Amsterdam’s welcome embrace of immigrants

The Dutch capital leads the way in integrating communities and helping those who have fled to the cold of northern Europe

The Singel is a canal in Amsterdam.
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The Singel is a canal in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam’s welcome embrace of immigrants

Patches of fog hover over the city’s iconic waterways alongside paths lightly dusted with frost. It is a cold Saturday morning in January. Amsterdam’s days are long in the summer but short in the winter and rays of sunshine can be few and far between.

For most of the year, tourists flow through the streets and glide on the canals in boats, admiring the city before moving on. Linger a little and you notice more than the usual - austere mosaic architecture, large windows that open onto the water, bare ghost-like trees.

For me, as an immigrant, it is also a city of freedom, of voluntary individualism, and of many immigrant communities, who have made their home in the European North and lived here peacefully for many years.

I recently spent ten days in the city, arriving from Beirut, from where I flee whenever I get the chance, to escape its sadness and misery. The excuse was a symposium and documentary film on sport and Sufism in Iran. The seminar was held in a culture centre in the south-west suburbs.

A Dutchman’s invite

My invite had come from a young Dutchman. I knew him back in Beirut, where he lived and worked for four years with his Yemeni wife, whom he met in Sanaa, while working for a cultural development and human rights organisation. He now works in Amsterdam, managing and editing ‘Zemzem’ magazine, which specialises in Islamic studies and is published in Dutch by the prestigious Leiden University.

The event was led by Judith Naeff, a Dutch Arabist and a teacher at the university, who published a study about martial sports and Sufism in Iran, and Mehraneh Atashi, the filmmaker, who worked as a photographer in Tehran during the Green Revolution [which protested against election fraud in 2009]. Atashi was arrested, imprisoned, then fled to the Netherlands, where she still works and lives.

For an immigrant, Amsterdam is a city of freedom, of voluntary individualism, and of many immigrant communities, who made their home in the European North and lived here peacefully for many years

The film shows men in dance circles drawn from the Iranian Sufism traditions, gathering like neighbourhood thugs, showing off their masculinity physical strength. Percussion, drums, and brass woodwind instruments accompany the dance circles.

The scenes of Atashi's movie reminded me of images I saw in Beirut from a video circulated on social media, about the young Iranian martial arts champion, Mohammad Karami, who was executed aged 21 on charges of killing a Basij policeman during the Freedom, Women, Life revolution in Iran at the end of 2022.

Karami's father appears in two scenes in the video; the first shows him and his son practicing karate in his house, the second shows him kneeling and weeping at the grave of Mohammad, who was killed by hanging in Karaj.

View of the Amsterdam city center skyline in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

Turning tradition on its head

Judith Naeff explained the evolution of Iranian Sufism traditions and how they turned from dhikr circles into thugs that glorify physical strength, linking this transition to the suffocation of public life in the Islamic Republic. It all reminded me of a young Iranian man I met in Tehran in the 1990s.

He told me that Iran's revolution had turned the norms of behaviour and public traditions on their head. Iranians used to practice and perform religious rites inside their homes and conduct their public life in the streets.

The Khomeini regime forced reversed that. People are now religious in public, but artistic, cultural, and recreational within the confines, safety, and privacy of their homes.

Communities of immigrants from places like Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Turkey and Iran has sprung up in Amsterdam, where the atmosphere is warm, and the talk is free

Dozens of Dutch people, including immigrants from Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran, attended the film and symposium. Communities from these countries have become established in places like Amsterdam after waves of migration in recent years. The atmosphere is warm and the speech free, in contrast to many of their homelands, where loose talk can leads to murder, exile, or arrest.

I meet Dawlat, a young Palestinian-Syrian immigrant who fled Syria. She has lived in the Netherlands for six years and now arranges for Dutch women and female immigrants to meet, share their life stories, and discuss their experience of living in Dutch society.

According to her, life in Syria is suffocated by a sense of social control which - according to Prof. Lisa Wadeen's book 'Ambiguities of Domination' - is orchestrated by Hafez Assad's regime through the use of rhetorical speeches, shows, symbols, slogans, and monuments. It has led Syrians to retreat into their homes and family life. Even there, speaking about public affairs is a risk. 

A banner advertising a Vermeer show hanngs outside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on February 6, 2023.

