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An Icy Heaven: Arab Migration on Contemporary Nordic Stages


At the height of the 2015–16 ‘refugee crisis’, how were immigrants and refugees portrayed and self-portrayed on Finnish and Swedish stages? The production and reception of two plays translated from Arabic – Karim Rashed's I Came to See You (2015) and Hassan Blasim's The Digital Hats Game (2016) – reveal a complex politics of representation in both scripting and staging. Reading Blasim and Rashed's works in light of Arab–Nordic literary studies and migration theatre studies, we also set them against two other migration-themed plays staged in Stockholm: Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri's groundbreaking Invasion! (2006) and British playwright Anders Lustgarten's more recent Lampedusa (2015). Blasim and Rashed, we argue, had to navigate three traps or boxes endemic to Arab diasporic theatre: the audience expectations of biographical voyeurism, orientalism and the allegory of collective worthiness. Both aimed to reject the first two expectations and embrace the third, seeking to define new directions in Nordic–Arab theatre.

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2 We use this term in cautious quotation marks to show that we understand it, along the lines suggested by Alison Jeffers, mainly as an identity crisis for the receiving countries. See Jeffers, Alison, Refugees, Theatre, and Crisis (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 4, 23–6.

3 ‘Anti-immigration Sweden Democrats Country's Largest Party - Poll’, Reuters, at, accessed 12 December 2017.

4 For official statistics, see, accessed 7 December 2017. On some returnees see Tuomas Forsell, ‘Thousands of Iraqi refugees leave Finland voluntarily’, Reuters, 12 February 2016.

5 This article draws on our attendance at performances in Stockholm and Tampere in the winter and spring of 2016; published and unpublished scripts of the plays in Arabic, English and Swedish; published reviews; and interviews with some of the artists involved.

6 Sinan Antoon interviewed by Ed Lake for The National. The interview is no longer online. For a summary see Marcia Lynx Qualey, Arablit, 4 March 2010, at, accessed 11 December 2017.

7 Karim Rashed interviewed by Margaret Litvin and Johanna Sellman, Stockholm, Sweden, 14 January 2016.

8 See Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Johnson, Randal (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

9 Sharifi, Azadeh and Wilmer, S. E., ‘Reflections on Theatre and Statelessness’, Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques, 14 (December 2016), at, accessed 12 December 2017; and Katrin Sieg, ‘Refugees in German Documentary Theatre’, in ibid.

10 Wanner, Adrian, ‘Moving beyond the Russian-American Ghetto: The Fiction of Keith Gessen and Michael Idov’, Russian Review, 73, 2 (April 2014), pp. 281–96.

11 Quoted in Litvin, Margaret, ‘For the Record: Conversation with Sulayman Al-Bassam’, in Huang, Alexa and Rivlin, Elizabeth, eds., Shakespeare and the Ethics of Appropriation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 221–40.

12 ‘Opportunist? I'm a [expletive] pirate!’ Al-Bassam crowed in an unpublished part of the 2011 conversation printed as Litvin, ‘For the Record.’

13 He did tour to Europe, however. See Kenneth Silverman, Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).

14 Kongslien, Ingeborg, ‘Migrant or Multicultural Literature in the Nordic Countries’, Eurozine, 2006 at, accessed 12 December 2017; originally published in Grønn, Jenny Fossum, ed., Nordic Voices: Literature of the Nordic Countries (Oslo: Nordbok 2005), pp. 34–45.

16 Löytti, Olli, ‘Immigrant Literature in Finland: The Uses of a Literary Category’, in Lönngren, Ann-Sofie, Grönstrand, Heidi, Heede, Dag and Heith, Anne, eds., Rethinking National Literatures and the Literary Canon in Scandinavia (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), pp. 5275, here p. 55.

17 On political questions and literary form see, respectively, Ponzanesi, Sandra and Merolla, Daniela, Migrant Cartographies: New Cultural and Literary Spaces in Post-colonial Europe (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005); and Frank, Søren, ‘Four Theses on Migration and Literature’, in Gebauer, Mirjam and Lausten, Pia Schwartz, eds., Migration and Literature in Contemporary Europe (Munich: Martin Miedenbauer, 2010), pp. 3957.

18 Writers include Sweden-based Kurdish–Syrian novelist Salim Barakat, Sweden-based Iraqi short-story writer and journalist Mahmoud al-Bayaty, and Denmark-based Iraqi writer Hawra’ al-Nadawi. See Sellman, Johanna, ‘The Ghosts of Exilic Belongings: Maḥmūd al-Bayyātī’s Raqṣ ʿalā al-māʾ: aḥlām waʿrah and Post-Soviet Themes in Arabic Exile Literature’, Journal of Arabic Literature, 47, 1–2 (2016), pp. 111–37; Bitar, Astrid, ‘Narratives from a Transnational Community: Representations of the Other and the Self in two Iraqi Novels in Sweden’, in Guth, Stephan, ed., From New Values to New Aesthetics: Turning Points in Modern Arabic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011), pp. 187–99; Manal Al-Shaykh, ‘The “New Arabic” Literature in Scandinavia’, Al-Modon, atالادب-العربي-الجديد-في-اسكندنافيا, accessed 9 December 2017.

