Want a Beer or a Becherovka with a Side of Racism?

Fear and loathing of “the other” in the Czech lands

By Omar Khan

Omar O'Khanada at the astronomical clock.
Omar Khan at the Astronomical Clock.
Photo courtesy of Omar Khan

“Watch for pickpockets!” emphasized the fair-skinned Czech university student, suggesting I keep my wallet in my front pocket at all times. The man had broad, powerful shoulders and his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He smiled at me and told me he plays rugby. He noticed my Montreal Canadiens ice hockey cap and, both being sports fans, we began a lively discussion about the current state of hockey in North America. We bought each other beers and he introduced me to the famous Czech liquor, Becherovka. He took a liking to me as our conversation shifted from sports to advice for must-sees and must-avoids during my four months in the Czech Republic.

He began listing tips left and right, “You must see Petrin Hill. You will see the most beautiful view of Praha,” “Have you tried goulash yet?” “You should go to a Slavia-Praha hockey game,” “One more thing – Stay away from the Vietnamese. They are trouble.” He patted me on the shoulder and headed out of the bar. I was dumbfounded.

I was in Prague for no more than 36 hours before my first encounter with open, unabashed racism. During my four-month stay this experience repeated itself in myriad ways, and illustrated for me the downside of living in a country where ethnic diversity is sparse, at least compared to New York.

White, ethnic Czechs comprise about 98 percent of the Czech population, so any immigrant is going to stand out. It is commonplace for people of color, any color besides Slavic white, to be stared out in public places as if they were some sort of heartless, brainless tourist attraction.

Back to the Vietnamese, the Czech Republic has one of the largest expatriate Vietnamese community per capita,  83,000 out of a population of about 10.2 million, making them the country’s largest immigrant group.  Because Vietnam was a communist country at the same time as the former Czechoslovakia, Vietnamese immigrants were encouraged to work in the country over for several decades before the 1989 Velvet Revolution that saw the end of totalitarian rule here. Many Vietnamese then decided to remain in the country and became known for their hard work at operating small businesses, particularly grocery and clothing shops. Their children typically speak perfect Czech and are well integrated into Czech schools and universities.

A group of young individuals from a small southern Bohemian town explained to me, “We don’t like how [the Vietnamese] own many potravinys, Czech convenience stores, and shops in the big city squares of Prague.” A friend jumped in, “It’s because they’re not Czech,” she stammered, “They shouldn’t be here, not so many of them.”

I traveled with a few friends to Liberec, a city in the Sudeten regions of the Czech Republic. After hiking down from Jested mountain, a peak from which you can see Germany on one side and Poland on the other, we discovered a tavern at the base. There were the stuffed heads of several deer on the walls and the oaky floors creaked as we walked through the room. I couldn’t believe the atmosphere of the smoky room. It was surreal. We met a local man named Filip who spoke at great length about the traumatic history of the Czech Lands during the 20th Century – mainly the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and horrors of Soviet communism. He was entertaining, but clearly a patriotic Czech.

He yelled: “Fuck the Germans!” We laughed. He continued. “Fuck the Russians!” “Fuck the Russians!” I repeated, raising my beer with his. “Fuck the Jews!” We stopped laughing. He didn’t. I looked at my two Jewish friends. I thought anti-Semitism in Europe had disappeared after the Holocaust, considering the fact that we were mere minutes away from Germany, in a territory that had remained under Nazi control for the duration of World War II. Needless to say, we left the bar, beers unfinished.

A few days later, we were stopped by a group of young men chanting, “Roma! Roma! Roma! Roma!” while they pointed at my Latina friend. We were walking through Ostrava, a town in the northeastern Czech Republic. My friend didn’t break stride and continued walking. Later on, I asked a group of Czech students about what we had experienced.

“We don’t like Roma. We’re not racist, but they are thieves and criminals.” Bigotry is not something one gets used to, and as a Pakistani-American, I started to feel uncomfortable. Having grown up in the United States where diversity is abundant, the blatant and nonchalant manner in which their discriminatory remarks were stated shocked me almost as much as the remarks themselves.

“’We don’t like Roma. We’re not racist, but they are thieves and criminals.’”

Roma, who came to Europe hundreds of years ago, likely from the Indian subcontinent, have a troubled relationship with the majority ethnic populations in many countries such as France, Italy and Great Britain. In the Czech Republic, they suffer from unofficial discrimination, poor education and unemployment.  They also account for a disproportionate amount of criminal incarceration.

