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Travelling fever — Martha Flyvholm Tode followed her University of Copenhagen programme while in Cairo. The city overwhelmed her, and now she has written a book about a young Dane's encounter with the Middle East. It is about knowing your privileges and being challenged on your view of the world and humanity.
»You’re an orientalist self-absorbed bitch who thinks of no one but yourself.«
That’s what Emma’s Egyptian boyfriend yelled at her when she once again had messed up in Cairo and was confronted with her own privilege blindness.
Young Emma is the main character in the novel Støj, Storm, Støv [Noise, Storm, Dust, ed]. She is a student of Middle East Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and she has gone on an educational trip to Cairo to write her bachelor’s degree paper.
Emma looks a lot like her creator, the 30-year-old Martha Flyvholm Tode, who studied Middle Eastern Studies herself when she decided to complete her bachelor’s degree in Cairo instead of Copenhagen.
Martha Flyvholm Tode is 30 years old and currently lives in Rome.
BA in Middle Eastern Languages and Society from 2020
Has previously published critically acclaimed books: ‘På Bornholm må man græde overalt’ [’On Bornholm you can cry everywhere’, ed.] (2017) and ‘Man kan også være søstjerne’ [You can also be a starfish, ed,] (2020)
Lived and studied in Cairo 2018-2021
Born and raised in Copenhagen
The University Post meets the author, who has just published her third novel that is — without being autobiographical — inspired by her own encounter with Egypt as a Danish student in 2018.
»Before I left for Cairo, I had this romanticized image that I was going to find a small cozy apartment with a view of the Nile. When I travel to a new country, I’m used to it being nice. And I usually walk around thinking, wow, this is nice with the palm trees, the beach, the sun!« says Martha Flyvholm Tode smiling. The city had clearly dashed her expectations.
»But arriving in Cairo was not very nice and really overwhelming. There is noise, and dust, and car fumes everywhere. Just breathing feels difficult. In fact, I developed a cough during the first few days that didn’t really go away until I moved. Also, just moving around is difficult. As a woman and a foreigner, I was accosted so often that I had to wear sunglasses and headphones. Also, because there is a lot of traffic, because the infrastructure doesn’t work, there are holes in the pavement, and people wanted all kinds of stuff from me: Selling me stuff, begging for money, or just to practice their English.«
Martha Flyvholm Tode had actually only planned on being on exchange for three months. But despite the challenges, or perhaps precisely because of the challenges, her three months stay turned into three years.
In 2011, seven years before the arrival of the author, the Tahrir Square in the city became the focal point of the Arab Spring, where thousands protested against the authoritarian regime. Martha Flyvholm Tode was drawn to the city’s tumultuous past.
»I met people who had some really exciting stories, and I could feel that there was a story that I wanted to explore and that could become the inspiration for my Noise, Storm, Dust. It was a wild contrast to go somewhere that didn’t really seem inviting at all, but where whoever I met was really welcoming. I quickly felt at home.«
Martha Flyvholm Tode quickly got a network, an apartment, and a regular bar to hang out in. And she even met her boyfriend at a party on a Felucca, a kind of picnic boat with sails.
»There was something special about Cairo that was different from everywhere else that I’ve ever travelled.«
And that’s saying a lot: Martha Flyvholm Tode spent two sabbatical years after secondary school backpacking on three continents: Southeast Asia, Central America and South America.
The exchange stay turned into an internship, and then it turned into a student job, she explains:
»Since I was one of very few Danes in Cairo, I quickly got into the loop of cool internships, and became a student assistant at the Danish Cultural Institute. I got into a great circle if I ever later wanted to go home and make a career for myself. The doors were open to me to a much higher degree than my Egyptian friends. My privileges as a Dane were in stark contrast to the difficulties that the Egyptians I knew had.«
Martha Flyvholm Tode has always been in doubt about what she wanted to study, she says. She thought that she would see the light on her travels during her gap years:
»I kind of had an agreement with myself that if I didn’t figure out what I wanted to study, my backup plan was to study medicine. In that way I might be able to travel with the volunteer group Doctors without Borders one day.«
Martha Flyvholm Tode moved to Aarhus to study medicine in 2014. She stopped after two years.
