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.