Photo: Kelly Bedeian
The school of blended love
One evening, it was almost midnight as my girlfriend and I sat down for a picnic at a green canal in Rotterdam when something occurred. As I look back on this small yet confrontational event, it still fills me with wonder.
Near a willow tree we sat. We drank white wine and had a bite to eat. Tea lights were burning between us. Very idyllic indeed. Suddenly we heard sounds nearby. Two guys were walking by under the willow tree without taking notice of our presence. Maybe they just didn’t care. One of the two had a plastic bag, which he started emptying into the canal.
‘Feeding ducks?’ I asked half-jokingly in order to disguise my interference.
He instantly stopped what he was doing, as if he felt caught. He then turned towards me and said that those animals made such noise all the time. Judging by his accent, I knew he was Moroccan.
‘Do you have a light?’ his friend asked with a marihuana joint between his fingers.
I offered him a tea light.
‘Thanks a lot, mate,’ he said.
When they were out of hearing distance, my girlfriend asked what they had been throwing away in the canal.
‘Bread. To feed the ducks,’ I said.
Tauntingly she reacted: ‘Really? Do you go out around midnight to feed the ducks?’
I was annoyed by it. And it made me fearful. Immediately, I realised how she thought of me—or at least I thought I knew. As if I was only being loyal to a group of people, my Moroccan brothers, just because I too am Moroccan. While, in fact, I was an individualist, a Taoist, a nihilist, a humanist, a protestant and an agnostic all in one, a detached soul that laughs at everything bending towards groups, gangs, collectives, clans, and formations. Altogether, I was everything except your typical Moroccan. So I stood up. And with a tea light in my hand, I stepped towards the spot where those two guys had been standing. There I encountered not one, or two, or three, but four slices of bread. I felt so victorious in my discovery that I could have easily eaten all that bread.
Pathetically, I started lecturing on the complexity of reality, and how it was unfathomable to the human mind. How all politics, art, and religion were doomed to fail. I went on to accuse the modern world of heartless cynicism. And I rejected every woman and every man who, by making cynical presumptions, destroys beauty and innocence in the world.
Today I know better than that. I dare to say that I have become more realistic. And I dare to say that this is because of my eleven-year relationship with my Dutch beloved. I have come to realise that I’m the bearer of a cultural baggage that is neither Dutch nor western, but different. It was I who despised and denied his own vulnerability, not she.
I will never forget how openly she counteracted. It was during a dinner with friends at a restaurant. A friend and I were having a discussion that I, apparently, really wanted to win. She said I wasn’t listening, and that I should listen more instead of constantly repeating my own arguments. Something snapped. I was overwhelmed by a rage that made me want to throw the red wine in my glass in her face. And I almost did. But I didn’t understand. Neither did I acknowledge. So I kept it inside me. For at least a year, I brought it up indiscriminately and always felt deeply wronged.
Some years previous, in 2012, five young men scoffed at a young pregnant woman. They called her “the whore of a nigger,” then molested her. It happened in clear daylight, in the middle of an Amsterdam street. All of them, the five young men and the pregnant woman, were of Moroccan descent. This was big news for many people. According to some, mainly on the right side of the political spectrum, this was clearly an ethnic issue. They called it the “problem of Moroccan racism.” Why? Because the man the pregnant woman was with was black. Others said instead that the cause was not to be found in Moroccan culture but in the streets of the Netherlands.
Now, I don’t feel the need to deny the existence of racism, or the insecure masculinity of our modern-day youngsters, but I do believe that there’s more. I’m convinced that those five young men were obliged to do what they did, provoked into their act by their public role as guardians of the intensely idealised Moroccan pride and identity. The real tragedy lies in the fact that they themselves hardly know anything about the effect of these codes. Most Dutch-Moroccan boys and men understand nothing about the patriarchal ways they are brought up with. I’m talking about unwritten rules inherent in a male sense of honour and binding loyalty towards ancestral culture and religion.
