was a child.
They mingle with the crowd, before unleashing their terror on Loberg, Hondo and the audience. Anyuru develops the events over a several pages. Nour is filming the event, and it is going out live on YouTube. The hostages are bound and have bags put over their heads. Amin is telling Loberg that he has insulted the Prophet, for which the penalty is death. Hamad is shot by the police.
While this is going on, we are also learning something of their background and their views. Nour claims that the Swedes killed her mother. We learn more about why she thinks this later. The infidels push a button in Las Vegas and an entire wedding party is murdered on the other side of the planet. And they call us extreme, one of then says. We do not see the conclusion of the attack.
We now jump two years ahead. A well-known Swedish Muslim writer learns that an inmate of Tundra, a criminal psychiatric clinic, about an hour by bus from Gothenburg, has read his books and wants to meet him. The inmate is, of course, Nour, who is not Nour. The official view is that she is Annika Isagel, a Belgian national. We learn that she was the only one of the three three to survive the attack and has been in Tundra since then. We soon learn that she denies being Annika or Belgian and the writer learns that she does speak fluent Swedish but not Flemish.
The doctor says that she suffers from severe undifferentiated schizophrenia with psychotic episodes and hallucinations. He says that that she had had a Moroccan boyfriend. She had been arrested by the VSSE, the Belgian State Security Service, and had been secretly transferred to the al-Mima prison in Jordan, where she had been tortured. Her parents had got her out but she was in a bad way.
Apart from the issue of being Belgian and being imprisoned in Jordan, both of which she denies, there seem to be other inconsistencies. Though nominally Belgian, she claims to come from The Rabbit Yard, a public housing complex in Gothenburg, where the famous author also came from.
As as result of reading the writer’s books, she has started writing one of her own. We gradually realise from her book, that she claims to have come from an alternative world, where things were different (but not too different). For example the bookshop attack had involved Nour, but not this one but Amin’s sister who had not died as a child. Other events of the attack differ from what happened in the real world. The film of the attack had been shown all around Sweden and had resulted in repression of Muslims, both by official means but also by right-wingers, members of a group called the Crusading Hearts (a name they’d taken from the warriors that had seized Jerusalem from the Muslims.)
Indeed, it seems that the two different versions of the bookshop attack are key. Nour/Annika maintains that she came from the future and what she did in the real attack saved Muslims from the massive repression they suffered in the alternative history.
Anyuru goes into some detail about her alternative story and what happened, particularly what happened to Muslims, in the alternative story. In the alternative story, we see the massive repression that the Muslims suffer in Sweden, essentially as a reprisal for the bookshop attack and brutal murder of Loberg and others. The Rabbit Yard, for example, is a standard public housing complex in the real story but, in the alternative story, it has become something of a camp where those deemed enemies of Sweden are sent. You were deemed an enemy of Sweden if you committed certain crimes but also if you refused to sign the citizen contract. This was a document which every adult Swede had to sign annually. We do not get the details but it was basically signing up to Swedish values which were often in opposition to core Muslim values.
We follow Nour/Annika’s story through the eyes of our famous Muslim writer. However, though he lives in the real world, he and his wife, Isra, have decided that Sweden is becoming too racist and they plan to emigrate to Canada, where his sister lives.
He has various theories about Nour/Annika, In particular, he thinks that while she was at Al-Mina she may have had false memories implanted into her, though why this should happen is not clear to him or to us. Indeed, he does not entirely discount her theory about the alternative world.
Anyuru skilfully shows that racism is alive and well in even a liberal and civilised country like Sweden. The situation is much worse in the alternative Sweden, an alternative, he is implying, could easily happen. However, even in the real Sweden, i.e. the one that actually exists nowadays, things are getting worse for immigrants, particularly Muslims. It is very cleverly done, as we are left wondering who Nour/Annika is and how she became who she is. Above all, we are wondering if it is this bad in Sweden, how bad is it elsewhere?
First published 2017 by Norstedts
First published in English in 2019 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Saskia Vogel