19 See, for instance, Litvin, Margaret, Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 50.

20 For an illustration do a Google search for the words ‘theatre’ and ‘refugees’ with the phrase ‘universal questions’.

21 Fisek, Emine, Aesthetic Citizenship: Immigration and Theater in Twenty-First-Century Paris (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017). On some unintended consequences of presenting refugee stories verbatim see Sieg, ‘Refugees in German Documentary Theatre’.

22 The term is widely credited to Shermin Langhoff, formerly of Berlin's Ballhaus Naunystrasse. On her ‘post-migrant intervention’ see Çağlar, Ayse, ‘Still “Migrants” after All Those Years: Foundational Mobilities, Temporal Frames and Emplacement of Migrants’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42, 6 (2016), pp. 952–59.

23 Khemiri, Jonas Hassen, Invasion!, trans. Rachel Wilson-Broyles (New York: Samuel French, 2013).

24 For an overview of book reviews, op-eds and critical debates following the publication of Ett öga rött see the thesis written by Jenne Maes, ‘Vadå Invandrare?! Hur har värderingen av multietnisk slang i den svenska skönlitteraturen förändrat sig under det gångna decenniet? En receptionsundersökning baserad på prosa av Alejandro Leiva Wenger, Jonas Hassen Khemiri och Jens Lapidus’, Universiteit Gent, 2011.

25 Khemiri, Invasion!, p. 16.

26 Ibid., p. 22.

27 Lustgarten, Anders, Lampedusa (London: Bloomsbury Methuen, 2015), p. 15.

28 Budge, Katy, ‘Oh Hear Us When We Cry to Thee’, in Proglio, Gabriele and Odasso, Laura, eds., Border Lampedusa: Subjectivity, Visibility and Memory in Stories of Sea and Land (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 5366, here p. 63.

29 Lustgarten, Lampedusa, p. 48.

30 Sofia Fredén, interviewed via email by Margaret Litvin, 15 January 2016.

31 This panic-inducing emigration crisis eventually led to the adoption of political and social reforms aimed at improving the lives of workers and thus reducing incentives to migrate.

32 Malm, Sara, ‘Arabic Overtakes Finnish to Become the Second Most Common Language in Sweden after Migrant Influx’, Daily Mail, 7 April 2016, at, accessed 25 April 2018.

33 Robin Yassin-Kassab, ‘Review of Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World, edited by Samuel Shimon’, The Guardian, 11 June 2010, at, accessed 25 April 2018.

34 Comma Press, ‘An Interview with Iraqi Author Hassan Blasim’, 6 June 2013, at, accessed 13 December 2017.

35 Hassan Blasim, interviewed by Margaret Litvin and Johanna Sellman in Tampere, Finland, 25 March 2016, partial transcript in TANK Magazine, 69, at, accessed 11 December 2017.

36 Telakka Theatre, ‘Hassan Blasim: The Digital Hats Game’, at, accessed 13 December 2017.

37 Interview with Blasim.

38 Hanno (also spelled Hannu) Eskola, interviewed via Skype by Johanna Sellman and Margaret Litvin, 31 March 2016.

39 Interview with Blasim.

40 Hattunen, Maria, ‘Sydämen hakkerit’, Turun Sanomat, 18 March 2016, at, accessed 11 December 2017.

41 For the background and two scenes in Arabic, Swedish and English see Karim Rashed, I Came to See You, Asymptote, Fall 2017, at, accessed 13 December 2017.

42 Nance, Susan, How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), pp. 1978.

43 Litvin, Margaret, ‘Review of Sulayman al-Bassam's Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, Shakespeare Bulletin, 25, 4 (Winter 2007), pp. 8591.

44 See, for instance, Joseph, Rajiv, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2013).

45 Rashed, I Came to See You, sc iii.

46 Benér, Theresa, ‘I Came to See You: Svindlande Drömspel i Exilens Vilsenhet’, Svenska Dagbladet, 21 October 2015, at, accessed 25 April 2018.

47 Johansson, Peter, ‘I Came to See You: den mest angelägna och aktuella pjäs som just nu spelas på en svensk teaterscen’, Kulturmagasinet Kulturbloggen, 19 October 2015, at, accessed 11 December 2017.

48 Litvin, Margaret, ‘Arab Angst on Swedish Stages: A Theatre Review’, Arab Stages, 2, 2 (Spring 2016), at, accessed 3 June 2017.

49 Karim Rashed interviewed by Margaret Litvin and Johanna Sellman, Stockholm, Sweden, 14 January 2016.

50 Foratt Teater, at, accessed 3 June 2017.

51 Karim Rashed, interviewed by Johanna Sellman, Malmö, Sweden, 28 July 2016.

52 Sharifi and Wilmer, ‘Reflections on Theatre and Statelessness’.

53 Clandestino Institut, ‘Hassan Blasim får Gästprofessur vid Clandestino Institut’ (2016), at, accessed 19 April 2017.

54 Interview with Blasim.

55 Arabiska Teatern, at, accessed 13 December 2017.

1The authors thank the participants of the IFTR Arabic Theatre Working Group's Stockholm meeting (2016), Paul Rae and TRI’s two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments.

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