Afterwards, one of the culprits stated he regretted what he had done and that he couldn’t grasp the fact that he had actually done it. “I’m a student at the University of Amsterdam and all I really want is to graduate,” he said. It would be too easy to wave aside his statement as the words of a liar who tries to gain sympathy by pretending to be the victim. Personally, I think that he is not only one of the culprits but indeed one of the victims—the victim of a binding, patriarchal culture that, for years, has been undetected in the idealistic and liberal multicultural society of the Netherlands, where everyone is equal and cultural differences are thought to be irrelevant.
I have lived long enough in this so-called perfect society. Sometimes I have been overwhelmed by so much grief, loneliness, and longing that I could only cry. I never understood the cause of these emotions. Perhaps I lacked the urgency, the guts, or the will to understand, simply because I wanted to believe that I really was living in a perfect society. But thanks to my first real relationship with a Dutch woman, I gradually came to understand that this society was weak and vulnerable, the much-celebrated Dutch tolerance becoming a cover for bluntness and indifference.
Even though I’ve lived in the Netherlands since 1982, and even though I’ve always interacted more with the Dutch than with my fellow Moroccans, it still doesn’t mean that me being in a relationship with a Dutch woman is self-evident, just like it isn’t self-evident to have children together without being married.
Since childhood, I have been told that I should marry someone from “my own culture,” meaning, someone who’s Moroccan and Muslim, not a Christian woman, a taroumith.
In the eighties, mixed couples were much more of a taboo than they are today. There were spooky stories about Moroccan daughters who had willingly and knowingly loaded down their families with grief and disgrace by running away with a Dutch guy. I heard people say those daughters had absolutely no honour, because they showed no respect to their parents and cultural heritage. Not that there was much talk, by the way: the subject was surrounded by shame. Those girls were considered lost. To me, as a child, the only mixed relationships that were okay were those of illegal Moroccan immigrants who had found a Dutch woman to undertake a marriage of convenience with them.
Honestly, I hated this environment. There was so much shame and control, so much male insecurity and domination, so much fear, hypocrisy, and distrust. I wanted to be free and unprejudiced, open-minded and outspoken. I speak from my own experience when I say that the biggest authority in patriarchal culture is not God, or the king, but the father. That is why I had to confront him one day.
He was an authoritarian man, my father. The Moroccan community of the Dutch town in which we lived bestowed much respect on him. Unlike the majority of his generation of guest workers, he could read and write, and he knew the Qur’an by heart. Many of his ideas were acquired from it. His idea of what obedience means, for instance, comes from the story of Abraham, that grey old man in the Bible who lends his ear to the order to sacrifice his son. Yes, my father thought his children ought to observe the same obedience towards him as the son Ishmaël does towards Abraham. That was his ideal relationship between father and son. People sought his wisdom and advice, because they hoped that through him they would gain holy knowledge.
In that unannounced moment, I confronted him.
It was Ramadan. I was in Amsterdam, and the sun had just gone down. My cell phone rang. It was he, my father, asking where I was. I said I was in Amsterdam. Why wasn’t I at home to break the fast, he asked. In less than one second, I decided to do what I had intended to do for so long, but never dared. I wanted to come clean to this huge entity I had looked up to, and lied to, my whole life. I said: “No, dad, I don’t fast.” Then I waited a second to hear his response. But he hung up. And I got scared, because I felt there was no way back.
And there was no way back indeed. He prohibited my relatives from staying in touch with me. I was excommunicated. Where there is power, there is exclusion.
At the end of Ramadan, my mother invited me to attend the Eid l-Fitr. In a way, we both had slammed the door on each other, my father and I. Now was the time for reconciliation, she said.
That day there was a joyful vibe in the house, but my father and I were dead serious. He ordered me to come back to the path of religion. He would forgive me for everything as soon as I brought myself under the control of Islam. I was wrong to tell him I didn’t fast. That had hurt him a lot, he said. Even though he sounded vulnerable for the very first time, I felt as if I still didn’t exist for him. Why couldn’t he just accept the fact that I wasn’t his Ishmaël? For how could I be open and honest with him without hurting him? How could I make him understand that what we both really needed was not respect but love? Well, I couldn’t—simply because I had never learned to embrace my own vulnerability. So I just kept silent. And that was how our so-called reconciliation ended. I promised myself I would never lie to him again. Should he ever start again about subjugation to his religion, I would confront him with the same painful truth. But we never spoke about it again.
