Most Norwegians go to their huts in the summer, but what to do if you don’t have the money for a hut, like Mahmoud’s parents from the prefabricated housing estate in East Oslo. And even a hut? “Bro, my father didn’t hitchhike through Germany and Denmark in a train and container to shit outside. In some outhouse with crooked walls?”
Mahmoud is fifteen years old and lives with his ten-year-old brother Ali and his parents from Pakistan in a high-rise estate on the outskirts of Oslo. The father is a taxi driver, the mother cleans at the university. Mahmoud is not exactly happy about the prospect of summer vacation, especially since Uncle Ji from Pakistan, his father’s brother, has announced his arrival.
This is the starting point for Gulraiz Sharif’s stunning debut novel, Hey Listen, which caused a sensation in Norway. This is due to Sharif’s exuberant storytelling talent. He lets his first-person narrator, Mahmoud, tirelessly narrate, rave about, and rant. Everything is told to a fictitious bro, a brother, in a mixture of ghetto slang and the most beautiful standard language, because Mahmoud makes an effort with integration. He wants to study, he’s funny, and he sees through Norwegian and Pakistani society.
“After a holiday in Pakistan you felt like a frigging Marvel hero, you survived everything, no shit! (…) And street dogs! In Norway the dogs eat pedigrees and chew on toys, they sit around and watch political talk shows with their masters and mistresses, they find out what’s going on in the world. (…) In Pakistan, the mutts eat manure and dirt, dead animal corpses, no plan what they shovel into themselves!“
And so the author tells in an uninterrupted flow of the Norwegians, their right-wing politicians, the Pakistanis, the spicy Pakistani cuisine, the conditions in the neighborhood and his one-eyed Somali friend Arif, not the brightest candle on the candlestick, but a good buddy. Arif is looking for a job and Mahmoud has advice. “Norwegian-Norwegian must think you’re Norwegian-Norwegian just with the wrong skin color, he must think you’re adopted bro. You have to show that you can work hard.”
The first-person narrator knows the positive sides of the Norwegians, their humanity, their willingness to help, he thinks that’s all great, but he also knows where their limits are. He amazes again and again with crystal-clear sayings: “Actually, my father is a worse racist than those from the right. When he sees people wasting their time doing nothing, not having a job, he just gets angry and upset.”
The author, who works as a teacher in Oslo, knows his neighborhood inside out and knows the advantages and disadvantages of both cultures. He has a critical but also benevolent view of both societies and is interested in a prosperous coexistence. This is evident when Uncle Ji comes to visit, traditionally dressed “like a corrupt Pakistani politician”. Ji experiences one culture shock after another: nudists in the park, waste separation, the green spaces, he already sees paradise in East Oslo.
The small family’s ideal world gets cracks when Ali, who shows a striking weakness for Bollywood films, mom’s jewelry and make-up, confesses to his brother that he feels as a girl in the wrong body. This is a challenge for Mahmoud, who loves his little brother. He understands his brother, but how is he supposed to protect him from his short-tempered father, who sees real men as role models, and his uncle from this traditional family?
This is where the novel takes on an unexpected dynamic and the mother surpasses herself in her role as a fighting tigress who defends the well-being of her children against all prejudices: “Now, noooo, we have feminism in the house. Awesome girl power, man!” Gulraiz Sharif holds up the mirror to the majority of society, but also to his own community, and in a highly entertaining way.