»I had just not given enough thought to how hard a study programme it is. And I really wasn’t very good at it. I failed all my exams, even though I really, really, tried. And at some point, it kind of just got too much.«
If not medicine, then what? The second time she had to make the right choice, she decided.
»I went around visiting every student counsellor I could find in Aarhus. I sat down in front of them and just asked them, straight out, what should I study at university? And they were kind of, well, I don’t know. And how could they even possibly know what I was supposed to study? I trawled through the same website multiple times – it had a coloured wheel on it that says: What do you want to become?«
In her research, she found out that she needed to get as far away from the anatomical rote learning as possible. All her travelling might have been the answer after all. Suddenly Martha Flyvholm Tode came across the bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Languages and Society at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).
»I was fascinated by people and cultures. I wanted to read, analyze, argue and reflect. And it was kind of coincidental that I stumbled upon Middle Eastern Studies, because that was a part of the world I hadn’t visited yet. Of course, I had been a bit interested in the Arab Spring, and I had followed the unfair treatment of refugees who came to Denmark. But the Middle East actually represented a gap in my knowledge and experience. So that’s why I chose it.«
Martha Flyvholm Tode smiles when she thinks about her second start on a university study programme.
»It felt really right. The material was exciting, the people were super nice, and the teachers were really good. You can make the wrong choice, but you can also make the right choice at some point. I didn’t know that medicine and rote learning was not my thing until I had tried it.«
After a year and a half, she took her studies with her to Cairo, where the UCPH instructors were good at offering her online classes on Zoom. She did miss one thing however: Having a discussion with her fellow students.
»I ended up needing a study group so much that I just walked up to people I met and said, ‘hey, I’ve read this article about haram and honour. What do you think of that?’ Often I was met with scepticism. I was just annoying, and most of them had nothing at all to do with the articles that I read.«
Paradoxically, there is also some Egyptian literature that Martha Flyvholm Tode could read, which Egyptians do not have the opportunity to read themselves, because it is censored by the regime.
»It was really weird that even within their culture, I had privileges they didn’t have. And I just had to be careful not to become preachy and come there with all my ideas and analyses of what Arabic literature is.«
Of course there is a difference between being an author and a narrator. But Martha Flyvholm Tode’s main character Emma also experiences failing an exam. And she also struggles with her student life and her prejudices in Cairo.
»Emma comes to Egypt and thinks that the most important thing in the world is that she has to submit her bachelor project. We think this is important in Denmark. It’s not cool to say that you’ve failed your bachelor’s degree. But Emma finds that you can neither control your time nor your life in Cairo. This has her simply forgetting to submit her project.«
Martha Flyvholm Tode says that she was confronted with her ‘Danishness’ in her meeting with Cairo.
»I want to be in control of my day. And I get annoyed if people don’t show up on time. In Denmark, we have an idea that we can make a plan and follow it. I can plan to write an assignment in 13 days and actually do it. In Cairo, it’s different. Society is not set up in a way where it makes sense to have a plan. You suddenly end up in a traffic jam for several hours. Or your air conditioning breaks down. Or you have to pay a phone bill. And this can be an adventure in itself. So it’s very difficult to keep a plan. But unlike in Denmark, it’s not as embarrassing to not have control of your time in Egypt.«
The bachelor’s project is not the most important thing in life. And it’s okay for things to be delayed a bit
Martha Flyvholm Tode
For the novel’s Emma, failing her bachelor the first time feels like the end of the world. But her experience is put into perspective in Cairo. Martha Flyvholm Tode points to the tragicomical aspects of things:
»A lot worse can happen. The Egyptians portrayed in the book face far harsher consequences from their actions than Emma does. Like getting arrested for going to a demonstration. This is a real consequence. Emma fails her bachelor’s degree, but she can just go home to Denmark and submit it two months later.«
Emma’s story emphasizes, according to the author, »how damned lucky we are in Denmark.« ‘Danishness’ is like having a suitcase stacked with privileges.