It takes time and effort to overcome patriarchal tendencies. And it takes even more time and effort when these tendencies are conserved in religion. It puts the individual in conflict with a community that’s already busy fighting Islamophobia and political radicals like Geert Wilders. I am excluded not only by my father but also by my Moroccan compatriots, who have no difficulty despising me and my work. Still I find it justifiable to fight the patriarchal power structures that exist in institutionalized religion, e.g. Islam.
Let me tell you another story. It’s about my brother, two years older than me. He and I shared everything, so we also shared the wish to go after Dutch girls. We didn’t want prudish play with Muslim girls who had to stay out of sight because of gossip and other mechanisms of social control. During the weekends, we set off to a party somewhere, half drunk, to compete with each other by chatting up as many girls as possible. Of course, we kept silent about it at home. Deeply hidden in the subconscious of our rebellious mind, there was the undisputed and binding loyalty towards our ancestral culture and religion.
When at the age of nineteen my brother started a serious relationship with a Dutch girl, he visited her parents’ house very often. And he felt very much welcomed by them. Yet she didn’t visit our parents’ house once. She never met them. Why? Because she was not allowed to. Tradition forbids it. Only Muslims are allowed. Still, she never complained about it. Of course, she regretted it. Being unwanted is never enjoyable. But she showed understanding out of love, and because she knew how sensitive these matters are in Moroccan culture.
My brother learned a lot from his relationship. The very first time he visited the residence of his girlfriend’s parents was already a shock to him. When he entered her bedroom, he immediately noticed a poster of the Dalai Lama on the wall. That poster disturbed him. Somewhere at the back of his mind was a voice telling him that there is only one God and that only this one God ought to be idolised. He couldn’t just leave it as if the poster didn’t bother him, however, so he told her the poster was a provocation to his culture, and that it had to go. She complied without struggle. And when he saw that, it moved him. At that moment, he realised the true meaning of love.
Years later, when I phoned my mother to ask her if it was okay if I brought my girlfriend to her house so that they could meet each other on the joyful day of Eid ul-Fitr, my mother reacted as if a wasp had stung her. “No!” she cried out. “No means no!” At that time, my father had been deceased for six years, and my girlfriend and I had been living together for a year.
She panicked in the same way my brother had panicked, for she felt challenged by moral shock. To her, my suggestion was like a barbaric invasion. Afraid of losing control, her instinctive response was to put up an invisible wall. It was only through the mediation of my sister, her one and only daughter, who after thirteen years of marriage had divorced a Moroccan man that my mother finally came to accept the idea that it was okay to put aside her loyalty towards traditional ways. She embraced the fact that there was no absolute guarantee for a successful relationship.
It isn’t only my relatives who feel morally challenged by changing attitudes around them. The whole of western Europe is in a state of moral shock and confusion. In the last decades, this part of the modern world has become increasingly secular. God and his commandments have almost disappeared. Church buildings are empty, waiting for reuse or demolition. At the same time, Muslim immigrants with a distinctive religious identity have entered the public realm. They want their own food and their own clothes, and some of them are not even in favour of secularism. In this context, people feel that their traditional way of life is threatened: as a result, everything is immediately framed as an attack. The multicultural society is in desperate need of criteria that bring back faith, trust, and moral confidence.
My Dutch beloved and I panic too. There is no place where our moral insecurities collide more than in the car, especially when I drive. She feels extremely uncomfortable when she isn’t in control of the vehicle herself, and I find it rather humiliating to serve as an extension of her fearful and controlling mind. Just the idea of it, being controlled by the woman I love, is a frontal clash with my unrelenting desire for autonomy. And even though we promise each other to do things differently every time, we keep failing.
Yet it is through the school of blended love that I have come to believe in the power of love in general. The love that I despised as a young man, in the same way I despised everything that made me vulnerable.
