Ball Bearings (A Lahori’s impressions of Sweden)

by Ahmad Rafay Alam

While landing at Sweden’s Arlanda airport, some 30 minutes outside its capital Stockholm, one can be forgiven for wondering where all the people are.  Coming from Pakistan, where rare is the moment one’s line of sight is not interrupted by another human being, Sweden appears to uninitiated as unpopulated; a vast swathe of pristine forest dotted every now and then with a cottage and the odd lake.  The presence of nature is all encompassing – there’s forest everywhere and can’t be ignored – and is one of the reasons Swedes have a deep connection with their environment.  But one would be quite mistaken to think, what with nearly eight months of darkness in the winter, Sweden is a land where nothing goes on.  Not so. Swedes and Sweden are everywhere.  You just have look a little harder.

Lake Siljen, by Leksand (population 5,861)

I had got myself this close to the Arctic Circle on the strength of my dubious credentials as a columnist and was officially a Member of the Press invited by the Swedish Institute to cover the young men and women of their Young Leaders Visitor Program during their participation of the Rework the World Conference held in the Swedish heartland of Leksand during the first week of June.  Truth be told, I had been offered a junket so attractive it would have been impolite to refuse.

When I checked into the hotel the Institute had so kindly provided for, it was about 11:30pm and I was greeted by a chirpy Australian who, when he found I had come from the Islamic Republic, couldn’t but ask me what I thought of the cricket team.  To any self-respecting Pakistani cricket fan, this is not a good ice-breaker and when the said Aussie had figured out as much, he diplomatically changed the subject to the weather.  It was June and the Swedish summer was about to begin in earnest.  Being somewhat jet lagged and disoriented by what appeared to me to be a late afternoon sunset, I remarked that I had lost track of what day it was.  Said Aussie looked up at me with concern, the Summer Solstice merely days away, and told me that, in which case, I had come to the wrong country.

The Rework the World Conference takes its title from a phrase employed by Manuel Castells, the first philosopher of the Internet, to describe how new networks created by electronic media had the power to rework the world.  The purpose of the conference was to get some 1700 young environmental entrepreneurs from around the world into the same room as Big Business in the hope that venture capital could scale up these remarkable initiatives.  For its part, the Swedish Institute’s Young Leaders Visitor Programs selects from hundreds of “young leaders” (whatever that is) from the Middle East, Africa and Sweden and then puts about two dozen into an intensive three-week social media training workshop.

Our first task as the press invited by the Swedish Institute was to attend the presentations prepared by the young leaders at the end of their training.  And so we were subjected to several idealistic tableaus in which things like Twitter was supposed to help you choose the right major in college, or how Facebook could be retooled to suit the needs and demands of any number of social and political activists.  With most of the young leaders coming from the MENA Region, the elephant in the room was very much the oppressive nature of many of their regimes and governments.  It also raised an important question: What interest did the Government of Sweden have giving the Swedish Institute leeway to  arm a bunch of bright and motivated Arabs and North Africans with the tools needed to fight a political campaign using social media?  Gabriel Garcia Marquez may not have needed more than a prejudice to move the world, but give me a laptop and a Twitter account and let me show you what havoc can be unleashed.

I asked an officer of the Swedish Institute what was up and received a we-don’t-mingle-in-other-people’s-politics type of reply.  But she did admit some alumni of the Young Leaders Visitor Program had been questioned about their activities by the intelligence agencies of their governments.  But regardless of where idealism and the Internet may be able to take the Middle East, the presentations did get me thinking about the strategy of the Swedish Institute.  Reaching out to the best and brightest and arming them with tools needed to fight a political campaign using social media is a bloody good idea.

Our second task as guests of the Swedish Institute in Stockholm was to visit some NGO’s working on contemporary Swedish cultural issues.  We were first taken to the Expo Foundation which, among other things, reports and reacts to incidences of cultural intolerance and hate speech and was founded, amongst others, by Stieg Larsson, (the author of the posthumously successful Millennium trilogy).  Here we were told of the worrying increase in right wing extremism and how the strength of the right-wing Swedish Democrats may just see them secure a place in Sweden’s legislature (in Sweden, membership of the legislature is by proportional representation, and any party that gains, I think, more than 4 percent of the vote gets a seat).  By Pakistani standards – which I’ll just get to – this was fairly tame stuff.

The Expo Foundation appeared to be in a quandary: One the one hand, it stood for freedom of speech.  On the other, the right wing extremists were exercising just this right to point out how “immigrants” (the polite word for Arab or Muslim, by the way) were responsible for most of the crime and sexual offences in the suburbs of Swedish cities.  Why should Swedes have to pay taxes, they argue, for the medical bills of these “immigrants”.  Good question (but answered by the fact that the same immigrants pay taxes for the medical bills of other residents) and one, it seems, Sweden is busy nowadays trying to resolve.