Reflections on the homeland

Dawlat's friend is a Yemeni woman who speaks no foreign language. She came to Amsterdam via Cairo three years ago and tells her story without joy.

"I left everything behind in Aden and Sanaa - my language, all the newspapers I read and wrote for, my role in Yemeni civil society organisations, the Yemeni cause, the revolution. It left a vacuum that was soon filled by civil war waged by the Houthis.

"I miss the heat of the sun and the social relationships there. Here I am, without a language, or role, or open network of relationships. I miss reading and writing. In cold Amsterdam, I am trying to learn the Dutch language in my 40s, like a child learning to speak for the first time."

It's cold, with no sun. What are my skills and experience good for here? They're rusting. I don't feel lonely, but I do feel the weight of the past

The Yemeni woman sounds bitter, talking about her experiences as if they had flown off in the wind. What should she do with all the skills and wisdom she accumulated back home, she wonders.

"They are rusting here in this cold and organised city. The lack of sunshine, the daily commute on public transport, it's killing me. I often fight the weather by cooking Yemeni dishes. I don't feel lonely, but I do feel the weight of my lost past." Her Dutch language teacher told her that she had thoughts and feelings to express that exceeded her Dutch vocabulary.

"That is why I am suffocating, I said. My teacher started clapping in excitement because I knew how to express my ideas in proper language. That comforted me and encouraged me to express myself instead of just using the primitive functional language that resembles what children learn in their first school years."

Apologising for the past

Leaving the culture centre, all wrapped in thick coats, we walked down the frosty pavements. Even the weather seemed to be trying to stifle speech.

The Dutch editor walked ahead, beside a wide canal that looked stagnant, but slowed to let us catch up. When we did, he started talking in Arabic, telling us how he had studied Arabic in Damascus and how much he missed living in Beirut. Suddenly, talk turned to the Netherlands' geography - the country being lower than the water level of the North Sea.

The Dutch built dams, drained swamps, and mitigated flood risk by digging long canals in the low-lying land to prevent the destruction of the dams. This led to a flourishing maritime economy and the establishment of Dutch colonies around the world, from Indonesia to the Atlantic.

The Dutch built dams, drained swamps, and dug long canals in the low-lying land. It led to a flourishing maritime economy and the establishment of Dutch colonies around the world

He then apologised for colonial incidents that the Dutch committed against native people, in particular the Indonesians and Surinamese in the Caribbean, before he ended by extolling the virtues of Surinamese cuisine.

Apologies and remorse do not change history, but they help the morality of people from former colonial powers who have learned to renounce war and seek peace, security, and prosperity. The Netherlands today is a small, peaceful country where immigrants constitute part of the population and live free from fear or concern, which is not something other immigrants living in Europe can say.

The prevalence of water

We walked, passing houses with designs borrowed from yachts and paths decorated with plant and flower beds extending from the pier to house entrances. Looking through the windows, we saw the furniture of their prosperous owners. Only glass and curtain separated their inside lives from the outside world.

The snug arrangement of Amsterdam's houses and buildings give the impression that the city is floating. Amsterdam is said to live in fear of the power of water. Its canals were designed in part to tame its natural savagery. It is as if the water in this low, flat land is a fatalistic enemy, to be tamed with gentleness, forbearance, and patience, until such a time as it can be befriended and even loved.

Immigrants here often describe the Dutch nature as calm, peaceful, withdrawn, and somewhat cold. Might this have something to do with the water? Together with history, it is surely a factor that defines the nature of Dutch urban life.

The city is a mosaic of windows. The arrangement of the buildings make it look like Amsterdam is floating on water, which helps define the nature of Dutch urban life

In the capital, windows form a mosaic forest, while in the new northern suburb of Amsterdam (Nord), it is as if the planners had engineered an idealised living behind windows that do not rise above the ground between networks of water canals.

It is as if those houses and buildings in the centre of Amsterdam were silent Japanese haiku poems, written or translated into Arabic by the late Lebanese poet Bassam Hajjar (1955-2009), inside his house on the sixth floor of an unpleasant building he probably hated in the city of Sidon, south Lebanon.

He probably isolated himself in that house, mourning his birth and life in the land of rubble, forced to live in silence and fear, retreating into the world of words and languages, a spectral, defenceless man whose only escape was through poetry and novels, accompanied by shadows. I imagine his ghost in Amsterdam, standing behind the glass and curtains of its windows, imagining and creating at night.

