Just about everybody to whom I mentioned our impending move to Oegstgeest said, ‘oh terug naar Oegsgeest’! Friends, parents of kids’ friends, not so friends friends, the huisarts. And almost everybody of the everybody did this with a smile.
We weren’t going back to Oegstgeest. We were simply going.
Some mentioned that it was voted the best municipality in the Netherlands. Some said that they couldn’t dream of leaving a vibrant city like Amsterdam to live in a sleepy, residential place lined with houses but apparently no people. One said, ‘where would I find my daily inspiration in such a boring environment’?
This is where – to begin with.
Following the suggestion of my friend Lena…I urge all Oegstgeesters and Amsterdammers alike to look at the sky. Lena said that’s where the landscape of Holland is to be best enjoyed…in the ever changing expressions of the sky. ‘Here in France’, said Lena, ‘I see a hill outside my window and I cannot change that. But when I lived in Holland, the changing sky offered me a new landscape – sometimes several times a day’.
So that, my dear Michelle is where I find my daily inspiration, for one. Today…the sky is not fifty but one shade of grey. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Recently I joined one of the book clubs that the public library in Amsterdam has started. A friend, who knew I’m looking for ways to get deeper into Dutch, suggested it and I’m deeply grateful to him. And so…I read a whole book in Dutch! To be honest, when I began, I thought this is going to be an uphill climb. It came as a pleasant surprise to me that the book pulled me towards it. Despite the limitations of my vocabulary that made sure I had a dictionary within reach, I could hardly put it down. I was fascinated by what I read, and recommend this book highly. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s an English translation yet, but hope there will be one soon.
We’re not dumb, just poor. (…)
That always gets mixed up.
(Orhan Pamuk in Snow)
The book is called ‘Het Pauperparadijs’ (The Pauper Paradise) by Suzanna Jansen and begins with this quote. I didn’t choose it. The name of our club is ‘Ij Amsterdam’ and the concerned library staff member made a pre-selection of books related to Amsterdam. A common consensus of the six people in our club selected it as the first for us to read over a two-month period.
At the end of May on a warm evening, we met to discuss the book. It wasn’t a very structured discussion. We took it in turns to speak about it. At one point someone asked, ‘does anyone have a favourite paragraph’? I wasn’t ready for the question, so let is pass me by. But later, a section of the book came back to me and I translate here:
The government officials couldn’t decide what to do: on what conditions should they give my grandfather social security? They wrote each other notes with texts like ‘ a strange history’! And ‘Will you please discuss this with the GAK’? In the mean time, my grandfather had to go again and again and beg for emergency social security money.
This situation that my grandparents had landed up in makes me think shamefully of my own time as a temporary employee of the Social Services Office in the mid-eighties. As a twenty year old, I worked as someone who’s job is to ‘estimate’ in a department full of unemployed teachers and people with a Master’s qualification in history, a fired bar keeper, an accounted fired due to cutbacks, a pregnant physiotherapist – that was the unemployment relief work for those days. Day in and day out, in piles of files we spit out the comments by social workers by converting these into numbers for the sake of the punch operators. The purpose was that the right holes in the right cards would lead to the right amount of money in the bank accounts of the people who, somewhere behind the files, we would never see. All that time, there was a big file of one family Khan on my desk, about which I could not decide. Again and again, I put it aside, and somewhere at the back of my head, buzzed the vague idea that it was just because of me that the family Khan faced renewed uncertainty every month.