Coming from a country where, earlier in the week, we had received news that nearly 100 Ahmadis were gunned down in broad daylight while they offered their prayers, concerns about the limits of free speech seemed, to me, to be a bit far-fetched.  In my context, there many other things that needed sorting out.  Didn’t the Swedes have things like poverty or human rights to worry about?  Didn’t they have any unclean drinking water to concern themselves with?  And then I was told that, in fact, there is almost no poverty in Sweden and that, in fact, it had close to a spotless record on human rights.  And they had already cleaned the water.


Sweden, the land of Vikings, Ikea, Bjorn Borg, ABBA and the sauna, didn’t really coalesce into a nation until 1521, when King Gustav Vasa unified the many other tribes of hunter gatherers and races that had collected on the Baltic archipelago.  A generation later, Sweden had broken with the Pope and by the end of that Century, the country officially became Lutheran Christian.  By this time, a hereditary monarchy had been introduced (it still continues, with the marriage of Crown Princess Victoria to her former gym trainer and “commoner” boyfriend taking place in June) and King Gustav had broken the back of the Hanseatic League, a collection of merchant-gangsters who ensured safe passage through the Baltic Sea at an appropriate cost.  With the League’s monopoly over sea routes broken, money began to flow into Sweden’s coffers like never before and the country saw its golden era.  Fast forward 500 years, and you’ve got Sweden, so to speak.

But money is not the only thing that creates great nations.  By 1540, the Swedes were relying on the Riksdag, a collection of different social groups that were called upon to discuss and determine the affairs of the country.  Under this system, the King shared power with this privy council of sorts and, over the last half-millenium, the Swedes have basically been polishing up one of the world’s earliest systems of democracy.  Practice appears to perfect:  The Economist Intelligence Unit actually rates Sweden’s democracy as the No. 1 democracy in the world.

What that means – and this is the thing about Sweden – is that it’s a country that has spent the last several hundred years grappling with the problems that young states like Pakistan haven’t quite come to terms with.  So, for example, when it comes to women’s rights, Sweden is up there, having legislated on equal inheritance rights in the mid-1800s.  It allowed female electoral franchise in 1921, declared rape in marriage a crime in 1965 and, in the past decade, has passed legislation on violence against women, corporal punishment and the sex trade.  And as far as water is concerned, I have to say that I was in equal parts embarrassed and amazed when I identified the only other Pakistanis I saw in Stockholm spending their Tuesday afternoon next to the Royal Palace fishing for salmon.  It’s true.  The water of the river Norrström, which connects Lake Mälaren with the Baltic Sea at Stockholm, despite the fact that it flows through the centre of what is a port city, is so clean that it is the natal estuary from where many a salmon begin their epic journey against the tide to spawn and, eventually, die.  But that’s another story.  The point is that, as a Lahori who cringes every time he sees a sinewy youth leap into his city’s murky canal, urban watercourses might as well be, as if by axiom, rivers of effluent and poison.  Our guide from the Swedish institute smugly informed us that, in the summer, it was common for people to take a break in the day, strip and take a dip in the waters of the Baltic.  In Leksand, I was told that the lake water was clean enough to drink.

A view from Stockholm where the river Mälaren runs into the Baltic sea. The water here is so clean that, during the summer, people fish along the water's edge.

In many ways, Sweden is the land of problem solved.  That’s not to say there’s no violence against women in Sweden, or that Swedish parents are totally immune from annoying children.  It means that, when there is, there is at least a system in place you can rely on to get justice.

What they haven’t quite figured out, at least for now, is how to integrate native Swedes with immigrant Swedes.

We were also taken to visit Quick Response, which is another NGO whose job it is to track down incidents of xenophobia in the press.  That’s when newspaper reporters refer to minorities as “others” and when the sub-editor doesn’t have an eye for this type of stuff.  Despite trying to reconcile the conflicting mental images of the name of the NGO and the type it work it did (do alarms go off when someone comes across an offending passage, do people come sliding down poles, do people wear capes etc.), I had to say, they had a point.  It was brought home to the more sceptical of us through a comparison between two types of reports on the same Muslim woman who lost her job as a school teacher because of her decision to wear a nikab.  On the one hand, you had the typical stereotypical report of the school’s secularity and the woman’s lack of flexibility in approaching her religious beliefs.  On the other, there was a question and answer – much like the 20 questions asked at the back of a Sunday magazine – that fleshed the woman’s character and, by revealing her dreams, aspirations, fears and desires, humanized her and her faith.  Quick Response finds reporters guilty of the former and seminars and workshops them into the latter.

