An interview with Kaveh Rashidi, M.D.

Norwegian enough

Kaveh Rashidi

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Dr. Kaveh Rashidi has spent his entire life in Norway, yet for many Norwegians, he’s not Norwegian enough.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

He was born and grew up in Norway, speaks Norwegian, holds a Norwegian passport, and earned his degree to practice medicine in Norway. He likes to ski, eats brunost, takes haven in his weekend hytte, and has even considered buying a bunad. And, most of all, he feels like a Norwegian. Yet, some would maintain that Kaveh Rashidi isn’t Norwegian enough…

When I first read about Kaveh Rashidi in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, I have to admit that I felt somewhat indignant. After all, what is national identity anyway? How many times have I heard from young Norwegian Americans who have grown up all their lives being told they are norsk that they have been told once they get to Norway that they shouldn’t dream of calling themselves Norwegians. And then there are the others who arrive in the old country to be reassured, “You are one of us.” Is national identity based on DNA, country of birth, language, physical appearance, or attitude and choice?

This past summer, Rashidi posted a message on Twitter that set off a social media storm. He described how he was stopped on an Oslo street by a stranger who told him, “Go back to Pakistan. We don’t need doctors like you here.” 

The woman who accosted him wasn’t one of his patients, and Rashidi isn’t from Pakistan.  His parents came to Norway from Iran to escape political persecution and build a better life for their family. Their son is living proof that this is possible. For many, the incident reported by Rashidi hit a nerve, as it underlines a current of intolerance and prejudice surfacing in Norway today. 

I was lucky enough to meet up with Rashidi in a café while I was in Oslo toward the end of the summer to talk about his experience. I got to know a mild, soft-spoken, thoughtful man, who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. My first thought was that he would be exactly the kind of doctor I would like to find: someone who listens with empathy, someone who genuinely cares.

Rashidi and I first talked about his experience as a doctor in Norway. He believes that appearance plays a huge role in first encounters with patients. There is a natural fear of the “other,” as people tend to trust those who look more like themselves. Iranian patients appear to be happy when they see him, whereas ethnic Norwegians, especially older ones, may show signs of reservation. Some may initially worry that he won’t understand what they are saying. He noted how gender seems to also play a role in first encounters. Rashidi told me how his female colleagues are often mistaken for nurses, sadly going back to old stereotypes.

I asked Rashidi “what’s in a name,” and we both agreed that it plays a big role in forming misleading preconceptions. These days, people often do a Google search to look for a doctor, and he suspects there may be a tendency to skip over any name that doesn’t sound Norwegian. In my own way, I could relate to what he was saying, because with the surname “Reinhall,” a name invented by my Swedish father-in-law, I am often mistaken for being German. But neither my husband nor I have a single drop of German blood in our backgrounds that we know of, and it is not part of our identity.

Yet, while Rashidi has experienced the negative consequences of categorizing people into arbitrary groups, he recognizes that it is somehow a natural way of organizing the world. The problem is that contemporary Norway, like the United States, is a very broad, multicultural society. You cannot lump all refugees into one big pile. They come from a patchwork of cultures and have experienced the world in different ways. In the same way, a liberal-minded person might say, “I love all gays,” but gay people are individuals, too, and everyone’s individuality deserves recognition—and respect.

We talked about the different reasons why people emigrate from their homelands. In some cases poverty and lack of basic needs precipitate a change, and assimilation can be difficult for those with fewer resources to build upon. In the case of Rashidi’s family, his parents were highly educated but had to leave their economic resources behind, as they escaped dangerous circumstances. 

But the Rashidi family had a foundation of knowledge to build upon and understood that securing a good education for their children in Norway was essential. They focused on tutors and summer school programs to ensure their success. While they did not stop speaking Farsi with each other at home, they believed that assimilation was paramount. Today, Rashidi’s Farsi is limited, while his Norwegian is so good that he is sought after as a public speaker and is a published author and journalist.

In his day-to-day living, Rashidi has thoroughly embraced Norwegian culture. There is nothing in his apartment to give away that he is not 100% Norwegian, save one Persian rug he inherited. Before he stopped eating meat, his favorite food was the Norwegian national dish fårikål, and these days, he loves Norwegian fish balls that you can buy in a can. But he also loves the Iranian cooking his mother taught him, and can make many of the dishes himself.  His partner, who he met through his sister, is Norwegian through-and-through, but ironically, she knows Iran better than he does, after traveling there with his sister. Rashidi would like to someday go there as a tourist, once the political situation is less precarious.

Someday, Rashidi hopes to have children, who, in turn, will forge their own identity. For now, he is content to be 100% Norwegian with an Iranian background, something he finds to be a very good combination. I quite agree with him, and I think back on how my own ethnic heritage has enriched my life. With all the problems immigrants may face in Norway, he sees things changing for the better, as people are becoming more open and tolerant. 

Immigration is a challenge for those who leave their home countries, their children, and the societies that receive them, but it is also a great gift, full of new opportunities for everyone. Through his writing, Kaveh Rashidi hopes that people will open up their hearts and embrace the good in this ever-changing world, indeed, a noble cause for a kind and dedicated Norwegian man.

Further reading (in Norwegian):

This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.