View of the Amsterdam city center skyline in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023

Building into the culture

The houses in Amsterdam's northern suburbs consist of upper floors with bedrooms and ground floors where people live, eat, rest, relax, and do their chores. They have big windows lined by curtains of different colours and fabrics, often decorated with little figurines made of ceramics and lace, offering a sense of intimacy.

In Amsterdam, which preserved its historic character by preventing the construction of tall buildings, houses can look like toys or architectural playthings. It is not uncommon to see men and women in Amsterdam's northern suburbs building their homes with bricks, wood, metal, and glass, as if it were their personal hobby.

Curtains, lace, fabrics, figurines - all offer a sense of intimacy as we pass the rows of toy-like houses built with both craftsmanship and a personal touch

Those houses were built with a personal touch, typically on land between canals and roads. It can feel as if everything in the country is built with a modern craftsmanship that is more original than the traditional one.

Amsterdam's properties are all about the windows, which can appear like works of art, with unique facets, and as declarations of personal taste and passion, without pretension, intrusion, or display. Without windows, people lose their senses, language, and words. The windows speak silently to passers-by in the streets.

A night in Zutphen

I visited my friend, the Lebanese poet Fadi Tufayli, and his wife, the Lebanese artist Munira Al-Solh, spending a night at their house in Zutphen near the German border, two hours by train from Amsterdam, where they have lived for years. Fadi likes living in this small historical city of 80,000 with heavy German influences stemming from the wartime Nazi invasion and the subsequent extermination of Zutphen's Jews.

Nothing in the life of Fadi, Munira, and their daughter, Yasmina, resembles the life of immigrants. Fadi writes and translates from English into Arabic and works for a Dutch organisation that deals with immigrant and refugee affairs. He told me about the increasing number of Iranian immigrants in the past two years.

Munira teaches art at a university in a nearby German city and has held exhibitions of her own artwork. Their traditional three-story house on the city's main street amazed me. Originally an architect and interior designer, Fadi told me of the building's heritage - it was owned by a butcher who sold meat from the ground floor. Before that, it was owned by a shoemaker or cobbler.

The culture of Western life does not disdain manual work. Clean, soft hands are not as highly prized as they are in ours, where many dream only of clerical jobs to raise their social status

Fadi and Munira converted the ground floor into a hall for seminars and artistic performances, learning or using skills in carpentry, ironwork, building, and painting. Their basement resembles a craftsman's workshop, full of tools, and their life in the Netherlands offers a literal, manual, practical culture, which adds to their artistic and poetic culture, which they could not have got in Lebanon.

The culture of Dutch life, and European or Western life in general, does not disdain manual work. Clean, soft hands are not as highly prized as they are in our societies, where many dream only of clerical jobs to raise their social status.

Fadi was excited to show me the iron hooks from the butchers still attached to the hall's high ceiling. He said he left them there to create an artistic effect in the hall and as a reminder of the building's past.

Reasons to mingle

One of his Dutch friends and work colleagues came to visit. Instead of speaking about the conditions of refugees, their problems, new life difficulties, and how to integrate them, I chose to ask him the questions, namely the personal motives of a rich and highly educated young man who chooses to work with refugees.

He was passionate about his work and chose it in part because he was interested in learning about people from non-European cultures. After reading books and novels, learning about art, and travelling to countries to build up his cultural knowledge, he suddenly realised that people (immigrants) were moving to the Netherlands from the kinds of countries and cultures we was reading about.

"Why don't we get to know them and mingle with them?" he thought. "Don't we keep saying that the world has become a global village?" I was asked why I came to the Netherlands, what was I doing or planning to do here, and why I wrote.

At the end, he said that "keeping to our own identities leads to seclusion and impoverishment… it is a thing of the past". The West was "rich in immigrants," he said. "If you knew how to deal with them, life is livelier and more active. Dutch life would be irritating and tedious if it closed in on itself, its culture, and what it has."

Instead of speaking about refugees' conditions, their problems, their new life difficulties, and integration issues, I wanted to know why a rich and highly educated young man had chosen to work with them

I heard those same concepts for the first time in the French city of Lyon in the 1980s during a university lecture. That was before the French researcher Michel Seurat, the co-founder of a cultural centre, was kidnapped in Beirut and left to die of a disease he contracted in his detention.

