Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Other Side of the Street

As often happens on a subtler scale, a few disconnected influences coincided over the past week which kicked off the thought process behind this blog entry.

First, I've been reading - in Norwegian - a book about the ongoing gentrification process in a section of my Oslo neighborhood which is becoming less and less known by the name 'Little Pakistan.' The book is called Tøyengata and written by a human geographer named Tone Huse who has conducted a research project somewhat similar to my thesis fieldwork, just five years or so prior. In the process of describing the neighborhood, Huse writes about the bias of both the passerby and of the researcher in a multicultural, largely Muslim neighborhood of a westernized city. To (somewhat poorly) translate and paraphrase, she writes that it is easy in this setting for one to allow themselves to be lead to misunderstandings, being blinded by the apparent foreignness of it all (the women in hijab, the asian pastry cafes, the exotic vegetable markets and the fabric shops).

"Miljoet er ikke ens egen. Og selv om en skulle være del av ett av Tøyengatas miljøer, er andre sider ved gata fremdeles ukjente." She writes that that environment is not one's own, and that even when you are a part of one of the street's communities, other side of the street remains unknown. Huse's words strike a resonance with me because I have been that passerby, that researcher, and I continue to be that resident misfit as I am now marking the end of my first year of living in Tøyen. Each day I leave my apartment and am confronted with cultures I know little about. Immigrant families in my neighborhood come from countries as far removed from Norway as Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I feel like I learn a bit about these people each day, and each day I wonder more. We shop together in the markets and share public spaces and public amenities - in many cases we also share at least a second language knowledge (in my case) of Norwegian, but our lives rarely intersect.

In general, I greatly enjoy my neighborhood. In my personal, subtle ongoing cultural experiment of smiling to passersby on city streets, I quickly found that my smiles and nods are more often returned here than amongst higher native Norwegian populations nearby. Shopkeepers here strike up conversation and small communities develop around where people buy their vegetables. Despite these pleasantries, it is sometimes difficult to shake the perceptions of difference from all sides - boundaries do exist between groups of people here. There are stores and prayer rooms only frequented by the Somalian or the Pakistani populations, and there are local pubs only used by an older Norwegian crowd of regulars. These differences and boundaries can be frustrating to get past, but I find the interactions that happen in the spaces between to be of both great interest and of great potential as an urbanist and as a resident.

I think about these themes often, but they have seemed especially relevant in the aftermath of the 22 July attacks on Oslo and the heightened aftermath awareness of risks associated with prejudice. A Norwegian friend of mine shared a moving story on her blog about overhearing an account of Utøya from a surviver on a bus, with the poignant lesson of how we can never (and should never attempt to) know anything about a person at first sight, without hearing who they are, what they've been through, or what they aspire to.

These messages seem particularly important to me lately as well, while the political arena in the US reels. I'm afraid that sometimes it's all too easy for us as humans to forget humanity. Whether differences lie in opinions, ethnicities, social statuses or other realms, they are irrelevant at the end of the day. As humans, we are the same at the core and we hold the same basic needs and aspirations across our outward appearances and expressions. Political debates and pointing fingers against ideologies, immigration policies, or religious practices accomplish nothing towards what should be the greater goal of making society stronger and more sustainable.

I was contacted about my blog entry after the Oslo attacks via email by a film project called My Fellow American, which seeks to recognize the Muslim community in the United States as any other neighbors, any other group of citizens. To help them spread their message, I'm sharing their film at the bottom of this post. The point follows the the same in the US as in Oslo and Norway, as much as anywhere across the world. It seems to me that the understanding of our potential misunderstandings may be the key to cultural pluralism.

Film: My Fellow American - linked from youtube.com