It all started in 1985. I was two years old. My parents and I moved from Iran to Sweden. Sweden. A new country where war didn’t exist. It was safe and we were welcome. But things were different here. Very soon I ended up in between Iran and Sweden. My old home country, and my new home country, Persian traditions in one box and Swedish customs in another. I was left somewhere in between.
But I was a kid and kids learn and adapt quickly. After a few years I explained to my dad why Swedish people where obsessed with coffee and cinnamon rolls. That it was only an excuse for Swedish people to come together, to meet and talk to people that they didn’t know. He laughed and then he could understand their box.
When I had friends over, I always felt I needed to explain to them that if you don’t say NO ten times to my Persian mom, she will fill your plate with rice. She just wants you to feel at home. And feel welcome. But she will fill i. They laughed and understood her box.
People often talk about thinking outside the box. I grew up in between the boxes. Not swedish nor persian. Not child nor adult. Not native nor immigrant. So obviously I got bullied. But not by one group but several. I got bullied by the swedes for not being swedish enough and I got bullied by the immigrant kids for not being immigrant enough. People often talk about thinking outside the box. I grew up in between the boxes. Its how i survived actually.
Some swedish teenagers kicked me in the guts with their black steal plated Doc Martins, calling me a spick, a blackhead, a foreigner. The immigrant kids punched me in the face with their homesick knuckles, calling me a swede, a traitor, a whitey. The teachers just asked me to just be still, sit down, slow down, stop running. But I couldn’t. I had to keep running. It was my only way to feel safe.
Soon I understood that every box has a code, every group has a certain way of dressing, every community has its own way of talking and being. I started to learn the codes, I talked the talks and I walked the walks. I ran in and out of the boxes and I understood that one of the things that they all had in common was that they were always talking about the others.
They talked ABOUT the others. But not WITH the others.
This became even more clear to me as I grew up in Sweden. People are not talking to each other. Yes. They argue, they debate but they do not really listen to understand or talk to be understood. Its more about being right. Its about winning.
In the year of 2010 and after a few years of political unbalance in Sweden the arguing really had its peak. The Swedish Democrats, a right wing party with controversial views on immigration, had entered Swedish parliament and lots of people were really upset. Some were even calling the party racist and xenophobic.
In the summer of 2012 a Swedish newspaper published a video online. The video was filmed on the cellphone of one of the top names in the Swedish Democrats when he and his two colleagues met a Swedish comedian with a kurdish heritage outside of McDonalds a late summer night.
They started to debate loudly about immigration and the swedish democrats called the comedian names like spick and damn foreigner. He kept repeating the fact that he also a Swede.
And one of the Swedish Democrats then leaned forward and replied: “This is not your country.”
I watched the clip online and 30 years of sadness, anger and not-belonging exploded in my chest. 30 years of running. 30 years of working, struggling, crying, paying my taxes, building companies, public speaking, volunteering, making music, writing books, starting projects and taking initiatives to help raise this country to its best potential and then to hear: “This is not your country.”
Being a model citizen. Being a useful immigrant. Being a good Swede.
“This is not your country.”
My first reaction was: AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH.
My second reaction was to cry. I thought about my parents and how they had struggled out of their box to give me a safe childhood. I thought about my sister and all my friends and how they tried and worked hard everyday to perform their best.
I thought about my five year old daughter and her beautiful brown eyes and how I wanted my country to step up for her.
So my third reaction was: This conversation needs to change.
I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what to do. So I just did. Something. I started to write online, it could be a blog-post, an article in a newspaper, a Facebook status. It didn’t matter. I had to write. I had to talk to people about how I felt.
This wasn’t Sweden. This wasn’t my home country. In my country we talk to each other with respect. We listen. We care.
I started to talk to people who then talked to other people who talked to even more people. The conversation was everywhere. And so on december 29th 2012 we decided to gather some of the people who wanted to talk. Seventy people showed up and we talked for 12 hours. We called it Sweden 3.0.
And yeah we had some cinnamon rolls and coffee as well.