Somehow the name of the family Khan, who needed money to survive in the Netherlands felt too close to home in a book full of poor Dutch people with very different names. Even more importantly, the book (which is actually a family history) asks a big question: What to do with the poor? It strikes a very deep chord in me because I’ve spent most of my life in India. In this book I see reflections of so many of our attitudes to the poor and the causes of their poverty – blame them, change them, improve them, ship them out, criminalize them, categorize them, convert them, share with them, bring them up, teach them, pity them,encourage them to join the nunnery, curse them, institutionalize them, love them, check them, bury them, make them work, give them money …… the whole range is present depending on who is in power and which way the wind is blowing, or on where the economy is. Chilling, also, is to read how the vicious circle is so hard to break. It does in the case of the author, whose grandmother, Rosa, took the first steps. To Suzanna Janssen, I have admiration and gratitude, for speaking with such eloquence and clarity about a subject without the shame often associated with it, and for linking our tendency in the present times in the Netherlands, to blame sections of our society for not being able to rise out of their lot.
Our newspaper, the NRC Handesblad carried an article recently, the headlines of which read something to the effect of, the unemployed needn’t expect any understanding from those who are employed.
So, what should the family Khan look forward to, if understanding is something they shouldn’t expect?
We think stereotypes help us to understand our world better, which explains why they have a continuing presence. As an inter-cultural trainer, I have to step around stereotypes carefully and get my point across.
I just saw the episode on the role of the media in the reporting of the murder of Marianne Vaatstra. A couple of days ago, I read an account and saw a video on the inside story of the investigation of the murder of another young woman in Noida in India. She was Arushi, and like Marianne, was brutally murdered. One factor common to both is the intense media attention they get.
The other is the relationship between stereotyping, public sentiment and the media. What I see in both these cases is that when our stereotypes combine with the forces of present day media, we create weapons as lethal as the ones that put an end to the lives of the two innocent women.
‘Medialogica’ is the programme on television that explores public sentiment and the role of media. ArgosTV is currently broadcasting a 6 episode program on Ned 2 on Monday evenings. Should one trust it, one thinks?
When Marianne was killed in a field in 1999 in Friesland, the first to be thought of as guilty were asylum seekers in a temporary camp in the vicinity of the murder. Days after the crime, one newspaper reported a local person as saying, ‘Slitting a throat – that is not the Dutch way to settle things.’
From 1999 to 2012, the highly charged local population never stopped believing that the murderer was non-Dutch and quite certainly a Muslim male asylum seeker.
Photos were published of the suspects in newspapers and a couple of men were arrested in Turkey because of the pressure on the Ministry of Justice by the public and the media. Much of the emotion that drove the media and the politicians came from people’s sentiments as expressed in open letters to the local press. And television also played its part.
The Ministry of Justice was accused by the opposition of being swayed by public opinion and the media. So they secretly conducted a DNA test and made the result public. It showed that the DNA as revealed by the sperm found on Marianne’s body pointed to a person of western European origin. This was a year after the murder and still sections of the press continued focussing on asylum seekers as the ‘top accused’.
In the national press, the most widely read newspaper, the Telegraaf published an anonymous letter from a person claiming he knew the accused because he had shared a prison cell with him in Norway and had had a chance to peep into his address book. When the journalist responsible who’s interviewed in ‘Medialogica’ is asked how she could publish such an unverified letter that made an innocent asylum seeker look guilty, she answers, ‘because it could have been like that’.
In ‘Mediologica’, another journalist admits that although he had received reliable information that the accused asylum seeker could not have been at the scene of the murder because he wasn’t in Friesland on that day and the days after it, he went along because that is what the people wanted to hear. He says in ‘Medialogica’ that this is the first time he admits this.
The real murderer, who has confessed after he was arrested last year as a result of another DNA action, is a Dutch man, a Fries, married and with children. And yes, he says, he did slit Marianne’s throat with a knife after he had raped her. To make sure she died and could never reveal his identity.
