INTERVIEW: Swedish lifestyle and the light from the north

Sawsan Mourad, Friday 9 Oct 2020

Sustainability, simplicity, and practicality define Sweden’s success, Swedish Ambassador Jan Thesleff explains

Jan Thesleff
Sawsan Mourad interviewing Ambassador Jan Thesleff

Sawsan Mourad, editor-in-chief of ElBeit magazine, sat down with the Swedish ambassador to Egypt, Jan Thesleff, to discuss what life is like in the European country.


What makes Swedish cuisine special?

Swedish plates are simple, just like the meal we are having now. We are eating cream, onions, potatoes and anchovies: simple ingredients that, put together, create a delicious meal.

Many Swedish plates are surf and turf. We also eat lots of vegetables that are otherwise ignored. Some foods were inspired by poor conditions. There’s a kind of bread we eat during festivities. It is made of original Swedish bread, nut sauce, and cream. You can add hot milk to the bread if you want a fancier meal. Such is a simple meal for people who can’t afford but these simple ingredients.

How has the weather influenced people’s lifestyles in Sweden?

I used to tell people from the Middle East to visit Sweden in the summer because the weather is warmer, until someone told me “we have a lot of sun and warmth, we want to see snow and rain.” That was when I thought maybe Sweden’s weather is in itself an attraction to tourists.

In Sweden, people walk fast because the weather is very cold, they ride bicycles, not cars, and the houses are small because the heating system is very expensive.

Because we have days when we don’t see the sun, and others when we don’t see the moon, Sweden enjoys seasons that are different than those of Egypt, for example. Even social interactions differ from one season to the other.

There are houses that are as small as huts in Sweden. They are used not as residential units but for people to spend quality time. How did this idea materialise?

The living conditions of people who moved from the countryside to the city in the early 20th century were not good. The municipality decided to build small houses on the outskirts of cities where families can spend a day enjoying the sun and grow crops. These houses were not for sale, of course.

Stockholm still has some of them. Today, however, these houses are not allocated for the poor, but rather for the people who want to unwind outside their city of residence. At the same time, these areas are exemplary of urban agriculture in Sweden.

Speaking of agriculture, Sweden has cooperated with IKEA and Oriflame to grow crops on the rooftops of public schools.

Swedish designs focus on sustainability and practicality, both in design and materials.

Sweden sponsors talents and creations that support sustainability. The government is obligated to buy sustainable furniture made of fabrics with natural colours. European consumers have become very demanding. They want to know the conditions in which the products they buy were manufactured, whether children were part of the labour force, and if the products were made using environmentally unfriendly materials.

It is not enough for something to be beautiful. It has to be practical and usable as well.

Is it a principle of equality that many Swedish designers are women?

Women are very promising in the design field in Sweden. Equality is not based on calculations, but on visions. Men and women design things differently because they see things differently. Women give an extra dimension to a vision.

For instance, air bags are experimented on male dummies, and they may not be suitable for women and children. Indeed, it has been proven that air bags protect men better than they do women.

This is where women designers come in. They are about how to better use things practically to preserve people’s lives.

Sweden has this juxtaposition between luxurious royal palaces and small huts.

This happened gradually, putting into consideration that Sweden hasn’t engaged in a war in the past 220 years and adopts non-alignment policies and this has helped us a great deal.

The prosperity Sweden enjoys today took place primarily after World War II. At the time, the majority of European countries’ infrastructure was destroyed, unlike in Sweden. We have some sort of a social contract that all of Sweden’s people have to contribute to the country as much as they can. At present, it is rare to find a person who doesn’t willingly contribute to the building of our society.

Some coats, even men’s, are designed to carry a child. Is Sweden encouraging its people to have more children?

Sweden’s birth rates are extremely low and they should be raised if we want the country’s economy to remain strong. We do this through the immigrants, who have high birth rates, and the laws that make women feel no threats of losing their jobs if they give birth.

Sweden celebrates its heritage and protects intellectual rights sternly.

The king is committed to protecting the country’s heritage. The royal palace comprises 600 rooms filled with treasures from different eras.

Sweden protects intellectual rights firmly and preserves designers’ creations. This way it encourages new creators to unleash their talents. They work better knowing their creations are protected.

How do you attract visitors to Sweden’s many museums?

The majority of Sweden’s museum are open free of charge and we hold activities, such as the Cultural Night in October, to encourage people to visit museums.

Which is your favourite museum?

It is the Swedish National Museum. Following its renovation, and the vivid colours introduced to its halls, the items stand out even more.

How do you want to boost cultural cooperation between Egypt and Sweden?

There is a huge potential for bilateral cooperation in the design field. Egypt is the second largest importer of Swedish products. The two countries can cooperate to produce raw materials and merge the two countries’ creative powers. This may open for Egypt many exporting opportunities, particularly with the skills of Egyptian labourers and designers. 

*A version of this article was published in El Beit magazine

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