The lecture covered ethnic culture, ethnic professions and businesses, ethnic arts, and more. Everything that related to immigration and immigrants came from an American researcher who may have been introduced to French sociological culture.

In the Netherlands and countries of Anglo-Saxon heritage, there appears to be no set cultural and/or behavioural norms or standards that immigrants are required to abide by. By way of contrast, in France there are integration and assimilation policies involving single and unified cultural standards and behavioural values.

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Two tourists are seen taking photos close to one of the canals in the city. Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful, creative, and cycle-friendly cities in Europe.

Ethnic communities and cultures

Returning to Amsterdam, watching the comings and goings of daily life, I met a Kurdish friend together with my Dutch friend and his Yemeni wife. Near the Noord metro station we reached a commercial market district and found a Yemeni restaurant run by a Syrian man from Aleppo. Inside it was a bit gloomy, but the food there was delicious and perfect for a cold day.

The lack of warmth in the air outside mirrored the lack of warmth in the character of the market. Its structure seemed only functional. Sheets of metal and glass add no personality and leave you feeling cold. Walking its corridors, squares, shops, restaurants, and cafes feels like walking through an aquarium, the same grey-colour scenes repeating, trapping you in this wholly unenigmatic space.

Here, there are no set cultural or behavioural norms or standards for immigrants to abide by. In France, there are integration and assimilation policies involving single and unified standards and values

Our Dutch friend invited us to smoke a hookah pipe in one of the thousands of shisha bars now dotted across Europe's cities. Where he lives in the city's south-west, his neighbours are mostly of Turkish or Moroccan descent, so he feels comfortable smoking his own shisha pipe at home.

As we walked, our Kurdish friend from Germany said he felt like he was in Istanbul or Diyarbakir in Turkey. Soon, he began speaking to workers in cafes, restaurants, and pastry shops in his mother tongue. The Turks, Kurds, Moroccans, and Syrians all soon became their own melting pot in the streets. By the time we took our seat at a Turkish restaurant, I already felt like we'd left Amsterdam.

An evening of cultural immersion

The Yemeni woman pointed out that the local Syrian community had started using screens showing films of burning wood or fireplaces to give people a sense of virtual warmth as they smoke their hookahs flavoured with apple, strawberry, or pineapples.

Our Dutch friend explained that the landlords of these cafes, restaurants and pastry shops were typically Dutch, while the investors were mostly Turks and Moroccans, and the workers were mostly Syrians and Kurds. The mix of languages, dialects, customs, and tastes in these back streets is something to behold.

When it comes to the cafes, restaurants, and pastry shops, the landlords are Dutch, the investors are Turks or Moroccans, and the workers are Kurds or Syrians

Later, we attended a young Dutch contemporary dance troupe's performance at a theatre near the Turkish and Moroccan communities. Nai Barghouti, a Palestinian singer, was performing in one of the four halls.

The other three shows were Dutch. In the main hall, a sizeable Moroccan crowd was waiting for singer to begin. None of the Moroccans or the Arabs attended the Dutch performances. We alone participated in the contemporary dance show that lasted just over an hour.

One final Amsterdam scene

At the end, a young Dutch man started to play Arabic songs. Soon, a large Moroccan family audience gathered in the hall, their boys and girls dancing to the rhythm of Arabic songs by George Wassouf, Nancy Ajram, Saber Rebai, and others. The dancers even asked the young Dutch man to play specific songs!

Very soon, it had the atmosphere of an impromptu dance party, with Moroccans mingling with Syrians and Dutch from 10 until midnight, as young female theatre workers passed around free, fast food from the metal trays as the audience watched the dance circles or rested between one dance and another.

This Moroccan-themed evening was the last of our brief trip to Amsterdam, before we left this city of chronic volitional individualism that embraces immigrant communities from countries suffering turmoil and imbalance.

Returning to Lebanon, getting devoured by Rafik Hariri's airport, I was re-awakened to the language of a people eroded by fatigue, emptiness, despair, and fear. Beirut, by contrast, is a city of suffocation, scattering, disharmony, and chaos.

Unlike Amsterdam, its people do not compose their lives and construct their cities and businesses like symphonies. Far from it.


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