You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action?
If I was the Minister of Integration, I would make it clear that stereotyping is normal and it’s nothing to feel guilty or embarrassed about. Stereotyping has protected birds, animals and insects from becoming meals for millions of years. So it shouldn’t be a problem when humans indulge in this habit on occasion. If humans accepted stereotyping as something natural, it will only make them more curious about others as opposed to being afraid of – or afraid for – others.
An example: in the street where I live, lives a sweet old man. During St Martin’s, children come from far away to visit him because he hands out presents. They call him Buurman Bloemetje – ‘Neighbour Flower’ – because the front of his house is covered with flowers. One day he gave a Romanian musician who was playing in the centre of town ten euros instead of ten cents. Now that’s a lot of money, especially in Zwolle where the people are famous for their thriftiness. (Zwolle residents even call themselves ‘Blue Fingers’ because their fingers turn blue from counting their cash.) This Romanian musician, who was freezing from the cold, was certainly happy with his ten euros. But then he wanted to become happier. So he and two of his Romanian musician friends followed Buurman Bloemetje to force him to pin a lot of money. So now I would prefer to be suspicious of a million Romanian musicians, so that not a single Buurman Bloemetje would get robbed by three Romanian musicians. I know that I could have an endless discussion with a high school student about how this is absolutely wrong and uncivilized, but I believe in it. Isn’t this something good to know? That the Russian drinks vodka in the winter and can then sometimes get aggressive? That the Iraqi – myself anyway – can be pathetic because he enjoys playing the victim? That the Dutch can share their personal dramas when they are going through difficult times and thereby you think ‘wow, I was not aware that we were such good friends ’, but then when they enter better times you again become just another acquaintance?
Stereotypes give us titles. For example, black people live in Africa. They talk loud and you may think they are arguing but they are just telling a joke. Blonde people live in Sweden. They speak fine English but are usually too complicated to be happy. In Belgium, they speak with a soft ‘g’, but also live in a soft manner. The Catholics believe in forgiveness, and therefore in Jesus. The Protestants believe in punishment, and therefore in the cross.
I know I am being very black and white. But stereotyping does give you a sort of title to think about and a sense of the direction of where you may be headed. I would very much like to know that canaries can sing beautifully – but there are also canaries that don’t sing at all. I would very much like to know that sparrows don’t sing at all – but there are also sparrows that can make beautiful sounds.
Who is ‘the other’ for you?
The ‘other’, or so I believe, is someone I should be careful with – or even scared of. Or at the very least, I should keep an eye on them. Or I should be someone else around and not myself when I am around them. If this person was not the ‘other’, then he or she would be me, or someone I would like to be. Or it’s someone that I want to be me. They are my life, my light, my air, my language, my laugh, my tears, my future, my happiness. By travelling I learned that we can become part of another if we leave our places of origin behind and thereby the other becomes a part of me. In Curacao I was an Antillean, because I left Zwolle behind me. In Antwerp, I am Belgian because I left Zwolle behind me. But in Zwolle, I am never a Zwollenaar. Why? Because the other never gave me the room to feel at home.
Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?
It’s something that happens all the time in the Netherlands: your identity is defined by your accent. The Dutch, and that includes their citizens, immigration police, bureaucrats and tram conductors, are never ones to immediately confront or judge you. First, they have to listen to your language. I had been in the Netherlands for 2.5 years when my first book, Voor de nachtegaal in het ei, was published in 2000. I had a performance, and went there with a couple of other asylum seekers. It was obvious from our second-hand clothes that we were asylum seekers. Very obvious. But I was still feeling very proud that I could take some friends to see me read some of my poetry. It was at a festival that combined music, poetry and storytelling. People were lining up for a ticket. As one of the artists, I assumed that I did not have to line up, so I went directly to the girl behind the counter. But she said: ‘No sir, you must first go stand in line and buy a ticket before you can go inside.’ The people in the line looked at me in a cranky and irritated way. It was obvious I was an imbecile. I wanted to explain that I did not come here to listen but to perform. But from my accent it was obvious that I had only been a short time in the Netherlands and so she thought that I simply didn’t know how things worked. She gave me absolutely no chance to explain myself and I did not feel like waiting in the line just to tell her the same thing again. I left and told my friends: ‘Instead of poetry, I will treat you to delicious shoarma sandwiches before we return to the asylum centre.’ A half hour later when we were enjoying our sandwiches and colas, the woman from the festival organisation called. Coincidentally – or not, I can’t be sure – this woman was also irritated that I was not there. ‘Yes Madame, I was at the door but I was not allowed in and I wasn’t allowed to explain myself,’ I said. When the woman realised it was not my fault but her colleague’s, her mood quickly changed from that of a grumpy tiger to one of a delightful guinea pig out to make it all good again. ‘I will come back but only if the expenses not only include the travel costs but also four shoarmas and colas,’ I said. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Oh and as long as nothing happens to the girl at the counter. It wasn’t her fault,’ I added.
Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?
As a Chinese, I see it this way: Wow, look at all of those muscles that need massages. And all of those nerves that need acupuncture. And all those stomachs that need a lot of restaurants. Soon each European will need three Chinese: one to cook, one to offer relaxation and a third to relieve the pain.
As a Brazilian, I see it this way: Why are people walking like soldiers? Why are they so stressed and why don’t they look at their surrounding? I miss Carnival, salsa and parties. Phhh, it’s just dead here.
As a Nigerian, I see it this way: Wow, it’s great here. Everybody is working hard, so there’s a big chance that I won’t have to do any. Europe is great for someone like me.
As an Iraqi (i.e. me), I see it this way: Wow, look at all these sleepwalkers. They don’t know how rich they are in both money and happiness. Phhh, it’s a shame they need a war to realise that. A huge shame.