In the case of Arushi, one of the police officers declared very early in the investigation that she was murdered by her father. Since Arushi had ‘sleep ins’ with her friends, she was a 13 year old with ‘loose morals’. That the cook was found dead on the terrace a day after Arushi’s murder was detected was evidence that she and the cook were having an affair. According to this policeman, a good reason for the father to also kill him. The press hailed this as the most obvious solution to the crime. The father, after all, is Punjabi and Punjabis have a tendency to kill their daughters (and their lovers if they can) to save their family honour. This policeman’s inept and hurried ‘solving’ of the case is one of the first stories to have excited the media. As for the mother, the whole nation watched as she didn’t break down and cry on NDTV eight days after her daughter’s murder and her husband’s arrest. That day also happened to be Arushi’s, her only child’s 14th birthday. This makes her, according to people, un-motherly and un-womanly since women, and Indian women especially, are emotional. Therefore she is guilty. There have been media reports and shows in which the character assassinations of a 13 year old, her father, her mother and a Nepali cook trying to earn his living far from home have been fed by similar kinds of stereotyping. Reports on the Arushi crime with gory details thrown in have got higher TRP ratings than the most popular of soap operas on Indian television. Her parents are still fighting the case to pin the guilty person and clear their names. As her mother says, ‘we owe it ot her’.
The makers of Medialogica in the Netherlands say that their aim is to create a consciousness amongst people about the workings of the media. They chose the case of Marianne to open the programme with the intention of shedding light on how in the first ten years of this century, sentiment was more important than the facts in this particular case.
May I add that such sentiments, the stereotypes we nurture, and the media we are a part of beg for some self-reflection in these times.
The link to the Marianne episode on Medialogica is here.
In Arushi’s case, to set the record straight, Shree Paradkar, journalist at the Toronto Star, and cousin of Arushi’s mother published an article and made a video. The link is here.
I once said to a friend, ‘shopping is a spiritual experience’ and she was at first surprised and later appreciative of why I said that.
My eleven-year old boys have taken to turning their clothes inside out and looking for labels to see if they’ve been made in Bangladesh. They tell me that when clothes have been made in Bangladesh, China or India, that means we didn’t pay the people there a fair price.
They’ve seen the news on jeugd journaal (a news channel for kids), and in the children’s newspaper is an article about the building collapse in Dhaka. In class, they have had some discussions about how their clothing is made.
Not so long ago, we were in Brugge – a charming, historic city in Belgium. We wanted them to accompany us to a museum. One of them started crying and kicking all the way there. He just didn’t see why he had to go to a museum. His father and twin brother walked and I hung back – keeping an eye on my howling child, his unhappiness growing with every single, grudging step he took. My heart sank looking at him, and yet I knew I wanted him to see that museum.
Once in there, he got to see an exhibition on the making of lace in Brugge. He got to read about a lace-maker not so long ago. She spent 13 hours a day for 2 days making a lace handkerchief. The boss argued with her about what she should be paid and offered 2 fl. for it. After much bargaining, she paid her 2.5 fl. The boss then sold that same lace handkerchief for 15 fl. in her shop in a street not so far from where the producer of the lace lived and worked.
The lace that was made by women and children for a pittance was worn by wealthy, respectable people. Their portraits, painted by eminent artists, hung on the walls in the room next to the one with black and white photos of the sweatshops of Brugge. In this room, amongst the producers, of lace was a photo and a write up about Rumana, from Bangladesh. This is what it said:
Rumana – anno 2009
‘I am Rumana. I am twenty three years old and I live in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I work in a clothing factory that manufactures clothes for shops in Belgium. It is possible that I sew your jeans, shirt or dresses.
I was born in a slum in Dhaka. When I was thirteen, my mother had a heart attack. She died five years ago. Our family had a tough time. In order to get enough to eat, I decided to stop school and wet to work in a clothing factory. My husband ditched me. I’ve been living as a single mother with my five year old daughter. I want her to get an education and this is why I have decided to continue to work here.
Mostly I work from eight in the morning to ten o’ clock in the evening. Often, I also work on Friday. Friday is a holiday in Bangladesh. Sometimes I work several hours overtime in a month. I never know if the overtime is paid for. The supervisors find a reason not to pay me.