»No matter how far away we feel we are, we have a massive safety net, a lot of opportunities, and a basic belief that everything will work out in the end. We trust in authority and that people wish us well. I know this is not always the case. Especially not in Egypt.«
If you are the type who, like the main character Emma, gets bogged down into assignments and the pressure of exams, you may well heed Martha Flyvholm Tode’s advice:
»Go on exchange. Or travel as far away as possible. If you want to understand how privileged you really are, I think you have to get out and experience something different. I really believe that you really learn a lot from it as a human being. The bachelor’s project is not the most important thing in life. And it’s okay for things to get delayed a bit and for Emma to experience something different than what she had planned.«
While Martha Flyvholm Tode agonized over her choice of study, she was never in doubt that she should pursue her writing ambition.
»My fourth-grade Danish teacher read the very first short story I wrote. And she found it really good. I respond well to praise, so I thought, cool, I’d like more of that. When I had to write the next short story, I made even more effort. And so it continued. It was mostly fantasy novels, and fortunately they never saw the light of day.«
The fledgling short stories remained in the drawer, as Martha Flyvholm Tode’s mother, who works as an editor, had a sense of timing and offered her loving criticism.
»I’ve had a mum who was really good at saying, oh, this is really good Martha, but the next one is going to be even better! Just write a little more before you send it in to a publisher.«
Not too long ago there was a revolution here. Now I drive by in a taxi.
In high school, Martha Flyvholm Tode kept a diary, and her debut novel, På Bornholm må man græde overalt [On Bornholm, You Can Cry Everywhere, ed.] was published in 2017, right after the death of someone in her immediate family:
»My stepfather died. And I suddenly got this urge to get it all out there. So I sat down for three days and just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I then called my former boyfriend and said, ‘I think I wrote my first book.’«
Her editor mother realized the timing and matched her daughter with the right publisher. And after a three-year process of editing, feedback, and back and forth, the debut was ready.
Martha Flyvholm Tode was 23 years old at the time.
»I have 89 versions of Noise, Storm, Dust,« the author says about her third book, with a resigned expression.
»I wrote the first draft of the book right after I arrived in Cairo. And it was really … bad. So I put it on hold for three years until I moved to Rome, where I live with my partner today. I’ve been working on it every day since then. It’s very intense when I’m writing. I close the door and write, and then I am only finished when the first writing draft is over.«
This is exactly what she experienced with her debut novel.
»It was so nice that it only took three days to write the first draft. My first two books are these little minimalist nothings where there is hardly anything on the pages. But Cairo is anything but minimalist. It called for a completely different style, and I almost had to learn to write anew.«
Noise, Storm, Dust is now finally out of the author’s hands and head after two intensive years. And that’s a relief.
»On some level, I just got so damned tired of being inside the head of Emma, who did more or less the same thing in all 89 versions of the script, but then still had to do something a little bit different because the story didn’t quite hold water. So I’m looking forward to starting something new,« says the author.
We are about to meet the photographer at the David Collection in Copenhagen. But the University Post exploits the honesty of Martha Flyvholm Tode to ask if she has any guilty pleasures.
»I’ve started to watch a lot of reality shows. When I lived in Denmark, I could never think of seeing anything that was not art film. But after I’ve moved, I find DR3 [Danish public broadcaster, ed.] to be the coolest of cool. I spend an enormous amount of free time watching DR programmes. It has to hurt a little and be something about someone feeling bad about something. It feels silly to say it, but for me it’s also just about hearing some Danes talking.«
They speak Danish on the TV Avisen news show, says Martha Flyvholm Tode, but what she misses when she is out, is hearing the language young Danes speak to each other.
»May I ask you a question?« she asks when the interview is coming to an end.
»What do you think my book is about?«