Stockholm Old Town, 5:30pm on a Tuesday (Where are all the people?)

Later, we had some time off and took a tour of the city.  Stockholm has to be one of the more intimidatingly picture-perfect cities in the world.  In many ways, it’s like a rich friend’s house: the furniture is so expensive that one worries about letting their hair down lest something gets broken.  The larger metropolitan area has less than 2 million residents, the city center is small and everything’s easily walking distance.  There’s an underground and efficient bus service.  The city’s cycle friendly and, in all, there’s hardly any automobile traffic.  With the city’s economy almost entirely dominated by the service sector, all this meant that Stockholm is also one of the cleanest cities in the world.

During our tour, we were informed that Swedes had invented things as common as the zipper, the three-point seat belt and ball-bearings.  Ball-bearings seem to me to a perfectly apt metaphor of what Sweden and Swedish people are like.  Strong willed, efficient and not meant to be noticeable.  We were shown a square where, in 1520, in an incident more or less similar to the Ahmadi massacres, King Kristian II (“the Tyrant”), executed 100 people.  Another neighbourhood, we were told, built sometime in the fourteenth Century, was built to house the elite, subsequently became a slum and then a commercial zone and is now, once again, gentrified.  It takes nothing less than centuries of struggle, often violent, to forge the identity of modern Stockholm.  A city doesn’t get to be so beautiful unless it’s paid its dues.


Scene of the execution of 70 Swedes at the hands of King Kristian II. The grey bricks on the building on the left represent the dead, and the event is still remembered today.

It was walking around Stockholm that I understood that Sweden is not some sort of democratic Emo forever debating existentialisms and siding.  It’s actually a country and society that are at the cutting edge of democracy.  Like Stockholm which, as a city, has passed through periods of birth, death and re-birth and emerged from the other side a model metropolis, Swedes and Sweden, by facing their difficulties and overcoming them, emerge more and more evolved.  Swedes don’t need to think about water problems.  They suffered them, as we do now, and at some point employed their system of government to find a solution.  Which it did.  Then it asked itself questions on women’s rights, children’s rights, the health of the elderly and disadvantaged.  And solved those one by one as well.  It’s now working on ways of resolving complex human rights issues due more to the affect of globalization and migrating workforces than any particular prejudice in the minds of its people.  I expect that, in typical Swedish fashion, they will rise to this challenge and eventually find a way of meeting it.

"Busy" downtown Stockholm - Where's the traffic??

The drive to resolve problems and move on extends to foreign policy as well.  With 4 percent of its annual Gross Domestic Project going to foreign aid, Sweden is, just as one would expect, the most generous aid giving country in the world.  And guess what? Its Middle East politics are also on the right side.  While I was in Stockholm, over 2,000 people gathered in one of the city’s squares and held a peaceful protest against the murderous and unprovoked Israeli raid of the Freedom Flotilla.  One of Sweden’s more popular (crime) writers, Henning Menkell, who is regarded as somewhat of a public intellectual in the country, was on the Marvi Marmara and his subsequent detention, along with other Swedish journalists, was good reason for Swedes to take to the street.  More people showed up for the protest in Stockholm than they did in Lahore (and that was more than the people who appeared to protest the terrorist attacks in the Ahmadi mosques).

However, all this is not to say that everything’s peachy in Sweden.  For example, there’s the embarrassing question of the large number of arms Sweden exports to the armies of the world (including Pakistan).  No sir, too much of a good thing can’t be right for you either.

Living in a social and political culture that values, above all else, decision making by consensus has its repercussions.  In an unguarded moment late one evening, a Swedish acquaintance revealed that “In Sweden, it’s ugly to be different or to stand out”.  Who knows the cost of living in culture of consensus or what sort of toll it takes (my light-hearted references to the rumour about Sweden’s high suicide rate were all met with unease and then denial), but I know this: As my flight back home took off, and although no Swedes crossed my line of sight, I knew that the ball bearing on the plane’s wheels, the seat-belt on the pilot’s shoulders and God know what other things the Swedes had invented were all part of making several hundred tons of metal airborne.  You have to love the efficient and understated nation.


In the one scene where he appears in Graham Green’s celluloid version of The Third Man, Orson Welles’ character Harry Lime talks about why he’s doing grim business in post-war Vienna:  “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”

Give me my hot and dusty Lahore and descent-into-chaos Pakistan any day.

One response to “Ball Bearings (A Lahori’s impressions of Sweden)

  1. Very nice article and snaps.
    Thanks 🙂

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