Last month I got 5,500 taka (about 55 Euro) including 130 hours of overtime. Actually I should have a minimum of 6,500 taka (about 65 Euro) to make a simple living. I never get that.
The working conditions in the factory are shocking. There are only 15 toilets for 8000 or 9000 workers. You feel like throwing up because of the conditions of these toilets. Sometimes there is a water shortage and then the conditions of the toilets is disgusting.
If a supervisor misbehaves or uses curse words, you should actually not say anything and you should not protest. I do protest against the supervisor. If I don’t, then I feel like I have literally swallowed something’.
I point this out to my son, who has stopped crying by now and started to take some interest in what he is seeing. But soon enough, he says, ‘when are we going home’?
Yesterday his twin brother accompanied me to the super-market. We went looking for fruit juice. He insisted I buy a fair trade brand. A month ago, as a part of a school project, they had to choose a famous personality to dress up as. He chose to be Eduard Douwes Dekker, who was so critical about Dutch colonial policy in the early 19th century that he made history.
The visit to Brugge was in end December 2012. It is now end May. In these five months, an awareness of the rules that determine what they wear, eat, drink and play with, has arrived into the world of my eleven year old boys. It took a tragedy in Dhaka, (maybe Rumana’s life) and the reporting of it here to seal the deal.
I don’t know what is going to happen on the 30th of April. I hear 800,000 people are going to be coming into my neighbourhood. Apparently,the to be king and queen and their three daughters are planning to sail into Amsterdam, smiling and waving at the multitudes.
This is not the first time I feel like I’m having Orange thrust upon me.
Within a few months of my residence in Amsterdam, the to be king got married to the to be queen in my (then) neighbourhood. Streets were shut off and all sorts of regulations came into force. Someone showed me a photo of the princess (then), and I was shocked. She was the latest member of the House of Orange.
‘Where is the gold’? I asked. The answer I got was that kings, queens, princes and princesses here don’t wear gold. Why? I thought. Who is ever going to know they are kings, queens, princes and princesses?
Over the years, I’ve come to know that they ride around on bicycles and look just like you and I. But they aren’t. Because when they got married, or get crowned, the city of Amsterdam (you and I) paid for their wedding and are we are paying for their coronation and for their royal life style.
Orange gets thrust upon me through the towel I use to wipe my private parts. Our bank sends us these towels as gifts.
Orange gets thrust upon me when someone from my family goes to Albert Heijn, spends 15 Euros and get these ‘free’ fuzzy royal creatures with crowns to take home (probably made in sweat shops in China, India or Bangladesh).
It gets thrust upon me through a tin someone gave me with the prince and princess on it, in which I’ve stored sugar.
Orange is the colour of the followers of that leader in Mumbai who sent his goons to drag Muslim families out of their homes and slaughter them in my neighbourhood.
It gets thrust upon me through hate filled speeches and actions. We call it ‘saffron politics’ there. Orange gets thrust upon me through murderers who kill in the name of god.
Orange gets thrust upon me through personalities who have a way of intruding into my world through mesmerized multitudes right outside my doorstep.
Why do people support the House of Orange in Holland? People I love and respect. People who are good and humane and wonderful? When I ask them, I get answers like this:
Oh, but it’s not so bad as in the UK. We’re not so busy with royalty here.
Maybe because royalty gives a sense of continuity to this land.
Oh, but is better to have a king and/or queen than a useless head of state like a president.
I tell them I think it’s like living in the middle ages and it’s hard to understand why a people that are so progressive in so many ways need, support and pay for royals while cutting down on art, culture, education, international relations and social security. I know I come close to hurting their feelings, so I drop the subject, because, like I said, they are good people.
I try to listen with attention to the excited chatter about the song specially written for the to be king, how it was rejected, how it was accepted back, how the to-be king has no comments to make on it.
I guess Orange gets thrust upon me as a way of trying to understand what goes into the definition of nationhood – there, far away in India and here, behind the dykes.