WRITERS of Arab origin living in Europe have made their mark mainly writing in English, French and, to a lesser extent, German. The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature, introduces us to a lesser known but important sector of Arab writers in Europe: those who write in Dutch.
Ninety-seven pages of the 35th issue of Banipal are devoted to a Writing in Dutch special feature, guest edited and introduced by Dutch poet, journalist and editor Victor Schiferli.
The special feature showcases ten authors of Arab origin who live in the Netherlands or Belgium and write in Dutch. Young Arabs form a vibrant part of the Dutch literary fabric. It will probably surprise some, for instance, to learn that the new poet laureate of the Netherlands is an Arab.
He is the Palestinian-Dutch poet, actor and dramatist Ramsey Nasr, born in Rotterdam in 1974. He was voted into the position this year after serving as the official poet of the Belgian city of Antwerp.
Nasr’s poems in Banipal 35 include “What’s left: A poem about empty dishes”; he was asked to write this poem shortly after becoming poet laureate, to mark the exhibiting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of the painting “Woman Holding a Balance” by the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Some of Nasr’s work is overtly political, such as “The subhuman and his habitat” about Palestinians in the West Bank, from where his father originated.
Schiferli writes in his punchy introduction: “During the nineties Dutch literature was enriched by new and energetic voices, the work of young writers of Arab origin. Their writing broke the mould of Dutch literature, taking up themes that had never before been explored”.
Certain of these writers, such as Hafid Bouazza and Abdelkader Benali, “shot to fame and received various prestigious literary prizes. They were all over the media.” But since 9/11 the situation has grown more difficult. Events such as the murder of anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, and of film director Theo van Gogh in 2004 have strengthened the feeling of “us and them”.
The question of the identity of Arab writers in the Netherlands is therefore, a touchy subject. Hafid Bouazza, who was born in Oujda, Morocco, in 1970 and went to live in the Netherlands seven years later, resents being labeled as someone “between two cultures”.
In one interview he said: “I will personally hang the next Dutchman who asks me whether I feel ‘more Moroccan than Dutch or vice versa’ and fine anyone who calls me a ‘builder of bridges’ – I am not an architect.”
Bouazza won the E du Perron Prize in 2000 for his debut short story collection “Abdullah’s Feet”. Since then three of his novels have been published, as well as essays and poetry.
Banipal 35 publishes an extract from his 2009 novella “Mockingbird”; in lyrical, sensuous language the narrator describes how he has withdrawn to the mountains of northern Morocco after a period of personal upheaval which anti-depressants have failed to ease.
Abdelkader Benali too made a sensational literary debut, with his 1995 novel “Wedding by the Sea”, which became an international bestseller and won numerous awards.
Banipal 35 includes an extract from his fourth novel “My Mother’s Voice” which returns to the theme of his first book - that of immigrants trapped between two cultures.
Rachida Lamrabet is a human rights lawyer whose first novel “Woman Country” appeared two years ago. The lively extract from her novel depicts how young Europeans of Moroccan origin are viewed by indigenous Moroccan youths when they return to Morocco for the summer holidays.
The excerpt from Amsterdam-born Rashid Novaire’s novel “Roots” is reminiscent of Anglo-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” with its blend of comedy and semi-autobiography.
A young man explores the history of his father, who is a first-generation Moroccan immigrant TV actor in the Netherlands and who also has a new wife and daughter.
In addition to the poetry of Ramsey Nasr, Banipal 35 includes the work of two other Arab poets writing in Dutch, Fouad Laroui and Mustafa Stitou.
Eight of the ten writers featured are of Moroccan origin. The other two are from Iraq. Rada Sukkar studied civil engineering in Baghdad and Delft, and is now involved in water management policy in the Netherlands.
Her first novel “The Treasure Room of Babylonia” was published in 2006. In the section published in Banipal, an Iraqi bride has travelled to the Netherlands to join her Dutch husband. Rodaan ‘Al-Galidi, born in Iraq in 1970 is represented through an extract from the novel “Thirsty River”.
Al-Galidi fled Iraq in 1992 and has lived in the Netherlands since 1998. His gruesomely satirical family epic is set in southern Iraq during and after Saddam’s rule. The English translation will be published in the UK by Aflame Books in October.
The poems and fragments of novels translated from Dutch and published in Banipal 35 whet the appetite of the reader for more.
It is to be hoped that certain publishers may feel it worthwhile to commission translations from Dutch into English of these novels or poetry collections in their entirety so that they can reach the wider audience they deserve. – SG