I have also come to believe in a society that is much stronger, more open and diverse. I was there when the first Moroccan boat participated in the Amsterdam Canal Parade. I have seen and experienced its healing force. As a heterosexual, I cruised in solidarity with the LGBT minorities, simply because their individual right to express their sexual preference is protected by the same law as my right to express my agnostic outlook on life. And in being involved, I felt supported by thousands of people on the quayside. They put their thumbs up, threw flowers and dived into the canal in sheer joy. This was heaven, and it was beautiful.
We’re on our way to a new and beautiful place, my beloved and I, and we look forward to being there. She’s behind the wheel, so she’s in control. And I hold the map. In the back seat, our two children are eating raw vegetables.
Suddenly I panic. ‘Turn! We must turn!’
‘Are you sure?’ she asks.
I look again at the map. Where are we anyway? I don’t know. I really don’t. But I say: ‘Yes, I’m sure. If we keep driving like this, we’ll end up nowhere.’
Minutes go by without having a chance to turn. ‘We’re nowhere already!’ I complain.
It’s not really that I’m fed up. I’m just pretending, because I don’t want to give her the impression that I’m okay with everything she does. Otherwise she’ll think she’s superior to me, and that’s something I can’t bear. What is love without mutual respect?
She parks the car on the side of the road and seizes the map from my lap. She looks at it, then looks at me with a face full of contempt and says: ‘We don’t need to turn, you moron! We’re here!’ She points at the exact spot on the map to show me.
Once again, I fail miserably. I feel I’m a disgrace to manhood. What to do?
Nothing, actually. Just stay calm. Bear with it. Have a veggie.
But I can’t put aside the failure. And somehow I feel heavily wronged. Finally I say: “You’re applying double standards, you know. Why is it okay if you make a mistake and not okay if I make one?”
Without looking at me, far too busy restarting and driving the vehicle back on the road, she asks: “What are you talking about?”
I sigh, seemingly weary. “Remember an hour ago when you drove into that village, even though I had clearly said that you shouldn’t, and then you didn’t know how to get out? Well, I didn’t complain, did I? And do you know why I didn’t complain? Because everybody makes mistakes, dear.”
She’s not impressed. She must have sensed the frailty and impotence of my words. “Everybody makes mistakes, but your mistakes are rather typical,” she bites.
Just stay calm. Bear with it. Have another veggie.
This time, I shut up and think. I think about the difference between what I’ve said and what I actually want to say. I want to say that I’m afraid of her dominating me. But the fact that she has no trouble expressing her emotions towards me makes her exactly that. It makes her dominant. When she’s fed up, or in a bad mood, she doesn’t keep silent about it but throws it all out as if nothing else matters. She has no difficulty blaming me, shouting at me. I find that disrespectful. When I’m fed up or in a bad mood, I’d rather disappear. It’s not just a matter of character but of education. The Dutch are notorious for their bluntness.
So I’m fed up and I keep quiet—more so when other people are around, for instance our children. I feel their gaze burning on my back, especially my son’s. His future is at stake because of me. Growing up with a dad humiliated by mum—what effect will that have on the psyche of a high-spirited boy? He will become a wimp. Deprived of his pride and self-esteem, he will lead an invisible life, wearing fake breasts and parading in high heels to copy his mother. Or he will leave bearded up for a caliphate full of radical lads in order to fiercely compensate for whatever he’s been missing.
That’s why dad has to stand up against mum.
Come on, dad, do something! The moment to set the example for a new generation, shining and bright, is now!
I straighten my back, I stare at a distance like a born leader and ask: “Who wants a veggie?”
Said EL HAJI debuted in 2000 with [The Days of Shaytaan], which depicts the void between emigrant parents and their westernized children, and has since written many short stories, including "Little Hamid", which won the El Hizjra Literary Prize. In 2006 he published [Divine Demon], a fictionalized account of changing attitudes in The Netherlands’ multicultural society, and in 2011 [The Announcement], a historical novel about pre-Islamic Mecca. Since 2012 he publishes regularly in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. His most recent work [Get Up and Live, Father] (2013) is a collection of personal essays about patriarchal culture; [The Brothers Haji] is a novel-in-progress.