Rajae El Mouhandiz is half Algerian and half Moroccan, and the first Muslim to attend the Utrecht Conservatory. "Music starts where politics and racism end," El Mouhandiz writes in the liner notes to Incarnation, her album influenced by soul music and Sufism alike. And yet, the Holland she describes is rife with casual racism. "People will ask, 'Where are you from?'" she says. "And when I say, 'Amsterdam,' they reply, 'You speak Dutch so well!'" El Mouhandiz is 27 and preternaturally lively and beautiful. She is also fiercely independent, quick to take offense, and says she feels stifled in a country she thinks of as small-minded and provincial. "The Dutch have no shades on their windows, but their hearts are closed," she says. "We may wear the veil, but our hearts are open." She dreams of emigrating to the United States.
But she also took me to a book party for Rashid Novaire, who'd just published his third book, and who is as soft-spoken and self-contained as El Mouhandiz is exuberant. He too fits none of the preconceptions one might have about European Muslims. Twenty-seven years old, he published his first story collection at the age of 19; a few years later, his first novel was short-listed for the Netherlands' most prestigious literary prize. Of Dutch, Moroccan, and Polish descent, he is the very model of a European intellectual—albeit an intellectual without visible pretensions—and has a thorough knowledge of Amsterdam's architecture and history (twice a week he leads tour groups through the city). And if El Mouhandiz speaks in terms of "us" and "them," Novaire speaks in terms of an all-inclusive "we."
"The nightmare scenarios people expected never came to be," says Novaire. "It doesn't mean there aren't tensions under the surface. We didn't have any riots like in Paris. But there is a feeling, somehow, that Amsterdam lost its innocence when van Gogh was slaughtered. Many people asked themselves, Why here? But what a naïve question, when you look around the world! Why not Holland?We live in a difficult period. And we—as a group—need to find a way to move forward." He continues, "Do you know the American poet Wallace Stevens?He has a poem, 'The Man with the Blue Guitar.' It reads, in part:
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."
"We really need people with a blue guitar. More than ever," Novaire says. "We've got some. And there will be more."
As we talked, I remembered another day I'd spent in Amsterdam, during the Ramadan after van Gogh's assassination. Even the city's outlying districts were quiet then, and I'd walked for hours, searching for local symptoms of global jihad and coming up short. Just as I was about to give up and head back to the city center, I spotted a poster of Osama bin Laden, depicted in the iconic Che Guevara freedom-fighter pose. But when I went closer, I saw that this bin Laden had a Nike swoosh imprinted on his turban and realized that the building I was standing in front of was an anarchist collective. The poster was a sly statement about the commodification of terror, the manipulations of politics and identity.
Indeed, one of the things that makes the musicians, authors, and artists I've met in Amsterdam so compelling is their ability to rise above identity politics, create significant works, and express themselves as single, separate individuals. If they couldn't quite answer my questions about finding a solution to problems in their city, it was because their very emergence was cause for hope.
Alex Abramovich writes for Slate and the New York Times.