What is a good life?

By Ghayath Almadhoun


"I cannot be present because now I’m preoccupied with the Cold War that I wage daily against the isolation, with the indiscriminate bombing of the darkness, with the systematic depression and attacks of loneliness that target the kitchen, with the checkpoints standing between me and the summer, with the bureaucracy, which is caused by the separation of the legislative from the executive, with the routine in the tax office; you’ve told me about war for a long time, let me tell you a little about peace, which I rejoice in here in the north, let me tell you about the shades of skin colour, about what it means when the people cannot pronounce your name, about black hair, about democracy that always stands on the side of the rich, about health insurance that doesn’t include teeth because these are not part of the body, let me tell you about vegetables without taste, about flowers without scent, about racism cloaked with a smile, let me report on fast food chains, fast trains and fast relationships, about slow rhythm, the slow grieving and slow death."  ¹

In this excerpt from the poem “I Cannot Be Present”, which I wrote in 2013, I described a form of violence that happens in complete stillness and is a mixture of isolation, loneliness, alienness and independence, to which are added biting coldness and a long-lasting darkness. At the same time, a serious lack of Vitamin D inheres in this. It is a mixture, which I could not exactly define, but I called it ‘systematic depression’. This systematic depression had become a trusted friend of mine in this country, which is wonderful in the summer, and inhuman in the winter. And those who have not experienced the inhumanity of the Swedish winter should know that the native inhabitants, the Vikings, believed that hell was an icy place, where a god puts a person because of his sins.

(The Swedish film director Erik Gandini points out in his 2016 film “The Swedish Theory of Love” that one in four Swedes dies alone and that 2.7 million Swedes feel lonely.) And I would like to attest here that I am one of these 2.7 million Swedes, and that I would like not to die alone.

But whenever, as a Swede, I am sad about being in Sweden, I think of Finland, and then I sense a strange blissful happiness, quite simply because I’m in Sweden.

Finland is a bleak, cold, depressive country that doesn’t speak. Even Bertolt Brecht said that the Fins, who have two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, are the only people in the world who “are silent in two languages”. My Swedish friends and I always thought how unfortunate the refugees were whom fate had led to that country that, as we say in Arabic, doesn’t even smile at a warm flatbread. Dear reader, you can imagine how overwhelmingly heavy the depression is in Finland, when you just visualize that we Swedes, whose land is renowned all over the world for its depression and its high suicide rate, feel pity towards Finland.

Now, for the second year running Finland has been awarded the “world’s happiest country” in the world happiness league. In the same report, which lists the happiness level of 156 countries and is based on opinion polls conducted by the Gallup International Association, all Scandinavian countries also top the list of the happiest countries. But is Finland really happy? Have you already met somebody from Finland? Are the Fins really happier than the Egyptians and Brazilians and Indians? Has this devilish capitalist world succeeded in combining happiness with material wealth and the accumulation of possessions?

There is a story that a man was asked about his dreams, and he answered: he would like a job, a home and a wife. Then, he was told: “We asked you about your dreams and not your rights.”

Since when is the existence of rights an indicator of happiness? What exactly is a good life then?

I have, whenever I thought about life, about life in its abstract sense and about existential questions, never thought about whether life is good. And I have always doubted the excessive self-confidence that many people in the First World generally enjoy. I have always asked how it would be if life in the First World, according to the self-imposed standards of the First World, would be described as good life?

When I arrived in Sweden in 2008, I was fascinated by the many people reading in the Metro. I liked the idea that people are hungry for reading. Reading was always bound up with culture for me, and culture with a good life. Today, after I have spent some time here, I’ve realized that people on public transport mostly read lousy commercial, valueless literature, mainly crime thrillers and the same old stories about the same old crimes or about zombies and vampires.

These books are so bad that their readers would sooner advance their education, if they simply stopped reading them.

Now I can claim that the share, for example, of Kafka readers in the Middle East is just as high as in Europe.

In those days when I was still young on this old continent, that is, one year after my arrival in Sweden, I signed a tenancy agreement for an apartment in Stockholm. I had put behind me one year of suffering, when I had lived together with other people and had moved from one abysmal accommodation to the next. I called my mother on the mobile phone and told her, overjoyed, that I had finally found an apartment, and that was something quite special for a newcomer. My joy immediately transferred to my mother and she enquired how big the apartment was. “Twenty-seven square metres,” I answered. First, there was a long silence, then she asked: “Does that mean that you are living in a room in a shared apartment with others?” I said: “No, my new apartment is twenty-seven square metres.” Afterwards, there was a longer silence than before. I can still clearly remember how she asked me whether I was joking and whether I was really living in Sweden. Then, she said something like: Sweden is well known for its prosperity and the wealth of its citizens, and how could it be that an apartment only consists of twenty-seven square metres? How should I explain to my mother that Sweden, famed for its affluence, was also well known for its apartments the size of matchboxes, and that there were lots of apartments like mine, which were smaller than every kitchen in Syria, a Third World country.

And while we’re on the subject of my mother: when I called her in Syria and heard the bangs of the detonations as background music, my mother told me – she had grown accustomed to the detonations after several years’ war of the Syrian regime against Syrian towns – what she had cooked today, how she fried the aubergines and preserved them in garlic, how she had then added fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil and hot pepper, which my father grew in our garden, and that nowadays the food is vegetarian because they could not get any meat due to the heavy bombardments. And I entered this surreal world like somebody going to the cinema.

Two years ago, the news once warned of a severe storm that would sweep across Sweden. I can still remember my mother’s voice which reached me through the noise of the detonations. She had phoned me in a panic to hear whether I was alright, because she had heard about the storm on Aljazeera.

In the poem “Black Milk”, which I wrote in 2016, it says:

“And in the same space-time in which I enjoy luxury in the extreme north of Europe, in a country with 97,500 freshwater lakes, my mother tells me that she is thirsty, and I recall the novel “The Stranger” ... and try not to think of Albert Camus.”  ²

A good life is when you drink a glass of clear water in Stockholm to quench your thirst, without having a lump in your throat, because your own mother feels thirsty due to the siege of Syrian towns by the Syrian regime.


¹, ² Adrenalin. A selection of poems. Action Books, November 2017, ISBN 9780900575976

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