Sweden 1.0 is a country were everyone try to be as similar to each other as possible. It is a country were we look, dress and think the same as everyone else.
Sweden 2.0 is the country we recently live in. People from all around the world, living side by side. With different opinions, political views and feelings. But its a war. Its all about being right, winning the fight and defeating your opponent.
We wanted to talk about Sweden 3.0. A country were we have our differences, were people feel welcome and were we talk with one and other. A country were we talk with each other to listen, to come closer, to understand more. We need to stop talking about each other and start talking with each other.
So seventy people. 12 hours. And we had a lot to talk about. After 4 hours we stopped being polite and started to be honest. After 6 hours we stopped exchanging arguments and started to communicate our feelings swell.
After 8 hours some of us started to cry.
After 10 hours I was fundamentally moved. I looked around the room and I saw what was happening.
People talked to each other. People listened. They were slowly coming out of their boxes and meeting each other for real. Understanding the others.
After twelve hours of conversation we realized that we have to do this over and over and over again. We need to invite people for more conversations.
So we did. The next time 100 people showed up. 12 hours of conversation. Not debating. Not arguing. Human conversation. Respecting other boxes.
Next time 200 people showed up. 12 hours of trying to understand each other. Starting conversations with the purpose of coming closer to other human beings. Not to be right. Not win a fight.
Its the year of 2014 and I live in one of the finest democracies in the world and conversation here in Sweden is still considered as activism. You are a rebel if you talk to people who don’t agree with you. So lets talk. Lets be rebels. We need to stop talking about each other and start talking with each other.
One year after our first 12 hour conversation the leader of the Swedish democrat party auctioned a game of golf online to raise money for charity. People were no longer just upset, they were outraged and called the auction a threat to democracy.
I reached out on Facebook and together with 140 people we raised 47.000 swedish crones (approxamitly 5000 Euros) and I won the auction. Some of my friends were discusted, journalists were all over my back. How can you talk to him? He is a racist. He is a threat to democracy. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have it all worked out. I just felt the need to talk.
So its a sunny day in June and in front of me stands the man who questions my whole existence in this country, holding a golf club in his hand, telling me its my turn to hit.
So we played golf and we talked. After 4 hours we stopped being polite. After 5 hours we were having a conversation as two human beings. As small angry boys. As insecure fathers. As proud Swedes. We talked about not being seen, about running in between the boxes. I saw a bit of another human being and I felt hopeful. It was not the evil people were talking about. Yes, our views of the world were different, they still are. Yes we are from different boxes.
But we were listening, trying to understand. We stopped talking about each other and started talking with each other.
And the wider conversation continued. In bars. On the subway. People emailed me. Skype me. Texted me. Asked me questions. Questions leading to even more questions. What happens when you call someone a racist? What makes you proud of your country? What does the word immigrant mean? What are you afraid of? What do we want Sweden to be known for in 500 years? I love the questions. Questions lead to more conversations.
In our world today and in our society, we are so used to arguing that we forgot how to listen. We are so trained in way of debating that we forgot how to talk to each other. Conversation is one of the oldest traditions of our human species. Its how we learned how to talk, its how we told stories, its how we managed fear, grief, unknown threats and sadness. Its how we shared wisdom and bonded with our neighbors. Its how we have been resolving conflicts for thousands and thousands of years. Changing our lives, changing our societies, changing the world by changing the conversation. Its pretty simple really.
Slowly open the door and step outside your own box. Do it gently. Bring some cinnamon rolls and some coffee. Its alright.
Talk to a stranger. Listen to someone new. Invite a neighbor for a cup of coffee. Play golf with an political opponent even if you don’t know how to play golf. Go swimming with someone who doesn’t agree with you.
As long as we keep on talking. As long as we keep on listening.
The first conversation you have may not be the solution. But it will be the road that will finally lead to more solutions.
So I invite all of us to be rebels. To stop talking about each other and start talking with each other. I would love to hear from you. Email me, text me, Facebook me, Skype me. I would love to talk to you. My name is Navid Modiri. The conversation continues.”