About a month later, it was early October in Prague. The last vestiges of summer lingered in the air; autumn hadn’t quite settled on the city. I spoke to my barber and noted the odd looks I got as I told him about my recent experiences learning about the Roma people. I told him how I even had a female friend who continuously received stares when she was in public purely because she was British-Indian and therefore appeared Roma to Czechs. He stopped cutting my hair for a moment and said, “They likely thought you were gypsies.” He picked up a different set of scissors and added, “Even the most liberal-minded, progressive Czechs look at the Roma with distrust.” He was an English expat who had been living in Prague for 18 years. “These past few years there’ve been more Brit-Asians in Prague – Pakistanis and Indians and the like – studying at medical schools.” He added, “The Pakistanis who I cut, they come in here and tell me they need a short, clean hair cut. They try their best to not be mistaken for Roma.”

One evening, there was heavy rain. The lamplights burned almost auburn and they made the cobblestones glitter. I was walking in the Prague neighborhood of Holesovice and took refuge in a dive bar until the rain lightened up. I ordered a beer – Pilsner. As I paid, a man brushed past my shoulder and muttered under his breath: “Jihadist.”

I was confused. My only reaction was completely internalized. I downed my beer and then left, now enraged with myself. I was angry because I felt that I should have punched him. I suddenly was overtaken by a vicious sense of fury. I wanted to break my pint glass across his face, cave in the back of his skull with the heel of my boot. That’s what I thought I should feel at least, but no… I was confused, not angry or hurt. My reaction was a chaotic mix of emotions that I hopelessly attempted to decipher while walking home through the rain.

I emailed a professor of mine who specializes in issues of race in Central Europe. I told him about my personal experience with racism in Prague. “Islamophobia will become an issue in 10 years for this country. The young Bosnian Muslim children who survived the massacres and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia – Europe ignored their suffering. Now there are tens of thousands of these children in the Czech Republic. If they are labeled as Jihadists and not given a chance, they could end up in radical Islamic groups. And this will cause problems for the country in the future.”

“What can be done to prevent this?”

“We must learn to adapt to a globalizing world. For example, an education system that emphasizes diversity and stronger integration of minorities in schools would be a start. We need this not only for social reasons, but economic and political as well. Otherwise the Czech Republic will be left behind.”

Omar Khan is in the NYU Stern Class of 2014, majoring in Finance.  His hometown is Ottawa, Canada.

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Categories: News, Spring 2013 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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2 Comments on “Want a Beer or a Becherovka with a Side of Racism?”

  1. Adam
    March 26, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    “He yelled: “Fuck the Germans!” We laughed. He continued. “Fuck the Russians!” “Fuck the Russians!” I repeated, raising my beer with his” – Why would you laugh at this..?

  2. Bobvy
    March 28, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Nice article. I have to say, that problem of racism comes from gipsies and also from communism. Especially older people, who lived almost whole their life in comunnist, don’t trust black people. They call them bugbear. They are afraid of them. During communism, there were no other cultures, just few foreign students from other communistic countries, but barely able to see. But young Czechs aren’t racist that way, but it’s true, that they are little bit scared of muslim’s invasion to Europe. Just look at Scandinavian countries(especially Sweden) how, thanks to their left sided politics, looks social structure.
    Antisemitism isn’t quite common in CZE, it might be because Sudeten germans.
    For me, it looks like that you have met a lot of extreme people. Because, what I know, everybody are happy, that in CZE there is so many Vietnamese stores, because Czech wouldn’t do that every day form 7 to 11pm. And thanks to them, you can buy almost anytime anything you want. Now, they even sometimes hire czech people to serves customers. And nobody can say anything against them, bigger problem is with gipsies who don’t work and just take social benefits, and thanks to amount of children, they can live with that without problem. Because if they work, they would earn maybe even less money than from social benefits. So they have no motivation and people look at them like on leeches. Honestly I have no idea, what to do with this situation, because if you short them the benefits, they a) start to steal b)get caught and go to jail, which is more expensive than the benefits. It is quite problem without any good solution(like not to discriminate anyone).
    Shortly, I believe, that people can have bad look on anyone, who look arabic or roma. But I hope, that these are the older generation and it will get better when we, after velvet revolution children, raise to our fifties.

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